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The Uses Of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope by Roger Scruton

Roger Caldwell scrutinizes Scruton.

Roger Scruton has presented himself in many guises: as the proponent of a Conservative political philosophy, as an aesthetician concerned with architecture and music, and latterly as an elegist of old England and a celebrator of rural life, foxhunting and wine. In his latest book Scruton again presents himself as a political philosopher. In this guise in former days he drew opprobrium to himself as a Thatcherite. There is a certain irony in this, in that drawing on a tradition of conservative political philosophy which embraced Burke, Hegel and Oakeshott, Scruton owed little or nothing to Thatcher, and she in turn owed little or nothing to him.

Scruton earlier offered a re-vamped account of his conservatism in A Political Philosophy (2006), and his most recent book, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope builds and develops on this account, not without some re-packaging of familiar Scrutonian themes. It comes as no surprise that he is a supporter of “hierarchy, discipline, and order” against those “unscrupulous optimists” who have been the curse of recent history. What Scruton advocates here is that, rather than seeking utopian solutions, radical alternatives or bold initiatives, we should muddle through with “compromise and half measures” mindful that no ultimate solutions are up for grabs. He proposes “a community without convictions” marked by irony and forgiveness.

There is a certain untimeliness in this book. In the West, utopia is scarcely an issue any more. In the age of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Third Way, Scruton writes like a belated Cold War warrior. However, for Islamists utopia is very much an issue, although it is here that Scruton’s message of “irony and forgiveness” is least likely to strike home. Indeed, one might have thought that it is this religious mindset rather than a secular one against which Scruton’s guns should first be directed. Not so: for Scruton we live everywhere amongst the ruins and errors of secular optimists who have tried to make heaven on earth, and ended up making it hell.

The various fallacies of false hope that Scruton identifies are interpreted as the products of our hunter-gatherer past. Indulging in some speculative anthropology he proposes that our propensity for over-optimism is the product of a time when life was precarious and emergency solutions were called for, although this propensitiy is largely inappropriate in the conditions of modernity. However, if the fallacies of optimism are human universals, hard-wired into our psyches, they are as much apt to break out in right-wing contexts (Hitler) as in those of the left (Stalin, Pol Pot). So this criticism of utopianism gives no support for the Conservative philosophy Scruton espouses, except insofar as the left is more prone to think that what Kant calls “the crooked timber of humanity” can somehow be made straight.

Religion Without God

For all its centrality to the Scrutonian project, the utopian fallacy receives perfunctory treatment here, dismissed as “the residue of heresy in a world without religion.” We are told that that “it is arguably one of the functions of religion that it neutralizes optimism” – but surely it is rather more arguable that if, say, Marxism, can be seen as messianic, that can only be because a Messiah putatively got there first. And if the hallmark of the utopian fallacy is its “immunity to refutation” this is typical of the religious attitude before utopianism ever warped into a secular messianism. Without Islam there would be no Islamists. If unscrupulous optimists are marked by “their ability to believe the impossible in the face of all adverse evidence.” then the God Squad, whether Christian or Islamic, should surely be first to stand before the Scrutonian firing-line.

Yet this is not the case, for Scruton’s philosophy demands a religious attitude, of piety towards life – although this is strictly religiosity rather than religion, for Scruton requires that we act as if God existed even though in fact he doesn’t. (It comes as no great surprise that Scruton’s upbringing was in the Church of England.) This religion without God – “belief in belief” philosopher Dan Dennett calls it – is in a perilous position. Kierkegaard would have regarded it as hypocrisy, and Nietzsche would have treated it with contempt. So would the American Religious Right and the Islamists, for Scruton’s is a religion without substance. The problem is that the religion of the likes of Osama bin Laden does have substance, however skewed its interpretation of Islam. In this context there is a certain bathos in Scruton’s declaration that “Al-Qaeda is a product of the fallacies that I have identified” – offered in the same spirit as if he had refuted a proposition of Wittgenstein’s.

Scruton’s Optimistic Fallacies

The fallacies of hope Scruton identifies bring forth a mixed bag of examples. In discussing the ‘best-case fallacy’ we move from Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling to a comparison of Muhammed and Keynes on economics. Whatever the virtues of Scruton’s argumentation, it is unclear why he finds it necessary to describe Keynes as “the flippant aesthete” – not, one presumes, a serious aesthete like Scruton – and “lover of Lytton Strachey and Duncan Grant” – which seems a mere homophobic jibe. He also makes play with Keynes’ pronouncement that “in the long run we are all dead.” However, surely short-termism in emergency conditions is, by Scruton’s argument, precisely what made the fallacy of optimism an evolutionary advantage in the first place. A more charitable understanding would be that if in the short term we don’t take measures to ensure that we survive, there won’t be another generation to succeed us in the long term .

The ‘born-free fallacy’ takes us from Rousseau to the excesses of the French Revolution, on through the failures of the British education system, to the presentation of madness as a social construct by R.D. Laing and Foucault. In the chapter on the ‘zero-sum fallacy’, Scruton takes a swipe at those who would blame Africa’s poverty on imperialism and thus let off the hook dictators who impoverish their own countries, such as Mugabe. In what Scruton identifies as the ‘planning fallacy’ he mounts a spirited attack on the excesses of the European Union. The ‘moving spirit fallacy’ is exemplified in the inhumane nature of modernist architecture – a familiar theme of Scruton’s. In what he calls the ‘aggregation fallacy’, the supposed sins of multiculturalism are hung out to dry. Scruton’s list of errors and enemies goes on and on: postmodernism, Women’s Studies, gay marriage, relativism, pop music, etc. The problem is that besides the major and deserved targets there are some that are undeserved or marginal, and the work increasingly takes on the appearance of a sequence of random Scrutonian gripes at the modern world. The supposed philosophical scaffolding appears more and more rickety accordingly. Thus we are treated to such aperçus as that “the press is dominated by radicals and activists.” I must look out for these revolutionary zealots the next time I pick up my copy of the Sunday Times. His comments on “the genocidal scale of abortions in America” and his animadversions against gay marriage, spring from his perception that both activities “threaten ancient feelings about the sacred and the sacramental.” But clearly, marriage has taken many different forms in different societies or at different periods of history. For Scruton, however, its form is set and immutable: no Registry Offices for him.

Logical Faultlines

Wherever you look into Scruton’s writings there are logical faultlines. Take for example what he says about multiculturalism. Historically speaking, most societies were (and are) multicultural – indeed, prior to the coming of the nation-state, when empires were the norm, this was necessarily the case. (Scruton argues against Hegel and Marx that there is no progress in history, yet like Hegel he deifies the nation-state, a late arrival on the historical scene.) Scruton warns us against “setting widely different cultures in a single territory,” and goes on to evoke the legacy of Enoch Powell, notorious in the UK in the 60s for his bilious ‘rivers of blood’ speech against immigration. Yet in America, Scruton tells us, most Muslims “live on peaceful and equal terms with people who do not share their faith, and cheerfully identify themselves as Americans.” Don’t the majority of Muslims in Leeds and Bradford likewise identify themselves as English? We must distinguish between multiculturalism, which is and has long been a fact, and government policy towards multiculturalism. If the policy involves a craven kowtowing to cultural difference, then clearly Scruton is correct that this is wrong. You do not have to be a Conservative to see this. Indeed, speaking from the opposite side of the political spectrum, in a recent collection of articles, Waiting for the Etonians, Nick Cohen makes many of the same points, and rather more pithily, commenting that “it has become racist to oppose sexists, homophobes and fascists from other countries.”

The Chaff of Prejudice

Scruton is famous for exposing the blindnesses and the hypocrisies of the Left: he is also notorious for never acknowledging that there might be some too on the Right. But although in his latest work he makes some palpable hits, it is hard to separate the wheat of philosophical wisdom from the chaff of prejudice. Of course, we must be with Scruton in reigning in irresponsible optimism, and in refusing to tinker with what already works more or less well; but aren’t there problems, some of a global nature, where even tinkering is not enough? Don’t scientific advances, as in genetics, present us with wholly new questions, for which no traditional remedies are adequate?

Often one feels that Scruton is trying to return us to a traditional worldview – a quaint Scrutonian wonderland that never quite existed. In his 2006 work he praised, as he so often does, “the old religious virtues – innocence, sacrifice and eternal vows.” Yet it is hard to see how one can return to innocence once one has lost it, nor how, in a world with a human population exceeding six billion, we can maintain (if we ever had) a view of the human form as “sacred, untouchable and an object of awe.” Six billion objects of awe? One can hardly think so. His conception in this new book of the “‘we’-rationality of a consensual community” against the tyranny of an ‘I’ sounds admirable enough – or it would be admirable if that consensual community had ever existed in the first place.

In many ways Scruton is a sort of utopian in reverse. If the political messianists want to take us to places that never will, or could, exist (and with disastrous consequences), then Scruton wants to return us to a forgotten Eden of the past – likewise as much a fantasy – where all was ceremony, grace, and where everyone knew their place in a benign ordering of things. Whatever the charms of this vision, it is a devastating failure of realism, and no foundation for a viable political philosophy.

© Roger Caldwell 2010

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry This Being Eden (2001) is published by Peterloo Poets.

The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope, by Roger Scruton, Atlantic Books, 2010, 240 pps, £15.99 hb, ISBN: 978-1848872004.

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is currently an adjunct scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and is also a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall in Oxford. He specialises in aesthetics, with particular attention to music and architecture. He has also written and spoken from a conservative perspective on diverse political and cultural issues.

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