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The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope [Hardcover]

Roger Scruton

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Book Description

Oct. 15 2010 0199747539 978-0199747535
Optimism is fundamental to the human spirit and has sparked innovation across the centuries, but does it have a dark side? Renowned philosopher and author Roger Scruton argues that unchecked optimism can be dangerous - and that real happiness hinges on a healthy pessimism that recognizes the limitations of human beings. The Uses of Pessimism is a far-reaching yet concise assessment of how pessimism can compensate for the fallacies generic to the optimistic mind-set and enable us to live with our own imperfection. Spanning from ancient Greece to the current economic crisis, the book persuasively concludes that optimists and idealists have courted disaster by overlooking the hard truths of human nature and by adopting naive expectations about what can be changed. Scruton demonstrates how many optimism-fueled advances, from the railway to the Internet, reflect a careless pursuit of mastery that is at odds with--and often undermines--the limited happiness that is the best we can obtain. He urges us to see pessimism not as dark and fatalistic, but as a hopeful point-of-view that favors a balanced appraisal of society and human nature as opposed to utopian wishful thinking. Ultimately, pessimism helps focus our energies on the one reform we can truly master: bettering ourselves. In the rigorous but lively style that is his trademark, Scruton throws down the gauntlet to readers, challenging everyone to reevaluate their assumptions about the meaning of pessimism. The Uses of Pessimism breaks down the fallacies surrounding the optimist's perpetually sunny worldview, offering a voice of wisdom with which to rein in hopes that might otherwise ruin us.

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"Scruton has approached his project with incisiveness, breath of knowledge, and clarity of expression. The Uses of Pessimism is worth arguing over." --Politics & Ideas


"While some of Scruton's conclusions may be controversial... he does present an intriguing case for using pessimism as a way to examine issues that affect current society. His clear and accessible writing will appeal to those familiar with the author's past works and also those with an interest in philosophy." --Library Journal


"Scruton has approached his project with incisiveness, breadth of knowledge, and clarity of expression. The Uses of Pessimism is worth arguing over."
-- Peter Lopatin, Commentary


"Score one for pessimism." --Peter Monaghan, The Chronicle of Higher Education


About the Author

Roger Scruton is Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Beauty and Death-Devoted Heart.

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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The ethical costs of optimism Oct. 18 2010
By Paul Adams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Roger Scruton's concern in this wonderful essay is with the dangers of false hope (his subtitle) and the particular fallacies that make such "unscrupulous optimism"--the term he takes from Schopenhauer to distinguish it from a scrupulous and constrained optimism--so powerful and impervious to reason. The fallacies he considers include among others the Best Case Fallacy (i.e., the failure to consider scrupulously worst case scenarios), the Planning Fallacy, the Utopian Fallacy, and the Zero-Sum Fallacy (I fail because you succeed).

In the abstract, these are useful cautions that no-one sensibly could dismiss out of hand. But Scruton has a more important and more polemical purpose. He aims to show how these fallacies pervade a larger social and political vision that has been ascendant since the Enlightenment and especially the deadly triumph of "Reason" in the French Revolution. That vision of Reason rests on an unscrupulous optimism that sweeps away the collective problem-solving of generations codified through customs, traditions, and laws built from the bottom up, like English and American common law or Swiss political arrangements. It replaces that common, inherited wisdom with the will of the radical and enlightened few. The utopian or planning elite sweep aside all previous traditions and practices, along with the wishes of ordinary people, who have to be led to a higher level of wisdom by the progressive, forward-looking vanguard.

The force of Scruton's argument lies in the detail and concreteness with which he specifies these dangers in every aspect of life, not only in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but also as destructive forces in the democratic West.

He describes in chilling and vivid detail the bizarre grip of the EU bureaucracy on the once democratic and sovereign nations within its orbit. He shows how hundreds of thousands of regulations are issued at an accelerating rate by an unaccountable bureaucracy whose many mistakes cannot be rectified through democratic processes. Once adopted, those measures cannot be repealed by the nations involved. By the founding treaties of the EU, measures that centralize control in the EU cannot be reversed without constitutional change or leaving the Union altogether. When the Irish electorate rejected the Lisbon Treaty, the bureaucracy merely said that citizens should vote again. Scruton shows how brutally the bureaucrats sweep away the customs and traditions of centuries, in the process destroying, for example, family farming and the countryside of Romania. He describes how a European directive requiring the presence of a qualified veterinarian at every abattoir led to the closing of most local abattoirs in England, requiring that cattle be taken much greater distances to be slaughtered, so that when disease did break out it spread across the country instead of being localized.

