Is Hope Bad?

Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of men. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

For the past few weeks we investigated the concept of hope. In the process we have come to offer a spirited defense of hope and, to a lesser extent, optimism. I’d now like to “play the flip side,” as an old colleague used to say, and consider some critics of hope.

Kazantzakis’ Case Against Hope

I have previously expressed my affinity for the thought of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957). I have also discussed his case against hope in detail in, “Kazantzakis’ Epitaph: Rejecting Hope.” Here are a few highlights of his case against hope:

… leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward … Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope …

Why should we abandon hope according to Kazantzakis? Because we often lose hope and cease acting. Instead, we should seek and strive, even if our efforts are in vain. Don’t hope for good outcomes, or understanding, or meaning, he counsels, but ascend and move forward. We are tempted by hope, but the courageous live without it, carrying on in its absence. Kazantzakis describes his rejection of hope or optimism, in this passage from his autobiography, Report to Greco:

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that [the human] heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better … in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble …

Note – The hope that Kazantzakis rejects is metaphysical and forward-looking, and I too reject such hopes. And he want us to act, which I argue is the essence of hope. Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Nietzsche’s Pessimism

There are many great pessimists in the Western philosophical tradition—Voltaire, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and others—but let’s focus on Nietzsche. He associates weak pessimism with Eastern renunciation; strong pessimism with Eastern notion of harmonizing contradictions; and Socratic optimism with Western philosophy’s emphasis on logic, beauty, goodness, and truth. For Nietzsche pessimism refers to the fact that reality is cruel, irrational, and always changing; while optimism is the view that reality is orderly, intelligible, and open to betterment. Optimists mistakenly believe that they can overcome the abyss and make the world better by action, but Nietzsche wants us to see reality realistically and be pessimists.

Yet Nietzsche doesn’t want us to be weak pessimists like the Buddha, who advised us to eliminate desires, or like Schopenhauer, who believed that in resignation from striving we find freedom. Instead, Nietzsche wants us to be strong pessimists who affirm life rather than renounce it, who fill life with their enthusiasm, and who take pleasure in what is hard and terrible. Salvation and freedom come from accepting the contradictory and destructive nature of reality, and responding with joyous affirmation.

In other words, Nietzsche’s response to the tragedy of life is neither resignation nor self-denial, but a life-affirming pessimism. He sees Socratic philosophy and most religion as an optimistic refuge for those who will not accept the tragic sense of life. But he also rejects Schopenhauer’s pessimism and nihilism. Nietzsche’s pessimism says yes to life. He counsels us to embrace life and suffer joyfully.

Note – Nietzsche’s thoughts are consistent with Kazantzakis’ and my own. He rejects both resignation and a hope which includes expectations. Instead, he calls us to action, as do I.  Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Stoicism

While Michael and Caldwell use Stoicism to defend caring without lamentation, a view that they argue is consistent with optimism, most interpret the Stoics differently. For example, consider how the Stoics address the issue of anxiety. When you are anxious, most people try to cheer you up by telling you things will be ok. But the Stoics hate consolation meant to give hope—the opiate of the emotions. They believe that we must eliminate hope to find inner peace because hoping for the best makes things worse, especially because your hopes are inevitably dashed. Instead, they advise that we tell ourselves that things will get worse because, when we envision the worst, we will discover that we can manage it. And if things get too bad, the Stoics remind us that we can always commit suicide.

Or consider the Stoics on anger. Anger comes when misplaced hopes smash into unforeseen reality. We get mad, not at every bad thing, but at bad, unexpected things. So we should expect bad things—not hope they don’t occur—and then we won’t be angry when things go wrong. Wisdom is reaching a state where no expected or unexpected tragedy disturbs our inner peace, so again we do best without hope. Still this doesn’t imply total resignation to our fate; there are still some things we might be able to change.

Finally, to better understand the Stoics rejection of hope, let’s listen to Seneca:

[t]hey [hope and fear] are bound up with one another, unconnected as they may seem. Widely different though they are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.

Note – The stoics reject hope as expectation, lamentation, and consolation; not hope as action. Thus nothing they say here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Simon Critchley’s Case Against Hope

Simon Critchley, chair and professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York City, recently penned this piece in the New York Times: “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 the book on this blog.) Critchley regards 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 the one held by Nietzsche 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 hoped for reprieve from their allies or their gods, despite the evidence that such hopes were misplaced. The reprieve never come, and all the Melians were either killed or enslaved. In such situations 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.”

Note – I too reject false hopes, but Critchley admits you can have reasonable hopes. Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Oliver Burkeman on Hope as Deception

In a recent column in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman argued that what is often called hope is really deception—hoping for things which are virtually impossible. For example, hoping that one wins the lottery, or that the victims of an accident have survived when their deaths are near certainties.

By contrast, letting go of hope often sets us free. To support this claim he refers to “recent research … suggesting that hope makes people feel worse.” For instance: the unemployed who hope to find work are less happy than those who accept they won’t work again; those in the state of hoping for a miraculous cure for a terminal disease are less happy than those who accept that they will die; and people more often act for change when they stop hoping that others will do so. Perhaps there is something about giving up hope and accepting reality that is comforting.

Note – I too reject hope with expectations. Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

My Reflections

The common theme in these critiques is the futility of false hopes, which lead inevitably to disappointment. I agree. If I hope to become the world’s most famous author or greatest tennis player, my expectations are bound to be dashed. Silly to hope for such things. Much better to hope that I enjoy writing and tennis despite my shortcomings in both.

For instance, when confronted by the reality of the concentrations camps, Victor Frankl didn’t hope to dig his way out of his prison. That wasn’t impossible. Instead, he hoped that the war would end and he might be freed. That was realistic. Thus the difference between false and realistic hope. The former is delusional, the latter worthwhile. Sometimes only fools keep believing; sometimes you should stop believing. False hopes prolong misery.

But I want to know if I’m justified in hoping (without expectation) that life has meaning or that truth, beauty and goodness matter. And I think I am. Why? Because regarding questions about the ultimate purpose of the ourselves and the cosmos, we just don’t know enough to say that hope is unjustified. It is reasonable to think that life might have meaning, it is not impossible that it does. Thus this is not a false hope, even if the object of my hopes may not be fulfilled.

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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