Roger Scruton is a Wagnerian romantic and a Thatcherite conservative; a tentative, questioning philosopher who is enamored of dogmatic political conclusions; a subtle writer on cultural diversity who is also drawn to making sweeping biological claims about human nature. These are some of the contradictions that inhabit his uneven, exasperating, yet never trivial new book. Scruton’s career displays this complexity. A Reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, he has written valuable books and articles on aesthetics, the imagination, the significance of culture. At the same time, he has written conservative journalism of a rather narrow and polemical type and served enthusiastically as an adviser to the Thatcher government.
This book suffers from this double commitment. As a philosopher, Scruton wants to help us reflect on a highly complex topic on which it is unlikely that any good work of philosophy would reach simple conclusions. Yet he also wants to advocate a simple practical program which is critical of feminism and homosexuality, supportive of state religion and the institution of marriage. The program does not follow in any obvious way from the reflections to which his philosophical investigation leads him.
Scruton’s central purpose is to attack the idea that sexual desire is simply an animal appetite, a blind physical urge that has no intimate connection with our thoughts and conceptions. He argues, instead, that desire is a part of our characteristically human “intentionality”—that is, it is connected with the way we take a perspective on the world and react to things as we interpret them. Desire does not simply push toward its object; it conceives of the object, and its own internal movements are highly sensitive to changes in conception and belief. Intrinsic to sexual desire is a conception of its object as another “first-person perspective,” a living, interpreting self. The aim of desire, like that of conversation, involves the mutual awareness of an intention to communicate with another self, and a mutual responsiveness to that mutual awareness.1
From this starting point, Scruton goes on to argue that sexual desire is directed at an object that it sees as irreplaceably individual; and that its aim is some sort of spiritual union with the other person, insofar as the other expresses or manifests him or herself2 through bodily signs. This being so, the true or natural aim of sexual desire is only fully satisfied in deep erotic love. And since love is closely linked to esteem, and cannot coexist with the belief that its object is profoundly unworthy, the aim of love is itself, in turn, satisfied only in a stable relationship that is based on moral approval, in which the partners come to share their central goals and aims. In a concluding political section, Scruton argues that this stable love can itself be best achieved and maintained within the institution of marriage; and that this institution can best be protected in a conservative society with a state religion. (He advances criticisms of feminism and homosexuality to which I shall turn later.) Thus a straight path (apparently) leads from the true nature of sexual desire to Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain.
A book on this most personal of subjects cannot fail to be shaped by the author’s own sense of life. So we may begin by pointing out two features of Scruton’s attitude that surface throughout the book, shaping both its arguments and its failures to argue. One is his distaste for the flesh—for animals and for the animal in human life. If Scruton defends the importance of thought and a specifically human form of awareness in sexual experience, it is in part because he finds the sexuality of animals so disgusting. He repeatedly speaks of the body as if, without human thought to animate it, it is something inert and repellent. In a revealing section on original sin, he argues that our complex self-conscious sexuality is a hard-won spiritual victory over the “original slime” of a life that is “no more than flesh.” He earlier recalls an anecdote from Aubrey’s Brief Lives about the Countess of Pembroke, who, preparing to meet a lover, excited herself by watching two horses mating. And Scruton cannot understand this except as the result of a perverted desire to “degrade” herself by divesting herself (in imagination) of all that is human. He altogether lacks the sense that the body of a stallion is beautiful, an object of wonder. It is no surprise, then, that he views with distaste any human lover who delights in the animal energy and exuberance of the sexual act, who sees this as one of its marvelous features, rather than as a constraint to be overcome. Sex, for him, is a heroic labor against the body, rather than an expression of joy in it.