Scruton is particularly scathing in his account of modern architecture, with its contempt both for history and tradition and for the wishes of the people who were to live in and around its brutal structures. Le Corbusier, a key modern architect whose megalomaniac plans are still studied reverently in architecture schools, comes in for particular scorn.

Another twist to Scruton's anti-utopian argument is that the self-image of the progressive elite as more advanced than the masses whose lives they want to manage, is itself illusory. An important aspect of the book is the effort to explain these fallacies' resistance to reason or evidence. They are, he argues, residues of an earlier stage of human development, one that still holds value in emergencies, but is destructive in times or conditions of peace. There is an implied analogy here to the fight-flight response--once essential for daily survival, but now often dysfunctional as a pattern of intensified arousal in conditions that do not require it.

The tabula rasa vision of the human being--found in notions of constructing a new "socialist man" or a new human type or, in its weirdest manifestation yet, in a transhuman type that is seen as replacing humans with cyborgs or a new genetically engineered post-human species--casts aside those compromises and constraints that previously shaped us.

In Scruton's view, then, the fallacies he describes are rooted in the material needs of hunter-gatherer bands, where everything depends on the will and decisiveness of the chieftain--the leader's collective `I' is at the same time the `we' of the community. One reason that the fallacies are so impervious to refutation is that they are "not new additions to the repertoire of human madness but the residues of our forefathers' honest attempts to get things right...thought processes that were selected in the life and death struggles from which settled societies eventually emerged" (p.203). Liberal, optimistic, progressive thinking is not, from this perspective, an advance on the ways and customs of the unenlightened masses, but a regression to more primitive ways of thinking. Scruton's purpose is to defend the world of compromise and half measures, love, friendship, irony, and forgiveness from the Pleistocene mindset of the enlightened that would sweep them all away.

Scruton is an erudite, witty curmudgeon, always a delight to read. At times, his manner is reminiscent of a father who provokes his liberal and idealistic children by making provocative remarks he knows the young people will find outrageous. He knows there is nothing he can say that will persuade the younger persons to re-examine their views or look at them with a measure of irony. The elder will not be intimidated or silenced by the usual conversation-stopping insults (right wing, racist, sexist, bourgeois, hegemonic, etc.) but thinks it pointless to defend himself against them. However seriously misguided he thinks the young are, and however disappointed in their failure to take seriously the fruits of his knowledge, experience, and wisdom, he consoles himself by getting a rise out of them and a chuckle from the other grown-ups.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book which will never reach those who need it most. Dec 15 2010
By Flap Jack - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
According to Scruton, the world is harmed not by pessimists (though he does not tolerate unbridled pessimism) but rather by unbridled optimists, people who believe in their fallacious ideas so fervently that nothing can dissuade them. True believers. Scruton, realizing that those folks would not hear his argument even if they read it, makes the case so that those of us who are prudent pessimists can recognize the optimists' tactics and understand better the importance of our pessimism.

At just over 230 pages, this is a quick read and the language is not lofty, so potential readers shouldn't be too nervous about picking up the book. I think the book is so important that I may well buy several copies for friends and family.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pessimism and its Uses April 11 2011
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Pessimism, it turns out, has its uses. That in a nutshell is the premise of this book. Roger Scruton takes the reader on an excursion across many contemporary overly-naïve and "optimistic" attitudes about the world, and shows how more often than not they may lead to some pretty horrendous outcomes. The road to Hell is indeed paved with the best of intentions. In the light of that, a healthy dose of pessimism and a more sober assessment of the reality of human condition is an absolute inescapable necessity for any sort of public policy that will bear positive fruit. The unwarranted optimism about certain basic facts of life, conditions of the world, or the assessment of human nature have been the source causes of many misguided policies, sometimes with colossally bad outcomes. In this book Scruton provides an insightful analysis of various modes that overly optimistic outlook can take. Scruton in fact demotes these modes of thought to the level of fallacious reasoning, not even giving them even the credibility of being legitimate, albeit flawed, intellectual positions. Each chapter in the book is dedicated to one of these fallacies. They include "The Best Case Fallacy," "The Born Free Fallacy," "The Utopian Fallacy," "The Zero Sum Fallacy," "The Planning Fallacy," "The Moving Spirit Fallacy," "The Aggregation Fallacy." Some of these fallacies seem rather obviously wrong with the help of hindsight, but others are subtle and require paying close attention to Scruton's analysis and arguments.

