Summary of The Uses of Pessimism

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This unusual book purports to present the utility of pessimism, though “skepticism” might be a more accurate description. English philosopher and author Roger Scruton delves into the mechanisms that drive society. To avoid calamitous fallacies, so he contends, society needs a dose of pessimism leavened with respect for conventional laws and traditional civic solutions. He harks to a rightist point of view, but those people who also hold traditional conservative values may wonder at his approach. Even when his points are well taken, his tone is critical and his language is circuitous. He cites great thinkers to make his case, both demonstrating command of the canon and ferociously attacking a host of talk-radio hobgoblins, including affirmative action, immigration reform and – a bit further out on a limb – Islam, John Maynard Keynes and Jimmy Carter. He relishes demolishing fallacies, but sometimes goes too far, tipping into soapboxing and recasting factual conclusions to fit his argument. While he may deserve credit for being fearless about political correctness, some matters – like basic equality – are PC for a reason, and yet he tramples on them for good or ill. His answer to world problems is to urge making the best of reality and sticking with standard virtues, but he’s pretty much given up on a brighter tomorrow. While always politically neutral, getAbstract suggests that this self-confident, if polemical, challenge to conventional wisdom offers a distinctly alternative point of view.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is an English philosopher known for his studies of aesthetics. His previous books include Art and Imagination, Sexual Desire and The Meaning of Conservatism.

 

Summary

Too Much Hope, Too Much Pessimism

The most dangerous threats facing civilization stem from a series of fallacies based in humanity’s prehistoric and tribal past. These ideas drive people’s behavior in their working and social lives. The same concepts inform the decisions of “unscrupulous optimists” who are capable of great wrongheadedness and wrongdoing based on pushing to fulfill their irrational hope for a utopian world.

Unscrupulous optimists focus their efforts on an “abstract scheme for human improvement,” and don’t work on “the personal virtue that might enable them to play the small part that is given to humans to play in bettering the lot of their fellows.” Optimists reject old-fashioned muddle and compromise as a way of getting by. Instead, they pursue a vision of a more perfect world, while remaining indifferent to those who must pay a terrible price to achieve it.

The optimist believes that all things are technologically feasible and that human nature is forever changing. Optimists also deem that immortality is possible through computerizing all the information in the human brain. In contrast, collective society forms the last bastion of traditional...


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    C. B. 4 years ago
    I read the book - not the full summary. Still, I'm compelled to comment on the GetAbstract summary, first section, last line: "While always politically neutral, getAbstract suggests that this self-confident, if polemical, challenge to conventional wisdom offers a distinctly alternative point of view." It's pretty easy to remain politically neutral if you want to. The fact that you've taken a stand here suggests to me that you really don't wish to remain politically neutral. That's point # 1. Point # 2 is that history is rife with challenges to conventional wisdom. Some prove beneficial to the human spirit; others don't. Alternative points of view, whether they facilitate the human spirit or destroy it, are necessary for humanity to grow. Even bad ideas make people check their own first premises. In my opinion, and without drifting into subtle defenses of certain political views, we need more thinking - not less. This book made me think. It'll likely have that effect on anyone who reads it. How about you try to remain politically neutral, GetAbstract? That is, try harder.
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    W. K. 5 years ago
    For controlled change you need both the optimist and the pessimist. I do not know which category is more scarce and how to establish a reasonable balance between the two. The book seems to argue mostly against un-controlled optimism. I am not sure that that is currently our main problem. Still, several of the ideas seem to be interesting to reflect on; this is not a conformist book (in the positive sense).