Hope and Pandora’s Box

Lawrence Alma-Tadema‘s water-color of an ambivalent Pandora, 1881

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Zeus ordered her to be molded out of earth as part of humanity’s punishment for Prometheus’ theft of the secret of fire. According to the myth, the gods gave her a jar that contained all the evils of the World and ordered her not to open it.

Nonetheless, Pandora opened the jar (in modern accounts often mistranslated as “Pandora’s box“) releasing all the evils that visit humanity like pain and suffering, leaving only hope (expectation) inside once she had closed it again. (Most scholars translate the Greek word elpis as “expectation.”) The Pandora myth is a theodicy—an attempt to explain why evil exists in the world. (The idiom “to open a Pandora’s box”, means to do or start something that will cause many unforeseen problems.)

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 that 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 good, then its imprisonment makes life even more dreary and insufferable. In this case, all the evils were scattered from the jar, while the one potentially mitigating force, hope, remains locked inside. However, this latter interpretation causes us to wonder why this good hope was in the jar of evils in the first place. 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. Perhaps hope was originally another evil but after being opened hope was transformed into good hope. It’s as if hope, separated from evil, takes on a new character. So its preservation in the jar preserves this good hope which can then (somehow) be accessed when needed. I grant this is a strained interpretation.

Still, 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 this, 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, in fact, 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.

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29 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”.

  2. I’m going with Nietzsche’s interpretation. Hope was in the jar of evils. And it is always a false hope. Prolongs our torment.

  3. “Hope aids our struggle for a better future while fire, the source of technology, makes success in that struggle possible.”

    This is an interesting sentence for me. I think hope can either be a positive or negative. Mostly I side with Nietzsche on this but I do hold out a shred of hope for mankind via technology. Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine felt the only hope for mankind considering our horrific history of creating suffering for ourselves and other life forms was that somehow we could create a drug or technology that would rewire or correct our emotional disconnect from our intellect. Or something like that. A nice thought and one that might give hope when most hope is lost but there is one hurdle that must be overcome for this to work out. That is that we are hoping that a broken mind can fix itself. I lose hope daily on this the more I come to understand my own species. I think it was Koestler and his wife that committed suicide together. IMO he was one of the good guys and underrated as a thinker.

  4. i’ll be exploring more of these transhumanist themes in forthcoming posts. they are explored in depth on the website. JGM

  5. John, what are your thoughts on aesop’s fables explanation below? My thoughts are that Zeus has been planning to destroy humanity and thus took all the gifts that humans were given and collected them into a jar given to Pandora- knowing that her human curiosity would get the better of her. She opened the jar and those gifts were released and flew back to the gods.. leaving humans with the absence of them. So, the jar had contained good health, everlasting youth, purity, sound mind, ease, etc. And when they left, it wasn’t that “evils” were really released onto humanity, but now that we didn’t have those gifts (as the gods now did), we were burdened with what existed in their absence-> sickness, old age, sin, madness, drudgery. Etc.
    Does that make sense? What do you think?

    “Zeus gathered all the useful things together in a jar and put a lid on it. He then left the jar in human hands. But man had no self-control and he wanted to know what was in that jar, so he pushed the lid aside, letting those things go back to the abode of the gods. So all the good things flew away, soaring high above the earth, and Elpis (Hope) was the only thing left. When the lid was put back on the jar, Elpis (Hope) was kept inside. That is why Elpis (Hope) alone is still found among the people, promising that she will bestow on each of us the good things that have gone away.”

    Aesop, Fables 526 (from Babrius 58) (trans. Gibbs) (Greek fable C6th B.C.)

  6. Why is Prometheus only punished for sharing FIRE with mortals/humans, and not also punished for sharing HOPE (expectations)?
    What is the link here, then, that the Gods saw fit to punish Prometheus for releasing FIRE and there are no Godly repercussions for Pandora retaining HOPE in the jar (after, that is, Prometheus gave it to us without recourse)? A double-standard?
    Misogynistic retelling/interpretations of Pandora (and parallels to Judaeo/Christian-Eve) notwithstanding, is it a Godly good that we are NOT given Expectations/Hopes to rise-up/better our-selves/challenge the Gods, etc. for example, ASWELL as being given the means (to rise/challenge) ie. FIRE?

