Roger Scruton, Masks, and the Face of God
Roger Scruton, the great British defender of traditionalism and classical beauty, died just as our great new era of ‘health’ was commencing, at the beginning of 2020.
Perhaps this was a mercy.
Scruton would have been appalled by what has followed.
Always a critic of the modern world’s brutal functionalism, the extent of the ugliness, of the plastic, of the invasive qr codes, of the masks, which now mark and stain our new world, would have shocked and depressed even such a great pessimist.
People often think I am obsessed with masks. I annoy people who wonder why I cannot just let it go. What is a face covering after all? Kids are resilient! They adapt!
I have tried to explain my intense antipathy to face-coverings many times. In an instinctive way, from the beginning, I have felt the mask to be a kind of attack on our humanity, our dignity as embodied souls.
Hovering in the background of my thinking has always been the firm idea that the human face is sacred, that it is how we make sense of the world, and how we navigate our relationships. To ‘deface’ something is to desecrate it, is to attack the sacred.
Intriguingly, in a prophetic set of lectures in 2012, Scruton, in a grand critique of the modern and secular scientific worldview, made this exact point, before the great masking era, identifying the face as being the pathway back to God. He proposed that modernity had been a kind of ‘defacing’ which needed to be redeemed by once again seeing the Face of God in each other and in nature.
How shockingly apt his series of lectures, which came to be collected and published as a book, entitled The Face of God, has proven to be.
These lectures were a lament for all the things we had lost in our mechanical world, in which we had turned away from God, believing that anything which cannot be measured, quantified, and explained by science, is simply not real and thus not worth considering.
Scruton identifies this phenomenon in biology:
“According to Richard Dawkins, the most prominent of the evangelical atheists today, human beings are ‘survival machines’ in the service of their genes.”
And in architecture:
“Le Corbusier aptly introduced the modernist idiom with the dictum that ‘a house is a machine for living in’: in other words, my home is not a subject but an object – a place without a face.”
And he shows this defacing in the arts too, particularly within the rise of pornography:
“Pornography has moved of its own accord to that first stage on the road to desecration – the stage of objectification, in which the face disappears, and the human being disintegrates into an assemblage of body parts.”
But the great point he makes is that this way of considering that only what can be measured is real, is not how anybody lives, and it has in fact come at enormous cost.
What has happened, for Scruton, is a great turning away from the Face of the Universe:
“You might wonder how people can deliberately turn away from a thing that they believe not to exist. But God is in intimate relationship even with those who reject him. Like the spouse in a sacramental marriage, God is unavoidable, or avoidable only by creating a void. This void opens before us when we destroy the face – not the human face only, but also the face of the world. The godless void is what confronts us, when our surroundings are defaced. I do not deny that atheists can be thoroughly upright people, far better people than I am. But there is more than one motive underlying the atheist culture of our times, and the desire to escape from the eye of judgement is one of them. You escape from the eye of judgement by wiping away the face.”
Our culture removed the face so as to avoid God, but in so doing, we did not gain the world for ourselves, as we had hoped, but turned humanity into an objective thing.
In so doing, we lose our own human world, because our world is not ordered by objects and data, but rooted in dialogue - the dialogue in which we speak of ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘why’.
But these concepts can never be made to fit into the cause and effect of the purely material. Or they can, at the costs of destroying our humanity.
“You can situate human beings entirely in the world of objects. In doing so you will in all probability reduce them to animals whose behaviour is to be explained by some combination of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. But then you will find yourself describing a world from which human action, intention, responsibility, freedom and emotion have been wiped away: it will be a world without a face. The face shines in the world of objects with a light that is not of this world – the light of subjectivity. You can look for freedom in the world of objects and you will not find it: not because it is not there, but because it is bound up with the first person perspective, and with the view from somewhere of the creature who can say ‘I’.”
This is why Scruton is so important for us today. If we had listened to the likes of Scruton in the Anglosphere, it does not go too far to say that we would have been able to predict the weaponization of medical masks as a logical next step in the assault on human subjectivity.
According to the modern worship of the material world, of the scientist, the face is the final obstacle, the final reminder that something from beyond shines into this world and give us soul and beauty.