Connected with this is the complete absence, in this long book, of any sense of play. Scruton has many serious things to say about sex; what he never says is that it is fun. His favorite writers on the topic seem to be Sartre and Wagner, neither one famous for a light touch. And his own humorless prose gives no hint of many aspects of sexual delight. Consider this passage, about the moments following intercourse:
Suddenly everything seems flat, arbitrary and mundane; what was for a moment a glowing body, offered and accepted as an individual life, is now only a piece of human flesh, to be rewrapped and set aside for another occasion. At no point does a woman feel cheaper or more expendable than at this one, and hence, out of shame, she will wish to lie still with her lover, naked, talking out of her nakedness, until it becomes accepted again as her.
Doesn’t Scruton know that it is fun to talk in bed? Not out of shame, but out of simple delight in the relaxed and playful talk that is possible at that moment—and in the perceived similarity between the responsiveness of lovemaking and the responsiveness of good conversation? Delight, too, in the complete absence of shame and constraint, in the improvisatory freedom of the body. Scruton needs to listen less to Parsifal, and more to Billie Holiday—an antidote that Nietzsche would surely have suggested, had he known of her.
Scruton’s central thesis is actually at least four different theses, and he slides back and forth among them as he discusses the idea that desire’s object is another “individual.” I shall call them the Intentionality Thesis, the Particularity Thesis, the Romantic Thesis, and the Character Thesis. They differ in accordance with the different ways in which Scruton thinks of individuality.
The first and most pervasive thesis is that of intentionality, according to which sexual desire (like the desire to engage in conversation) is directed at the other person as a “first-person perspective”; it aims at a conversational relationship characterized by a mutual awareness of intentions. The very same responses and movements will cease to be objects of desire if they are known to come from a machine, or even from a less than fully human form of life. This is persuasively argued; and on this basis Scruton makes effective criticisms of reductionist pseudosciences of sex that have severed desire from its personal and subjective aspects. But this thesis does not imply, clearly, that desire is naturally highly selective, or aimed at lasting union. To “converse” well with a partner requires attention to him or her as a separate life, as long as that relationship is in progress. But this sort of attention seems to be compatible with a sequence of affairs, and perhaps even with several simultaneous involvements. Scruton sees this point when he admits that Don Juan is a perfectly good case of sexual desire in this sense.
From the Intentionality Thesis and its conception of the individual object, Scruton accordingly, and unclearly, slides over to the Particularity Thesis and a different conception of the individual. Sexual desire treats its object as irreducibly unique and particular, attending to and cherishing all of its perceptible properties (apparently as elements in the object’s “individuality”). Scruton defends this claim by an interesting comparison between sexual attention and the attention we give to works of art. But even this thesis and this analogy yield neither a very strong conception of the irreplaceability of the person desired or a very “inner” conception of individuality. For the analogy implies, first, that anyone who shares all the same “external” perceptible characteristics should be acceptable as a replacement for the object of desire. And it also clearly suggests that there is nothing inappropriate in turning rather rapidly from one object of desire to another, as different perceptible features are found pleasing. When I look at Turner’s Regulus in the Tate Gallery, I am not attending to it well unless I am examining all of its particular features with care. It could be said that a person who was unable to discriminate between Regulus and Turner’s The Angel Standing in the Sun—a picture somewhat similar in composition that is hung nearby—and whose attention does not include the features that distinguish the two paintings, had not fulfilled an aim that is intrinsic to the structure of aesthetic desire and aesthetic attention. But surely it is no perversion of aesthetic values to turn from Regulus to The Angel after five minutes or so; and the suggestion that the natural aim of the desire to look at Regulus is the formation of a lasting inner union with that work seems absurd, if not perverse. Don Juan can satisfy the Particularity Thesis too.
To move further toward love, Scruton shifts (at times, and inconstantly) to talking about the desired person as a unique and irreplaceable spiritual being, characterized by a distinctive inner life that merely manifests itself on the surface of the body. And here we get the Romantic Thesis: desire’s aim is to establish union with that ineffable spirit, through contact with its embodied traces. Scruton sometimes speaks as if this is just the same as the Intentionality Thesis, since that thesis too insists that the other person is seen as a distinct living being with its own inner life. But it is one thing to say that I desire a distinct life (I wouldn’t make love with something I knew to be a machine), quite another to say that I desire this very distinct life and no other, that desire is superficial and second-rate if it does not aim at a lasting and deep relationship that involves the entire spiritual being of both parties.
