Philosopher Roger Scruton is undeniably erudite. He's got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge and over thirty books to his credit. He's taught at Cambridge, Oxford, and Boston University. If that weren't enough, he started his own publishing firm, Claridge Press, and founded his own journal, The Salisbury Review, a conservative political magazine. So, one might imagine him to be a rather stuffy and staid English Don.
But Scruton is undeniably quirky. As an intellectual, you would expect to find him sitting quietly and safely in the college library, but you'll be more likely to find him fox-hunting, fixing a fence, shoveling out the stables, wrestling with a pig, chopping wood, or distilling wine on his farm. If you catch him hunched over his desk with a pen and think he's writing another dense academic article, you might come closer and find he's writing yet another opera or novel. As a leading conservative, you might think him to be a champion of big industries, but you'll find him instead to be a passionate supporter of the small farm and rural life.
To us, Scruton may appear to be a mystery, a man made up of too-many incongruous and unpredictable parts. But to himself, it is all of one piece. He is a great defender of tradition, of common sense rooted in the land, of hard-won experience against abstract utopianism, of the whole human being, the real human being, in all its richness—flesh and spirit, comic and tragic, poetic and prosaic, wild and tame. He is by no means dour but by every means a defender of the fullness of real human joy, from the deep satisfactions of traditional family life to the transcending reveries of classic art and music, from good music to good wine, from the thrill of the hunt to the thrill of argument, from the natural pleasures of country life to the natural patriotic excitement of saving one's country from self-destruction.
Having painted this portrait, it will seem exceedingly odd that Scruton's latest book is called The Uses of Pessimism. By the title alone, the reader might think he's in for the kind of poison that would drip from the pen of the most dour and nihilistic of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer. But Scruton is anything but a pessimist or nihilist. Unlike Schopenhauer, who tried to live on continual draughts of pure pessimism, Scruton actually advocates what he calls "scrupulous optimism," by which he means optimism tempered with a dose of the pessimism that naturally comes with commonsense realism. For Scruton, sufficient experience with human nature leads to the recognition of its good aspects, but also the full range of human foibles, follies, and vices that we can reasonably expect to encounter both in ourselves and others. He means only to defend the good aspects from those who deny or disregard the bad aspect.
How so? Realizing that the bad comes inextricably entangled with the good gives us a healthy dose of restorative pessimism against the inebriating toxins of naïve and starry-eyed optimism. As his subtitle (And the Danger of False Hope) suggests, the danger is not hope, but false hope. The cure is not to become drunk on pessimism (as Schopenhauer did), but to apply pessimism as a careful physician would—in measured, prudent doses.
False hope is indeed dangerous, as Scruton makes clear in his chapters on the false-hope fallacies that wrought so much destruction from the French Revolution to the epic slaughters perpetrated by 20th century Marxists. "There is a kind of addiction to unreality that informs the most destructive forms of optimism: a desire to cross out reality, as the premise from which practical reason begins, and to replace it with a system of compliant illusions." Enter the Jacobins' Religion of Reason that called for mass slaughter in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the hundred million corpses Marxists left by the entry way of their utopia that never materialized.
The addiction to unreality is still with us, as Scruton makes painfully evident. Imagine the notion that we can spend our way out of an economic crisis brought on by individuals and corporations taking on far more debt than could ever reasonably be repaid, by the government itself taking on far more debt than it could ever reasonably repay.
A small dose of realistic pessimism would have cured the disease before it had taken hold, for common sense would reveal that "when people are being everywhere tempted into debt, there will be a growing and eventually worldwide reluctance to pay up, that honesty will be increasingly seen as a weakness, and that eventually the habit will arise of paying off one debt by contracting another." As this habit cannot be sustained, economies will collapse, a situation that could easily have been predicted by any clear-eyed, commonsense realist.
Alas, Scruton is pessimistic about the effects of administering doses of realism to those addicted to unreality, for it would mean owning up to the damage they've caused. "It is one of the most remarkable features of the optimistic mindset that it will never accept responsibility for the effects of its own beliefs, or acknowledge the danger of the fallacies that have guided it." Let us hope that, at this one point, we may be a bit more hopeful than Roger Scruton himself.