  7. Isn’t it funny that
    You will turn over a jar
    when you hope there is something left.

  8. Hope is good… Nietsche’s opinion is silly, probably his greek was not good…Hope is not expectation, hope is hope and hope does not mean “passive awaiting for sth, excluding personal action”….We often say in Greek “I hope you heal soon”, “I hope all will turn out well”…Does not mean passive awaiting…

  9. I go into great detail on my understanding of hope in many of my posts. And the hope I recommend also isn’t passive but a spur to actions. JGM

  10. Thanks to you both John and Nikolas,
    I never viewed it from that end…but even Hope has to be moderated…..
    Hope is best as an antidote against despair…Hope is not Good if overly optimistic and too exuberant..kind of Stoic..but a brilliant insight

  11. So many Parallels here….Kind of reminds me of the myth of Icaraus–How the young man is able to get the wings to get him off the Island…his exuberance at flying leads him to attempt an overreach—flying too close to the Sun….Prometheus’s fire from the gods..inspires a glowing hope of mankind……all of this requires a Nichomachean moderation…..Keep in my mind that No effort would have been attempted without an excess of exuberance…..Hope has hope…but keep your Hopes within Reason

  12. Some Buddhist thought to add to your Greek

    “Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what is going on, but that there is something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.”

    Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

    In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

    (From Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart.)

  13. How did ‘Hope’ get into Pandora’s Box in the first instasnce. Who put it in amongst all the evils.

  14. “the gods gave her a jar that contained all the evils of the World and ordered her not to open it.”

  15. I think we’re missing something. I believe pandora represents all mankind. Mankind released evil on the world and the jar is our body. He hold hope inside us.

  16. If you think about it, its the same story as adam and eve and the apple. Pandora is Eve and opening the box is the same as eating the apple. Evil was unleashed that day. Now I personally believe that the jar represents our bodies. By trapping hope in the jar then we never lost hope.

  17. Nietzsche was spot on, Hope is a feel good delusion, if you desire one outcome over another then work towards that outcome, just hoping things turn out your way is insane….”Hope for the best, PREPARE for the worst”, humans really are our own worst enemy.

  18. “Hope you feel better soon”, ” I hope things get better for you”….Oh there’s so much meaningless garbage we say to make ourselves feel better….How about for a change we say “Is there anything i can do to help”

  19. Remember hope is requisite for Judeo-Christian belief. For Nietzsche hope, God’s atonement, the afterlife etc. are all related. Thus hope becomes a bane for nihilists such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
    Plato and Aristotle saw hope as being mostly neutral and somewhat negative (though as with most things Aristotelian the golden mean can make it positive), the Stoics negative and others viewed it more positively.
    But keep in mind their definition of hope was different since it predated the Judeo Christian heritage. Hope was more like anticipation, as in, ‘I’m anticipating what I think is next’. Given that interpretation it is more neutral. It can give you confidence or lead you to ruin.
    Post Nietzsche, the view on hope seems to lean negative as well; it’s wishful thought, not nesc. rational contemplation. Though depending again on the philosophers views on religion it could be both positive and required.
    Personal favorite,
    “Take the cash and let the credit go” -Khayyam

  20. Somewhere along the way we have caught a vision of how things can be. How, then, can we help but have hope? It is, of course, folly to expect to remain within that rapture forever, but surely we have legitimate reason to believe that, just possibly, things can be better.

  21. I see it this way:
    Hope/Expectation is an evil. It keeps us from acting and making our future, rather holding us back in passivity. But all the other evils are out IN the world. But Hope stayed inside. The jar being a synonym for the inner world. Our human inside. So the evil is within us and stayed with us, rather than being spilled to the outside world.

    What do you think?

  22. Nice interpretation. I distinguish hope from expectation in my work. Hope as expectation I’m no fan of. But the kind of hope that promotes action (as opposed to despair) I think is important.

  23. I tend to agree (mostly) with the last interpretation. Hope is not something that can inflict itself upon us like the other evils of the jar, but something we inflict upon ourselves. Hope is a far more insidious evil which finds greater purchase when held close and considered a friend. It stayed behind because this is where it could do the most damage.

    True hopes are deep desires we keep close to our chest. They drive us to action (or inaction) towards a variably unpredictable and often unattainable end; as predictable or attainable ends do not require hope. Action for hope sake cannot be presumed to be beneficial. Hope breeds expectation, and expectation in turn breeds disappointment and ultimately despair when “all hope is lost”.

    True hope is distinguished from false hope, which one could simply define as being synonymous with well wishing (or ill in some cases). Something we say when we feel we should say something but doesn’t actually represent a personal desire. If we truly hoped someone felt better, we would be trying to nurse them back to health instead of just wishing them well.

    Despair is not the default state of the hopeless. To be hopeless, is to be without expectation and open to what is, not blinded by what we hope will be. Despair, I would argue, is the end stage of the terminally hopeful. It’s only through acceptance that we can find a path to peace, albeit not always an easy one.

  24. thanks for sharing your thoughts about hope. Also, I’ve written extensively about hope on the blog if interested. See for example,”Hope and Meaning.”

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