Broad and complex subjects may be approached in many ways. The subject of Roger Scruton's "very short introduction", "Beauty" (2009), for example, might have been written as an overview, presenting various possible definitions of "beauty" followed by a discussion and assessment of alternative ways of undersanding beauty that have been offered over the years. This approach is not Scruton's. He deliberately avoids trying to define the nature of beauty and he steers clear of summarizing competing interpretations. Instead, Scruton offers his own philosophical understanding of beauty. His discussion is informed, provocative, and it takes account of the thinking of others. Still, it is much less an overview than the presentation of a position. As such, it is challenging and valuable. Scruton is a British philosopher and conservative political commentator who has published extensively on a wide range of subjects. He has, for example, written the volumes on Kant and Spinoza for the "Very Short Introductions" series, which includes this book on beauty, for Oxford University Press.
Scruton states the direction of his approach to beauty at the outset. He rejects a "skeptical" approach to beauty which denies the possibility of a shared conception beyond the preferences of individuals:
"In this book I suggest that such sceptical thoughts about beauty are unjustified. Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world. My approach to the topic is not historical, neither am I concerned to give a psychological, still less an evolutionary explanation of the sense of beauty. My approach is philosophical, and the principal sources for my argument are the works of philosophers. The point of this book is the argument it develops, which is designed to introduce a philosophical question and to encourage you, the reader, to answer it."
Scruton writes that the understanding of beauty requires human rationality and is part of a fully-developed concept of reason. He maintains that beauty is properly shared and common rather than wholly individual. Individuals may not agree fully on, for example, the beauty of an individual painting or work of music, but the conditions for beauty can be assessed. Beauty shows what Scruton paradoxically describes as "disinterested interest". For Scruton, beauty is not found only in the great music of Beethoven's late string quartets, for example, but rather is also a part of every day human experience, in the proper "fit" and setting of a door, the setting of a table, and the wearing of appropriate clothing. Beauty is a way of passing beyond the immediacy of desire to what is ideal, good, and sacred in human life. Scruton writes:
"Our favourite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of the human condition and, by presenting completed instances of human actions and passions, freed from the contingencies of everyday life, to show the worthwhileness of being human."
Much of the book focuses on sexuality and eroticism and their relationship to beauty. Scruton considers briefly and rejects exclusively psychological approaches to beauty. He spends a great deal of space discussion Plato's conception of beauty and of eros, which he ultimately rejects. Scruton works to distinguish erotic, self-interested beauty from what he describes as disinterested contemplation. In the realm of sexuality, this distinction requires the rejection of pornography, for example, which objectifies human beings into mere bodies and separates bodies from persons.
Scruton develops his conception of beauty as "disinterested interest" and proceeds to describe four kinds of beauty summarized (p. 124) as: "human beauty as an object of desire; natural beauty,as an object of contemplation; everyday beauty as an object of practical reason; and artistic beauty as a form of meaning and an object of taste." He then returns to an attack on "art as eros" followed by a critique of postmodernism and relativism with their various rejections of beauty as a goal for art and the embracing, in many popular instances of kitsch as an equivalvent for art. Scruton offers the following summary of his understanding of beauty and its purpose.
"everything I have said about the nature of beauty implies that it is rationally founded. It challenges us to find meaning in its object, to make critical comparisons, and to examine our lives and emotions in light of what we find. Art, nature and the human form invite us to place this experience at the centre of our lives. If we do so, then it offers a place of refreshment of which we can never tire.... For a free being, there is right feeling, right experience and right enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it. It may express their pleasure and their taste; but it is pleasure in what they value and taste for their true ideals."
Scruton writes gracefully, tightly, and well. Sections and paragraphs of this little book almost stand alone as essays. Much of the book has an aphoristic, quotable character. The philosophers most influential to Scruton's approach, even when he disagrees with them, are Kant and Plato. The book is full of discussion and comparison of paintings, works of literature, and pieces of music. Among other things, Scruton is a great admirer of Schubert's song-cycle, "Die Winterreise" about rejected love, and he discusses it beautifully.
There is much to be learned from this book even if the reader disagrees. In a review in "The Observer" (quoted in part on the book jacket), Sebastian Smee praised Scruton's thought while expressing skepticism about Scruton's focus on reason, disinterestedness, and, particularly, attitude towards eros. Smee quotes John Updike saying "for most men a naked woman is the most beautiful thing they will ever see" as a suggestion for an alternative position. Scruton's book will engage the reader and encourage thought on the nature of beauty, whether or not the reader fully agrees with Scruton. In this way, the book is valuable in itself and more than fulfills the goal of a "very short introduction" to a topic.