Hope and Pandora’s Box

Pandora (1861) by Pierre Loison (1816–1886)

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, Pandora opened a 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 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 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. 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.

7 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. My therapist told me many years ago, that when I talked about all the negativity and problems in my life I had no hope. He then told me that Hope was all that remained in Pandora’s box, that hope (the opposite of despair) and fire were what Prometheus gave to mankind. And that Pandora, a woman, had been created by Zeus as a result of Prometheus
    taking the secret, fire, of the gods and giving it to mankind.
    Through therapy, my life was changed.
    What had been a fog of despair became positive, healthy and satisfying.
    Incidentally, my therapist is the same fellow to whom Ken Kesey dedicated his book *One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.*
    lucky for me, I got one of the great ones! He was also the director of Prometheus, growth center in Palo Alto, Ca.
    Thanks, Vic.

  4. “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.

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

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