Tyler Cowen points to Roger Scruton’s new book, “The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope”

I’ve been toying with a book idea that in my mind I call “Beyond All Hope: Passion, Rationality and the Fate of Humanity”

So, naturally, I was intrigued. The publisher’s clip states

Ranging widely over human history and culture, from ancient Greece to the current global economic downturn, Scruton makes a counterintuitive yet persuasive case that optimists and idealists — with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed — have wrought havoc for centuries.

Scruton’s argument is nuanced, however, and his preference for pessimism is not a dark view of human nature; rather his is a ‘hopeful pessimism’ which urges that instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

You had me at “wrought havoc for centuries”

Though, I am still intrigued because I don’t know if our senses of the world align in the final sentence of the description where it says

we focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

Off the cuff that sounds like the most naively optimistic statement of them all. Institutions, traditions and direct action, I say. Man’s instincts are determined by forces well beyond our control.

Institutions. We want to indentify which institutions seem to be working and fight to protect them. We want to indentify which institutions are not working and expose them to thoughtful evolution. Think of small improvements that are not likely to be catastrophic. Try them and see how it goes. Some – I am not naming any names – might think a 4% inflation target falls into this camp.

Traditions. Here evolution comes best through cosmopolitanism. We expose a bunch of different traditions to one another and we let the most effective parts of each emerge as a meta-tradition. I would argue that this is the essence of the United States.

Direct Action. If while on a walk together, your friend falls a breaks her leg you are likely to be well aware of her suffering and what can be done to alleviate it. There are times when you will get it wrong, but operating one-on-one, human-to-human you cut down on the chance for both false hope and misguided overreach.

To wit, if you really care about the suffering of Bangladeshis then you need to move to Bangladesh. Talk to the people on the street. What do they need right now, today? Are they thirsty? Bring them water. Are they hungry? Help them look for food? You can help a lot of people this way and you don’t have to worry that you mistakenly broke the entire global water and food distribution system.

Lastly, at least in my use of the term, there is nothing contradictory about being a Pessimist and a Millman Progressive – one who thinks humanity’s best days are yet to come.

Pessimism is simply the idea that most things go wrong, that most ideas are bad ideas, and all stories in the long-run have tragic endings. Yet, I can believe this and still have confidence in the march of progress.

Every summer in the wooded park near my house millions of baby spiders emerge from egg sacks.


Within days most of them will be dead. Within two years every last one of them will be dead.

Their story only has one ending.

For most of them it will come swiftly, coldly and brutally. I see the reality of this every summer and it makes me a spider pessimist. There is little anyone could do to change their fate.

Nevertheless, year-after-year in early spring the most beautifully intricate spider creations can be found littered throughout the park.


These creations don’t come about inspite of the mass death and brutally short lives these spiders face. These creations come about because of the mass death and short lives. This is evolution and it’s tragedy and beauty are one.