Like many a romantic, I find this claim deeply appealing. I have the same difficulty Scruton evidently does in separating sex from erotic love; and I am tempted to believe that sexual experiences that stop short of deep love are, even as sex, deficient. But Scruton’s argument (unlike his argument for the Intentionality Thesis) does not persuade me to think of these intuitions as more than pieces of my idiosyncratic history—not rare, perhaps, but surely not necessary, brought about, perhaps, by seeing too many operas at an impressionable age. I am sure we should hesitate to condemn people whose experience of desire is different from this; and Scruton gives us no reason at all to cast off that hesitation.
Finally, in his very interesting chapter on friendship and love, we get the Character Thesis, which lays the groundwork for Scruton’s praise of marriage. Love is love of the other person’s entire self. But it is plausible to think that some of the deepest aspects of selves are their traits of character: their moral commitments, their patterns of aspiration and evaluation. If the person I love changes in appearance, or health, or even occupation, there is no difficulty in believing that he or she is still the same person as before. But if from having been a just person, he or she becomes unjust, or if he or she changes in some other radical way with respect to basic values, then questions of identity are indeed raised. Thus Scruton concludes that romantic love aims naturally at love of, and sharing in, such patterns of aspiration and evaluation. This is one reason for supposing that its natural home is in a shared way of life, therefore in some institution like marriage.
Again, I find this appealing. For like many readers of romantic stories (at least since the Greek romances3 ) I am drawn to the idea that desire, love, and lifelong marriage just naturally go together. I would accept hardly any evidence to the contrary. And in fact the Character Thesis seems to offer us a far more rich and appealing account of love than Scruton’s earlier, more Wagnerian remarks about ineffable union. Still, I know that this is just one (powerfully appealing) account of love, and hardly a universal truth. None of it, surely, follows from the far more generally persuasive intentionality argument with which the book began. If it expresses some readers’ intuitions, all very well. But those who find that their own experience of desire is plausibly captured by the Intentionality Thesis, but not by the Romantic and Character theses, need not think that any effective argument in this book has shown that a commitment to the first implies a commitment to the others.
Scruton now employs these arguments to criticize various forms of sexual activity that have been thought to be perversions. It is easy to see how an emphasis on mutual intentionality leads to a rejection of bestiality and necrophilia—though even here Scruton is remarkably lacking in curiosity about what these activities are actually like for those who engage in them. On sadomasochism he is much more imaginative, and offers an interesting vindication of these practices, wherever they are performed with consent and involve pain rather than humiliation. But it becomes obvious to him at this point that nothing in his argument so far implies two conservative conclusions that he would very much like to reach: a rejection of female equality, and a condemnation of homosexuality. He reaches these positions through a further “argument” about the concept of gender, which needs to be scrutinized lest anyone think that there is really a substantial argument here.
Scruton concedes that gender is a human construct, though based on a natural biological difference, and that it is conceived in many different ways in different societies. And yet, he asserts, some such distinction is omnipresent and cannot be avoided, since it does have a natural basis. We can see the depth that gender has in human life from the fact that people commit suicide when they are confused about it. This shows us, he concludes, that gender is “morally significant,” and that any feminist position that insists on ignoring gender differences altogether and treating all of us simply as “persons” is morally defective.
This “argument,” besides being silly (for people become depressed over lots of morally insignificant things), does nothing at all to vindicate the traditional conception of gender difference to which Scruton is attached, according to which the female is passive and devoted to the home, the male roving and outward reaching. So Scruton here turns to sociobiology, which he has criticized eloquently in an earlier chapter, arguing that this traditional conception of women and men is rooted in the natural reality of the ways by which organisms strive to perpetuate their genetic material. The argument is simplistic and weakly stated. Even Scruton expresses grave doubts about it—though, oddly, this does not prevent him from asserting its conclusion in subsequent chapters as if it had been established by a sound argument. Since this part of the book is too obviously thin to have any political effect, I shall spend no more time on it.
