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.  

RS: I thought at the time that maybe I’m betraying my own cause but then I thought no, that’s not true. What I’m saying is that what we are is what we become through conflict and resolution, and through understanding our position as others in a world of others like ourselves. This process is what makes us into self-conscious, truth-seeking creatures; our Pleistocene “adaptations” do not get us anywhere near so far. But we do have a tendency to lapse into those old and comforting adaptations. You cannot deny that we have evolved from something that was not what we are now. But what we are now is not animals but persons. 

Persons are things that exist in another way, have different conditions of identity, different aspirations, different ways of resolving disputes. They live under a rule of law and a rule of accountability, all the things that I think you, Ray, would agree with. As you say in your book, persons do things like point. I think it’s important to note that animals don’t do this — not even the dogs that we call pointers — because pointing is a highly sophisticated semantic notion which itself is the gift of life in community. It’s not something you can achieve without the community of self-conscious beings who account to one another for what they are.

RT: But this belief in a tendency to regress to an earlier state lies at the heart of your pessimism, is why I want to worry at its foundations: the idea that we have ascended from our Pleistocene state almost against our natural primordial condition. I wonder why I don’t quite buy that. Is it because I think we have moved so far that there is a different kind of dynamic going on when we do relapse into savagery? 

If you think of comparatively recent examples of barbarism, they are not usually mass uncontrolled outbreaks of primordial passions. The First World War or Auschwitz required an incredible amount of cold and careful bureaucratic calculation. So our regression to barbarism was mediated through the kinds of people we’ve become, rather than the kinds of people we once were and you fear we might relapse to. No one in the Pleistocene era could ever be as barbaric to organise the First World War or to dream up Auschwitz.

RS: That is true. Auschwitz and the gulag required an awful lot of planning but I do identify the planning fallacy as one of the principal fallacies that guided and misguided the 20th century. I want to trace it to an attitude that would have been useful, or adaptive, in Pleistocene conditions, which is the attitude of facing a collective emergency. It simplifies things, even when living in a large society, if you can represent your problems as an emergency. In an emergency, we all gather behind the leader who presents us with a plan. Then, we become intoxicated with the whole idea of planning, so we believe that we can solve all the difficult things and difficult questions that arise through our life by a plan. Hence the slogan with which Auschwitz was presented to the people: “the final solution”. 

RT: Whether or not one accepts the notion that this is rooted in the Pleistocene era it seems to me a compelling diagnosis. It reminds me of something that bothered me when I read your book: your treatment of the planning fallacy. I was deeply impressed by your treatment of all the seven fallacies you identify. But they made me think of The Uses of Pessimism as pre-political rather than political. 

It presents the frameworks through which you should start thinking politically. A key belief of yours is that planning should be modest — and in this you are in a noble line of thinkers that includes Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper and so on. If, however, you move on from the pre-political framework to actual policies, it is not enough to invoke the Fatal Conceit. There is, after all, the opposite fallacy that we might call the Fatalistic Conceit. So how shall we find the right place between, on the one hand, the conceit of imagining that we can have a central regulated economy that is successful and, on the other, the opposite conceit that says: “Forget about piecemeal social engineering, as even the most modest plan that involves a large number of people is going to have unexpected consequences”?

RS: It’s a really good question. I would suggest that one look at examples of continuous institutions which arrive at solutions to social conflicts and difficulties, not by planning but by solving them case by case and building up an accumulation of accepted principles. I take common law as my favourite example — and Hayek is brilliant on common law, essentially reiterating William Blackstone’s original defence. It is a system of law that arises through generalising from individual conflicts for which the solution has been found, and then extracting principles that can be tested in the next conflict. 

One of the tragedies of this country is that this wonderful system has been overlaid with a European law that derives legal answers from abstract premises accepted at the top, rather than building up solutions from the bottom. In other words, EU legislation to me is an instance of the planning fallacy. One can see its danger by considering what’s happening with the euro. There’s a perfect example of something that has been imposed by a plan, built into a system of law, but with no plan B should the thing go wrong. Suddenly, like the French revolution and the Russian revolution, the plan comes up against the truth — and the truth is people, who do not on the whole follow the plans that others make for them.

