21 March 2017


Roger Scruton. On Human Nature. Princeton University Press, 2016

Roger Scruton’s latest book is three lectures that were given at Princeton University in 2013. To these he’s added a fourth chapter. The titles of all four are; 1, 'Humankind'; 2, 'Human Relations'; 3, 'The Moral Life' and 4, 'Sacred Obligations'. Headings that intimate vast areas for exploration.
Yet Scruton is not out to explain human nature or pin it down (impossible!) but delineate ideas that have shaped our consciousness to make us fully human with all our inherent strengths and vulnerabilities.

It’s a remarkably short book of only 143 pages. And a great deal of philosophy, psychology and aesthetic discourse has been ingested. Scruton’s thoughts on human nature obviously contain the sure thread of himself; throughout he reasons as a moral agent who’ll distil his knowledge. In no way is On Human Nature a self-help book. But Scruton’s spiritual concern for the 'I' of personality does veer towards the medicinal. It’s as if the author where watching over your shoulder as you read his arguments turn into a personal diagnosis. I don’t find this to be over paternalistic or moralistic. Yet it often produces a didactic tone.

In the chapter entitled 'The Moral Life', Scruton refers to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that talks of “the impartial spectator” as the true judge of our moral selves. Scruton’s view of action “observed with a disinterested eye” causes him to pronounce “If, as I suggest, morality is rooted in the practice of accountability between self-conscious agents, this is exactly what we should expect. The impartial other sets the standard that we all must meet.”

That final sentence bothered me, for it describes Scruton’s conservatism: sounding like an author writing a prescriptive book about the moral standards he thinks are right for us to follow. The next heading within the chapter is Moral Arithmetic. Scruton is critical of philosophers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfitt, and though he is at pains never to be reductive, On Human Nature, strives towards a formulation as to what it is to lead the ‘best’ life and what adds up to a ‘best’ life.

The book has further ‘strict’ headings such as Rights, Demands and Duties, Sacred Obligations and Desire and Pollution. If you accept Scruton’s conservative notion of freedom and human nature then the volatile self can only be calmed through the redemptive power of great literature and music. We finally learn that his ‘bibles’ for achieving this are Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.

As with other Roger Scruton writings, aesthetics prove to be the balm for the difficulties encountered in our efforts to be individualistic.

On Human Nature is an important work, yet I felt Scruton wasn’t saying anything essentially new. It’s more a summing up of his previous ideas rather than pushing his work towards new conclusions. A less involving and rewarding book than his previous The Soul of the World, for his usual elegant academicism here feels both dry and constricted. It’s a bit of a cul-de-sac for Scruton. Where can he go from here? – Alan Price.

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