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21 December 2022

What’s the use of hope?

Since hope can be a blessing or a curse, the question is not whether we should hope but what we should hope for.

By Kieran Setiya

Hope is difficult to place. By conventional wisdom, hope is empowering, noble, even audacious. In the face of threats to democracy and the slow catastrophe of climate change, we are told, it is vital not to give up hope. Yet as an episode of the sitcom Ted Lasso reminds us: “It’s the hope that kills you.” To hope is to risk the agony of defeat. And what good does hope do as things fall apart around us? “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” the activist Greta Thunberg told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019. “I want you to panic.”

Those who valorise hope point out that action is impossible without it: you cannot strive for what you care about, when success is not assured, without hoping to succeed or at least make progress. To hope for something is, in part, to desire it, in part to believe that it may or may not happen. You don’t hope for what you do not want. Nor do you hope for what you know to be impossible, or inevitable. What’s more, to hope for something is to think it isn’t wholly up to you. It doesn’t make sense to hope for what you can easily bring about.

When you pursue a difficult goal, the conditions for hope are necessarily fulfilled: you act in pursuit of something you want, and you believe it’s within reach, although you recognise that you might fail. If it’s good to pursue your goal, and that requires hope, isn’t hope a good thing, too?

The truth is not so simple. Sometimes impossibility is fact. We are not going to halt global warming in the next ten years, and it would be foolish to hope otherwise, however much I wish it weren’t. And even where hope is rational, that doesn’t mean we’ll do something about it. You can lie on the sofa surfing the internet, reading stories of climate chaos, hoping things improve, without giving a thought to how. Hope may be utterly quiescent. If there’s courage in hoping, it’s the courage to face the fear of disappointment that hope creates. And while hope may be a precondition of meaningful action, it’s the action, not the hope, that matters.

Ambivalence about hope goes back to the Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer in the eighth century BCE. Hesiod tells the story of Prometheus, the mortal who stole fire from the gods, and how Zeus exacted revenge on humankind. He gave us Pandora, bearing a jar of “gifts”: sickness, grief and all the ills of life. After opening the jar and setting these plagues upon us, Pandora slammed the lid before hope could escape.

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Hope is pictured by some as divine consolation, but that is wishful thinking. For Hesiod, the jar brings curses, of which hope is one. As he explains, in a verse translation by AE Stallings: “The dope/Who’s idle and awaits an empty hope,/Gripes in his soul, lacking a livelihood./But as provider, Hope is not much good.” We cross our fingers, hoping it will all work out, instead of taking arduous, uncertain steps to make that happen. For Hesiod, hope is a narcotic.

Although it seems to cast hope as a plague, Hesiod’s myth turns out to be equivocal. The question is what it means for hope to be left behind, imprisoned in the jar. It was being released that set the other plagues upon us. If hope remains confined, wouldn’t that mean we are free of its temptations? Or is our curse to live without hope – in which case hope is something good, but something we can’t have? Why, then, was it in Pandora’s jar of ills?

Hope is thus an object of confusion. For many, hope blurs into wishful thinking. And the more we hope, the more we risk despair. Why put ourselves through it? At the same time we cling to hope, a seeming source of light when times are dark.

Can our ambivalence be resolved? I think it can, if we recognise that hope is not one thing. As well as the attitude one takes towards a given outcome when one hopes for it – the mixture of belief, uncertainty and desire – there is the trait of being hopeful, finding hope where hope ought to be found.

We can borrow here from the account of hope in the Summa Theologica, a 3,000-page epic of Catholic theology written by St Thomas Aquinas in the late 13th century. Aquinas contrasts hope as an “irascible passion” – a spirited desire for what is not assured – with the theological virtue of hope whose object is eternal life. What we’ve examined so far is the passion: a fusion of desire and belief. Hope in this sense is passive, as the etymology of “passion” attests. The theological virtue is different. It’s an active propensity of the will through which one clings to the promise of union with God, fighting the temptations of despair.

Although I am not religious, I think we can discern a virtue on parallel lines. Aquinas was inspired by Aristotle’s theory of ethical virtue as a “mean” between opposing vices. Between recklessness and cowardice lies courage, for example; and the generous man is neither profligate nor cheap. Each virtue oversees an action or emotion for which it finds an intermediate path. The brave experience fear “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”. Generosity is similar with giving and receiving – it’s about finding the right balance.

Though he did not recognise hope as a virtue of character, Aristotle’s theory seems to fit. One can be excessively hopeful, inflating the odds or refusing to give up when possibilities are so distant they should vanish. Or one can be too hopeless, minimising chances or discounting risks that may be worth a shot. Virtue lies between these two extremes. To hope well is to be realistic about probabilities, not to succumb to wishful thinking or be cowed by fear; it is to hold possibilities open when you should. The point of clinging to possibility is not to feel good – hope may be more painful than despair – but to keep the flicker of potential agency alive.

The virtue of hoping well is a matter of conviction, of standing with or searching for the truth, attending to what’s possible. And it’s a matter of will, the courage to conceive alternatives, even when it’s not clear what to do. This is how we should approach life’s hardships, finding possibility where we can: the prospect of flourishing despite infirmity, of finding one’s way through loneliness, failure, grief, confronting the injustice and absurdity of the world. The question is not whether we should hope, but what we should hope for.

Take climate change. Global warming cannot be averted. It has already happened and it is getting worse. But this disaster comes, quite literally, by degrees, and every increment makes a difference. “Should we hope or despair?” is not a well-posed question. We may be resigned to 1.5°C of warming, but we should hope to stop it there; when we cannot hope for that, we should hope for 2°C. And in hoping, act together.

When we do not know what we should hope for, we can hope to learn. There is room for what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls “radical hope … directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is”. In The Cure at Troy (1991), the Irish poet Seamus Heaney adapts a play by the Greek playwright Sophocles. It’s a play about hope, as well as adversity, and it ends with resonant verse:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

The poet knows as well as we do that “hope” and “history” do not rhyme. But one day, in some undreamt-of harmony, they might.

[See also: The dangerous conceits of the green revolution]

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