RT: Your ten pages or so on the EU are devastating — they are brilliant. As a Europhile, it gave me a pause for thought. But if we could continue talking about the planning fallacy, I admit that I am sympathetic to the idea of the Invisible Hand, and the notion of social institutions being shaped from the bottom upwards, with correctives being applied top down where necessary. But if one took to the extreme what you were saying, we wouldn’t have statutory law. At some point, it is necessary to move from common law to statute. One needn’t go all the way to a Bill of Rights and the kind of thing that puts your hackles up, but I just wondered, where do you feel that the statutory law fits into your scheme of things? 

RS: Statutes are necessary because, as societies become increasingly complex, problems arise with which our ordinary day-to-day reasoning cannot deal. They need the advice of committees that try to see the long-range effect. Statutes in English systems of law are of two kinds: one is the result of those committees — that’s the ideal statute — committees in the Commons and the Lords, the committees in the US Congress, which take a problem and solve it, taking into account as much information as possible. 

There is another kind of statute in English law that summarises the findings of the court, for instance the Occupiers’ Liability Act. Occupiers’ liability was discovered by judges in Australia when the railways started being built. Gradually, the judges built up a wonderful system of law about what your duties and rights are if you occupy land, even if you don’t actually own it. Then, at a certain stage, parliament said: “Let’s gather this all together and we’ll have a single statute.” But codification, as in the Roman law under Justinian, came after the event. That’s perhaps an even better way of producing a statute than from committees.

RT: Imagine we go back 200 years, to when Edmund Burke was alive. Much has happened since then to make the world a better and more just place for the average person. And a lot of it has been top-down — it’s been driven by visionaries, leaders and a lot of it has been enshrined in statute. I’m thinking about the extension of the franchise, the Ten Hour Act and improvements in health and safety at work. Do you think those things would have risen up from the people without the interference of the kind of top-down meddlers, the people who cause you nightmares?

RS: These are serious issues that one needs to discuss. One needs to look at where top-down approaches came up with a solution that is indeed to the benefit of all and where they did not. You’re right that the extension of the franchise is one of these. I should say, though, that the franchise was extended partly as a result of conversations in the Reform Club, not only as a result of things in parliament. It came from people who felt that our country really needed to include more of the people in the franchise in order to cope with all the changes that were happening — migrations to the towns, changes in property and so on. The 1832 Reform Act wasn’t a decision of a dictatorial kind — a lot of these things that the 19th century begs to be remembered by began as civil initiatives. The Factory Acts began because exploited children were suddenly apparent to well-off compassionate people. Before that, they’d been working just as hard in the fields but not observed by those who had the influence or the will to help them. As always in England, it wasn’t very long from the first impulse of reform in the minds of ordinary citizens to the statute that conveyed what they wanted.

RT: The Human Rights Act is clearly a supreme example of a top-down intervention to which you’re allergic. But let us think of the origin of the kind of law we both approve of. One can imagine an emerging concern, about hungry children visible in the streets as they were not before. There are whispers in corridors of clubs and soon the corridors of power are echoing with concerns. But sooner or later, these concerns have to be translated into law.

RS: Parliament was originally conceived in the Middle Ages as a court of law. The members passed judgment by statute, which was a recommendation to the king effectively to rectify an abuse. The resulting statute was then tested in the courts. Things were different then but until joining the EU, it was the case that any statute passed by parliament had to be tested against popular acceptance. People were entitled to vote at an election to get rid of the people who passed that statute and put another one in its place, or repeal it. We can still do this every now and then…

RT: Even with the Human Rights Act, which is currently being reconsidered….

RS: Yes. But we can’t do it with EU directives, which account for more than 50 per cent of the laws that are imposed upon us. 

RT: That is a bit of a dodgy figure because an awful lot of that 50 per cent consists of minor, rather than major, laws. 

RS: A law is major to anybody who’s afflicted by it. 

DJ: I want to throw in the moral aspect because I’m still struck by the terms “scrupulous” and “unscrupulous” when talking about optimists and pessimists. Is there a place for either in your schemes of things? Optimists, if we take the extreme example of Dr Pangloss, tend effectively to deny evil, which plays no part in the more extreme examples of Enlightenment optimism. Evil is merely backwardness — people who haven’t yet seen the light. On the other hand, in pessimistic schemes of thought, ideas like original sin, a deep sense of the world being a fallen place, play a very big part.

