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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / politics


The Uses of Pessimism

Roger Scruton

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Title: The Uses of Pessimism
Author: Roger Scruton
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 232 pages
Availability: The Uses of Pessimism - US
The Uses of Pessimism - UK
The Uses of Pessimism - Canada
The Uses of Pessimism - India
  • and the Danger of False Hope

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Our Assessment:

C : written with considerable flair, but his approach undermines almost all his arguments

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 7/8/2010 Richard King
Financial Times . 16/8/2010 Julian Baggini
The Guardian D 24/7/2010 Steven Poole
The Independent . 4/6/2010 Boyd Tonkin
The New Criterion . 10/2010 John Derbyshire
New Statesman . 5/7/2010 George Walden
The Observer . 6/6/2010 Kenan Malik
The Telegraph . 12/6/2010 Simon Heffer

  From the Reviews:
  • "Top-down thinking is one thing. Thinking outside the box is another, and the problem with Scruton's argument is it tends to treat the two as identical." - Richard King, The Australian

  • "The trouble is that awareness of such fallacies can function as no more than warnings against overhasty and over-ambitious reform. But accepting that there may be things worth conserving, the logic of which we do not understand, does not tell us how to distinguish those from the relics of a best-abandoned past. (...) There are also signs in this book that Scruton’s delicate balance between conviction and clear thinking has become unsettled." - Julian Baggini, Financial Times

  • "There are still passages here of Scruton the scrupulous stylist (I particularly liked "the arctic vacancy of cyberspace"), but the book as a whole evinces a newly strident Republicanism of the zany tea-party variety." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Scruton's conservatism is so familiar -- comforting, even -- that allies and enemies alike will greet it like an old comrade or sparring-partner." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Most of The Uses of Pessimism is given over to a fine analysis of the fallacies from which excessive optimism springs. (...) In the style honored by all appeals to pessimism, from the Book of Ecclesiastes to the satires of Juvenal and the latest Pat Buchanan potboiler, Scruton strives for an upbeat ending." - John Derbyshire, The New Criterion

  • "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. (...) 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." - George Walden, New Statesman

  • "The Uses of Pessimism embodies many of his virtues: the argument is passionate and provocative, yet rendered through exquisitely limpid prose. But it also embodies many of his weaknesses. There is a blinkered character to Scruton that enables him to understand the importance of tradition but rarely its regressive consequences." - Kenan Malik, The Observer

  • "At a time when being what the unthinking call "Right wing" is to be stigmatised, Scruton’s thoughtful codification of the stupidity of the Left is an important book that should provide a rallying point for those unwilling to accept further brainwashing." - Simon Heffer, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       More even that a book that describes, as the title has it, 'the uses of pessimism', Roger Scruton's work is a (sledge-hammer) critique of what he calls 'unscrupulous optimism'. Not to be confused with plain old optimism, the unscrupulous kind he's concerned with is the pie-in-the-sky optimism of utopians, revolutionaries, and educational reformers (among others), whose belief in the possibility of betterment -- of society and the like -- is not based on reason or evidence (indeed, which turns a blind eye to all the evidence Scruton insists refutes their visions) but is entirely emotion-based; it also, he thinks, is what has led to much of what has gone wrong in the modern world, from the Nazi/Soviet/Maoist excesses to school, immigration, and marriage reform, destroying the fabric of civil society and being directly responsible for the mass-slaughter of tens of millions.
       Pessimism -- by which Scruton means a careful dose of rationality, and wariness about the embrace of anything new (as well as about doing away with anything that's been tried and tested and seems to have worked so far) -- isn't a counter to 'unscrupulous optimism' (they're unscrupulous, those optimists, and can't be reasoned with ! they won't pay heed to any sort of common sense, or such pessimism ... so Scruton) but, he claims, it's the sensible way to go. What this ultimately amounts to is a defense of a deeply conservative-reactionary world- and social-order; driven by his end-game and ideology, Scruton unfortunately doesn't offer a truly comprehensive examination of thesis and antithesis, but rather stacks the deck -- so heavily that it just keels over into a big mess under its own weight.
       Of course, right at the start Scruton offers:

