The Uses of Pessimism

The Uses of Pessimism, by Roger Scruton, Atlantic RRP£15.99, 240 pages

Roger Scruton is the Tony Benn of the right: a prolific wordsmith who is admired for a persistent conviction that defies fashion, and a passionate eloquence lacking in the guarded advertising-speak of politicians closer to power. Like Benn, Scruton is treated like a court fool, allowed to sing his heretical songs for our merriment, because we know he has no chance of really calling the tune.

But Scruton is no fool. He has a knack for identifying the truths in conservatism that both supporters and critics would do well to attend to. The Uses of Pessimism is the latest of his defences of a traditional Toryism that would resonate more with the Marquess of Salisbury, the 19th-century conservative prime minister, than with Cameron or Thatcher. This is characterised by a cheerful pessimism, which doubts our capacity to greatly improve our lot but which holds that “the world is, in fact, a much better place than the optimists allow”.

The optimists in question are leftists, whose recurrent fallacies Scruton uses to build a case for conservatism. There is the “best case fallacy”, where an unattainable ideal becomes the enemy of the good; the “born free fallacy”, which states that all we need to do to emancipate humankind is to remove the restraints of law; the “planning fallacy”, which places too much faith in our ability to organise society for the collective good; the belief in the inevitable progress of history, which Scruton calls the “moving spirit fallacy”; and the “zero sum fallacy”, which holds that every winner has an equal and opposite loser, and so the rich are by definition profiting from the poverty of others.

Most colourfully described of all is the “aggregation fallacy”, which holds that if a number of things are good, then they are even better together: “That is like saying lobster is good, chocolate is good, ketchup is good, so lobster cooked in chocolate and ketchup is thrice good.” Scruton’s alleged example of this fallacy at work is the French Revolution’s promotion of Liberte, égalité, fraternité. The reality of this triumvirate, argues Scruton, was that in the name of equality, liberty was destroyed and perverted, while fraternity was undermined.

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. Without such a test, the danger is, as always for conservatives, that what is maintained is simply what suits those in power.

For instance, Scruton argues that “cultures that have stood the test of time thereby give proof of their virtues”, but even if this dubious longevity test were sound, no society can be beyond reform simply because it has proved itself durable. By that logic, we’d still have a monarch with real power, a hereditary House of Lords, no votes for women, and power concentrated in the hands of the landowning aristocracy.

There are also signs in this book that Scruton’s delicate balance between conviction and clear thinking has become unsettled. He preaches the virtues of an ironic, gentle, compassionate conservatism, advising: “However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truths of your views, look on them as the actions and views of someone else, and rephrase them accordingly.” But in the pages that precede this, Scruton hardly practices what he preaches. The optimistic “deceivers” he castigates are “unscrupulous”, attacking pessimists with “venom” and demonstrating a “careless attitude to parenting”. The irony here is that Scruton’s overconfidence makes him as incapable of seeing the real virtues in the views he attacks as his critics are of seeing the real merits in the one he defends.

Julian Baggini is the author of ‘Complaint’ (Profile)

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