The Great Defense of Tradition

The Irish Catholic philosopher and media personality Mark Dooley discusses why beautiful music, art, and architecture is urgently needed in order to help us escape from rootless exile in cyberspace.

Mark Dooley is a Catholic philosopher, writer, journalist, and academic who has been a regular contributor to a variety of radio programs, TV shows, newspapers, and journals. His specialties are continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, and theology, and he is the author of articles and books on the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Derrida, and Roger Scruton, among others. His books include Why Be a Catholic? (2011), Moral Matters: A Philosophy of Homecoming (2015), and the forthcoming Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016). 

He recently spoke with CWR about his work and current projects, focusing on the importance of beauty and tradition, the need to escape from “Cyberia”, and the Church’s social doctrine.

CWR: Your new book of interviews with Roger Scruton, who is famous for his BBC documentary on Beauty, is coming out this summer. Can you tell us a little about its contents? Is it a good place to start for those not familiar with Scruton’s work?

Mark Dooley: Yes, Conversations With Roger Scruton will be published by Bloomsbury in May. It is a wide-ranging, and often intimate, insight into Scruton’s life and times. There are a number of revelations which are quite poignant and which shed light on this often misunderstood figure. It is a book in which Scruton candidly opens up, thus allowing us a glimpse behind the writer, the intellectual, and the philosopher. I think people will come away from it with a new appreciation for the man behind the work.

Yes, I strongly recommend that someone coming to Scruton for the first time should start with Conversations. In doing so, you will, I think, have a much better understanding of his worldview, his philosophical vision, and his vocation as a writer.

CWR: Not only that, you have created the unparalleled opportunity for people to be in conversation with Roger for a week in Ireland. Tell us a bit about the Edmund Burke summer school (EBSS): Who is invited to attend? Where is it happening? What can people expect?

Dooley: The EBSS takes place from June 19–25 in a lovely resort in County Westmeath. It is open to everyone and consists of a series of lectures, seminars, and discussions with Roger Scruton, the French scholar Alexandra Slaby, and me. We also intend having a series of evening lectures by public intellectuals in the Burkean tradition. There will also be a strong social dimension to the school, thus enabling participants to discuss matters with the teachers in a relaxed setting. Roger will touch on all aspects of his work. Alexandra will hold a daily workshop on Irish history, and I will chart my intellectual journey from Kierkegaard to my latest writings on the implications for human life of the culture of “Cyberia.”

The full programme is available on my website, and the closing date for applications is April 30.

CWR: You yourself have been deeply influenced by your encounter with Roger. How has this encounter shaped your faith journey?

Dooley: Scruton’s writings convinced me that beauty is next to Godliness. Without beauty, we cannot feel at home in this world and neither can God. It is our way of striving to capture something of the transcendent reality of the divine. In the absence of beauty, we are stranded in a functional wasteland where the satisfaction of pleasure and appetite is the fulfillment of human life. However, where there is beauty we are confronted by something which limits appetite in favor of awe. We see something that is to be revered for its own sake and not solely for the personal pleasure that can be derived from it.

That is why the Church has, traditionally at least, emphasized the pivotal role of beauty in its liturgy. The liturgy was a complete cultural experience in which music, art, and architecture provided a space in which the Creator was made abundantly present to the congregation. Take beauty away and it becomes much harder to identify the sacred in the midst of the profane.

CWR: You wrote a book recently about your latest philosophical thoughts on things, called Moral Matters. How does it complement your thoughts in Why Be a Catholic?

Dooley: Moral Matters is an attempt to show how we can reconnect to the ‘soil and man alike’ in the midst of a virtual kingdom. We have become slaves to “Cyberia”, communicating with everyone but in touch with nothing. We have forgotten that we are dependent on the earth, on each other, and on the sacred source of all creation. And so, what I try to do is state how we can — how we must! — detach from Cyberia and reattach ourselves to those things without which no human life is complete.

In the final chapter, entitled “Saving the Sacred”, I take my argument in Why Be a Catholic? a stage further by suggesting that without the binding power of religion, we can never truly be rooted to anything. We shall perpetually remain strangers to ourselves.

CWR: You began your philosophical explorations with Kierkegaard and Hegel. What did you learn from them?

Dooley: From Kierkegaard, I learned that faith is the highest achievement of which we humans are capable. By showing how desire and the moral life are transfigured in the religious, Kierkegaard demonstrated how the self can become fully whole only in its relationship to the divine. Without Kierkegaard, I could never have known the true value of self-understanding rooted in God. From Hegel, I learned that without the recognition that we find in each other, in the world, and in culture, we shall never overcome the alienation which is the natural condition of early childhood. Until the individual discovers that we are preceded by a community of the living and the dead, and until that individual identifies with the consciousness of all that community, that person shall never know what it means to be at home here on this earth.

CWR: You also studied Jacques Derrida. What did you learn from him, and what did you reject?