The discussion of homosexuality has more specious plausibility and might actually have an influence—so it is worth criticizing it in detail. Gender, Scruton asserts again, is a morally significant feature of human beings, and especially significant because of its biological underpinnings. Someone who makes love with a person of the same sex is communicating with another world that is, with respect to this important feature, the same as his or her own. Thus “his discovery of his partner’s sexual nature is the discovery of what he knows.” The heterosexual, on the other hand, ventures “beyond the divide which separates the world of men from the world of women.” This means that there is an element of mystery and risk in heterosexual intercourse that is absent in the homosexual case. Scruton concludes that heterosexuality is a more courageous and morally valuable way of life; homosexuality is cowardly and borders on narcissism.
The argument is peculiar for several reasons. First, if it proves anything, it proves more than Scruton intends to prove: for to venture toward a person qualitatively different from oneself will then be superior in other cases as well, at least wherever the relevant differences have the same sort of cultural and biological depth that gender has been said to have. Race, for example, will surely have to be admitted as another such concept, since it too is constructed by social convention over a base of “natural” physiological difference. And, to be consistent, Scruton will have to grant that it is morally superior to have sexual relations with people who lie on the far side of the divide that separates the world of the white person from the world of the black person; and that any person who evinces a settled preference for partners of his or her own race is guilty of moral cowardice and narcissism. Heterosexual interracial unions will enjoy a double moral dignity. It is not clear that a politician with Scruton’s commitments can happily accept that moral conclusion. Mrs. Thatcher might not be amused.
But none of this argument is very persuasive anyway. Scruton does not think that moral differences, or differences in physical health or attractiveness, make sexual relationships better. So why should he suppose this to be true of gender and other similar properties? The conception of individuality that he uses in his main argument offers a far deeper account of the risk and adventure that are involved in sexual experience: it is the experience of contact with another separate life, another viewpoint on the world, whose depths I can never inhabit as my lover does, though I can sense and respond to every perceptible sign. And with this hidden reality I engage, through perceptible signs, my own inner life, aiming not at some impossible fusion, but at attunement and responsiveness.
Scruton insists that the goal of both sexual desire and erotic love is a “union” or “fusion” of what was previously separate. This leads him, I think, to mislocate the risk of sexual experience, making it depend on qualitative difference. He does not consider that because union is not possible, risk is a necessary part of any intimate personal relationship. And union, even if possible, would be neither necessary nor sufficient for the happy responsiveness that sexual intimacy does achieve. Not necessary, because I can respond to a partner as another person, without denying that we must always remain apart. (And respond better, in fact, if I do not deny our fundamental separateness.) Not sufficient, because taking the partner’s desires into my own awareness would not be to respond to them as his, to seek to please him as someone with a separate life. It is this sense of hiddenness and otherness that makes sex always a risk and a mystery; and with this sort of otherness qualitative similarity and dissimilarity have nothing much to do.
Behind Scruton’s failure to say anything persuasive about homosexuality is a deeper failure: the failure to see that there is no one thing, “homosexual experience,” about which persuasive remarks can be made. Scruton has elsewhere written very well about the deep ways that cultural and historical factors affect human values.4 In this book, though he draws examples from many times and places, he has remarkably little real curiosity about history, about the ways in which the distinctions he discusses are differently constructed by different societies. And even in the case of a single society, a writer this committed to “individuality” in all its forms should not have forgotten that we are dealing with a complex plurality of individual lives, not a single abstract unity.
