Soul, Self and Face: Roger Scruton at AMU

Soul, Self and Face: Roger Scruton at AMU

Roger Scruton visited Ave Maria University from October 5th-9th. Over the course of his visit, he offered three lectures, each in an area of his expertise. Below follows a summary of the first public lecture he delivered. 

Roger Scruton, Distinguished Visiting Scholar, spoke to a full audience in the Lecture Hall at Ave Maria University two weeks ago today. The event, which was hosted jointly by the Philosophy and Theology Departments, was entitled “The Representation of the Human Body in Art.”

Scruton began the event with a presentation, “Soul, Self and Face,” which examined the idea of the soul as revealed through the body. He took up the more modern philosophical explanation of the soul, not as object, but as subject. The difference between the body and the soul, he said, should not be understood as a difference between two kinds of things, but as a difference between a thing and something that is a perspective. Furthermore, according to Kant, the subject, or the soul, is what distinguishes the creature who can say “I” from all other creatures. Scruton pursued this train of thought and suggested that “I” means “you.” That is, from the self-consciousness of the subject arises an “I-Thou” relationship with other similarly self-conscious subjects. Because of this relationship, through which we recognize that we—you and I—are responsible for what we are and what we do, we are mutually accountable. “We not only hold ourselves accountable to each other,” Scruton explained, “but also we hold ourselves accountable as such.”

As human beings, Scruton went on, we long for soul-directed experiences. We want to be satisfied, to be consoled; we yearn for completion. Scruton gave the example of Schubert’s setting of the poem “Du Bist Die Ruh” as a work of art that captures this yearning. The poem is focused on the word “Du”—the “you” not just as an object of desire, but as something that fills that desire, and fills the person yearning too. It is through this sort of consolation that the subject is fulfilled.

Scruton then examined the human face, with all its features (smiles, laughs, kisses, looks), and how the self, the “I,” is present to it. He picked up Levinas’ definition of the face as “visitation and transcendence” and carried it throughout his examination. “In the face,” he explained, “you are present before me, you are a visitation, but a visitation of something that is itself not the face, and in that way, it is transcendence.” The face is the subject, revealed in a world of objects. “We are not present in our knees as we are in our faces,” he later said. Scruton showed Rembrandt’s portraits, particularly of the artist’s mother and of the artist himself, as examples of art capturing the mystery of the face. He also quoted Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, and Donne as poets who have dwelled upon this mystery.

Scruton closed his presentation with a brief look at human sexuality. “I want to say,” he stated, “that sexual feelings are essentially individualizing. They focus on the individual, and not on the kind.”  He contrasted sexual desire with hunger, which is an appetite that has a general object. When you are hungry, anything that tastes good answers the appetite. Sexuality, on the other hand, is focused on the individual. We know this because when the individual is treated sexually in a generalizing way, “the result is at least offensive, and probably criminal,” he said. Sexual shame, Scruton continued, serves as protection against this generalizing hunger-like urge. Rape, which pierces through these protective layers, is an existential crime. It pollutes the victim. In Goya’s painting of bandits stripping and raping two women, the central woman hides her face. She is signaling, Scruton explained: “This is the end of me, and I’m hiding myself from the world because I will no longer be a part of it.”

The soul, Scruton concluded, is not hidden behind the mask of the body, but is revealed; it is “the real presence of an accountable subject in the world of objects.” We, as subjects, long for soul-directed experiences. If this yearning is not fulfilled by consolation and redemption, then we live as objects, soullessly. There is no consolation for such a man—only the satisfaction of momentary desires.


After two brief responses to Roger Scruton, the first by artist Cornelius Sullivan and the second by theologian Michael Waldstein, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Below are some of the questions from the audience, followed by Roger Scruton’s responses, edited for reading.

Q. You described modern art as a kind of sarcastic punishment of us for being human. Where can we draw the line between this, and a meaningful critique from someone who is competent to give it? 

It is very important to make a distinction between sarcasm and irony. The Greek word for irony means the ability to set a distance between yourself and other things so that you can look at them from a point where they do not afflict you. Sarcasm is not setting a distance, but is getting right up and laughing in your face. Much of modern art is attempting to come to terms with all the horrible things that have happened in the last two centuries. We don’t esteem art that just turns away from those difficulties, but, ultimately, however you deal with the awful side of human nature, you have to maintain the aim at redemption.

Q. You said that the face is not reducible to the biological part of the organism. Can you offer a more positive definition of what you mean by the face?  

Yes, I said what the face is not, but not what it is. Let me give an analogy: If I’m looking at Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” I can easily say what that face is not. It’s not the collection of pigments, nor is it what’s left over when you’ve taken those pigments away. In just the same way, the human face is not a collection of physical details, nor is it what’s left when the physical is removed. It’s what we see in those things when we respond as an accountable human being. Again, the sequence of pitched sounds is not a melody, but if you take away the sequence, the melody is not what’s left over, because nothing is left over.  We see melody in a sequence of pitched sounds. The face is something that we see in things, and that we see because we can relate to those things in a certain way—I to You.

Q. Do not the details of your theory on the face, and sexuality, actually indicate the necessity of a metaphysical soul that is pushing against us to express through us that it cannot control, but wishes too?  Why do you reject the concept of a soul per se?  

I have an analytical approach to these things, and I don’t want to assert the existence of anything that isn’t necessary to describe the phenomena. Maybe I’ll find myself pushed in that direction, but so far I haven’t. I’m happy with the distinction between objects in the world, and subjects as a perspective on it. To reach beyond the limits is not to transcend them.

Q. It is odd, as you said, that this thing we hold as our representation to the world (the face) is something that we ourselves are deeply unfamiliar with. You hinted at the cruelty of our being isolated from ourselves. Isn’t there in art—how it forms us, forms society, creates our values—a certain reflection that we gain that satisfies and makes up for the cruel condition of not really seeing who we are? 

Everybody who has thought about it recognizes that there is something missing from human life, there is alienation, the fall, loneliness. In one way or another, we seem to be inherently unsatisfied beings. Something to which we belonged has been removed. We have to find ourselves a hope in this world where we are exiles. That is what art does. Art takes human suffering and all the emotions connected with it and presents it to us, saying: Look, this is you and this is right. It’s an overcoming of loneliness.

Q. Can we see the inability of the person to see his own face as meaning that we are not meant to see ourselves directly, but to see, or receive, ourselves in the eye of the other, as someone loved and completely received? 

Yes, what I am for myself is what I am for you, and what I am for you is what will redeem what I am for myself. We live in a time in which people go around with a mirror in front of themselves (phones, computers), reflecting back all information about me, reflecting me to me. There is a danger that we’re moving away from the situation that we’re recommending.