»  The New Criterion

October 2010

  Stop Smiling


The Uses of Pessimism
by Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press, 240 pp., $29.95


Pessimism and optimism are the two ends of a spectrum that spans one of the many dimensions of the individual human personality. We observe that any given human being has a disposition that does not stray far from some particular point on that spectrum; that this disposition appears early in life, and may very well be congenital; and that, if not completely immutable, it is very persistent. The pre-modern physicians placed this disposition in their Four Humors theory: the sanguine humor inclining to optimism, the melancholic to pessimism.

Both tendencies have natural advantages to the individual. The principal use of pessimism is to restrain the follies that arise from unbridled optimism, and vice versa. The chronic gambler who gives over all his foresight to an expectation of winning would benefit from a dash of pessimism; the Eeyore who believes in the futility of all endeavor is not likely to accomplish much unless someone drops an optimistic firecracker into his pants.

Scaling up to entire societies, the optimistic and pessimistic dispositions color politics, economics, and culture. Between the two extremes there is a point of balance at which a society can be maximally prosperous, confident, just, and free; but the point is hard to locate, and once located is easily lost, the more easily by those heedless of accumulated wisdom. Speaking very generally, civilized societies suffer more from excessive optimism than from the opposite thing; and this has been especially so since the rise of science and industrial production. Dazzled by the things we have done with our machines and our organizational methods, we come to think we can do anything, that politics is the art not of the possible but of the conceivable.

Most of The Uses of Pessimism is given over to a fine analysis of the fallacies from which excessive optimism springs. Roger Scruton identifies seven such. He devotes a chapter to each, drawing out the dire effects of each fallacy on politics, economics, and culture. His principal target is the "unscrupulous optimist" waging "war against reality." He draws a clear distinction between this fellow and the "scrupulous optimist," who carefully consults evidence, experience, and authority before leaping. Scruton similarly contrasts "judicious pessimism," which knows the difference between a constraint and an obstacle, or a setback and a catastrophe, with the more "systematic pessimism" of the fiercer kind of Old Testament prophet.

That gambler's fallacy — "the best case fallacy," Scruton calls it — is the first of his seven. There follow the born free fallacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which has poisoned modern education; the utopian fallacy that seeks to immanentize the eschaton; the zero sum fallacy, trailing behind it that ressentiment Nietzsche thought he saw peeking out through all our social emotions; the planning fallacy, whose effects reach far beyond mere economics; the moving spirit fallacy, which we have to thank for, among other horrors, modern urban planning; and the aggregation fallacy, which populates an imagined world with goods that may, like liberty and equality, be mutually repulsive.

In the spirit of our age, Scruton indulges himself in some speculations about evolutionary psychology. Clearly the pessimistic and optimistic inclinations are universal features of human nature. Why? Did they serve some adaptive function, giving an edge in reproductive success at either the individual or group level, during the long millennia when our nature was shaped by life in small hunting-gathering tribes? Commentators from the more rigorous end of the human sciences like to scoff at these speculations as "Just So Stories," but in fact they serve a useful scouting function for scientific advance. The philosophical temperament is anyway well suited to them. Our author, a professional philosopher, offers some persuasive hypotheses. Here The Uses of Pessimism overlaps somewhat with anthropologist Lionel Tiger's 1979 book Optimism: The Biology of Hope.

Scruton argues, for example, that the best case fallacy would have been an indispensible habit of mind in those primeval conditions. "In a life and death struggle there is no worst case to consider: you either succeed or die; to aim at the best case is the only coherent cause of action and to prepare for the worst case is to prepare for nothing." Similarly with the other fallacies Scruton has identified. The zero-sum fallacy will come naturally to those whose main economic concern is the division of the quarry following a successful hunt — the state of affairs Marx called "primitive communism." More for you means less for me.

Perhaps, then, bedrock human nature is optimistic. Scruton draws a grim picture of the fate of the paleolithic pessimist, hounded from the tribe, or worse: "a great purging of doubt and hesitation will occur when he is killed." With the coming of civilization the pessimist's prospects improved. Not only do big urban societies have more room for expressive individualism of every kind, but their official lies, as in the story of the Emperor's new clothes, are more preposterous than anything the merely tribal imagination can generate. In civilized society there was at last a place for the pessimist; although, as with those Old Testament prophets, his unwelcome truths were usually acknowledged only grudgingly, in retrospect.

In the style honored by all appeals to pessimism, from the Book of Ecclesiastes to the satires of Juvenal and the latest Pat Buchanan pot-boiler, Scruton strives for an upbeat ending. He directs our attention to two particular features of the Western tradition, forgiveness and irony. Both, though in different ways, are acknowledgments of human imperfection, and therefore pessimistic in tendency, but constructively so. Forgiveness — yoked, of course, to penitence and atonement — is knitted into the Western ethos all the way up from individual self-cultivation to the accountability of public officers. Irony depends on, and encourages, the gift to see ourselves as others see us: "irretrievably diverse, but possessed, nevertheless, of the capacity to live in peace and to adapt through consent and consensus."

Here Scruton turns away from naturalistic explanations, telling us that altruism "requires no biological basis to be real." He might have done better to venture a little further into evolutionary psychology. It is commonplace to attribute our troubles to the cognitive and social habits acquired by our tribal ancestors, habits that are a hindrance in complex modern societies, but which the slow churnings of natural selection have not yet had time to purge.

I'm sure there is truth in all that. Very likely we are led astray by some such traits. Many biologists, however, believe that evolution may have speeded up since we left the savannah, and may still be accelerating. (See, for example, Cochran and Harpending's The 10,000 Year Explosion.) It has, after all, far bigger populations and many more varieties of environment to work with. The ball and chain of paleolithic optimism may not be so heavy after all; the pessimist may be coming into his full inheritance at last.