a sober reminder that the argument of this book is entirely futile. You may enjoy it and agree with it, but it will have no influence whatsoever on those whom it calls to account.
       Yes, those 'unscrupulous optimists' are, by (his convenient) definition so deluded that they'll never get it -- because they never let rational argument get in the way of their irrational belief systems. Of course, some might argue that Scruton would have a better case if he made a better case, with more actual rational and well-founded argument, rather than the tendentious sort, and cherry-picked examples on offer here .....
       Scruton places a lot of value on "the accumulated wisdom of tradition": we must have done something right to get wherever we are -- but lets not rock the boat too hard, lest we upset the precarious status quo. The trinity of "custom, faith and law" is what anchors society (and that's common law, mind you: the continental sort, statutory law, often imposed by fiat is a bad, bad thing), and woe those that loosen or disrupt the ties to that foundation.
       Scruton also holds that the shift -- as he sees it -- from a 'we' attitude (that "seeks stasis and accommodation") to an 'I' attitude (seeking "change and improvement" -- but, of course, generally of a delusional sort) has undermined much of what allows society to function well. 'We', of course, is better -- because also (thanks to tradition and the like):
We have acquired what competence we can and know where to look for advice and guidance. And when we encounter weaknesses or make mistakes, we strive to better ourselves.
       (It's passages like this where Scruton is the one that sounds like the pie-in-the-sky optimist who has never encountered a real, living person and believes it's completely reasonable to expect such admirably idealistic behavior; that may not fit the definition of 'unscrupulous optimist' he proposed, but he certainly comes across as an unscrupulous lecturer.)
       Scruton presents a series of chapters 'exposing' a variety of fallacies that he believes 'unscrupulous optimists' are guilty of (with, of course, devastating results). It's a fairly entertaining idea, and in some cases he's certainly on the right track. But he remains careful and limited in his tracks: most obviously in the case where he denounces 'utopian fallacy', noting that: "The important point of utopia, however, is that it cannot arrive", which makes it easy for those espousing it to abuse it (leading to totalitarian excesses, etc.) -- yet somehow Scruton never sees fit to mention the most popular and destructive form of utopianism of them all, the non-sense that is religion. God-belief, as irrefutable (and hence suspect) as all the other claimed ideals Scruton rails against not only escapes his scorn but apparently is hors catégorie -- though why this should be is never addressed, much less explained. (Scruton values "custom, faith and law", but other than the community-building aspect of faith, and the fact that folks have hung on to that delusion for such a long time, he never really explains what value that inane optimism has, and why, beyond offering a brief and inadequate stamp of approval for the (newly enlightened (save those obstreperous Muslims ...)) religious way near the closing .)
       He scores some decent point with his fallacies -- but is so limited in his perspective that it's hard to take these 'arguments' seriously. The American 'subprime mortgage crisis' of 2008 was the result of banks being: "pressured into ignoring the old demands of prudence and [...] forbidden by law to consult the worst case scenario" ? Child abuse is the "direct result of the delegitimization of the family" ? The "laws of bankruptcy have been weakened" ? (In the US the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act -- enacted right before the current 'financial crisis' -- has widely been considered to impose harsher conditions on consumers.) All that Baby P (a notorious British case of child abuse) "needed was a father" ?
       Scruton finds economists and their theories suspect, but has no problem bashing Keynes and embracing the Austrian school. Of course, Scruton also offers economic wisdom such as:
     Of course, if the cost of defaulting falls squarely on the culprit, and the interests of the creditor are secured by a strong law of bankruptcy, there is no reason for trust to leak from the system.
       From the terminology -- "culprit" ! as if the person who defaults on a loan is little better than a criminal (because no honorable and honest man has ever defaulted on a loan due to circumstances beyond their control ...) -- to the focus on "trust" rather than the mutually beneficial but also mutually risky nature of a loan, Scruton twists every example to his ideology (which is often rather far removed from reality -- more arguably unscrupulous-utopianism ...). (For what it's worth, economically speaking completely different types of credit-arrangements are equally viable: a system where the cost of default falls entirely on the creditor is theoretically equally plausible, though under such a regime credit would likely be much more expensive (or a third-party -- an insurer -- would be involved); there's a reason why credit and bankruptcy laws develop as they do (and a reason why they keep getting changed -- balance can be hard to strike, and new conditions can change the playing field). The current (2011) situation -- where interest rates are ridiculously low and banks (and many corporations) are awash with capital, but lending is very low suggests a great imbalance of some sort in the system (i.e. capital isn't being allocated very well); trust wouldn't seem to be the problem: while Scruton is right that it's important, in capitalist systems, there's a price you can (and do) put on trust.)
       Among the examples of bizarre waxing-eloquently on ye olde ways and system is Scruton's complaint about the UK reaction to an EU directive, demanding that all animal slaughter should take place in the presence of a qualified veterinarian. Because "veterinary qualifications are hard to obtain in Britain" veterinarians can charge so much, so small abattoirs couldn't afford them and closed, with -- so Scruton -- devastating effects:
