The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope

If, as I suspect, the British are divided between those who feel uplifted by the sight of Hazel Blears and otherwise life-affirming folk for whom her pitiless smile and perky tread are soul-curdling memento mori, it is clear which side Roger Scruton would be on.

Despite disclaiming any kind of Schopenhauerian gloom, his book argues that a measure of judicious pessimism is essential to restoring balance and wisdom in human affairs, and to tempering unrealistic hopes that might ruin us. His chapter headings - "The Best Case Fallacy", "The Born-free Fallacy", "The Planning Fallacy", and so on - speak for themselves. And while his categories, such as "unscrupulous optimists" and "scrupulous pessimists", may not be for the conventional-minded, neither is this book.

The first category includes Lenin, Mao and Hitler, whose followers and combined utopian fantasies - scientifically grounded, naturally - brought death to roughly 150 million people. (The Nazis, the least "idealistic" grouping of the three, contributed a modest 35 million.) In a humbler category, those guilty of forward-looking, positive-minded destruction include architects who have straightened out the offensively crooked timbers of our cities in favour of boxes of glass and steel, and Eurocrats intent on ironing flat their continent's stubbornly lumpy cultures. All have inexorable plans for the betterment of humanity, whose self-evident benefits tolerate no refutation.

Once you get the hang of the argument, much of it paradoxical, the case for a cheerful sobriety - for that, in the end, is what Scruton wants - is persuasive enough. More interesting, however, is the philosophical background, presented with his familiar encyclopaedic breadth and Nietz­schean clarity of expression.

In the "Born-free" chapter, we skip along from Hegel through Strindberg to Lady Plowden, the well-meaning patrician who thought that it would be jolly to impose experimental educational methods on other people's children (a mangled version of Hegel was at the root of the subsequent disaster). Hegel's sweeping view of onward-marching history lent itself to illusions of relentless progress, though he never believed in the liberation of the "I" and still less in child-centred theory, arguing that true freedom must be social, and rule-based.

Scruton's economic arguments are especially topical, even though sometimes a rounder view would have been helpful, such as in his discussion of usury, where he praises (with reservations) the Muslim approach. Until the early 17th century, the Protestant progenitors of modern capitalism were opposed to it, too, and the consequences of their conversion have been rather larger. What are we to make of that for the distinction between optimism and pessimism? Maybe the author was striving to be complimentary to Islam, a faith towards which he has shown little indulgence in the past.

Scruton-haters keen to be provoked will be gratified by his attack on Keynes, "the flippant aesthete", whose catchphrase "In the long run we are all dead" suggests that the more we can postpone to the future, the less we will have to account for it. "The infinite regress of transferred liability", Scruton calls it - and a subject very much in the news as we borrow to infinity.

He confronts full-on the obvious argument that, if fantasies about human potential are in some way innate, as in the pessimist's eyes they must be, there is limited future in seeking to wean the world off its false hopes. And sure enough, the utopian fallacy, responsible for
untold slaughter, is not easily despatched. To this day, there are plenty who assert that the trouble with communism is that it was never really tried, and the moment the market gets itself into trouble, back comes the argument that Marx had it right.

The only way to ensure we don't repeat our mistakes endlessly, whether "liberating" peoples the better to put the executioner's pistol to their necks or (as Scruton might have added) constructing fissiparous empires, would be to approach each new world-historical enterprise or "solution" with a dose of prejudice - not in the sense of paralysing negativism, but, as Burke argued, with a mode of thought evolving from the pooled experience of absent generations.

In theory, optimists ought to be tolerant of their critics. The future is with them, by defi­nition, and doubters must one day be force-marched, blinking, on to the sunny uplands. But it isn't like that. When optimists' beliefs are questioned, Scruton notes, they pronounce quasi-religious anathema on their critics, similar to the toxic effect enthusiasts of the French and Russian Revolutions have had on modern debate. That even Scruton, one of the most genuinely rather than affectedly original thinkers in Britain, should have fallen victim to unscrupulous institutional optimists in higher education (he now works in America) adds piquancy to his remarks.

It would be a refutation of Scruton's thesis if his book were welcomed, but there seems little danger of that. I doubt whether a single individual's outlook on the world will be altered by it, however nuanced its message. The fallacies it seeks to counter underpin too much of our lives, from politics to education and from the arts to foreign policy. Optimism is our brittle currency. Too many folk have invested too much in misconceived hopes to step back and consider. People feel good about feeling good about the world - it is part of the modern practice of public relations, the way they get on in their careers - and they don't enjoy being told to sober up and confront the truth.

Yet, in the end, undue optimism is based on a dismal view of human nature - that only by making a retreat from the complexity of ourselves and our society, and by enforcing the onward and upward view of life displayed on commercial and totalitarian posters alike, can we be saved. For Scruton, by contrast, the world is "a much better place than the optimists allow: and that is why pessimism is needed".

For all her difficulties over expenses, Blears, it need hardly be said, was re-elected.

The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books, 240pp, £15.99

George Walden's memoir "Lucky George" was published by Allen Lane in 1999

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals