Monday, 22 June 2020

Hope Against Hope

Thomas Scarborough. After the Veldfire.
By Thomas Scarborough
There are better things to look forward to.  That is what hope is about.  I hope to be happy.  I hope to be well.  I hope to succeed.  Even through struggle and strife, I hope for it all to be worthwhile.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it simply, ‘All hope concerns happiness.’ 
But wait, said the ancient Greek philosophers.  On what does one base such hope?  Hope is 'empty', wrote Solon. ‘Mindless’, wrote Plato.  Then the Roman philosopher Seneca saw the dark side, which has cast a shadow over hope ever since.  Hope and fear, he wrote, ‘march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope.’

The standard account of hope is this: the object of hope must be uncertain, and a person must wish for it—and here is the trouble with hope.  There is not much about hope that is rational.  We have no sound reason to believe it is justified.  It is clear that one’s hopes may not come true.

Why then hope?  Even when hopes are fulfilled—if they are fulfilled—the journey often involves struggle, and heartache, and not a little luck.  And when I have been through all that, I may well have to go through it all again.  Another goal, another relationship. How often?  At what cost?  Often enough, our hopes, once realised, may still disappoint.  They so often leave us with less to hope for than we had before.

There is a psychological problem, too.  It is called the ‘problem of action’.  Today few disagree that, most basically, I am motivated to act when I hold up the world in my mind to the world itself, and there discover a disjoint between the two.  To put it another way, we are motivated by mental models.

Yet the opposite is true, too.  Just as a disjoint between expectation and reality motivates me, so a lack of such disjoint demotivates me.  It may potentially remove any motivation at all.  We cannot go on with a view of the world which is born of the world itself.

There is a hope, observed the philosopher Roe Fremstedal, which occurs spontaneously in youth, yet is often disappointed in time.  Many start out in life with high hopes, pleasant dreams, and enthusiasm to spare.  But as we progress through life, disillusionment sets in.  And disillusionment, presumably, means coming to see things for what they are.  The disjoint is lost.

And then, death. What kind of hope can overcome death?  Death destroys everything.  An anonymous poet wrote,
Nothing remains but decline,
Nothing but age and decay.
Someone might object.  ‘This is seeing the glass half empty.  Why not see it half full?’  But put it like this.  There is certainly no greater reason to hope than there is to fear or despair.

Is there hope for me?  Is there hope for my environment?  For society?  History?  The universe?  I side with the ancient Greeks.  They had the courage to tell it like it is.  Hope as we generally know it is mere deception and superstition.  ‘Hope,’ wrote Nietzsche, ‘is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.’

When I was at school, we sang a song.  To schoolboys at the time, it seemed like a statement of boundless optimism and cheer.  Titled ‘The Impossible Dream’, it came from a Broadway musical of 1965—and it closes with these words:
Yes, and I'll reach
The unreachable star!
It seems hard to tell now whether the songwriter was sincere.  Some say that the striving which the words represent is more important than the words themselves.  Some say the songwriter was characterising his starry-eyed younger self.  More likely, it seems, he was raving against a contradictory universe, in a nonsensical song.

People have tried in various ways to get around the problems of hope.  We should best project our hopes onto something else, they say: society, history, eternity.  Some have said that hope just happens—so let it happen.  Some have said that we should quell our hopes—which might work if our minds did not transcend time.  Lately, hope tends to be studied as a mere phenomenon: this is how we define it; this is what it does.

The only way to hope in this life, wrote the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, is to ‘relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good’.  In fact, ‘at every moment always,’ he wrote, ‘one should hope all things’.  We hope, because there are all good things to look forward to, always.*

If this is to be true, there is one necessary condition.  All of our present actions, and all events, must serve our good and happiness.  Even our greatest disappointments, our greatest causes for despair—even death itself—must be interpreted as hope and be grounded in hope.  True hope cannot be conditional, as the Greeks rightly saw.

What guarantees such hope?  The theologian Stephen Travis wrote, ‘To hope means to look forward expectantly for God’s future activity’.  This de-objectifies hope—it relativises it, because God's activity cannot be known—and it provides the translation of fear and despair, to hope.  Yet even without bringing God into it, there would have to be something that translates fear and despair.  The only challenge that remains is to identify it and appropriate it.

