You are here:   Dialogue > Staving Off Despair: On the Use and Abuse of Pessimism for Life
 

 

 
From left to right: Raymond Tallis and Roger Scruton 

Daniel Johnson: Let me start a bit of disagreement. I came across a passage in one of your books, Ray, Enemies of Hope (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), that is a critique of contemporary pessimism, both of the Left and of the Right. You say that those who deny progress will allow more hungry children to die in the dust while the prophets of doom continue to enjoy life in the library and the seminar room. Would it be fair to suggest that you think pessimism is an inhumane and possibly selfish denial of the purpose of humanity and, above all, progress?

Raymond Tallis: It may be. Just as Roger [Scruton] talks about unscrupulous optimists, there are unscrupulous pessimists. But I'm thinking about extremists, such as John Gray, who argues that any attempt to improve things will always make things worse. He bases this on the claim that we are animals who don't know ourselves and so are acting in darkness in the grip of impulses that we haven't fully understood. 

So Enemies of Hope is an attack on unscrupulous pessimists, those who say there is nothing to be done about the woes of the world and that passivity is the only way to avoid making things worse. In my book, I focus on two strands of pessimist thought: the tendency to marginalise consciousness, and to question conscious human agency as the chief motor of change; and the tendency to regard humans as animals and civilisation as an aberration.

Roger Scruton: The Dawkins types.

RT: Although curiously Dawkins himself isn't a pessimist.

RS: He makes me a pessimist. 

DJ: Roger, do you want to talk about unscrupulous optimists?

RS: The title of my new book is The Uses of Pessimism (Atlantic), not Pessimism — I don't justify pessimism. But a sprinkling of salutary gloom is necessary if we are to accept humanity as it is. This means accepting it in its civilised condition — the condition in which we are — where we not only create new problems for ourselves but also create the ways of solving them. The theme of my book is that there is a constant tendency in civilised people to lapse into a pre-civilised condition. Then, their minds are invaded by an unscrupulous optimism, which commits them to certain fallacies that I diagnose. The purpose of those fallacies is to maintain hope in the face of the evidence.

RT: I agree with Roger that one has to moderate one's aspirations and ambitions. But towards the end of your book, Roger, you offer a diagnosis as to why people are and do become unscrupulous optimists. Unscrupulous optimism was an entirely appropriate attitude in the conditions that prevailed in the Pleistocene era. I was rather surprised because you, like me, have an allergy to biologism, or to the notion that we are hard-wired for this or that.  

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