The Uses of Pessimism by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton has some odd notions about the Bible. He seems not to realize that the believer’s hope is in God and as a consequence is a bit down on Jeremiah; Jeremiah is a pessimist in ways Scruton does not want to be. But still Scruton wants to use pessimism. He uses pessimism to show how it helps to avoid seven fallacies that are in the world today. While Scruton is a bit screwy on his use of Scripture, the good news is that he uses Scripture very little in this book—mostly near the end.

What is good about this book is how he deploys pessimism to expose the fallacies.

#1 – The Best Case fallacy is a common one. You know how you are told to expect the best and plan for the worst? Well this is the fallacy where you expect the best and plan for the best and don’t think about the worst at all. What makes this one interesting is where Scruton finds it occurring.

#2 – The Born Free fallacy is the notion that freedom is about being without constraints. Natural is better; follow your heart. But we need customs, tradition, the gradual accretion of ways and means we call culture. Inhibitions allow us to live together in a civilized way. A certain pessimism, you see, about human abilities, human reason and human nature is in order.

#3 – The Utopian fallacy is easy to guess. What Scruton also delves into here a bit is why people can believe and proceed on the basis of such errors. How can people think things are perfectible? And yet they are still with us . . . after all the failed revolutions. Pessimism tells you this world is not going to be perfected and attempting final solutions only makes it worse.

#4 – The Zero Sum fallacy is the one in which people assume that if somebody gets ahead, they did it at the expense of somebody else. The Republicans jumped all over a statement betraying this fallacy during their recent convention. How does pessimism help here? Read the book.

#5 – The Planning fallacy is a harder one to get, but goes hand in hand with all the ones before it. It’s the idea that top-down management is the only way to make things work. Competing ideas only lead to confusion, people are led to believe. It favors oligarchy, you see. A bit of pessimism about anybody on a crusade is what is needed.

#6 The Moving Spirit fallacy is the idea that things are as they are now out of some inexpressible necessity to which all must bow. Get with the times, recognize the consensus, don’t object to what people think everybody is doing because such must be. Take this one to the Evangelicals—as well as the previous.

#7 The Aggregation fallacy he puts nicely when he explains that these people will tell you, if you like chocolate, ketchup and cherries that the best thing then is to combine all three. Or the old: what’s better than the sound of one accordion? The sound of two (which happens to be true, but think of it in terms of the chap who bought a fuel-efficient heater and cut his fuel consumption in half; the next day he went to the store to buy a second and save himself on fuel altogether). Scruton makes an accurate and snide remark about American palates and the combinations perpetrated by people here, but also about the French notion of combining liberty and equality, something even Americans may be persuaded to think about.

None of these fallacies have passed an expiration date, and having them explained and illustrated by Roger Scruton, it seems to me, will give you a certain clarity of perception which in the present condition is no small thing. It isn’t as cheerless as it sounds, actually: it is kind of an exposition of the underlying philosophy of Puddleglum, and can anybody who knows the arc of Puddleglum’s story fail to see the value of that? Next time I read The Silver Chair I’ll have to see how many of these fallacies are there exposed.

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