Whatever comes my way—everything that comes my way—is something to be hoped for, not because I hope according to the standard account, but because I have an unconditional hope.  We call it ‘hope against hope’.



* Note, however, that there is a more existential possibility. If I have an unconditional hope which is, as it were, already fulfilled in the present—the present already representing 'all good things'—then I may expect the same of the future.  This overcomes the notion that hope it too future-orientated.

7 comments:

Keith said...

Social-science research shows that hope, after controlling for variables such as health, wealth, gender, ethnicity, and education, is correlated with positive outcomes like happiness, optimism, and contentment. There have been interesting and perhaps surprising, even counterintuitive, findings as to how these positive states of mind measure as one gets older. As reported last year: ‘[I]f we were to plot a graph with a line representing our life satisfaction across the life span, it would not, as we might assume, show a steady decline into old age. . . . Instead, research shows it resembles a U-shape, with a pronounced midlife dip in our 40s and early 50s’ and a return to high levels of satisfaction afterwards (Susan Bell, University of Southern California, Dorsife, ‘Happiness Across the Life Span: Not a Slippery Slope After All’, November 2019). If the correlates of hope typically show this U-shape behaviour through one’s lifespan, I wonder if we might reasonably assume hope itself does, too.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. Looking merely at the weight of the subject in the literature, there is a huge problem. Psychology Today reports rather tellingly (24|6|2016), 'Not every person becomes less optimistic' (if we can treat optimism and hope together). Studies are not unanimous, though, including your U-shaped example.

I would think that your comment serves as an example of the most recent approach to hope, where it 'is studied as a mere phenomenon' 'Social science shows ...' Or, in keeping with this, one may seek to encourage the emergence of hope through, say, raising levels of satisfaction or encouraging religious belief -- because this is indicated.

My own concern is more personal. On what basis may we hope? It doesn't make logical sense. One may sidestep the problem and call it a mere phenomenon. One may translate those things which cause a loss of hope, into hope -- but the difficulty there is that one still needs to ground such hope. In between, however, none of the arguments seems helpful.

Martin Cohen said...

I liked the start of this post, but by the end I was in opposition. "Even our greatest disappointments, our greatest causes for despair—even death itself—must be interpreted as hope and be grounded in hope. True hope cannot be conditional, as the Greeks rightly saw." (Where did the Greeks say this, what is the context?) I have to say, I think this claim is nonsensical.

Suppose, someone may have, let us say, a visit to the doctor to see if they have an illness that will kill them in a month. They *hope* they will be given the all clear. That is *hope* as I understand it. Yet here we are told that they mut equally hope to be have disease confirmed, because "True hope cannot be conditional".

I also don't accept the idea that hope has to be *towards something positive*. I might hope to be the top student in my year - why is that a positive? I might displace much more deserving candidates. Or I might hope to achieve my weight loss target in time to show myself off on the beach - is that positive? Yet surely these are correct uses of the term.

Isn't hope essentially a psychological state? Not about outcomes but about, as Thomas says, competing mental models. This is why, yes, fear is similar. I "fear" not coming top of the class after all. But so what, we are talking about an unknowable future... predictions being mixed with approval or disapproval. We *wish* we had done somthing differently in the past, we *hope* something will happen a certain way in the future. But equally, the words can be changed, so that we also wish something happens in the future. But we can't hope that we did something differently.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Martin, for a thoughtful reply.

First the Greeks I refer to. Solon sees hope as 'a negative motor' (Noussia M 1999, on Hesiod's Opera et Dies 498-91). Plato, too, has a 'negative attitude' towards hope (Bloeser C and Stahl T 2017, on Plato's Timaeus, 69b). The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy writes, 'In early Greek thought, hope ... has a primarily negative reputation.' Primarily, though not universally.

Your, call it objection to my concept of hope does grasp what I am driving at. Supposing that I see the doctor. I hope for good news. I receive a very bad diagnosis. Were my hopes fulfilled? My answer is yes -- if I have an unconditional hope. This de-objectifies hope and relativises it. This is how I understand Kierkegaard: 'At every moment always one should hope all things'. Without that, what does one have left?

