Knowing What to Feel

“We ‘rehearse’ our sympathies through our encounter with fictions, and so come to ‘know what to feel’ in situations that we have not previously encountered.”—Roger Scruton

Scruton’s Culture Counts (Brief Encounters, 2007) is a slim but dense volume. By that I don’t mean it’s hard to read. Scruton’s prose is invariably clear. But it is “packed” with meaning.

No doubt to the post-modern reader, injunctions like his must seem imperious—viz. telling people “what to feel” and distinguishing between “good” and “bad” forms of cultural expressions. But just because some things are complex and nuanced does not mean they are completely subjective. The author gives the example of a “tasteless joke.” Could it be given a textbook definition? Not likely. Yet we all have a pretty good idea of what it is. In this particular discussion Scruton addresses of the power of poetry:

The poem ‘points the way to’ an emotion, and invites us to sympathize with it. But in that very act it opens the way to judgment…. [Our] sympathetic responses to works of art are also rehearsals of sympathies that could be applied in life. And that thought in turn suggests something important about the connection between life and literature. According to the Aristotelian idea of moral education, virtue is taught by imitation, imitation instills habits, and habits transform themselves into motives. If good literature has a moral value then it is surely because it feeds into that process…. And if bad literature is to be avoided, it is likewise because it misleads us into feeling sympathy where sympathy is mistaken.

These comments are a continuation of my earlier reference to Scruton on art. Related commentary can be found in the post Scruton on Musical Ethics and Aesthetics.

For a more detailed treatment of this subject, I recommend Scruton’s outstanding volumes An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture and Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.

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