Of the World of Life
The sacred as a basic element of humanity.
Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By DOMINIC GREEN
The Lebenswelt accommodates not just the concerns of culture but also those of civilization: the legal, ethical, and religious codes that restrain and channel our expansion, the stuff that Norbert Elias called “political, economic, and social facts.” These days, the Western Lebenswelt is not a happy one, and Scruton blames our shortened perspectives. From the existential horizon of the Lebenswelt, the terrifying implications of religion crowd in: orders, duties, vows, and sacrifices. We prefer to shelter in the impoverished but cozy domain of technological society—to water down vows into contracts, piety into justice, and duties into transferable debts.
No durable society, Scruton warns, has lasted on such flimsy foundations. Nor can a fair society stand on ugliness and exploitation. Scruton sees abominable aesthetics as a kind of moral abdication: Brutal architecture and callous urban planning are studied demolitions of our social potential, licenses for revolt against civilization in the name of nature. Scruton sees a similar license in unbridled libertarianism: The market and the state can turn subjects into objects; so, too, can the triumphalism of evolutionary biology and the crass self-absorption of the Internet. In the sanctimony of environmentalism, Scruton detects kindred concerns, a “religious core” of distress at the “desecration” of the Lebenswelt.
Reflecting Scruton’s considered idiosyncrasy, The Soul of the World is a highly personal vision of a reconstructed Lebenswelt. In a series of cogent, fascinating chapters, he explains why we should set our sights on the beautiful horizon. He guides the reader to the edges of the Lebenswelt, from the brain to individual encounters and social ethics, then to art and aesthetics. To look into the eyes of the beloved is to “look the other person in the I” and to find one’s own “I” in that encounter. To enact a religious ritual, or to forge a link in the Burkean chain of generations, is to take part in a personal and social expansion of meaning. In entering the real but virtual world of music, or in reading the orders of classical architecture as they emerge from the order of nature, we find not just aesthetic gratification, but a convergence of the true with the beautiful that might nudge us towards the good.
Along the way, Scruton clarifies Kant’s clotted phrasing and explains the “expansion” of Beethoven’s perfect phrases. He chastises Hegel for identifying the Absolute with Christianity, and Sartre for identifying it with nothing at all. His grasp is so strong, his amplitude so broad, that it matters little that Martin Buber—whose I-Thou theology resembles Scruton’s I-You interpersonality—remains a silent partner, like Scruton’s God.
At the edge of the Lebenswelt, there lies the “horizon of meaning,” the border of infinitude and nothingness where (Scruton believes) matter returns to its origins and self-consciousness dissolves into the divine. Mindful of the order of nature, Scruton approaches the misty frontier cautiously.
The personality cannot survive the death of the body; the afterlife is “an absurdity”; there are no pagan gods, no nymphs or satyrs, only the philosophical confrontation with mortality. Monotheism handles this better than polytheism, Scruton believes, and Christianity best of all. The God that remains is “the all-knowing subject who welcomes us as we pass into that other domain, beyond the veil of nature.”
In the meantime, Scruton advises those of us on this side of the veil to look for meaning and intimations of transcendence. As a face reveals interpersonality, so the surfaces of appearance tell of the depths. The Lebenswelt makes the difference between sound and music, between daubs of pigmented chemicals and a painting. By Scruton’s lights, Tim Jenison has not wasted a penny or a moment: He should keep going, until his “intentional” brush expresses the subjective enchantment and joy that call him to the borders of his lens, his camera lucida, and his canvas.
Dominic Green is the author of The Double Life of Doctor Lopez and Three Empires on the Nile.