In The Soul of the World, renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism. He argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgments hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive - and to understand what we are - is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life - and what the final loss of the sacred would mean. In short, the book addresses the most important question of modernity: What is left of our aspirations after science has delivered its verdict about what we are?
Drawing on art, architecture, music, and literature, Scruton suggests that the highest forms of human experience and expression tell the story of our religious need, and of our quest for the being who might answer it, and that this search for the sacred endows the world with a soul. Evolution cannot explain our conception of the sacred; neuroscience is irrelevant to our interpersonal relationships, which provide a model for our posture toward God; and scientific understanding has nothing to say about the experience of beauty, which provides a God’s-eye perspective on reality.
Ultimately, a world without the sacred would be a completely different world - one in which we humans are not truly at home. Yet despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world, Scruton says, the paths to transcendence remain open.
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After watching the BBC documentary "Why Beauty Matters", and reading Scruton's book on beauty, I became a big fan of this brave Englishman, and The Soul of the World did not disappoint me, even though I will have to reread it to understand everything.
The title of the book is not very good, though. I doubt that it has the power and clarity to capture the attention of those who should read it. In my view, a better title would have been something like "Against Reductionism (and Desecration)".
Scruton's "desecration" theory, explained in books like Beauty, is perhaps the best explanation I have ever come across for fact that so much contemporary art and architecture is so ridiculously ugly. The chapter on Colophon in The Soul of the World elaborates on this key to understanding today's culture.
I especially liked the parts on evolutionary psychology, cognitive dualism and emergent realities. Here are some passages I found particularly briljant:
12:03: “We pursue the true, the good and the beautiful, even though the false, the nasty and the messy might have been just as useful to our genes. The case of mathematics is especially vivid.”
17:52: “In other words, if we attempt to reach the high ground of naturalism by this route, we encounter a version of the liar paradox, an obstacle to which there is only one response: Turn back.”
1:42:25: “There is a widespread habit of declaring emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them. The human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal … the Mona Lisa is ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas. Getting rid of this habit is, to my mind, the true goal of philosophy.”
4:01:24: “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. 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.
The process of secularization can be understood from the example of Rousseau. It involves clearing away from the Lebenswelt [Lifeworld] all the threads of pious observance that cannot be replaced by free choice and self-made obligations. The world is remade without the transcendental reference, without the encounter with sacred things, without the vows of allegiance and submission, which have no other justification than the weight of inherited duty. But it turns out … that these vows were far more deeply woven into the fabric of our experience than enlightened people tend to think, and that the world without transcendent bonds is not a variant of the world that has not yet been cleansed of them, but a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home.”
5:31:12 “Vast and overbearing though the buildings of new Colophon may be, they have no air of permanence. The town is like a frozen junkyard, and even if it looks like this forever, it will look forever temporary.”
6:18:48: “The most famous triumph in this respect is that of the Frankfurt school critic, Theodore Adorno, who, coming as a refugee to Hollywood in the 1930s, repaid the vast hospitality of which he was a recipient by poring scorn on the people who offered it, and in particular, on the entertainment industry in which he imagined them to be enslaved.”
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