RS: The idea of original sin captures something important — that our condition is one that is deeply flawed in ways that the moral sense tries to rectify. We are constantly trying to gratify our selfish wishes at the cost of other people. We are brought up to overcome this but we don’t ever completely overcome it. 

It is true that evil is a reality in our experience but we go through long periods of denial about it because it is an uncomfortable thing to recognise. Therefore, there is a motive to describe evil in another way, as something that we’ve got over by being nice. This is the Matt Ridley view of the human condition — that we can settle everything by respecting each other and signing contracts. This is true up to a point but, as we know, the resulting condition is fragile. Without an awareness of this, we live in danger.

RT: I share Roger’s view of society as fragile. What an extraordinary achievement it is to be able to live with each other on so many levels, in so many ways, and in so many different groupings. I also think Roger’s analysis of the Born Free fallacy is superb. I don’t think we’re born free or born good. I wonder, however, whether there his view of humanity is a little too essentialist for my taste. My own feeling is that the human species is infinitely malleable and may even become gradually better — though one cannot ignore the catastrophic relapses we witnessed in the 20th century.  

DJ: Not an unreasonable view — in many ways we have become better in the sense that we do demonstrate compassion, not just for our immediate family and friends but for people we don’t even know. 

RT: The very fact that we have laws of war —  OK, we flout them, but the fact that we are aware that we’re flouting them and try to conceal the fact says something about our moral progress. Roger, is your philosophical conservatism anchored in your pessimistic view of our species-being? Do you think that there are permanent flaws in the human race?

RS: I’m sure I’m open to correction in this respect but I see much of the progress that we have made as being the by-product of prosperity. We are not living in the state of need that tempts us to those evil acts that our ancestors were constantly tempted to: to steal, to murder, to become a highwayman, etc. Defoe, in Moll Flanders, wonderfully describes somebody in that condition of need who is clearly a warm and compassionate person but who has to incorporate into her world the morality of theft. This is her way of survival.  

But it is interesting that the first big age of technological and economic progress — the 20th century — was the age of the great exterminations too. So I hesitate to go along with the idea of moral progress entirely and I also think the rule of niceness has a downside in human relations: the loss of loyalties. You see it in the collapse of marriage, the betrayal of children, the escaping from any long-term commitments. Nice people do it but this might mean that the nice are the enemy of the good.

RT: I agree that the instinct of niceness may mean that one avoids the moral challenges that justify some conflicts. And I agree with you that often we are able to behave better than our predecessors because it costs us less than it might have cost them. To behave well in the Pleistocene era you had to be a saint and you probably wouldn’t survive. But is denying moral progress true to history? Often, new moral sensibilities have emerged, such as those that prompted the abolition of slavery. Slavery had to be seen as wrong first.

RS: Implementation is one thing but acknowledgment of the truth is another. Slavery is not acknowledged in the Roman natural law and Isidore of Seville made it clear that under Christian jurisdiction there could not be ownership of another person. English common law abolished it before parliament set about imposing abolition upon those barbarians across the Channel. Again, prosperity made it possible to implement the abolition of slavery. It could be that people have always known it to be wrong, but found no easy way to bring it to an end. Aristotle had to lean over backwards to justify it.

RT: What you’re saying is that if Aristotle had had a washing machine then he wouldn’t have defended domestic slavery?

RS: It’s quite possible that he wouldn’t. 

RT: You have a profound, and often all too justified, suspicion of human beings and you believe that the claims that we are “born free” and “born good” are nonsense. The record of the 20th century, when proportionally humans killed more people relative to the overall population than at any other time in history (Niall Ferguson did the sums), speaks for itself. So what looks like moral progress may just be down to the fact that the cost of being a nice person now is cheaper than it was when we didn’t have science-based technologies to make life easier.

In view of that, however, what makes you confident that progress will actually rise up from the masses? And why do you put your faith in the masses rather than those who show an explicit lead, saying (for example): “This is wrong”? I find myself thinking about Edmund Burke on representation and delegation…

RS: His speech to the electors of Bristol.

