Thursday, 1 July 2010

Roger Scruton on the Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope.


Professor Roger Scruton is generally unliked in the UK for being an intellectual conservative and nothing is bound to infuriate the smug orthodox progressives and their threadbare creeds than a philosopher who looks back nostalgically to the better aspects of Old England.

Scruton is correct to emphasise in The Uses of Pessimism that pessimism is a necessary counter to the mindless upbeat boosterism that has been at the heart of progressive Utopian schemes to better the world.

Yet it is common knowledge that an abstract love of humanity is often a substitute for the art of loving individuals in particular, a pose made by supposed lovers of Humanity such as Lenin and Trotsky.

Their abstract love for those whom History had crushed throughout the ages led Communists to see all those who comprimised with the existing order as repellant non-humans whose callousness made them wholly unworthy of life.

The strength of Scruton's case lies here,
"The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history. It also depends upon a wilful ignorance of oneself – a refusal to recognise the extent to which selfishness and calculation reside in the heart even of our most generous emotions, awaiting their chance. In order to see human beings as they are, therefore, and to school oneself in the art of loving them, it is necessary to apply a dose of pessimism to all one’s plans and aspirations".
It is this that can help avoid the outraged self righteousness that leads to nihilism when those upon whom hopes have been pinned fail to live up to what is expected. The contempt of the Bolsheviks for the Russian people is but one example.

As is the phrase used by the Communists that they would create paradise on earth-'we will drive man to happiness by force'-and dispose of the enemies of the people, i.e those lacking in the correct consciousness of the vision of paradise they had conceived, into the Gulag.

However, the problem with Scruton's Tory humanism is that it fails to deal with the reality that conservatism has often ceased to be a coherent political project and, through the distortions of neoconservatism, a form of "conservatism" has now itself become a Utopian creed.

This is why Scruton's incomprehension of the political world and the true nature of US geopolitics around him has led him to try and influence the American Enterprise Institute with all those in it who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, such as ex-Trotskyists like Perle, Bolton et al who are more radical than truly conservative.

Such messianic tub thumpers for One Market Under God through exporting global democratic revolution are the antithesis of Scruton's One Nation Burkean Toryism. Including militant progressivists such as Thomas Friedman who sees the watermark of a progressive nation by whether it has a branch of McDonalds or not.

John Gray has, at least, understood these perversions and follies: what he has taken from Schopenhauer is the pessimism that sees salvation is salvation from history and not through mass willed collective action and believing that history is inexorably moving in one direction as leading neoconservatives did..

Scruton writes,
I don’t go along with Schopenhauer’s comprehensive gloom, or with the philosophy of renunciation that he derived from it. I have no doubt that St Paul was right to recommend faith, hope and love (agape) as the virtues which order life to the greater good.

But 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. Pessimism is needed, not in order to neutralise the belief in human uniqueness, but in order to protect it.
There was no empirical evidence that the War in Iraq in 2003 was tempered by the "evidence of history". As Gray remarked it was a Utopian venture and such apocalyptic faith is precisely of the sort condemned by Michael Burleigh.

Yet Burleigh, another conservative close to Scruton's version of it, has not tended to stress the messianic aspects of what is termed "the American Creed". There is nothing inherently conservative about the USA in 1776. It was a revolutionary power devoted to radical transformation.

This is curious because from its inception as as Independent Nation in 1776, Edmund Burke, though supporting the rebels, also saw the dangers of the universalism and world transformative elements of the US Constitution. He was, of course, an enemy of Thomas Paine.

There is nothing remotely nihilistic in John Gray's rejection of Progress nor his rigorous naturalism which was shared by the ancients, Chinese Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus in which History is not a drama of salvation and redemption.

Scruton is simply incorrect and misinterprets Gray when he states
"The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth".
The fact that man has never been in charge of his historical destiny and that history is the blind drift of forces is not "nihilistic". Nihilists believe that "we" have been nothing but shall become "all" by radical projects to destroy 'the system'.

Conservatives sense the danger of that and look at the social and economic forces that spell danger and can lead to it. This, as George Steiner has pointed out, is the essence of what is defined as counter-revolutionary.

Gray's pessimism is closer to the Tory Anarchism of writers like Swift, Conrad, Hardy and other conservative writers who saw no particular value in the idea of Progress in history. History was thought of more as a cyclical pattern.

Conrad was hardly a nihilist. And Scruton himself praises the Anglo-Polish novelist in England: A Elegy ( 2000 ).

Scruton continues,
"That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. And it feeds on specious arguments designed to show that we are “merely” animals, distinguished in no significant respect from rats and worms, and with no right to the privileges that we have traditionally claimed, as moral beings who pursue the good"
Scruton's view of Gray depends on him not even quoting where Gray actually writes that. Gray praises cities, music, philosophy and good literature. He also points out, like Conrad, that civilisations have also practised ethnic cleansing, torture and genocide.

Gray looks at the shattered "post-modern" world as it really is and not from the now abstract perspective of Tory ideas that had credence in the 1950s. Thatcher destroyed that Tory England and it is necessary to come to terms with the nihilism created by neoliberalism.

Gray is not a "nihilist" because a nihilist is-as Scruton himself emphasises in The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terror Threat -one who has a disappointed belief that the Kingdom of God does not reign here on Earth and casts around to punish those deemed guilty.

Moreover, Gray does not "put nothing in its place": he emphasises the need for a conservatism based on a modus vivendi and agonistic liberalism where the state intervenes to provide security, a degree of welfare and good transport in order to provide for the good life and stave off nihilistic discontents.

Scruton himself, though superb in aesthetics, does not seem to have recognised that if nihilism has proliferated, it is precisely because the neoliberalism and consumerism promoted by Thatcher undermined the old Toryism.

The most accurate part of Scruton's critique would be that Gray is cheerfully misanthropic, rather like Schopenhauer, Swift and the nineteenth century French writers Gustav Flaubert and Guy De Maupassant or even the contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Gray's point is that the edifice of civilisation is fragile and can collapse from within not merely by nihilism but through what Freud called Thanatos, the death instinct where those feeling civilisation is under threat will panic with militarism, revolutionary militancy and fanaticism.

That is precisely what is happening now with the revival of the Great Game, the neoconservative invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the greed for natural resources created by a form of rapacious capitalism based on an infinite growth utopia.

Scruton's misinterpretation of Gray is rather like T B Macaulay's dismissal of Swift as a man prone to denigrating human beings and progress when he remarked of Gulliver's Travels that he was,
"the apostate politicians, the ribald priest....a heart burning with hatred against the whole human race-a mind richly stored with images from the dunghill and the lazar house"
The simple fact is that the New Great Game and rapacity as regards resources and the environment is not edifying. But its a reality.

Nor is the repellent private affluence and public squalor that defines everyday life in the UK as a result of a decadent debt fuelled consumerism. But it is a result of human greed and myopic stupidity.

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