Simon Critchley on Hope

In today’s New York Times the philosopher Simon Critchley argues for abandoning hope in his article “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope.” In it he defends a theme similar to the one he argued for in his book Very Little … Almost Nothing. (I reviewed it on this blog.) Critchley seems to regard hope as another redemptive narrative, or perhaps as an element in all redemptive narratives. Instead of succumbing to the temptation of hope, he suggests we be realistic and brave—a view reminiscent of that held by Camus, Russell and Kazantzakis.

Critchley begins by asking: “Is it [hope] not rather a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering?” If hope is escapism or wishful thinking, if it is blind to reality or contrary to all evidence, then it is a form of moral cowardice. To elucidate these ideas Critchley recalls Thucydides’ story of the Greeks ultimatum to the Melians—surrender or die. Rather than submit, the Melians hope for reprieve from allies or the gods, despite the evidence that such hopes are misplaced. The reprieve never comes, and all the Melians are either killed or enslaved. In the face of the facts Critchley counsels, not hope, but courageous realism. False hopes will seal our doom as they did the Milians. 

From such considerations Critchley concludes:”You can have all kinds of reasonable hopes … But unless those hopes are realistic we will end up in a blindly hopeful (and therefore hopeless) idealism … Often, by clinging to hope, we make the suffering worse.”

Reflections

Hope is one of the most important ideas in philosophy and I’m still trying to understand the extent to which it is justified. (I blogged about it recently here and here.) I agree with Critchley that unrealistic hopes are destructive and the recognition of hopelessness, when the situation calls for it, is the best we can do. Consider the stories we read in the news of individuals who falsely hope their loved ones are alive despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Surely such false hopes prolong misery.

But I’m more concerned with whether hope is justified concerning big issues like whether life has meaning. Can you justifiably hope that life has meaning? I think you can. The reason is that the situation is not analogous to the Mileans. In their case futility should have demanded realism. But regarding questions about the ultimate purpose of the ourselves and the cosmos, we just don’t know enough to say that hope is unjustified. Thus we can legitimately hope that life is meaningful without being moral cowards. Of course life may be pointless and meaningless. We just don’t know.

But if we bravely accept that we just don’t know whether life is meaningful or not, then we live with moral and intellectual integrity. And there is no more honest or better way to live.

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