Hope, that invisible, intangible, and optimistic word, almost seems wired into our psyche. No one knows when the idea of hope first surfaced in human consciousness. It appeared in ancient Greek mythology with Hesiod’s story of Prometheus, mankind’s great benefactor, who stole the secret of fire from Zeus. This so infuriated the supreme god that in revenge he created a great vase (now incorrectly called “Pandora’s Box” ) which he filled with misery and every manner of affliction which would fly out if opened. The beautiful but untrustworthy Pandora, (the first woman, created at Zeus’s command by Hephaestus) was unaware of the contents, but had been warned never to take off its cover. When curiosity eventually got the better of her, all kinds of troubles flew out into the world, except for hope, which remained at the very bottom of the vase. Thus the first woman unwittingly introduced disease, despair, pain and other miseries into the world. So much for hope’s introduction to the ancient Greeks.
Two centuries after Hesiod and Homer had spread this complex and wonderful myth, Thales of Miletus, often credited with being the first of Greek philosophers, wrote that “Hope is the only good that is common to all men; those who have nothing else possess hope still.” Those Greeks who followed him, like Plato and Aristotle, considered hope to be connected to the gods and something akin to a waking dream.
The Old Testament recognized, we are all “prisoners of hope.”1 As one of our most frequently used expressions, hope is what keeps much of humanity going. Hope refuses to accept despair, so it is actively embraced by all religions. Hope is one of the three theological virtues of Christianity. In the Bible hope has entailed a strong and confident expectation of an afterlife. It is thus a source of ultimate salvation. The founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, wrote that “faith without hope is nothing worth, for hope endures and overcomes misfortune and evil.”2 Like so many Church fathers, Luther believed transcendental hope was at the basis of everything, including religion, because it kept the future open. Thus Thomas Aquinas regarded hope as that which is “possible of attainment.”3 Modern philosophers like Jacques Ellul have come to regard hope as man’s response to the silence of God.4
Hope looks forward with desire, reasonable confidence and expectation. The philosopher Ernst Bloch attempted to articulate a philosophical approach to hope and also treated hope as a cosmological principle. “The striving, yearning, and anticipation of something ‘not yet’ that characterizes human hope is also a fundamental feature not just of non-human life, but of the universe itself. This yearning and striving is the key to understanding not just human nature but nature as such. The hope principle is thus not a confined but an open process.”5
Today we recognize that hope can take us beyond ourselves, our limitations and our predicaments. Humanity appreciates that hope expands our horizons and our potentialities. The “advance” or progress of mankind requires hope, realistic hope in the possibility of improvement. Such hope ultimately has to be based on planning, scientific research, and social endorsement if it is to be effective. Hope encompasses both utopian and communitarian dreams as well as our spiritual needs. Jean-Paul Sartre said: “I think that hope is built into man. Human action is transcendent. It places its goal, its realization in the future. There is hope in the very manner of action — in the fixing of a goal to be reached.”6 Although sometimes on the edge of despair, as a philosopher Sartre came to respect hope as ‘the nerve of moral action.’ I profoundly believe that although we can harbor deep unease about the way things are, we must have hope about how things could be. From the very first this has been at the basis of my blog.
President Obama gave us great hopes for change when he was elected and now that such changes have not come about we feel disappointed and somehow cheated. Obama himself hoped that with bi-partisan support in Congress he could bring about substantive changes. His profound hopes, based on a long history of political party cooperation in American history, were not realistic. Racism and political radicalization turned compromise into a dirty word. No matter what the President proposed, the Republicans denounced it. In such a narrow-minded atmosphere, hope for change began to evaporate.
Some political figures have given people hope in important ways: Churchill, Roosevelt, Atlee, Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton all filled us with hope at different moments in their careers. Others, like Baldwin and Nixon, never were convincing. It is difficult for us to accept that hope also can be an escape from the harshness of the present, that it can be a denial of reality. This may lead some to disparage hope as an extension of the predominantly wishful thinking of childhood. The rejection of hope is recognized by psychologists as a child’s method of avoiding disappointment.
While recognizing that we cannot live without hope, most people today live without optimism because of the vast scale of the problems facing us at every level. Our destiny is no longer manifest as was believed before WWI. The desirability of advancing from hope to optimism is not even a notion subscribed to by all. A dystopian and fatalistic outlook has spread around the world. Such fatalism purports that as it is impossible to know what is going to happen, we should pray that the worst is not going to consume us. Spiritually this debilitating outlook tends to rob life of its potential for meaning. What progress we can make depends in large measure on our willingness to risk possible improvements.
It should give us hope that we can creatively adapt ourselves and change just as all other existing life-forms have done through evolution. Positive feed-back has been one of the basic mechanisms of life. It should fill us with hope that bit-by-bit we are unraveling the secrets of the universe and that this will make our own existence more comprehensible. Hope cannot be excluded from scientific empiricism because science itself is based on the continuing hope that the experiment will succeed and the hypothesis will be proven.
Optimism is frequently criticized because it exceeds strictly reasonable, ‘realistic’ boundaries. I am all too aware of Machiavelli’s warning that “Men commit the error of not knowing when to limit their hopes.” However, I believe that hope should have no limit. We must let our imagination soar with our hearts and let the best in our minds prevail. A vision of what could be is of the essence, for we cannot move from hope to optimism without it. As the Bible says: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”7
I fervently believe that our hopes, ideas and ideals can ultimately be translated into actions to bring about a far greater degree of social harmony. I do not believe that capitalism is guiding us towards that goal. The fabled ‘market’ does not provide us with a sense of social direction. We must meet our enduring human needs in new ways. Envisioning a different economic structure constitutes one of our greatest challenges, but one which we must embark upon with hopes for a more sustainable and viable future. The wholeness and unity of humanity is of the essence as well. Each one of us must do what we can to further an environment in which our collective hopes could develop into optimism. For optimism itself can turn life into a more brightly lit vision. As the metaphysical poet George Herbert wrote some four hundred years ago: “He that lives in hope dances without music.”
1Zechariah IX, 12.c.520 B.C
2Martin Luther, Table Talk I, 1598.
3Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province,(1971) p.17-18.
4Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, (1996) p.596
5Ernst Bloch,’Philosophisches Jahrbuch, vol. 95, 1988, p.326
6Jean-Paul Sartre, “Where I got it wrong on despair,” in a talk with Bernard Levy, The Observer, April 20, 1980.
7Proverbs, 29:18 (King James Version).