Hope and Pandora’s Box

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to mold her out of earth as part of the punishment of humanity for Prometheus‘ theft of the secret of fire. According to the myth Pandora opened a jar, in modern accounts often mistranslated as “Pandora’s box,” releasing all the evils of humanity such as pain and suffering, leaving only hope inside once she had closed it again. (Most scholars translate the Greek word elpis as “expectation.”) The Pandora myth is a kind of theodicy—an attempt to explain why there is evil in the world.

The key question is how to interpret the myth. Is the imprisonment of hope inside the jar a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? If hope is another evil, then we should be thankful that hope was withheld. The idea is that by hoping for or expecting a good life we can never have, we prolong our torment. Thus it is better to live without hope, and it is good that hope remained in the jar. But if hope is somehow good, then its imprisonment makes life even more dreary and insufferable. All the evils were scattered from the jar, while the one potentially mitigating force, hope, remains locked inside. Of course this makes us wonder why this good hope is in the jar of evils. To this question I have no answer.

But I do have another interpretation. Perhaps hope is good and it is good that it remained in the jar. In other words, the jar originally served as a prison for the evils, but thereafter it serves as a residence for this good hope. It’s as if hope, separated from evil, takes on a new character—it becomes good. But had hope been released into the world with the other evils, it would have been another evil, a bad kind of hope.

My interpretation depends on understanding hope, not as an expectation, but as an attitude that leads us to act rather than despair. This is the good kind of hope preserved in the jar. To better understand my interpretation, remember the words of Aeschylus from his tragedy, Prometheus Bound. Prometheus’ two great gifts to humanity are hope and fire. Hope aids our struggle for a better future while fire, the source of technology, makes success in that struggle possible. Hope is the first gift that Aeschylus mentions.

Chorus: Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?
Prometheus – I stopped mortals from foreseeing their fate.
Chorus – What kind of cure did you discover for this sickness?
Prometheus – I established in them blind hopes.
Chorus – This is a great benefit you gave to men.

2 thoughts on “Hope and Pandora’s Box

  1. “Most scholars translate the Greek word elpis as “expectation.”
    I am a bit baffled. “Expectation” is “προσδοκία” (prosdokia) in Greek, which has a not too subtly different meaning. Το hope/να ελπίζεις is more abstract, kind of arbitrary, less concrete. To expect/να προσδοκάς is more solid, more concrete and focused (usually on one target, rather than many or in an abstract or existential sense), more clear.

    I largely agree with your interpretation of hope in contrast to despair, regarding Pandora’s myth. “Hope/ελπίς/ελπίδα” in Greek has the same meaning, while “expectation/προσδοκία” does not. And I think hope can be both good and bad. It is good when it is restrained, moderated, draws us away from despair and gets us back on our feet.
    It is bad when it is raw, blind, very enthusiastic, untamed and untempered*. In short, even hope requires moderation, or, ideally, some sort of “golden mean” between hope and despair (see : Aristotle’s Nicomachean & Eudemian Ethics).

    So whether the particular hope that remained in Pandora’s “box” was good or bad would depend on what kind of hope it was, in my opinion.

    *And I would hazard a guess that the latter kind of hope is the one Nietzsche condemned in Human All Too Human with words like “in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man”.

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