The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope
Atlantic Books; £15.99
WE HAVE generally been led to view optimism as a necessarily good thing and pessimism as its evil twin. Optimism is positive, pessimism is negative, according to general wisdom.
The unreconstructed optimist will therefore approach Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism with more than a little trepidation.
Scruton does not argue in favour of comprehensive pessimism. His central thesis holds that unscrupulous optimism leads to faulty decision-making and that all our decisions should be leavened with an occasional dose of pessimism. So far, so sensible.
Scruton expands on this basic premise in a series of chapters in which he dismantles a series of author-defined fallacies — the Best Case Fallacy, the Born Free Fallacy, Zero Sum Fallacy, the Planning Fallacy and so on. However, although they contain a good deal of what would generally be regarded as common sense, many of these chapters digress from the central argument of the book and descend into a series of rants against familiar targets.
Throughout, Scruton makes the distinction between the concepts of “I” and “We”. “I” constantly looks for the benefit to self; “We” represents the “ordinary world of human compromise”. Thus, he creates a pair of useful hooks on which to hang his selective arguments. “I” is an optimist, a revolutionary, a baddy. On the other hand, “We” is a pessimist, a rationalist, a goody.
In his chapter on the Planning Fallacy, Scruton turns his fire on the European Union. Here he presents an entirely one-sided argument. There is no mention of European legislation on, for example, workers’ rights, which has improved the lot of many of Europe’s citizens, often in the face of opposition from national governments. He acknowledges the absence of major war in Europe since 1945, but declares, without proof, that “if peace exists in Europe today, it is not because of the plan but in spite of it”. In contrast, he applauds the virtues of the nation state, ignor- ing the fact that it is precisely those nation states that caused the all-consuming conflicts in the first half of the 20th century.
The French revolutions — both the world-changing events of 1789 and the vastly less important 1968 student revolt — are the target of particular ridicule. Participants in both were hopeless utopian optimists and dangerous to boot. The consequences of 1968 are greatly overstated. The 68ers, for instance, have “dominated politics and education” in the intervening years. The 1789 ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are dismissed as mutually exclusive. Scruton argues that the goal of equality requires the destruction of liberty. It is self-evident that absolute liberty cannot coexist with absolute equality. However, this does not preclude the coexistence of liberty and equality as legitimate aims.
There are many other targets. Modern architecture gets a broadside. Women’s studies, gender studies, gay studies and peace studies are “designed to bury a foregone conclusion in a mound of pseudo-scholarship”. Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism have evolved but Islam — for which particular venom is reserved — is a major world problem “surely because of its top-down, commanded approach to the moral life, and its emphasis on submission rather than forgiveness as the binding principle of society”.
Scruton is, at times, deliberately provocative.
“Child abuse,” he says, “is not a universal social disorder... It is the direct result of the delegitimisation of the family.”
He goes on to state that “it is standard practice in divorce cases for judges to award custody of the child to the mother, thus depriving children of their principal protector.”
Does Scruton offer an alter- native? Unfortunately, no, unless we accept “the voice of reason” or are prepared to countenance a return to a culture founded on the cosy monocultural Britain of the years immediately following World War II.
At that time English culture was “based on national identity, on a specific Christian inheritance and, above all, on the political and legal framework that made elementary freedom available to the ordinary subject”. The curriculum of Scruton’s schooldays included “Latin, calculus, counterpoint and national history”. He insists that it was neither ethnocentric nor focused on the British imperial experience.
“Our culture was that of the ‘law-abiding Englishman’. And the few boys of Indian extraction in our classes hadn’t the slightest problem with that.” He goes on to state that “multiculturalism did not replace that curriculum; it merely destroyed it”.
Later, he defends Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech. “The England of Powell’s dream was fashioned from heroic deeds and immemorial customs; from sacred rites and solemn offices whose meaning was inscrutable from any point outside the social context that defined them.” There’s the rub — “any point outside”. Immigrants are outside, we are inside. The real inconsistency lies in the fact that Scruton fails to interpret such immigration to Britain as a logical consequence of her colonial past.
The Uses of Pessimism is well written, undoubtedly. For the most part, it is logically argued, despite occasional lapses into ridicule as a means of proving a point. However, Scruton has a love of the sweeping statement — “Optimism inevitably leads to totalitarianism” is just one example. Yet he routinely fails to provide the depth of analysis required to prove his assertions.
Scruton argues, quite correctly, against automatic, unconsidered responses to his arguments. Nevertheless, throughout this book he makes what is ultimately an absolute distinction: the optimist is always wrong, the pessimist is always right. It is just such absolutism that got us into the mess we call society in the first place.
The Cynic’s Handbook by John Flynn
ON the face of it, the Cynic’s Handbook may appear to be the ideal companion to The Uses of Pessimism. Under the surface, it is a very different animal.
The handbook takes the form of a brisk run through selected events in history, many of them amusing and informative. However, it is not immediately clear where the cynical message lies in many of these anecdotes.
The book’s integrity is not helped by inaccuracies. In his very first story, Flynn confuses the Pythagorean difficulty relating to the square root of two with the entirely different problem of squaring the circle. Admittedly, this is not a serious issue in the great cynical scheme of things, but it leaves the accuracy of the subsequent material open to question.
Viewed as a miscellany rather than as a bible, The Cynic’s Handbook will lead the reader in interesting directions.
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