Otiose criticism

A drawback of the Internet is that it provides an easy platform for the uninformed and malformed to broadcast their opinions to the world-at-large. Such writers forget that they have a duty both to their subject and to their readers: the duty to be informed and to understand. Lacking a coherent understanding of tradition or western civilization, these authors tend merely to emote their subjective responses rather than artfully critique shortfallings. For criticism to be of any benefit to the reader, the critic must demonstrate both an understanding of the tradition in which a particular work stands as well as an understanding of the work itself. Anything less becomes a mere expression of the critic’s preferences at best, but more likely a misleading attack on a straw man of another writer’s work. T.S. Eliot makes this point in his essay “The Perfect Critic”:

The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information . . . have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.

To illustrate this point, I turn to a lecture presented by Dr. Roger Scruton at a conference entitled “The Power of Beauty” at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The lecture is called “Beauty and Desecration.” Note that neither Dr. Scruton’s lecture nor the conference itself is intended to discuss the nature of beauty as its subject matter. Dr. Scruton is widely acclaimed as a conservative thinker and earned his PhD at Cambridge with a thesis on aesthetics.

Humane Pursuits editor Joseph Cunningham attended the conference and wrote this critique. I choose this as my example of poor criticism because it rises above the ordinary drivel one may see any day on the internet. Additionally, Humane Pursuits seeks to achieve conservative goals and generally does this well; so its critique of the conservative Scruton is probably not based on significant disagreements about human nature or the nature of beauty.

Cunningham argues that Scruton’s notion of beauty is “nostalgic,” “Utopian,” “simply a matter of belonging,” “superficial,” “a commodity,” and simply “charm.” His main critique is that beauty for Scruton has been reduced to the charming and the comfortable. Cunningham contrasts Scruton’s “beauty as belonging” with “beauty as being.”

The errors in Cunningham’s approach are manifold. As noted by those who commented on the article, the barest knowledge of Scruton’s writings about beauty is enough to establish that Cunningham missed Scruton’s point entirely. Cunningham, responding to the commenters, acknowledged he has “never read Dr. Scruton’s books” and “only addresses the points [Scruton] made in his talk.” In order to be an effective critic, Cunningham ought to have gathered some knowledge as to Scruton’s general ideas about the nature of beauty. This understanding is essential to the critique he makes. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton

Perhaps Cunningham would argue that one lecture is enough of a basis on which to criticize a widely respected conservative scholar. The lecture itself, though, clearly demonstrates that Scruton believes beauty to be a transcendental, itself the object of desire pursued as an end, not merely as a means to a feeling of belonging. For Scruton, beauty’s existence as a transcendental is what gives us a sense of belonging or home in the myriad sufferings, fears, and dangers of life. As man straddles the mundane and the transcendental, beauty is a bridge which helps him connect them and give meaning to being. Thus, as Scruton demonstrates, a distrust of beauty is a distrust both of being and belonging; while beauty is not reducible to belonging, a sense of belonging and meaning is the natural result of beauty.

Cunningham critiques the notion of beauty as belonging by pointing out Westminster cathedral, deserts, oceans, and mountains. While we may commonly call these things beautiful, a philosopher of aesthetics like Scruton knows the importance of distinguishing between the beautiful and the sublime in technical discourse. Edmund Burke, using Aristotelian language of causality, describes the beautiful as that which compels desire, the passion of love; the sublime rather compels fear. Burke, a Christian, held that the beautiful reminds us of God’s love and providence while the sublime shows God’s power and majesty. Together, the beautiful and the sublime complement each other in giving us a sense of belonging. Art, in making life beautiful, shows through all life’s hardness and difficulty that the universe is animated by divine love. That is how beauty gives us a sense of belonging.

Cunningham’s critique relies too much on difference in preferences. He takes issue with Scruton who argues that “the search for beauty begins and ends in everyday life.” Cunningham’s tastes appear to be more exotic—tattoos, Chilean pottery, deserts, and swamps. What Scruton understands, but Cunningham appears to miss, is that beauty calls us to engage with her in bringing love and meaning to the world of objects and people around us. Beauty does not merely call us to observation and to contemplation, but to creation as well. And creation begins and ends in everyday life. Because Cunningham makes too much of differences in preference, his criticism misses Scruton’s meaning.

In defending Scruton’s lecture and presenting his credentials,I do not intend to place him above criticism. Yet when offering criticism of a renowned philosopher like Scruton, we should be careful to understand fully before we criticize. A conservative critic must first let a work judge him, before he judges the work or its author.

T.S. Eliot, by Simon Fieldhouse
T.S. Eliot, by Simon Fieldhouse

T.S. Eliot describes the purpose of criticism as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” Eliot argues that it is a relatively simple task to determine whether a particular critic is effective or useful. He offers another suggestion on critical method: “The critic, one would suppose, if he is to justify his existence, should endeavor to discipline his personal prejudices and cranks – tares to which we are all subject – and compose his differences with as many of his fellows as possible, in the common pursuit of true judgment.” From this observation we can derive at least two characteristics necessary to proper criticism. One is the ability to understand the meaning of a work of art or prose and to be able to communicate that meaning to others; the other is to be able to discern between truth and one’s personal preferences.

A critic must first be careful to accurately portray the meaning of the work with which he is concerned. Only then can he present his critique. To misunderstand the work, either with intent or by mistake, is to set up a straw man and mislead the reader. Another error is to use criticism to argue that a work should have been or said something else, something the critic would have preferred. A even worse problem occurs when a critic misunderstands or intentionally avoids the real meaning of a work because it is not what he expected or wanted to hear.

Truthfully expressing the meaning of a work is central to the task of criticism. Eliot seems to think this is in fact the primary work of criticism; judgment is at best a secondary critical purpose.

“The dogmatic critic, who lays down a rule, who affirms a value, has left his labour incomplete. Such statements may often be justifiable as a saving of time; but in matters of great importance the critic must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse and better. He must simply elucidate: the reader will form the correct judgment for himself.”

In short, the work of the critic is to educate his readers, not merely inform them about his own ideas and preferences.

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