The Search for Soul in a Fallen World

Philosopher Roger Scruton’s new book, The Soul of the World, examines the tension between the sacred and modern science

“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be a description without meaning—as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” — Albert Einstein

Behind the sensational headlines and dramatic controversies which so often hold our attention lies a tension between the sacred and modern science. We ignore this tension at our peril, for if we continue to seek power over the world by desanctifying it, we may wind up utterly desanctifying—and thereby depersonalizing and dehumanizing—ourselves. So contends Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton in The Soul of the World:

There is, in human affairs, a primordial temptation, which is the temptation to treat persons as things, and the embodied soul as a body […] [T]he temptation to look on others as objects is what we mean or ought to mean by original sin.

What Scruton identifies with original sin has come to represent not so much a temptation as the norm, for mechanistic and materialistic ways of being are now instilled in people long before they are mature enough to reflect on the questions at stake. In particular, the modern city, with its enormous and featureless towers embedded in a disharmonious wasteland of sprawl, acts to stifle the sort of consciousness needed for meaningful relationships:

When we see the world exclusively as an assemblage of objects, then nothing is rescued from barter and exchange. That is what we now do to each other and to the earth. It is also what we do to our habitat, which is ceasing to be a home and becoming instead a “machine for living in,” as Le Corbusier, the ideologist of modernist planning, described his ideal house.

To call the modern-day megalopolis a city, Scruton suggests, may in fact be as misleading as calling one of Le Corbusier’s machines a house. A real city is defined by streets suitable for lingering, meeting, and conversing in—streets which not only please the eye but also act as threads binding the community together into a living whole. A real city reflects the foundational cult which inspired it, with the personality-invested temple at its heart providing the archetype for every other building. In a real city, innovations are not ruled out but must be executed with discretion, with the understanding that “architecture is a public enterprise”, with respect for the fact that every new building will, for better or worse, profoundly change the atmosphere of the polis. In short, a real city is where one finds real patriotism, which is reverent gratitude for one’s home and forebears, directed toward the God to Whom one owes both.

Then again, perhaps the modern city is also based on a foundational cult ? Perhaps the gleaming facelessness of Los Angeles and Manhattan is due not to an absence of religion, but to modern man’s worship directed toward Mammon—impersonal god of “barter and exchange”—rather than toward the Olympians or Allah or Christ?

Scruton characterizes the ascendancy of Mammon as the displacement of organic society by a crudely conceived social contract:

The world of obligations has been steadily remade as a world of contracts, and therefore of obligations that are rescindable, finite, and dependent upon individual choice. [Edmund] Burke long ago made the point, in opposition to Rousseau’s social contract theory and its subversive effect, namely, that if society is a contract, then it is one to which the dead, the living and the unborn are all equally partners: In other words, not a contract at all, but an inheritance of trusteeship, which cannot be reduced to the agreement to be bound by it. All obligations of love are like that.

Unlike a contract—which signifies only specific, narrow terms—love involves an existential mingling, a discovery that another has become “part of the ground of [one’s] being, to use the theological phrase.” No sane man thinks of his relationship to his parents, wife, children, or countrymen in terms of a utilitarian bargain.

So why have insane ways of thinking about family and community become so prevalent? Partly, Scruton explains, because we’ve attuned ourselves to insane melodies. In what may be his book’s most significant chapter, “The Sacred Space of Music”, we find that our capacity to love and connect with one another is shaped not only by our physical habitat, but by our musical habitat too:

When you do dance to music, you understand the music as the source of the movement that flows through you. You are moving in sympathy with another intentional being, another source of life […] This explains a fact noticed and made critical by Plato, namely that the moral quality of a work of music rubs off on the one who dances to it. Lewd, disorderly, or aggressive music invites us to “move with” just those moral characteristics.

Likewise, adds Scruton, “[a] work of music which moves through the nobility that we hear in it […] is one that is encouraging sympathy toward that virtue”.

In this age of democracy über alles the claim that certain kinds of music are base and others noble invites the charge of elitism. Even (or perhaps especially) among self-proclaimed conservatives, there exists a relativistic ethos of consumer-knows-best, along with hostility to the very notion of aesthetic standards. Who does this snooty fellow think he is, to say that his taste for Mozart is inherently superior to my taste for, say, Billy Ray Cyrus or Lady GaGa or the latest boy band?

At the risk of sounding elitist myself, I must observe that Scruton has on his side not only Western philosophy’s godfather Plato—who was convinced that a proper moral education begins with a proper appreciation of music—but also the great Eastern sage, Confucius, who advised his followers to “be perfected by music” and condemned certain tunes as “wanton”. To dismiss out of hand the idea that different musical styles can have different influences on a child’s developing psyche seems almost as foolish as dismissing the idea that a child’s diet can impact his health. It is at least plausible that the gargoylean antics of Cyrus’ daughter Miley is connected, in part, to the style and rhythm of the pop music she grew up singing (and to the Nashville jingles of her celebrity father, which have neither more nor less to do with the traditional music of the rural South than Cheez Whiz has to do with cheese).

The choice is not between the elitist and the common man, for we can meet dehumanization at the fashionably progressive gallery and Wal-Mart alike. The choice is between being a collaborator or being a dissident, in a system that has replaced both high culture and folk culture with the sterile products of corporations and government agencies.

Given that we live in a society tormented by legitimized abortion and sodomy, many Catholics may understandably see commentaries about architecture and music as distractions. Yet if Scruton is correct, our indifference to the forces that shape and mold the moral imagination may be precisely what has led to the collapse of morals and to the withering of religious fidelity. Could contemporary churches’ resemblance to convention centers and office complexes explain, at least in part, why many Catholics were willing to see the Church get treated by Obamacare apparatchiks as if She were just another employer? I keep encountering otherwise sensible Catholic students who have little use for Catholicism, deeming it banal and embarrassing; could that have something to do with the fact that some of our liturgical music has been lifted, apparently, from the cartoon series My Little Pony?

Having touched some highlights, I must concede that The Soul of the World has some weaknesses. Although Scruton draws upon Christian writers ranging from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to G. K. Chesterton, his discussion of the sacred relies at least as heavily upon modern philosophy as upon classical Christian sources. As Scruton is a modern philosopher, this is hardly shocking. The Catholic reader is simply reminded to always keep the light of the Church in mind when engaging non-Catholic formulations of the Last Things. Moreover, as objectionable as some atheists and technocrats may be, it remains to be seen whether the greatest threat to religious life comes from its intolerant enemies, or from “spiritual” proponents of political-correctness.

Yet, taken as a whole, The Soul of the World is a rich and rewarding work, one composed by a scholar clearly possessing exceptional depth and broad learning. And I suspect its author would agree with one of the conclusions made by C. S. Lewis in a book that is, in certain respects, quite similar: The problem is not the scientist himself but the deformation of the scientific quest by the lust for power, which can lure any one of us into treating Creation with contempt and forgetting entirely the true, good, and beautiful.

While we should hardly picture the typical man of science being as Catholic as Georges Lemaitre—the Belgian priest who founded Big Bang theory, it so happens, and who corrected Einstein’s miscalculations regarding the universe’s expansion—we can still confidently reject the claim that the world’s great scientists all stood for soulless reductionism. Upon inspection said claim turns out to be less an exaggeration than a lie. Like his cousin the philosopher, the true scientist is motivated by awe, and wonder.


The Soul of the World
by Roger Scruton
Princeton University Press, 2014
Hardcover, 216 pages

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About Jerry Salyer 60 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.