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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20 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

  6. 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.)

  7. 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?

  8. Wow, so many stimulating interpretations. Here’s mine, if we believe nothing is perfect, meaning if all these gods are gathered around in a conspiratorial way. One molds Pandora, one dresses her, one adorns her & Hermes put false words in her mouth..why the pretense of telling them not to open it & locking the box & giving her man the key? Why not just send her as the perfect assassin she was meant to be then let her open the box? Seems simpler & surer..back to my nothing is perfect statement.. perhaps one of the gods present was having second thoughts & slipped hope in the box, it was at the bottom after all. Or I tend to believe the interpretation that good things were in the box & we were tricked/seduced to open it by Pandora & by the time we realized & closed the box only hope was left …loved the “why do we turn a jar over when it’s empty”..hope..we always hope there’s one drop left, one more squeeze in the toothpaste. As a child I used to tap the soda bottle on my tongue trying to taste every last drop..why don’t adults do that , adults leave a drop always in the bottle..is it because we get less hopeful the older we get, farther away from Pandora’s box

  9. 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…

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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

  13. 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.)

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

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

  16. Hope always spring eternal. Though the line may sound cliché to some of us, it holds in life. We humans always strive for the better, to better ourselves, our relationship, our society, and so on. This optimistic view is what keeps us moving every day. Along with faith, love, and wisdom, hope propels humanity into new heights and a better society. On a more personal note, hope is what drives each one of us to wake up in the morning and do our respective tasks. Hope is what heals us from our frustration, anxieties, and doubt. Before the spring is over, let us take a look at these five books about hope, healing, and transformation.

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