RT: Yes. He was famously at odds with his constituents on many issues. And he tells them — though he didn’t put it quite like this — “I’m here to be better than your best selves, not simply bound by mandates issued by your average selves.” Does this assertion of moral leadership make you uneasy? 

RS: You’re right: we depend upon moral leadership and we were given it 2,000 years ago. And we’re all downstream from that. The emancipation of slaves was one of the first effects of the Christian revolution. And yes, there are these great leaders who completely change the way people look at things. Not always for the better, though. But this means that leadership isn’t necessarily the bad thing that you might otherwise suppose I think it to be. 

But I would say, and this is something that is very much in keeping with your worldview, that most of us don’t look for leadership. We look for examples. And we try to be friends with them. Our friends make a difference to our lives by setting an example. I met a colleague at a conference whose articles I’d read and disagreed with. And I thought: he’s bound to be the normal, resentful academic who’s going to hate the fact that I disagree with him. And instead there was this smiling person who welcomed me and gave me every possible encouragement. He attended this conference with his wife who’d had a stroke and is in a wheelchair, and he took her everywhere with him — across the Atlantic — and though she could no longer speak he was always soothing her with affectionate gestures. And I said to myself, there is an example. I couldn’t do it, and yet he does it with a cheerful face. 

One of the problems we are living through is a decline in real friendship. Because of the ease of entertainment, people can retreat into their private study and look at the internet. And I know you agree with this, Raymond, that pornography is driving out sex — sex in the sense of a real erotic commitment to another person.

RT: I would agree with all that, because it seems to me that we live in a state of e-ttenuation” in the sense that electronic media are breaking up our daily lives into small episodes. At any given moment, people are receiving dozens of texts, mobile phone calls, emails, and gazing at a flickering, cluttered screen, etc. In short we are distracted. Unfortunately, boredom has actually been pre-empted — and boredom can be very productive, very fertile.

RS: I wouldn’t call it boredom. I mean in the sense of ennui, which only appeared in the 19th century.

RT: They had acedia in medieval times.

RS: Yes, but that wasn’t regarded as a creative thing. Rather it was an invitation to resist it, to achieve self-containment, like a monk in his cell: somebody self-sufficient and able to fill his life with meaning out of his posture of submission towards the divine will.

DJ: Ray, can I just press you a little on this? You’re something of an apostle of progress and that word “hope” came in at one point and I think we can all agree that hope is a good thing, whether or not optimism is a good thing. But in this brave new world, what will be the content of this transcendence that you talk about? In a rather poetic passage in your book, you speak of “the beyond beyond which there is no beyondering”, but will there be any content in this? 

RT: There are two parts to your question. The first is about having a sense of direction and purpose in one’s life. The feeling that you are going to make a difference, however arrogant, is a potent expression. Without that desire, life can seem meaningless.

But there is a different kind of answer connected with finding something to fill the vacuum left by the departure of religion. Well, for me, it is an increasingly intense awareness of the complex miracle of our ordinary, everyday conscious life. The more you pick it apart, the more you unpack it, the more extraordinary it seems. It can awaken an utter gratitude for the fact that one is without that necessarily leading to one feeling grateful to any particular Being at all.

RS: You’re looking for an intransitive gratitude.

RT: Absolutely, that’s beautiful. This prompts me to refer to Roger’s tragic pessimism, expressed in Death-Devoted Heart (OUP, 2004), his wonderful book on Wagner.

DJ: I also was interested in something that you touched on briefly, the subject of sexuality and eroticism. Because that lies at the heart of a lot of pessimism, and when you look back Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner, it all seems to do with sex. I wonder whether there is some connection there, and whether we can link up these disparate things?

RT: There’s a biographical link through sex between those awful characters. Nietzsche’s relationships with women were catastrophic. The one true love of Wagner’s life lay tantalisingly just beyond reach. Schopenhauer’s relationships with women were sensual, but dispassionate and often cruel. So it’s not hard to imagine that the profound sense that they had of the centrality of sexuality combined with their profound sexual disappointments would feed into pessimism.

DJ: We have a culture now in which sex plays a central role, and yet it’s strangely bloodless, isn’t it?