The spirit which made us sacrifice so many things in an utterly pointless bid to stop a virus finds its zenith in covering up faces, particularly the faces of children:
“Among the most interesting of the concepts that inform and give structure to the human world is that of the face. The science of the human being has no real use for faces. Of course, it recognizes all the components of the face and their disposition in space. It acknowledges that there is such a thing as recognition of the face and facial agnosia. But it does not acknowledge the thing that makes faces so important to us – namely, that they are the outward form and image of the soul, the lamp lit in our world by the subject behind. It is through understanding the face that we begin to see how it is that subjects make themselves known in the world of objects.”
Why is this so?
“My face is also the part of me to which others direct their attention, whenever they address me as ‘you’. I lie behind my face, and yet I am present in it, speaking and looking through it at a world of others who are in turn both revealed and concealed like me. My face is a boundary, a threshold, the place where I appear as the monarch appears on the balcony of the palace.”
In our new regime, imagine thinking of ourselves as monarchs! No, we are germ vectors, cockroaches causing climate change now, not sons and daughters who reflect the face of God. Our face, as our subjectivity, has become an affront. And most of all, the smile must be erased:
“The crucial point is that even when serving a biological purpose, my face remains under my jurisdiction. It is the place where I am in the world of objects, and the place from which I address you. And the face has an interesting repertoire of adjustments, which cannot be understood merely as physical changes of the kind that we observe in the features of other species. For example there is smiling. Animals do not smile: at best they grimace, in the manner of chimpanzees and bonobos. In Paradise Lost, Milton writes (describing the love between Adam and Eve) that ‘smiles from reason flow,/ To brute denied, and are of love the food’. The smile that reveals is the involuntary smile, the blessing that one soul confers upon another, when shining with the whole self in a moment of self-giving. Hence the voluntary and deliberately amplified smile is not a smile at all but a mask.”
The idea of defacement does not apply accidentally to our buildings and our environment, in Scruton’s view.
Our world has always had a face for us because it is a place where we live together. Our buildings used to have faces because they were always built outwards from our temples, which is where God dwelt with us.
“God’s message concerning the temple was not simply the foundation of a specific cult, devoted to the god of a tribe. It was a message to all of us, telling us that God will dwell among us only if we too dwell, and that dwelling does not mean consuming the earth or wasting it, but conserving it, so as to make a lasting sanctuary for both God and man. Hence the promise of God’s kingdom in the book of Revelation is a promise of the ‘New Jerusalem’, the Holy City, in which we live side by side and face to face with God. And the theme of the Holy City, which is the measure and ideal of all our settlements, was made central to Christian life by St Augustine, in The City of God. We might summarize the message concerning the temple thus: a true city begins from an act of consecration, and it is the temple, God’s dwelling, which is the model for all other dwellings. It is from the temple that we can learn how to build…
“A temple is not simply a work of load-bearing stone. The column is carved, fluted, adorned with plinth and capital, crowned by a frieze or an arch or joined in heavenly vaults where stone achieves the lightness of the sky. Through moldings and decorative details the stone is filled with shadow, acquires an appearance of crystallized light, translucent, as the face is translucent, to the spirit within.”
This face of the temple, where we learn how to build, is what gave beautiful towns their sense of humanity. We have all seen this in small towns, now desecrated by litter and decay and consumerism, where a beautiful old church still stands in the centre.
“Our towns are home to the people who live in them in part because their buildings perpetuate the experience of the face. This we see in a simple street from the town of Whitby, in which the posture of the temple, and the worn residue of ancient forms and moldings, endow each unpretentious building with a face, and raise the lamp above the street like a blessing. People are hurt by the faceless blocks that now intrude into such streets not simply because they dislike the style or have yet to become accustomed to it, but because the connection with the tradition of temple architecture has been finally severed… And the result gives rise to a peculiar feeling of desolation, which is the normal, but now widely misunderstood, response to an act of desecration…”
Is it any wonder then that we remain officially masked, years into a pandemic which was never anything near as severe as Aids or the Spanish flu or TB, with zero evidence the masks help?
The face of anybody is a declaration of meaning beyond the purely material, it is a declaration of dignity, a declaration of the divine.
Covering it in plastic made in factories is the next step of modern defacement and desecration.
And so, like we destroy our beautiful buildings, in the name of egalitarianism and functionalism, so we now destroy the image of our faces.
The masks are not incidental. Do not treat them as mere nuisances. They are at the heart of the battle.