Category Archives: Hope

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 by considering optimism, a closely related concept of 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 Moment

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 your 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 also includes this definition of hope: “To wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment. To look forward to with confidence or expectation.” Here again is the emphasis 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 Moment That Motivates Action

But hope 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. When I despair, I 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.

Another thing about this attitudinal hope I adopt in the present is that it is more likely to be in my control than future outcomes. Still, I reject hopeful expectations not just because the future is out of our control, but also because I can’t intellectually justify my hope that life has meaning, that justice will triumph, and all the rest.

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. And 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.

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. 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. And in that 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.

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?

I can only answer this for myself. I hope, want, wish, desire, and dream that my life and universal life are meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be made better. 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 sources of these hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable fervency. To best explain, I must wax poetically. Perhaps 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 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. Marcel’s mysterious principle probably corresponds to the scientific idea that order emerges out of chaos, as organisms dissipate their disorder into the external environment. And this means that our species may become more hopeful.

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, or 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.


Hope is an attitude of caring, of concern, of acting, of trying, of striving. We adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it is part of our nature, it spurs action, and it makes our lives better. Wishful hopefulness, wishing without expectations, also emanates from our nature, rejecting despair and motivating action.

I chose to adopt a hopeful attitude and maintain my hopeful dreams because it makes my life go better, and might help the world as well. I don’t know if life is meaningful, or if truth, beauty, goodness or justice matter. I don’t know if there is any recompense for my efforts or the suffering that surrounds me. I don’t know if anything matters at all. I’m neither an optimist or a pessimist. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least in my current situation. Thus 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


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.

Kazantzakis’ Epitaph: Rejecting Hope

Now that I have summarized some of the main ideas in Kazantzakis’ thinking, and have written a detailed summary of his, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, I would like to consider further his idea of hope, which I first encountered in this passage:

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope. [i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines so many years ago. I had rejected my religious upbringing as a youth, and never regretted my decision, but why couldn’t I still hope that life had meaning, that things matter, that there is ultimate justice? Why was Kazantzakis taking away these hopes?

After all, I had comforted distraught students over the years saying that, although we don’t know that life has meaning, we can still hope that it does. Often these students were distressed by the meaninglessness and absurdity they encountered in existential thinkers like Sartre and Camus, or by the erosion of their religious beliefs after classes in philosophy of religion. Was I wrong to comfort them with vague hopes?

Kazantzakis thinks rejecting hope is so important that in, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, it is one of the three duties to be fulfilled in preparation for the spiritual life. The first duty is to bravely accept our cognitive limitations, and the second duty is to accept the heart’s anguish at being unable to find meaning in life. This leads to the third duty:

The moment is ripe: leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward, take the third step. 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. This is the third duty.

Moreover his epitaph, carved on his tombstone in Greek reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” 

Analysis of the Epitaph

A few have questioned the translation of the epitaph. The most common English translation is: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” A few others translated it: “I expect nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”  As this commentator explains:

The first translation may be the most literal, but the second — at least in my view — is the one that best captures the true spirit of Kazantzakis’ philosophy. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, Kazantzakis was not opposed to that form of hope that is often coupled with faith and optimism. He was opposed to hope that is based upon desire and  expectations of favorable outcomes, because he believed that desire and expectations, like fear, keep people focused on future events, rendering them incapable of living and experiencing life in the present moment.

The appeal of this second translation is that it allows for hope. For to hope for something is not necessarily to expect something. (I can hope to win the lottery without expecting to.) So perhaps Kazantzakis only rejects hoping with expectation, but allows us to hope without expectation. And what is it to hope without expectation? This would be akin to wishing or wanting without expecting that our wishes or wants are fulfilled.

Now this raises another question. Can we hope without there being an object of our hoping? Can we just hope, without hoping for something? I don’t think so. No more than we can wish or want without wishing or wanting for something. But for Kazantzakis, to hope for something—say truth or meaning or the betterment of the world—requires some justification for believing that our hopes have a good chance of being fulfilled. Yet Kazantzakis’ first two duties specifically reject the notion that the mind or heart can justify believing in any of these things—hence the duty to overcome hope.

So while I would prefer to say that Kazantzakis believes that we should have optimism or hope without expectation, he doesn’t believe this. The usual translation fits best with his other writings; he is advising us to reject hope of any kind.


