Category Archives: Hope

Brief Analysis of “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, before returning to her family home in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most of her friendships depended entirely upon correspondence. She lived primarily as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest of all American poets. Here is one of my favorites.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Analysis – Dickinson likens the concept of hope to a singing bird. Hope’s sound is sweetest during in the gale of despair, which itself feels sore by its battle with hope. Hope withstands cold and the unfamiliar, providing solace without asking for recompense. (My own views on hope are summarized here.)

Is Existence Better than Non-existence? (Final Thoughts on Hope)

Surely the evidence that [humanity] has risen thus far may give [them] hope for a still higher destiny in the future. ~ Charles Darwin

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

More than a month ago I began to exam the concept of hope. I voiced my conclusions in, “A Defense of Hope.” Here is a brief summary of my conclusions.

1 – I am neither optimistic or hopeful about the future because I don’t expect good outcomes, or anticipate that my wishes will come true.

2 – Hope is more fundamental than optimism, for optimism usually relies on a belief that a desirable outcome is probable, whereas hope is independent of probability assessments.

3 – I recommend an attitude of hope without expectations. This attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair, emanates from our nature, expresses itself as caring, spurs action, and makes my life better.

4 – I recommend wishful hopefulness for the same reasons, as long as it is possible that our wishes can be fulfilled, even though we don’t expect them to be.

5 –  I hope that life is meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be improved.

6 – Hope emanates from our biological drive to survive and reproduce, and may expand with the emergence of consciousness and culture.

7 – I can lose my hopeful attitude and give in to despair.

8 – Conclusion – We should (generally) adopt both attitudinal and wishful hopefulness. Still there are situations in which we should give up hope.

Final Thoughts – If attitudinal hopefulness is about acting and striving, do we express some cosmic longing by hoping for good things, and then acting to bring them about? Do we commune with reality by hoping, and if so does this mean that the cosmos is somehow good? Could this be what Plato meant when he said the idea of the good was at the apex of being and reality? Or is Schopenhauer right—our actions simply manifest a blind will, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing?”

The issue of hope then is linked with the question of whether existence is better, or could be better, than non-existence. If existence is better now, and will remain better than non-existence, then attitudinal and wishful hoping are good things. If existence is now worse than non-existence, but could become better than non-existence in the future, then we have to balance things like: how much worse it is now compared to how much better it might become and the probability of existence becoming better. If non-existence is always preferable to existence, then hope is a bad thing.

Unfortunately I don’t know whether existence is now, or will become, preferable to non-existence. I don’t know if it is better for humans and the universe to exist than not to. These questions are as unanswerable as trying to prove that “coffee with cream is better than black coffee,” or “that love is better than hate.”[i]

So in the end, without answers to my metaphysical musings, I return to the idea that it is generally better to hope than despair, with the usual caveats that my hoping attitude must be intrinsically satisfying and the objects of my hopeful wishing are realistic. So after all this searching I can do nothing more than echo William James and Fitz James Stephen: “Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.” This isn’t much to hang your hat on, but at least this modest conclusion is intellectually honest. We don’t have to be embarrassed to claim that, while we don’t expect the best, we do hope that somehow things will work out in the end.

So now, after my search for hope, I agree with and truly understand this great quote:

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding


[i] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press,) 133.

Philosophy and Hope (Academic)

The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence. ~ Gertrude Stein

For the last few weeks I’ve been discussing hope, and I’d like to now briefly summarize the standard account of hope among professional philosophers.Here’s how the discussion of hope begins in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Hope is not only an attitude that has cognitive components—it is responsive to facts about the possibility and likelihood of future events. It also has a conative component—hopes are different from mere expectations insofar they reflect and draw upon our desires.2

So hope encompasses both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of the mind. The cognitive component assesses possibilities and probabilities, the non-cognitive component has to do with desires.

In the “standard account,” hope consists of both a belief in an outcome’s possibility and a desire for that outcome. Here is the“standard account,” as defined by R. S. Downie:

There are two criteria which are independently necessary and jointly sufficient for ‘hope that’. The first is that the object of hope must be desired by the hoper. […] The second […] is that the object of hope falls within a range of physical possibility which includes the improbable but excludes the certain and the merely logically possible.

Or, as J. P. Day writes, “A hopes that p” is true iff “A wishes that p, and A thinks that p has some degree of probability, however small” is true.

The standard definition of “hoping that,” conforms to my definition of wishful hoping. But it doesn’t address the attitudinal hoping that motivates me to act, rather than despair. So nothing about the standard definition gainsays the kind of hope that I advocate.


1. My summary borrowed from the entry on hope in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2. Conation is any natural tendency, impulse, striving, or directed effort.[1]

Summary of Schopenhauer on Hope: From “Psychological Observations”


I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the critique of hope found in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. (I considered his view of pessimism in my last post.) He speaks of hope most directly in an essay titled, “Psychological Observations.” Immediately preceding his brief discussion of hope, he makes these pertinent observations:

 it is usual throughout the whole world to wish people a long life. It is not a knowledge of what life is that explains the origin of such a wish, but rather knowledge of what man is in his real nature: namely, the will to live.

The wish which everyone has, that he may be remembered after his death, and which those people with aspirations have for posthumous fame, seems to me to arise from this tenacity to life …

We wish, more or less, to get to the end of everything we are interested in or occupied with; we are impatient to get to the end of it, and glad when it is finished. It is only the general end, the end of all ends, that we wish, as a rule, as far off as possible.

These considerations of wishing, especially that we don’t die, lead him directly to his discussion of hope.

Hope is to confuse the desire that something should occur with the probability that it will. Perhaps no man is free from this folly of the heart, which deranges the intellect’s correct estimation of probability to such a degree as to make him think the event quite possible, even if the chances are only a thousand to one. And still, an unexpected misfortune is like a speedy death-stroke; while a hope that is always frustrated, and yet springs into life again, is like death by slow torture.

Notice here that his conception of hope entails expectation, the kind of hope I also reject. But surprisingly, in the following passage he seems to defend hope:

He who has given up hope has also given up fear; this is the meaning of the expression desperate. It is natural for a man to have faith in what he wishes, and to have faith in it because he wishes it. If this peculiarity of his nature, which is both beneficial and comforting, is eradicated by repeated hard blows of fate, and he is brought to a converse condition, when he believes that something must happen because he does not wish it, and what he wishes can never happen just because he wishes it; this is, in reality, the state which has been called desperation.

Essentially he’s saying that to lose expectant hope, which he says is both beneficial and comforting, is to despair. This suggests that hope is a good after all. Yet this brief discussion of hope must be taken in the context of his entire philosophy. First, what he writes here is more description than prescription; he says that people do find comfort in hope, not that they should. Second, he would reject the action motivating, attitudinal hope that I advocate because he believes blind will motivates action, and we are all better off dead. In the end, Schopenhauer’s philosophy challenges the hopeful among us.

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.  


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.