What’s an intelligent optimist to do with a book that glorifies pessimism, a book by a philosopher known for his ultra-conservative views? Certainly, reading The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope is enough to raise your hackles. But Roger Scruton deserves to be heard, because intelligent optimism means using all the resources at hand–including pessimism–to solve our biggest problems.
Scruton doubts it’s possible for us to improve our fate much through grand plans. Instead, he exhorts us to lower our expectations in recognition of the fact that human beings are fallible. The optimist in pursuit of a utopian future is most fallible of all, according to Scruton. Indeed, optimistic ideas have led to human tragedies when mobs became deluded by false hope. Just take a look at the Nazis or the communists of the former Soviet Union and, closer to home, Muslim terrorists, puritanical environmental activists and European Union bureaucrats. All would impose their worldview on us–some by force, if necessary. The result: distortion of truth and restriction of freedom.
That’s why, Scruton argues, we need to see the dangers of optimism, which include the idealist’s inclination to ignore evidence if it undermines a predetermined conclusion, to adore dubious gurus who claim to offer the only road to salvation, to launch witch hunts when opponents dare to criticize. These are all symptoms, Scruton writes, of a deep fear of losing the comfort of grand illusions. Fortunately, there’s a remedy–pessimism! Scruton’s criticism is caustic, yet his book speaks of a trust in humanity that is, in essence, optimistic. The Uses of Pessimism is ultimately an ode to our ability to see the world as it is and make the best of what we find.