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.

In Hope Lies All Possibilities

Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it … The worst is always what the hopeful are prepared for. Their trust in life would not be worth much if it had not survived disappointments in the past, while knowledge that the future holds further disappointments demonstrates the continuing need for hope … Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”  ~ Christopher Lasch

For the last few weeks I have been writing about the concept of hope. I recently found an insight from the work of my graduate school mentor and dissertation director Richard J. Blackwell. I have written previously about the profound effect that Professor Blackwell had on my philosophical development.

The January 1999 edition of the philosophical journal, The Modern Schoolman, was titled: “Philosophy and Modern Science: Papers Presented in Honor of Richard J. Blackwell.” (For those unfamiliar with the academy, it is a high and rare honor to have an edition of a professional journal devoted to your work.)The introduction of that work was penned by Professor Richard Dees, now of the University of Rochester. Dees begins thus:

The articles gathered here honor the legacy of Richard J. Blackwell, a dedicated scholar, a consummate colleague, and above all, a much-loved and much-revered teacher … During his tenure, he has directed a program in the history and philosophy of science, written five books on topics ranging from the logic of discovery to his now-famous work on Galileo, translated four other books of historical significance, held the Danforth Chair in Humanities, won the Nancy McNair Ring Outstanding Teacher Award, directed over 30 dissertations, and guided literally hundreds of students.

After describing Blackwell’s many philosophical projects, and introducing the articles written in his honor by the distinguished scholars, Dees summarizes Blackwell’s conclusions about the Galileo affair—the work for which he became most well-known. In this concluding paragraph that I found a pearl of wisdom. Dees writes:

So, for Blackwell, the real lesson of the Galileo Affair is … what it shows us about our own intellectual enterprises. When a standpoint becomes over-intellectualized, it becomes so rigid that no changes are possible without destroying the view itself. In the seventeenth-century, that danger lay primarily in the system-building philosophy that dominated the Catholic Church and the intellectual climate of Europe … The … question is whether the Catholic Church—or any organized religion—can open up its inquiries into the nature of reality in the same way that science has. Blackwell thinks that such a change is possible, but not without reconceptualizing the very structure of traditional Christian thought. As long as faith is considered the key virtue, any religion can fall too easily into dogmatism. Instead, he suggests, hope should be the center of our thought, for in hope lies all possibilities. (emphasis mine)

I believe that Professor Dees describes Blackwell’s overall philosophical attitude perfectly. And, since I’m fortunate to still correspond with Professor Blackwell, I can say that he has maintained this positive, optimistic, or hopeful attitude despite age, pain and infirmity. I am blessed to have known him. And I’d like to thank Professor Dees for his clear and eloquent prose.

Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

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The first poem I ever committed to memory was Robert Frost’s, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I first encountered it as a sophomore in high school almost 50 years ago, and I remember being moved by my teacher’s vocal rendition. I didn’t know then that I would still remember the poem so many years later. I now have less miles to go than I did in my youth, and the “dark and deep” are beginning to look lovelier.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963) was an American poet who is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech.[2] One of the most popular and critically respected American poets of the twentieth century,[3] Frost was honored frequently during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. He became one of America’s rare “public literary figures, almost an artistic institution.”[3] He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960, and he read his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961.

I have always enjoyed that the poem rhymes, as I generally find free verse harder to digest. As Frost famously remarked free verse was like “playing tennis without a net.” The poem is written in iambic tetrameter in the Rubaiyat stanza created by Edward Fitzgerald. Overall, the rhyme scheme is AABA-BBCB-CCDC-DDDD.[3]  Frost himself called the poem “my best bid for remembrance”.[1]

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Summary of Victor Frankl on “Tragic Optimism”

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Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., PhD. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and the best-selling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over 12 million copies. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” (I have taught out of the book in many universities classes, and it is one of my favorite books. I have summarized it here.)

The postscript to the book, “Tragic Optimism,” was added in 1984 and is based on a lecture Frankl presented at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy, Regensburg University, West Germany, June 1983. Here are its main ideas.

Frankl begins like this:

“Let us first ask ourselves what should be understood by “a tragic optimism.” In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” … a triad which consists of … (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This … raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that?  How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism … an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Of course you can’t force someone to be optimistic, anymore than you can force them to be happy. Rather, you need a reason to be happy, just like you need a reason to laugh or smile. Give someone a reason to happy or laugh or smile and they will. Try to force them to and they will have fake happiness or forced laughter or an unnatural smile.

Real happiness comes when we find meaning in our lives—meaning provides the reason to be happy despite the tragic triad. Without meaning, we give up. And this meaninglessness often lies behind our experiences of: 1) depression; 2) aggression; and 3) addiction. Now we can trace many neurosis to biochemical conditions, but Frankl found that often their origins derive from a sense of meaninglessness.

As a therapist, Frankl was “concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life,” rather than trying to understand the meaning of a life as a whole. He was not suggesting there is no meaning to an entire human life, but that this final meaning depends “on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized …” In other words: “the perception of meaning … boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or … becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”

But how do we find meaning in our lives? Frankl reiterates that there are three main sources of meaning in life: 1) creating a work or doing a deed;  2) experiencing something or encountering someone (as in love);  and 3) transcending, learning, and finding meaning from the inevitable suffering which we will experience. Frankl also argues that we can find meaning despite the tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death.

As for suffering, Frankl doesn’t claiming that we must suffer to discover meaning, but that meaning can be found despite, or even because of, suffering. Here he reminds me of the Stoics: “If it [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” We might not have chosen to break our necks, but we can choose to not let that experience break us. As for guilt, we overcome it primarily by taking responsibility for our actions, rising above guilt, and transforming ourselves for the better .

As for death, the ephemeral nature of life should remind us how we are dying every moment, and thus should make good use of our time. This leads to Frankl’s imperative: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” In other words, live your life as if you were getting a second chance to correct all the mistakes you made in your first life. Frankl’s ruminations on the irreversibility of our lives always moves me deeply:

… as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.

Surprisingly these considerations lead him to this profound thought about aging:

From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

Frankl says that society mistakenly adores achievement, success, happiness and youth. However, the quest for meaning is the most worthwhile pursuit, and the only way to true happiness. Life’s tragedies—pain, guilt, and death—may lead to meaninglessness, but they don’t have to. We can be optimistic. We can find meaning through our work, our relationships, and by nobly bearing our suffering.

Doug Muder on Hope

At times our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
~ Albert Schweitzer

Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift that only we can give to one another. ~ Elie Wiesel

The retired mathematics professor Doug Muder writes a great political blog, The Weekly Sift. Recently he has addressed the question of hope, primarily in response to the political situation in America today. Here are brief summaries of his thoughts about hope.

In “Hope, True and False,” Muder writes that we often feel hopeless and helpless about, for example, political issues like gun violence or campaign finance reform. We don’t think we can win these battles, and we just give up. Muder points out that many struggles for justice initially appear hopeless, but that things change after people commit to changing them.

Such change is often aided by optimistic beliefs—that your god or your friends are on your side; that truth will eventually win out; or that there is moral progress. Such optimism often strengthens your resolve. And though you are often defeated, Muder recommends fighting for justice anyway. Our efforts express our nature and, if we have comrades in our struggles, so much the better. He concludes:

As I said before, that’s not a perfect answer. I don’t promise that it will hold up against every horrible series of events that could possibly happen to a person. But fortunately, none of us needs to stay strong through every horrible thing that could ever happen. Each of us only needs enough resilience to complete the journey of our own lifetime. So I want to close by wishing you good luck on that journey, and reminding you to take care of each other.

Summary – We should struggle for truth and justice because we might succeed, and we both express ourselves and enjoy an affinity with others when we work for justice. 

In “Season of Darkness, Season of Hope,” Muder begins by distinguishing hope from optimism. Muder defines optimism as “Believing that things will improve …” and its opposite, pessimism, as “the belief that things will get worse.” He then notes that “the opposite of hope is something far more devastating than pessimism, it’s despair. To be in despair is to believe that it’s useless to try, because your actions don’t matter.” And this leads him to conclude that: “Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Hope and despair are attitudes towards the present.”

For example, when thinking about a future exam, an optimist thinks she’ll probably pass while a pessimist thinks she’ll probably fail, but both take the exam. On the contrary, in the midst of despair a person won’t even take the test. After all, what’s the point if you are going to fail anyway? However, hope is the opposite:

Hope is that feeling deep within you that you are alive, and that in this particular time and place, the only thing you need to concern yourself with is what you do next. Hope means refusing to prejudge the situation, it means doing whatever you can think to do and then whatever happens will happen … [and] hope … focuses on those parts of the future that remain undetermined, and it says, “Let me see what I can do.”

So hope is about acting in the face of the unknown; about rejecting despair; about not giving up; about caring for justice and believing in the potential for human goodness. We can’t know if our actions will bring about a better world, and what we do will always seem inadequate, but, “Here, in a time of darkness, we choose to act, but we do not know what will come from that action. We cannot know. And so, we hope.”

Summary – Hope is an attitude, in the present, which rejects despair and encourages action. 

In “The Hope of a Humanist,” Muder wonders: What do we do when we lose hope?

In answer to this question, religion tells us to come back to god or believe in an afterlife, but these answers only work for the devout. Humanists might comfort themselves with a belief in progress, but we can’t be sure things will progress, or that our species will survive. And, even if the long-term trends are good, that provides little comfort now. So Muder rejects both a god and progress as reasons to be hopeful.

Why then be hopeful? “I see hope as an experience in the moment, the feeling that it is worthwhile to try. It’s worthwhile to get out of bed in the morning.” For Muder, hope expresses itself in the joy we take in doing things—like playing games or solving puzzles—even if they are objectively pointless. We do these things “just to experience the sense of striving, not to produce something for the future.” So he sees “hope as that pure feeling of let’s-do-this.” He concludes:

If you have had or are having a crisis of hope … Don’t get distracted into debates about optimism and pessimism. Some people believe in God and some don’t. Some people are optimists and some are pessimists. But any of them can learn to live hopefully in the present … it’s always better to live in hope than to live in despair.

Final Summary – We should struggle for truth and justice because we might succeed, and we both express ourselves and enjoy an affinity with others when we work for justice. Hope is an attitude which rejects despair, manifests itself in an active striving, and it is good for us. Muder’s ideas about hope closely correspond to those expressed in this previous post.