Instead of travelling a quarter of an hour to the local abattoir, herds must now travel three or four hours to one of the great processing plants that enjoy the presence of a permanent vet. Farmers who have taken great pride in their animals and cared for them for two or more winters are distressed to part with them on such terms, and the animals themselves suffer greatly.
       Quite probably true, but the idea that the more casual (and unsupervised by a veterinarian), close-to-home alternative is somehow a more humane form of slaughter sounds ... a lot like unscrupulous optimism. Slaughter is ugly, no matter how or where it is done (and the small abattoir is surely just as often an uglier affair than the streamlined industrial-level kind); the idea of 'death with dignity' -- human or animal -- one that might offer comfort but surely doesn't stand up to the ugly reality that death always, always is.
       Typical of The Uses of Pessimism -- in how Scruton over-simplifies and presents misleading examples in careless argument -- is his mention of some of those who took part in "the 'revolution' of 1968", as he claims:
Many of those who took part in it either went on to occupy high political positions -- like Oskar Fischer, Rudi Dutschke and Peter Hain -- or played a major part in the cultural revolution that followed
       Astonishingly, each of these three names is a bad example: there was an Oskar Fischer who was, indeed, a prominent German politician -- but in the other Germany, and he certainly had nothing to do with any student protests in 1968 (Scruton, of course, means Joschka Fischer (who would be a good example -- though obviously not so good that anybody still recalls his name, since this (Joschka, Oskar, same difference ...) slipped past the author, editors, and proof-readers ...). Iconic Rudi Dutschke may have been, and he certainly remained an activist, but he never occupied any high or significant political positions. And Peter Hain is surely known for his post-1968 anti-apartheid activism, rather than taking in part of much of anything in 1968 itself.
       It's not like there aren't names with which Scruton could make this small 'point' -- besides the correct Fischer Daniel Cohn-Bendit would seem an obvious choice -- but he's too sloppy to bother trying very hard.
       Unfortunately, much the same can be said for much of the book: he's happy to offer bluster rather than sound argument, trying to steamroll readers rather than convince them. Part of the problem is that he does pack a lot in here, but give that he offers such summary treatment (and examples) of most his arguments he really should have taken more care in their presentation.
       On top of it, Scruton barely ever considers the conditions that lead to such radical assaults on the tried-and-maybe-not-so-true, from the French Revolution to '1968' (which, for all its telegenic bluster was a nice period-moment but effected, relatively speaking (i.e. compared to most revolutionary movements), limited political change). Similarly, while Scruton thrived in and benefitted from the English educational system of the 1950s, it's hard to believe that was an ideal system. (Better than the current one ? Perhaps, and in some aspects certainly, but education is also damned more complex than he allows for here.) Tradition is all well and good, but at a certain point stasis can become so sclerotic that few are served by it any longer, the 'we' attitude still allowing for a sense of community but little more -- and Scruton barely allows for that idea.
       Scruton does allow there may be nuggets of truth in many of the unscrupulous optimist's beliefs, but it's his own program that he wants to expound, conveniently framed in this optimist/pessimist argument (which turns out to be rather a messy one of pseudo-categorization, with its different shades of optimism and pessimism). Immigration policy, education policy, what he sees on the assault on the family-concept (an idealized home-and-hearth pipe dream worthy of the most deluded unscrupulous optimists ...), the Austrian school of economics, and of course those nasty Islamists: Scruton manages to spread his ultra-conservative agenda throughout here, pretending to be open-minded in argument (suggesting there are nuggets of truth -- but typically phrasing them something like: "I don't say that is entirely wrong. But it is deeply misleading.") but in fact largely deaf to any counter-argument. By largely setting up as a target the most extreme cases of deluded utopianism (though, admittedly, he goes after the likes of the EU too in a sustained attack) he makes it rather easy on himself, allowing his counter-position to seem more reasonable than it otherwise would: after all, compared to Mao's 'Cultural Revolution' everything looks sane.
       Scruton writes with decent flair, addresses important issues, and has some interesting arguments. Unfortunately, his approach is both too forceful and limited, often barely -- or not at all -- acknowledging awareness of the possibility of other reasons behind everything from certain policies or laws to societal upheavals.
       More diatribe than thoughtfully argued text, The Uses of Pessimism is somewhat intriguing -- Scruton does pack a great deal in here, and some of his points and ideas are certainly of interest -- but ultimately frustrating. Certainly, as predicted, it will have: "no influence whatsoever on those whom it calls to account" -- Scruton sees to that just by how he frames his case -- but unfortunately it will also have less of an impact on others, as Scruton makes his case(s) so off-puttingly -- so obviously one-sided in his argument, so careless in so many of his examples, so subjective (and, yes, so ugly) -- that one is tempted to dismiss them out of hand.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2011

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The Uses of Pessimism: Reviews: Roger Scruton: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British writer Roger Scruton was born in 1944.

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© 2011 the complete review

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