RT: I strongly share Roger’s point of view over this. We live in a world in which pornography or at least sexual allusion is almost wall-to-wall. You can’t open a copy of The Times without seeing a naked woman and that to me is the marker of where we are at. It’s as if sex has become shallower and shallower as it has become spread more widely. Sex as a consumer item increasingly dominates over sex as an encounter with the utter mystery of another person, with a profound sense of love and compassion for them. These are marginalised by the ubiquitous culture of pornography.

RS: I agree. One of the social functions of religion is that of withdrawing certain things from the market. We fence them round and say that here is a realm where things are not exchanged, bartered, paid for or taken, but it’s still a realm where things can be given in a special way. 

That is the idea of a sacrament: certain ways in which human beings give to each other have a sort of blessing from another realm, and only then can they be fully themselves. It’s not just sex that religion withdraws from the market — people too. At least in Christianity, people are not to be used and sold, they are to be understood as objects of intrinsic value. This intuition was rephrased by Kant in terms of his categorical imperative but it’s there in Aquinas and all Christian thinking. It is there in the Old Testament too.

But, interestingly, in our culture “we” — as in “they, out there, the proletariat” — still think that you can’t buy and sell children. People get into a huge excitement about it. Using and abusing a child becomes the greatest of all sins. You see it in the present hoo-hah over paedophilia in the Catholic Church: it’s not that this hasn’t happened before, but rather that today paedophilia has been isolated as the one remaining sexual crime. So the whole burden of our guilt at having made each other into consumable objects is laid on those who abuse children.

RT: It also illustrated the difference between ecclesiastical and secular law. There has been a sense for a long time within the Church that ecclesiastical law, and the wellbeing of the Church itself, is above secular law. That’s what shocked all of us: the unscrupulous willingness within the Church to pervert the course of justice so that when priests in a situation of total inequality have abused young people, those young people themselves have been abused again by the system that wants to keep the abuse quiet.

RS: And yet it’s children who are the victims of the pornographic culture in which vast numbers of people are involved. Children are the ones who are going to be prematurely sexualised and deprived of the maturation that makes the erotic into a form of human relationship. In that sense, all pornography is child abuse.

DJ: Ray, you spoke very eloquently about the quasi-religious significance of scientific understanding of the human condition. You clearly have a very exalted view of man, albeit not a religious one. Is there some sort of meeting point between the religious and the non-religious sensibilities? I think of the ancient world where Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian thought coalesced into Western civilisation, and whether the conflict that is taking place now between the secular and the non-secular will reach some sort of compromise? 

RT: In the conflict between religion and the secular outlook, both parties have simplified the other’s position. The wrong critique of religion is either a) that it lacks scientific evidence, or that it encroaches on the territory where science holds sway, or b) that it has produced net ills for the world. The latter is a very weak argument because you can’t run the tape twice — run the history of the world with religion and then run it without religion — and see what would have been a better outcome. There are good arguments for indicating that religion at key moments in history has been both the sponsor of science and morality and something that undermines science and morality. 

The point of convergence, it seems to me, is both parties are aware of the irreducible mystery of what we are. A true humanist isn’t somebody who naturalises humanity and argues that we can be explained entirely in biological terms. We are profoundly mysterious and we’ve hardly started thinking about ourselves in a post-religious way. As a humanist, I share something which is central to religion: a feeling for the sacredness and profound mystery of human life.

DJ: It’s very important that you use the term “sacredness of human life”, because that’s quite controversial. Quite a lot of people in your camp dispute that.

RT: Well, the doctrine of the sanctity of life is a difficult one because I am in support of assisted dying, and one of the arguments put forward against it is that it undermines our respect for the sanctity of life. This is not true. I support assisted dying because I accept the valuation placed upon their own remaining days and weeks of life by someone who has a fatal disease and has unbearable and uncontrollable suffering. That is not the same as devaluing human life. And in this respect, I am less inconsistent than many who preach the sanctity of life and at the same time believe in wars.  

RS: I’m broadly sympathetic to this, and Daniel’s right: introducing the concept of the sacred does transfigure one’s sense of what the atheist position might be. This has happened in the realm of art and I argue that this is what Wagner was trying to do in his music dramas. He was trying to reconstruct the concept and the feeling for the sacred from purely humanistic premises, making man his own redeemer.