Dooley: Derrida is another very misunderstood thinker. I spent much time in his company and a more gentle and kind person you would struggle to find. His basic message was that we each belong to history, and because history is comprised of multiple traces, the full story can never be recovered. It is like a trial in which opposing sides present their evidence from the fragments of the crime scene. They cannot recreate the event as it actually happened, but they can surmise from the evidence what is likely to have occurred. Either way, they are dealing with traces that cannot reveal, or make fully present, the actual event. Such is the case with all our lives: We are comprised of stories or narratives which are based on fragments of memory and memory is always faulty. Hence, we are never fully present to ourselves, just as culture (something also comprised of traces) is never full present to itself.

This, however, does not mean that we should not try to recover from the ashes of memory the full story — even if doing so is impossible. Having a “passion for the impossible” (the title of one of my early books) means that we should try to make present those aspects of our lives and culture, despite the fact that something will always elude memory. This takes the steam out of those extreme political or religious positions that base their legitimacy on having a direct line to the origin. Think of the fundamentalist who declares that because the origin is fully present there can be no deviation or opposition. ISIS is a perfect example.

I think Derrida was simply encouraging us to cultivate a certain humility in the face of our own limitations. However, if Derrida emphasized what cannot be remembered, retained, or recalled, Scruton emphasizes what can and must be recollected. No trace is without the spirit of its author. As I say in Moral Matters, while there may be countless interpretations of Hamlet, we still know that it is a Shakespearean play and that we can only ever deviate so far from that reality. In sum, I drift from Derrida on the point of what can and should be retained. And it is tradition which helps keep the spirit of things and traces alive.

CWR: Why is Edmund Burke so important for you?

Dooley: Burke is the great defender of tradition against those who would lay waste to our precious patrimony. The forces he was writing against in Reflections on the Revolution in France, were the Jacobins who went on to destroy everything that France had stood for and which made that country great. By emphasizing the truth that we cannot tear up our timeless contract with absent generations without becoming blind, Burke sent a salutary warning to every society which seeks to deny its past for a nebulous future.

To disconnect from the dead is simply to deprive the unborn of their rightful heritage. As trustees of this sacred bequest we are not entitled to cast it away, but that is what many societies seem intent on doing today. Indeed, what Burke called “Jacobinism by establishment” is now the norm in many European countries. This is something which I argue at length in Moral Matters. Our addiction to Cyberia, I state, has become the primary reason why the dead and the unborn have been summarily silenced.

CWR: Tell us about Alexandra Slaby and her participation in the 2016 Edmund Burke summer school.

Dooley: Alexandra is a marvelous French scholar who teaches at Caen University in Lower Normandy. She is an expert in modern Irish history and has published a definitive guide to that period in French: Histoire de l’Irlande: De 1912 à nos jours. That book will form the basis of her lectures at the Edmund Burke Summer School. This is especially interesting as we in Ireland are about the mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising — an event which is now regarded as the “myth of origin” of the Irish Republic. Alexandra is also a profoundly spiritual person whose Catholicism informs everything she does.

CWR: What do you think Burke can contribute to the social teaching of the Catholic Church? How is Scruton a guide in these matters as well? What might Pope Francis learn from Burke?

Dooley: I think Burke compliments the social teaching of the Church. His emphasis on tradition, on our immemorial contract with the dead and the unborn, his beautiful belief that we belong the “great eternal society”, and his ferocious opposition to the “armed doctrine” of the Jacobins, is of a piece with the best of Church teaching. That is why Burkeans like Scruton are so drawn to the Catholic position, even if they belong to a different denomination. Again, I think Roger’s emphasis on beauty is pivotal for the Church, and this is something I write about at some length in Why Be a Catholic? I think Pope Francis is much more traditional than he is generally perceived. However, as Burke taught, change should always be moderated by continuity. If not, it can unleash forces which may ultimately destroy the very thing you were trying to save through change.

CWR: Your philosophical reflections have an enchanting literary quality. What is your next book project? What book do you recommend for someone who is new to your writings?

Dooley: Thank you for saying that! I have always believed that writing is an art form. It is not just a purveyor of soulless information, but something which carries the spirit or consciousness of the writer (this, again, is another way to answer Derrida). If, therefore, writing is to have any effect, it must reach out to the reader. It must seek to address him or her in such a way that they are moved to respond. The words should touch the reader in such a way that he or she should be able to feel your pain, share your sorrow and your smiles.

If I were to recommend a book of mine to someone coming to my work for the first time, it would be Moral Matters. That is because it encompasses my entire range of thinking in a way that seeks to make it relevant to our contemporary problems and concerns. I have already finished a book of weekly meditations on music, wine, and song entitled Savouring the Sacred. It attempts to root the reader to reality in line with my appeal in Moral Matters. My next philosophical work is a book provisionally called How to Find Your Self. In tracing the notion of selfhood as it has developed through the history of philosophy, it will aim to show why philosophy is still our best source of self-help.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.