A Defense of Hope

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well … but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.                                                                                     ~  Vaclav Havel

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 27, 2017.)

Optimism As an Expectation About the Future

I begin with optimism, a concept closely related to hope. The American Heritage Dictionary defines optimism as: “A tendency to expect the best possible outcome …” Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will get worse. So optimism is a dispositional attitude which reflects an expectation that future conditions will work out for the best. I reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes, or believe that things will get better in the future.

Optimism As an Attitude in the Present

The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers another meaning of optimism: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events …” So optimism in this sense refers, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This is the kind of optimism that sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, or looks on the bright side of life. Optimism as a positive attitude is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing the glass half full—while expectations for the future set us up for disappointment. I recommend this attitudinal optimism, as long as it excludes expectations.

Hope As an Expectation About the Future

The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition of hope: “To wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment. To look forward to with confidence or expectation.” Here again the emphasis is on future expectations. And I reject such hope because I don’t expect or anticipate that my wishes will come true. 

Hope As an Attitude in the Present That Motivates Action

But hope, like optimism, can also refer to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with its opposite—despair. When I despair, I no longer care; I just give up because my actions feel like they don’t matter. Why take the test if I’m sure I’m going to fail? Why play the match if I’m sure I’m going to lose? Why fight for truth and justice if they can’t be realized?

But hope is the opposite. Hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; to express fidelity to our comrades; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or better the world, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive without expecting success. So this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude which informs my present. And it’s not about resignation or acceptance. Instead, hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.

The Difference Between Optimism and Hope

The key difference between optimism and hope is that optimism—even if devoid of expectations—usually relies on a belief that a desirable outcome is probable, whereas hope is independent of probability assessments. I may hope for outcomes that are very unlikely, but it is hard to be optimistic in such cases. Put another way, attitudinal hope conquers despair similar to how optimism bests pessimism. So attitudinal hopefulness is a stronger version of attitudinal optimism because despair is more devastating than pessimism.

Hope Is an Attitude That Makes My Life Better

But what is the point of all this hoping, caring, acting, and striving if we don’t know if we will succeed? One answer is that an attitude of hoping and caring that leads to action is inherently good. Consider the joy we take in playing games, solving puzzles, or writing blog posts, even if such actions may be objectively pointless. Such actions are a form of playing. We often do these things, not for any future rewards, but because we want to, as we find doing them fulfilling.

But devoid of hope, in the grip of despair, we wouldn’t even try to play the game or solve the puzzle or write the blog, and we would miss the inherent joy such actions might bring. Moreover, if I despair, I won’t enjoy my life as much as if I had adopted a hopeful attitude. So there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better; it helps me live well; it makes me happier. So hope is both inherently and instrumentally good for us.

Attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair and leads to caring and acting. I adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it spurs action and makes my life better. I recommend such hope. 

Hope As Wishing Without Expectations

Yet hope is more than simply an attitude we adopt in the present; hope also entails having certain desires, dreams, wants, or wishes for the future. (This is the fundamental distinction between the act of hoping and the objects of our hopes.) Now I have already rejected such hopes if they include the idea of expectations. But I can have hopes, desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without any sense that they will be fulfilled. In this sense there is nothing intellectually objectionable about having hopes and dreams—so long as there is a realistic possibility that they can be fulfilled. However, this hopeful wishing is not faith. I don’t believe or expect that my wishes will come true, although I imagine that they could, and I’m not hoping for something that’s impossible.

Hope As Wishing Leads to Action

Attitudinal hope in the present moment rejects despair, makes our lives better, and spurs action. But so too can hope—as wishing without expectation—motivate action. Wishful hoping provides the impetus for acting to fulfill those hopes, which in turn makes the fulfillment of those hopes more likely.

This connection between hopeful wishing and action is easy to see. For example, suppose I hope to be a lawyer. If for some reason this is impossible, then it is counter-productive to have this false hope. But if nothing prevents me from becoming a lawyer, then the desire to be one motivates me to act toward that end. So hoping like this is not a false hope, as long as my hopes are realistic. In short, my hopes and dreams give me reasons to act.

Wishful hopefulness also rejects despair and motivates action. I recommend this hope. 

What Do I Hope For?

What then are the objects of my hopes? They are relatively vague or indeterminate. I hope that something better will emerge, that things will work out for the best, that my life and universal life are meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be improved. In short, I hope that somehow it all makes sense, even though philosophical nihilism constantly beckons.

What Is the Source of This Hope?

I don’t know the exact sources of these hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable fervency. To best explain, I wax poetically. Maybe the source of these hopes is some cosmic longing within me, or perhaps what I call me is just misnomer for the longing of some cosmic consciousness. Perhaps, as the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel put it, “Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.”1

These poetic descriptions are a bit metaphysically speculative for my tastes. I’d prefer to say this hoping emanates from biological and cultural sources. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, steer us toward hoping and acting. Having hope benefitted our ancestors, made their lives go better, and aided their survival. In short, we are the descendants of those who hoped.

Losing Hope

Still, any of us can lose our hopeful attitude; we can give in to despair. And that’s because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say there is nothing worthwhile in the world; to hope is to affirm that your concerns, your actions, your love, and your life, all matter.

Still it is easy from the safety of my study, with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations. Perhaps they are starving, fleeing violence, in endless pain, or in solitary confinement. For them hope is no salve, and their lives possibly pointless. These hopeless situations should make us all weep.

But notice what hope recommends, at least for those of us lucky enough to have our basic needs met. We are called upon to forgo acceptance and resignation, and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but also act! We may not succeed, but we can try. For hope is better than despair and, even if we all ultimately face the abyss, we can meet it no better.

