Roger Scruton and Michael Atiyah
Added 6 months ago
Roger Scruton who died last week and Michael Atiyah who died a week ago last year, were respectively perhaps the greatest British philosopher and mathematician of their generation. I met both men only once, and though I had little in common with either and was much in awe of both, the one thing I found I did share (and they shared with each other) was a deep sense of beauty.
I had lunch with Michael Atiyah when Andrew Briggs and I went to launch The Penultimate Curiosity at the the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which Michael kindly compered. At lunch beforehand when Michael and Andrew were in animated conversation about realms of physics that were completely unintelligible to me, I had the temerity to interrupt the flow and ask Sir Michael about mathematical beauty. I was struck in his answer by how important the sense of beauty was to him and how much he thought of it as a guide to truth.
My only contact with Roger Scruton (apart from a brief conversation after a Peter Fuller memorial lecture) was an exchange of letters in the late 1980’s.
I had discovered that his writings on aesthetics had a depth I hadn’t found in other contemporary philosophers and had progressed to his book Sexual Desire. I found his description there of consciousness and spiritual perception as ‘well founded illusion’ unconvincing, and it was that which prompted me to write.
I didn’t keep a copy of my letter, but where in a more recent work he says that it is ‘just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of Nature as to say that the Mona Lisa is nothing but a smear of pigments’ and suggests that ‘drawing that conclusion is the first step in the search for God’, I seem to hear an echo of the argument I put.
At the time I received a kind and thoughtful reply, but whether what I wrote had the slightest influence on Roger Scruton’s later turn to God I have no idea. What is clear is that after that turn he began to reflect even more deeply and more helpfully on the nature of beauty.