It is easy for advocates both of repression and of the liberal opposition to it to indulge in this sort of generalizing. When I was starting this review, I asked a homosexual friend of mine—a daring and brilliant scholar—to suggest some reading on homosexual experience that I could mention in dealing with Scruton’s claim that homosexuals are afraid of difference. He looked at me for a long time; and then quietly said, with an expression I could not read, “You’re the same person. One day you discover, or you admit to yourself, that you are gay, and still, you are the same person.”
I thought about this for a long while, wondering how on earth it was an answer to my question. And I eventually saw that it was a deep, if gentle, rebuke, addressed both to me and to Scruton. Talk as we will of individuality, neither of us (neither the judgmental conservative nor the well-intentioned liberal) could quite make the step into perceiving that it is individual people who have homosexual relationships, men and women as different from one another as any heterosexuals are, living each one a unique life. Some may be fearful, some adventurous, some narcissistic, some capable of love. Whatever is true, they don’t one day stop being themselves and turn into homosexuals, subjects of a single “homosexual experience.” (Would he have asked me for a reading list on “heterosexual experience”?)
Most active homosexuals, to be sure, face common social problems and common medical risks in this society. And because of these problems it is sometimes useful to make generic statements. Homosexual students with whom I have talked while I was a member of a committee dealing with this issue in my university do feel a need to define themselves as a member of a single class, and to study homosexuality academically as if it is a single subject with its own distinct identity. Heterosexual students, for obvious reasons, do not feel a precisely similar need. But the goal of political generalizing that aims to make progress on behalf of minority groups should be, I think, to reach a point where everyone will be able to be respected as an individual, not herded into a class. And it is a lack of this respect for and imaginative attention to the individual that seems to me to be, throughout, the deepest failure of Scruton’s book.
Does this imply that a good work of philosophy cannot be written on the subject of sexual experience? For philosophy has traditionally been committed to an “ascent” from the perception of particulars to the intellectual grasp of universals. It seems to me that good philosophy will always have a place in the investigation of any matter of deep human importance, because of its commitment to clarity, to carefully drawn distinctions, to calm argument rather than to prejudice and dogmatic assertion. But if philosophy is to illuminate sexual experience (or, indeed, any deep and intimate aspect of people’s lives) it must, I think, become more attentive to particular histories, more explicit about the personal and cultural origins of its own statements, more tentative and suggestive, more humble before the mystery and complexity of living, than Scruton’s philosophy is, and than contemporary philosophy (in both the Anglo-American and the Continental traditions) has usually been. It must, as the best works of philosophy on this topic, Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, have done, find a language that retains philosophy’s commitment to clarity and to explanation, while also expressing a respect for particularity and complexity.
Philosophy must recognize as well that sometimes there can be more precision of the relevant kind in a complex novelistic description than in the abstract and simplified terms of theoretical discourse; more accuracy sometimes in indefiniteness (where reality is itself bewildering and unclear) than in a false decisiveness of statement. Describing the novelist’s art, Henry James spoke in his preface to The Golden Bowl of an “immense array of terms, perceptional and expressional, that…simply looked over the heads of the standing terms—or perhaps rather, like alert winged creatures, perched on those diminished summits and aspired to a clearer air.” If philosophy is to become sufficiently alert on Scruton’s topic, it needs to borrow those wings—or rather to discover them, as Plato’s Phaedrus recommends, within its own soul.
December 18, 1986
Here Scruton’s views have been anticipated by Thomas Nagel, “Sexual Perversion,” in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979). ↩
The pronouns are mine and not Scruton’s; he defends the use of the masculine as “stylistically correct.” ↩
See John J. Winkler, “The Invention of Romance,” Laetaberis, Journal of the California Classical Association, Northern Section, 1 (1983), pp. 1–26. ↩
In “The Significance of Common Culture,” Philosophy (1979), reprinted in revised form as “Emotion, Practical Knowledge, and the Common Culture” in Explaining Emotions, ed. Amelie O. Rorty (University of California Press, 1980), pp. 519–536. ↩