But nearer to what you were saying is Rilke in the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke presented human consciousness as containing within itself the mystery not only of my existence, but the mystery of existence as such. And for Rilke the earth, the realm of natural objects outside me, is begging to be admitted to my consciousness in order to be bathed by the sacred light within — the light of consciousness which is the sole redemption. And that’s a wonderful idea. It’s difficult to express outside poetry and music but it is something that, for Rilke at least, is essentially an atheistic thought.

RT: As does someone you probably don’t like very much: Heidegger. 

RS: No, no, he has this too.

RT: It’s as if we’re “too late for the gods and too early for Being”. [Your book] Death-Devoted Heart is a fantastic work on Tristan and Isolde, but it encompasses two things that may not quite fit together: one is your sense that Wagner is trying to reconstruct the sacred out of purely humanistic materials, and the other is the profoundly pessimistic thought that, in the end, the consummation of life is in death. That’s where I find it difficult to follow you, because it’s a difficult doctrine to make live in one’s own life.

RS: Yes, I don’t go along with the Wagnerian mysticism about the erotic. But there is a truth in it, and what I want to say is that erotic love does first of all emphasise that this thing has within it a kind of redemptive force. It’s a redemptive force that comes through our acknowledgement of our own nature as dying things.

DJ: Roger, would you like to sum up what you think is the code by which you think a modern, educated, sensitive and humane person can hope to live? What is it that we believe?

RS: Gosh. Well, I can say what I believe. One must be open to transcendence, open to the recognition first of all of the mystery of your being and the mystery of the being of others. That isn’t unique to the Western tradition. Hinduism is a very good example of how this is done, especially by encouraging us to look for the transcendent in the everyday. However, and this is much more special to the Western tradition, one has to be able to learn to look on oneself as another. This idea of the “otherness” of oneself, which is summed up in the Ancient Greek concept of irony, is all-important, especially now that fundamental metaphysical doctrines are in doubt. 

Looking at oneself in that way, one can learn both to forgive oneself and others. This is the beginning of wisdom. But what one builds upon it depends on whether one’s been lucky enough to find others with whom one can live at peace and in a condition of affection.

DJ: That’s a very impressive credo. Ray, what do you feel about this? Music in the highest sense is unique to the West. Is music important to you as a redemptive force?

RT: It is an extraordinary force. I am very much with Roger on this profound significance of music. I don’t compose as Roger does, I don’t play any instrument and I don’t have any ability in musicological analysis, but the point where we converge is the profound joy that music brings to both of us.

One thing I find interesting about classical music — and again it was a point made in one of your books, Roger — is that in recent centuries we enjoy music in a rather unusual way. We sit still and sit silent. We attend concerts almost as worshippers and it was this, it seemed to me, that Wagner exploited in his elevated notion of the music-drama.

One of the things that has particularly struck me about Roger’s philosophy of music is his analysis of the way music holds together. And he talks about two things: “virtual causality” and “double intentionality”. The way that a succession of elements of music hangs together — not in a cause and effect way, not in the way that the sounding of the violin produces the sound that people hear and respond to — is to me the perfect model of human action. It’s closest, most obviously, to dancing. But to me it’s the model of any kind of action. Double intentionality means that you perceive a piece of music, but you also perceive what’s in the music. This again is a model of so many aspects of uniquely human consciousness. 

So music is important to me because in practice it overwhelms me, but also in theory because it does seem to be a beautiful paradigm of something very distinctive in human consciousness. And that’s why, like the other arts, it’s a model of our freedom. Because it is the most pure expression of how we act as relatively free agents in a causally closed world.

RS: I would put things a little bit differently. I’m closer to Schopenhauer here — what we hear in music I wouldn’t call the will, but it is as though we are, when engrossed in music, within another person’s first-person point of view. We all see the world from the first-person point of view. There is a point on the edge of things where I am, from which I embark on free projects of my own. And the same is true of you. But we see other people in a different way, as things in the world. When we listen to music, what is going on we know is not going on in the world. When melody begins in music, nothing begins in the world of sound, which consists only of sequences. But when listening to music we hear things begin and strive and come to a conclusion. That’s something like the way we experience our own life, and we know that this thing into which we have been invited by the music — this movement and tension and striving — is not really part of the material world. 

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