This is also a very elegantly written and readable book. Scruton's style is as far from the dry academic discourse as one could have reasonably hoped for from a book of this nature. I found myself reaching for a highlighter more often than not, sometimes marking entire passages. A few of my favorite quotes are:

"The World is, in fact, a much better place than the optimists allow: and that is why pessimism is needed."

"Irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance, rather than a mode of rejection."

"Their vatic style, in which words are cast as spells rather than used as arguments, inspired innumerable imitators in humanities departments across the Western world. At last, anybody could be a thinker!" (When referring to various post-modern high-culture European pseudo-intellectuals.)

Overall, this is a remarkably insightful and sobering take on many of the recent (and not so recent) polemics and policies. It ought to be read by all who aspire to bring a much needed dose of reality to our public discourse.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The wise pessimists are the true optimists Feb. 5 2011
By Sirin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Scruton turns the traditional pessimists are old farts v optimists are shiny believers in a better future debate on its head in this elegantly written polemic. It is wise pessimists who emerge the true optimists as they believe human life is not so bad as it is. It is the deep rooted ties and modes of social organisation that make for harmonious human living. The rationalist optimists who uproot these traditions, sacrificing them on the altar of a better future are the most negative and destructive people as they don't trust small scale human organisation as it is.

This fallacy has been repeated throughout history, most notably in the French and Russian revolutions, both rationalist crusades. And its menace can be seen in the arts, with 'shock' and 'originality' - witness the notorious Tracy Emin's unmade bed replacing respect for forms and techniques of old. In architecture the egocentric 'I' schemes of Norman Foster and his colleagues have replaced the understated yet commonly held belief that buildings should be modest in scale and respectful of their surroundings. The EU holds no respect for individual communities, riding roughshod over local needs with its gargantuan bureaucracy. And in education, at least two generations of schoolchildren have been ruined by a child centred version of teaching which dismisses the traditional stricutres of a knowledge based curriculum on the grounds that children should be free to express themselves before they have actually acquired anything worth knowing.

Scruton's polemic is a wry and elegant treatise on the conservative beliefs he has developed throughout his life. It is a welcome addition to the literature on conservative philosophy.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book Sept. 19 2011
By Markku Ojanen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book was completed in May 2009. The problems of EU were much less than present, but Scruton could predict they will get worse and worse. EU is a product of unscrupulous optimism. I voted for it in Finland, but would not vote to-day. Having participated in various kinds of planning for 40 years, I am now a sceptic. Most of these plans are now in the basement archives, but some "succeeded". With good and bad results. One never knows what the result finally is. Thus I agree with the description of the planning fallacy.

The aggregation fallacy is so true. All kinds of good aims and values are described, but nobody cares that many of them can not be obtained at the same time. I noticed this 1970's when the principles of therapeutic community were popular in Finland and in many other countries. Actually the principles were not possible to join together. If one emphasizes freedom, that makes it difficult to obtain common aims.

I find myself constantly critisizing United States and especially its rebublican party presidents. I am for welfare state and high enough taxation. Thus I am a liberal in these matters, but it is true that this critique is often too harsh. I think we expect more from U.S. than it is able to deliver. We have been giving up with undemocratic countries, though we should give them much more rouhgher time than to U.S.

There are, of course, ideas in this book which are a bit hard to take, but Scruton always makes one think and evaluate one's opinions. I doubt that the old English school was that good though PISA shows that the new school is not very good either. The idea of public schools for aristocrats has always been questionnable in my eyes. I want to see my kids every day and could not send them to this kind of schools.

Total solutions are always dangerous. It seems to me, that each state cabinet has at least one or two ministers who want total change. Something really new and much better than the old system. They think that this is the way they can show how clever the are. Often they make things much worse than they were.

I appreciate the beautiful way Scruton talks about forgiveness. Without it modern life would be hopeless.

These are just a very small sample of the notes I made of this book. I recommend this book especially for those who still entertain optimistically great plans sithout any reservations.
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