The Uses of Pessimism

The false hope that big government can solve all problems is the source of many modern ills, says British philosopher Roger Scruton.
Francis Phillips | Oct 12 2010 | comment  

This volume is yet another eloquently argued defence of tradition and small government against radical change and large government. I will not call Roger Scruton, currently Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Washington and Oxford, the high priest of this viewpoint as that would subtly trivialise it; but he is certainly its most learned and passionate advocate.

All his recent books are an unambiguous attack on, as his subtitle puts it, “the danger of false hope.” “Pessimism” in this context means a wise and realistic estimate of human nature; “false hope” is not a shallow optimism so much as an ideology of man’s perfectibility. Communism has surely shown us the flaw in this way of thinking. Yet attenuated Communist traits are still alive and well in the Western democracies, most particularly the illusion that legislation and planning by central government will solve deep social ills and make us happy.

For Scruton, “The only improvement that lies within our control is the improvement of ourselves”. Human beings are inherently frail; what has civilised them over the ages is the development of community, underpinned by custom, faith and law. Customs that have stood the test of time are more valuable than the schemes of radicals and activists. Indeed, “if customs, laws and morals decay, legislation cannot replace them. For they arise spontaneously or not at all, and the imposition of legislative edicts for the “good society” destroys what remains of the accumulated wisdom that makes such a society possible.”

The book’s chapter headings indicate Scruton’s targets: “The Utopian Fallacy”, “The Zero Sum Fallacy”, “The Planning Fallacy” and “The Moving Spirit Fallacy.” There is also the fallacy of ‘progress”. Scientific progress is a demonstrable fact. Moral progress is much more arguable; we no longer send children up chimneys but we are happy to expose them to other, more insidious, dangers. And as the author points out, virtually no poet since Homer has surpassed him in tragic understanding of the human condition.

Along the way there are stimulating and perceptive judgements on such subjects as the meaning of Islamist terrorism, the brutal, dehumanising architecture of Le Corbusier, the Plowden report on education which did so much to destroy discipline, study and instruction in schools, the legacy of Enoch Powell and much else. On the consequences of Powell’s famous speech of 1968 to the Birmingham Conservatives, this author comments, “Since the 1960s Western countries have adopted policies in the matter of immigration that no person schooled in the elementary truths of pessimism would have endorsed. Anybody who has studied the fate of empires and the difficulties of establishing territorial jurisdiction over communities that differ in religion, language and marital customs, knows that the task is all but impossible...”

Although not argued from a religious perspective, much of what Scruton writes about human nature suggests a reverence greater that a conservative philosophy on its own could contain. “The most important source of human value... is the capacity for love,” he states.  He also examines the concepts of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Attacking the “adaptation” theories of evolutionary psychologists, he reminds us that everything that everything that is distinctive of humans -- their knowledge of death, concern for others, the overcoming of fear, acts of self-sacrifice -- is left out of account “along with the reasoning, the moral education and the social consciousness”.

How, given man’s inherent moral weakness, can a healthy society come about and flourish? This is the question that Scruton examines over and over again. A conservative with a small ‘c’, he believes that “a society of settled people is held together as much by territory as by religion, and indeed, in due time, religion may decline or fragment without damage to the rule of law.” But is this true? Christianity has declined in Western Europe; this has resulted in a multitude of social problems which, in turn, have been addressed by a raft of new legislation. If society is not underpinned by a strong, shared morality, no amount of legislation will cure the ensuing problems.

As always, Scruton makes a serious contribution to a vital debate about wise government. Nor is he alone in his stance. In a recent article in the magazine Chronicles, writer Chilton Williamson, under the heading “What’s wrong with the World” has this to say about a well-functioning society: “A true society is a society made of related communities, each bound within itself and linked to those above, below, and around it through ties of loyalty, affection and responsibility. These ties are personal and therefore wholly natural... Ideological society is a contradiction in terms because ideology aims at the abolition of societies and in fact of the possibility of society itself.” The big state is not beautiful.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.

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