Philosopher, journalist, novelist, political activist, Oxford professor: Roger Scruton is a man of many interests, most of which he invokes in his latest non-fiction treatise on the state of the world.
Following on from his most recent offerings, ENGLAND: AN ELEGY (2006), CULTURE COUNTS: FAITH AND FEELING IN A WORLD BESIEGED (2007), and BEAUTY (2009), THE USES OF PESSIMISM is a polemic against the ‘unscrupulous optimists’ who propagate false hopes without considering the consequences of their unbridled optimism. Scruton sets out his stall in the preface: “I have no doubt that St Paul was right to recommend faith, hope and love (agape) as the virtues that order life to the greater good. I have no doubt too that hope, detached from faith and untempered by the evidence of history, is a dangerous asset, and one that threatens not only those who embrace it, but all those within range of their illusions.”
Citing the French Revolution, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia as examples, Scruton argues that offering a utopian ideal without factoring in a necessary dash of pessimism leads to untold suffering, not least because the idealists refuse to acknowledge the shortcomings of their ideal, and the historical shortcomings of unfettered idealism in general. When Robespierre et al failed to deliver liberté, égalité et fraternité, for example, the response was not an examination of the revolution’s core beliefs to see where it had come up short, but the lopping off of those heads that dared to point out the failings.
Warming to his theme, Scruton then points the finger at more contemporary manifestations of ‘false hope’. Modern educationalists, for example, are derided for fostering a culture in which individual excellence is considered divisive within a classroom. The EU project also gets it in the neck. Scruton draws parallels with the genocides and gulags that flowed from the Communist Revolution. “Of course,” he says in relation to the EU, “the goals are less ignoble and the results more benign. Nevertheless, there seem to be few if any ways in which mistakes can be rectified or the people who make decisions held accountable for the results of them. […] However foolish it may be for the European institutions to take charge of some matters best dealt with by the Member States, no power, once transferred, is ever recaptured. Ridiculous regulations can be duly laughed at from top to bottom of the Union; but the laughter rings hollow, since it meets with no response. A cavernous void lies at the heart of the European process, a void into which questions are constantly called out by the people, and from which no answer ever returns.”
That ‘less ignoble’ and ‘more benign’ might suggest that the author has his tongue partly in his cheek, although Scruton, a Conservative socio-economic thinker, is never happier than when adapting Edmund Burke’s observations on the French Revolution to the latest example of anti-democratic utopianism. He makes some compelling arguments here, however, first setting forth his theme on the dangers of false hope, then outlining the means by which the ‘unscrupulous optimists’ tend to refute opposing arguments, or negate those arguing entirely (the perverse logic of which inevitably leads to the guillotine, the gulag or the concentration camp). The latter half of the book, and despite Scruton’s sober style, is a deliciously provocative deconstruction of perceived truths that have embedded themselves in Western civilisation, often to the detriment of the culture fostering them.
Deliberate obfuscation emanating from academia; the ‘false expertise’ that constitutes theology; multiculturalism; the moral relativism that unpicks generations of practical wisdom; the Western liberal guilt that actively conspires in the rise of a radical Islamism that wishes for nothing more than the destruction of Western civilisation: all these, and more, are examined under the harsh light of Scruton’s Conservatism.
The result is a challenging read, although Scruton, in his determination to ram home a point, occasionally overreaches himself. “To doubt the equivalence of gay sex and heterosexual marriage is to evince ‘homophobia’,” he writes, “the moral equivalent of the racism that led to Auschwitz. Likewise, public criticism of Islam and Islamists is a sign of ‘Islamophobia’, now a crime in Belgian law; and ‘hate speech’ laws are on the statute books of many European countries, making the mere discussion of issues that are of the greatest concern to our future into a crime.”
Such statements are useful in that they alert the reader to the need to add a pinch of salt, along with Scruton’s prescription for a dash of useful cynicism, when reading THE USES OF PESSIMISM. That said, this is a bracingly enjoyable venting of Conservative spleen, not least because Scruton’s Canute-like stand against the prevailing tide of neo-liberal orthodoxy is very probably doomed to be ridiculed and marginalised by the very means he outlines himself. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.