To better understand Kazantzakis’ view consider how Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, distinguishes between: 1) weak pessimism; 2) strong pessimism; and 3) Socratic optimism. Nietzsche associates weak pessimism with Eastern renunciation; strong pessimism with the 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, ugly, irrational, and impermanent, while optimism is the view that reality is orderly, intelligible, and open to betterment. Optimists mistakenly believes that they can overcome the abyss and make the world better by action, but Nietzsche wants us to see reality realistically and become pessimists.

Yet Nietzsche didn’t want us to be weak pessimists who deny the passions and seek nothingness like the Buddha. Instead, he wanted 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 Nietzsche’s language, Kazantzakis was a strong pessimist.


Why then should we abandoned hope according to Kazantzakis? Because if we will only struggle when hopeful, then hope impedes our quest, since so often we have no reason to hope. Rather than hoping for good outcomes, or to understand with the mind or heart, we should ascend and move forward. Though tempted by optimistic views, the courageous renounce hope, and carry on in its absence.

Kazantzakis includes the rejection of hope among his sacred duties, and in his short epitaph. We may want to think otherwise, but Kazantzakis believed that by rejecting all hope, we find true freedom. To think otherwise distorts his thinking.

Buddha greatly influenced Kazantzakis, but on the topic of hope Nietzsche was his guide. (Kazantzakis devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography to Nietzsche.) If there are any doubts about Kazantzakis’ rejection of hope or optimism, this profound passage from Report to Greco should put the matter to rest:

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. At all events, 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. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreate, or go about begging. Yes that was what I wanted. Three cheers for Nietzsche, the murderer of God. He it was who gave me the courage to say, that is what I want!


  1. I derived these insights from Peter Bien’s: Kazantzakis, Volume 2: Politics of the Spirit (Princeton Modern Greek Studies).

A Reader’s Comments on the Process of Dying

A recent post of mine entitled: “The Case Against Hope,” elicited some thoughtful comments from a reader. My piece argued that it is best to give up hope in hopeless situations. The reader, a former student of mine who works in a major urban hospital, basically agreed. She argues that false hope is counterproductive, that grieving is not a disease, patients should be respected as autonomous agents. The full comments can be found in the comments section of that post but here is a sampling of her thoughts.

I don’t know exactly why, but there seems to be a very thin line between being hopeful in grim circumstances and being realistic and accepting that our power is sometimes limited. For example, I used to work very closely with very sick cancer patients. Some of them I got to know pretty well, over a long time. I also lost my best friend to cancer, and walked with him through that journey. What struck me over and over is the strong-arming that occurs with patients who are terminally ill/in the very late stages of disease–strong-arming them into projecting this perfect portrayal of hope for survival. Do not misunderstand me—I am not saying that positive outlook and motivation and openness is not important when one is facing a serious illness …I am talking about the cases where the patients involved were in a dire situation, and had certainly maintained hope and effort up until the point the situation became so dire.

It was not uncommon to see this happen: Doctor tells patient that their illness has progressed, that their prognosis was not good, that their estimated time remaining was X. Then the very next thing they would do is say that they were writing a prescription for antidepressants, since patients “have a hard time dealing with this”… I still remember when my dear friend was in this situation–he said to the physician, “I am not depressed. I am upset. Am I not allowed to be upset?”

many times these patients who expressed a wish to cease further treatment were offered major surgeries, really radical treatments that were held out as a “last ditch effort.” … Some of them consented to radical surgeries that did not extend their lives at all, and they ended up expressing regret afterwards. It was unsettling to see this play out again and again … And what I saw was people who were being sold so much hope that they never got to move on to acceptance, and that was very unfortunate.

In my next post I would like to expand on the idea of death with dignity.

The Case Against Hope

Read an interesting column in the Guardian the other day which argued against hope in certain circumstances. The author, 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 the hopelessness of the situation; and many become more active in working for change when they stop hoping for others to do it. Perhaps there is something about giving up hope and accepting reality that is comforting.

Reflections – I generally stress the importance of hope—that we should hope for the best, that life has meaning, that justice prevails, etc. Still Burkeman is correct that false hopes are futile, and lead to inevitable disappointment. If I hope to become the world’s most famous author or greatest tennis player, my expectations are bound to be dashed. Much better to hope that I enjoy writing and tennis despite my shortcomings in both.

So when confronted by the reality of the concentrations camps, Victor Frankl did not hope to dig his way out of his prison. That was not possible, and such hopes would soon have been thwarted. Instead, he controlled his own mind, and (probably) vaguely hoped for something realistic—that the war would end and he might be freed. That is the difference between false and realistic hope. The former is delusional, the latter worthwhile. Sometimes only fools keep believing; sometimes you should stop believing.

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.”


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.