An 80-year old widow wrote to me behind the scenes, 'In the end, I agree with Stephen Travis' point of view.' There is a Guarantor of hope, even if the name should not be 'God'.

Your third paragraph -- perhaps you identify a third, necessary component of hope. Hope must be selfish (must it)? 'I hope you die' is not something that the next person would hope for, but it may be what I myself hope for. It must be selfish too (as you seem to say) even if it is a hope against myself: 'I hope to down a bottle of vodka a day, or 'I hope to die a martyr.' Thus the standard account of hope is modified:

a) hope is uncertain
b) hope is wishful, and
c) hope is selfish

One could add, hope is future-orientated, although that is not strictly so. For example, 'I hope they arrived,' or 'I hope I gave the correct answer.' Maybe that is a mere technical detail.

Yet if hope is 'essentially a psychological trait' as you say, then we are back to the notion that hope is a mere phenomenon. It happens. Unfortunately, the damned simply don't have it. It's a pity, when they jump from the 20th floor, or drown their sorrows in drink. With this in mind, my core concern is how one might find a rational approach to hope. Hope is rational. All the time, we seek to find a reason to hope. How do we ground it?

Keith said...

‘On what basis may we hope? It doesn’t make logical sense’. This idea hints at something that struck me, beginning with the essay’s title. That is, the fact that, in everyday English usage of course, the expression ‘hope against hope’ typically signifies, as you know, the presence of little to no hope — bordering, even, on hopelessness. In the more-rare, most-dire circumstances, there can sometimes be commonsensical grounds for such hopelessness. (All this being apart from any allusion you might, or might not, have intended to Romans 4:18 in conjuring ‘hope against hope’.) I was trying, therefore, to better understand the essay’s closing definition of ‘hope against hope’, that is, what was more precisely meant by ‘unconditional hope’.

Meanwhile, where I see ‘logical sense’ in (grounds for) hope is in hope being an instinct that’s essential to the entirety of human progress — it gives us reason to pursue better understanding and to strive to survive and thrive. The absence of hope (utter hopelessness, let’s say) likely would, it seems to me, lead to inertia — a sort of ‘what’s the point of even trying?’ I see all that as antithetical to human nature — what fundamentally make us human. Hope, that is, as a built-in condition (instinctual trait) of being human.

Hope was probably in us from our earliest days as a species — it’s how we got from there (chipping flint, skinning prey) to here (building CERN, forming social institutions, mapping the human genome). This point suggests that hope is an original, essential condition to being human — hence why, in my view, hope does make logical sense. Whether our regarding hope as an original human instinct renders it a ‘mere phenomenon’, as you propose, I actually have no problem with that. As a dyed-in-the-wool physicalist, I see ‘hope’ as part of what makes up the mind — the mind having its singular basis in the neurophysiology of the brain. In this manner, I see nothing problematic, therefore, in regarding hope as a (‘mere’?) phenomenon.

Tessa den Uyl said...

I wonder if human being is as rational as it likes to believe… For example a person committing suicide surely hopes to be death after a jump from the 20th floor, although that might not happen for the most obvious sometimes doesn’t happen. I guess that is the mystery of life, it can be amazingly surprising beyond expectations and properly for this reason perhaps human being carries along hope? Then hope is an ambivalent trait, and doesn’t this make hope actually into an irrational characteristic … (?)

Thomas Scarborough said...

I am surprised -- in fact perturbed -- by the emphasis in the comments on hope as a mere phenomenon. I knew that this is a more recent emphasis, and I noted it in my post -- I just didn't realise how real it is. My own primary question is, 'What hope is there for me?'

I can't see how it is consistent that hope should be regarded as a phenomenon. In that case, we could equally regard racism or charity or autonomy or justice (and so on) as phenomena. Max Weber wrote that knowledge about the factual existence of a phenomenon cannot establish its value.

To say, too, that hope 'does make logical sense' would seem to be the perfect appeal to consequences. It does not seem separable from, say, 'religion does make logical sense' or 'eugenics does make logical sense'. In order to make logical sense, a phenomenon needs to be plausibly grounded.

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