Conclusion

We should adopt this attitudinal hopefulness—expressed as caring and striving—because it is part of our nature, spurs action, and makes our lives better. We should also adopt wishful hopefulness—wishing without expectations—for the same reasons.

I don’t know if life is meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness and justice matter; if there is any recompense for my efforts; if suffering can be ameliorated; or if anything matters at all. I don’t know if my wishes will be fulfilled, or my hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. For now I still have hope.

I conclude with a famous passage about hope from William James‘ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.2

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1. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995) 28.

2. William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2000), x. (He attributes the quote to Fitz James Stephen.)

6 thoughts on “A Defense of Hope

  1. Wonderful commentary! I’m reminded of your posts discussing Longfellow’s poems, which I also enjoyed immensely. I think Longfellow would agree with Michael and Caldwell and he would add that we should never stop working toward achieving our dreams. It’s just a better way to live.

  2. I can offer two thoughts here, one of each side of the issue.

    When I was younger, I espoused private egotism on the grounds that it encouraged creative achievement. Thirty years ago I wrote these words:
    “…stand on the craggy mountaintop, lightning bolts playing about you, head held high as the furious wind hurls rain in your face. Laugh scornfully at the elements that doubt your greatness. Shout lustily into the tempest, ‘I am ze greatest game designer in all ze universe!’ ”

    My argument was that creative ambition must necessarily lead to frequent failure. As Alan Kaye once told me, “if you don’t fail at least 90% of the time, you’re not aiming high enough” So creative achievement requires an expectation of eventual success — a kind of hope. And indeed, I can say that I have lived that life, having spent 25 years now working on interactive storytelling, a technology that has defied every attack from others, and I have only barely cracked.

    On the other side of the argument I can offer the Buddhist notion of surrendering oneself to reality, whatever it may be. A man is rich by the number of things he DOESN’T want. To desire something is to impose small-minded volition on the grandness of reality. Go with the flow. Don’t sunder yourself from reality by attempting to impose your own desired reality upon it — the only way to achieve true happiness is to love reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.

    This second argument has been growing in power with me. Living on 40 acres of forestland, I daily experience my own impotence in the face of the grand forces of nature. I can tickle reality here and there, but I know that my efforts will have only temporary effect.

    Yet I remain uncertain. For the last few years, I have been digging deep holes and burying a marble in each hole before covering it up. My land is slowly, slowly eroding; in thousands or tens of thousands of years, those marbles will be exposed on the surface exactly as they are now. I expect that, ten thousand years from now, a hunter-gatherer Homo Sapiens, the descendent of a civilization that destroyed itself, will chance upon it, pick it up, turn it over in his hand, wondering mightily what it is. My message to him is that once there was something beautiful in the perfect shape of a sphere.

    Is that hope or pessimism?

  3. You begin with the Western emphasis on action – chop the trees down, build log cabins, kill the Indians, get to California! Both good and bad. We made it to the west coast buts lots of people were killed and lots of environmental destruction along the way. This appeals to us when we’re young and full of testosterone.

    I’m no Buddhist scholar but clearly the lack of desire, resignation, acceptance, passivity is emphasized in the East. Good and bad. The best of religion and spirituality but perhaps not enough economic development. Vast oversimplification but trying to contrast with the above.

    As I said in a recent post – “we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world, remembering that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts.”

    I’ve read your marble post and almost wrote about it—profound action. It seems both hopeful—something will survive—and pessimistic—we probably won’t. On balance I’d call that hopeful.

  4. I have continued to mull over this issue — I am torn between two approaches. Or perhaps I should say that I simultaneously embrace incompatible notions.

    The easier one to describe is the Eastern passivity: acknowledge that one cannot control events, and must accept them as part of a reality infinitely greater than oneself. This approach makes it possible for me to contemplate the ongoing idiocies of Mr. Trump and tell myself that, if America chooses to destroy itself through its own stupidity, then that is the good and right thing to happen. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get a dog to multiply two numbers together; that is not in the dog’s nature. In the same way, it is silly to try to get Americans to understand the realities of the world. Better to let the dog and the Americans be themselves. If civilization is on a course to destroy itself, then that is the natural outcome. After all, Homo Sapiens is ideally adapted to be a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer species; this whole civilization adventure is a wild aberration from our natural selves and cannot last. Let it live, revel, and die.

    On the other hand, when I confine my considerations to my own life, I am able to entertain hope. I believe that I can make this world a better place. I can plant trees. I can develop good ideas (although I have given up hope of getting Homo Sapiens to understand them). I can give my dogs and cats happy lives. Indeed, I remarked to my wife a few weeks ago that the thing that makes me happiest is the realization that I can give three dogs — three good souls — a life and environment ideally suited to their needs. My dogs are the happiest dogs in the world. They have 40 acres in which to romp, far from the road. They can chase deer and squirrels, dig for gophers, bark at coyotes, and sometimes just run for the sheer joy of running. So what if their lives are short? So is mine.

    I still sometimes entertain hope of bettering my fellow Homo Sapiens, and I know that it is possible to improve the lives of some people. Yet the knowledge that it shall all be destroyed within a century takes some of joy out of it.

  5. So much to say – probably have to write a whole post. Seems like your contrasting the effect on the external world over which we are almost impotent, with your effect you can have on your own life which is substantial. Very much like Descartes 3rd maxim. The thought that there will be no future is really tough, which is what Samuel Scheffler wrote about recently. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Scheffler

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