Should We Have Hope?

Pandora trying to close the box that she had opened out of curiosity. At left, the evils of the world taunt her as they escape. The engraving is based on a painting by F. S. Church.

Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of men. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

In previous posts, 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 a 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 wants 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 an Eastern notion of harmonizing contradictions; and Socratic optimism with Western philosophy’s emphasis on logic, beauty, goodness, and truth. Nietzsche’s 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 remain pessimistic.

Yet Nietzsche doesn’t want us to be weak pessimists like the Buddha, who advocate eliminating 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.  


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, we should 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.  

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 defended in his book, Very Little … Almost Nothing … (I reviewed the book here.) 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 asks: “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 a reprieve from their allies or their gods, despite the evidence that such hopes were misplaced. The reprieve never comes, 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 that 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 a 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 golfer, my expectations are bound to be dashed. Silly to hope for such things. Much better to hope that I enjoy writing or tennis despite my shortcomings in both.

For instance, when confronted by the reality of the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl didn’t hope to dig his way out of his prison. That was nearly 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. 

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 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 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.


  1. Some philosophers, like Michael and Caldwell, use Stoicism to defend caring without lamentation, a view that they argue is consistent with optimism.
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10 thoughts on “Should We Have Hope?

  1. Extremely insightful article–“What was bitter to bear is pleasant to have borne,
    your mind has been given the armor to bear everything with fortitude ” Seneca Epistles

  2. On the question of hope: During my service days as a paratrooper, I once entered a company that had the painted slogan painted over its doorway: “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” I thought to myself, Damn, I hope I’m not getting into something over my head.” And when asked if a glass is half full (optimism), or half empty (pessimism), the realist in me says: it depends on what’s in it.

  3. In my writing below on Faith and Service I make my case for hope in the face of my perpetual shortcoming in realising the promises of hope:

    I am now in my seventies.
    The older I have become, the more important faith and service became to me as the sources of the meaning of my life.

    My FAITH is in inexhaustible divine love.

    My SERVICE is in accessing, reciprocating and passing on to others such love.

    My faith is not blind. It is based on my experiential evidence of divine love being there for me to embrace, 24/7/365.

    Faith provides the key for me to experientially access such love.
    The less my faith is, the less I experience such love.

    And the less I serve, the more socially meaningless my faith becomes.
    James goes even as far as to saying that:

    ‘Faith without works (service) is no faith at all.’ (James 2:17)

    To identify myself as being beloved by God and to claim that love daily, is deeply meaningful to me.
    As I practice daily the ‘Yoga of Song and Dance’, that I developed through 44 years of experimentation with Yoga, I feel beloved and blessed.
    But this is only half of faith and service in practice.

    The other half starts with the awareness, that even in the height of experiencing such ecstatic love and bliss, I am broken and I can only fulfil the meaning of my life by giving my broken self away through compassionate, loving service.
    And that my ultimate event of faithful service will be my death, by which I will have bequeathed the gifts I received during my life’s journey to others to build on.

    In his song ‘Anthem’, Leonard Cohen sings:

    ‘Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in.’

    The analogy is the broken Christ on the cross. And through his brokenness he gave the light of his love in service to God and humanity.
    He is not asking people to express their faith in him through worshipping him.
    Rather, he pleads with people to express their faith through loving service to the ‘least of our brothers and sisters’ by quenching their thirst, satiating their hunger, visiting the prisoners and the sick and by taking in the refugees. (Mathew 25: 40)

    And he implores us to love God with all our beings and to love our neighbours and even our enemies.
    Gandhi writes that to love people who also love us, is no love at all.
    Even scoundrels can do this.
    Love is when I can love someone who hates me and whom I do not trust.

    Faith is my bridge to a reciprocal vertical relationship of love with God and a horizontal relationship with others, where I love the others irrespective of whether they reciprocate.
    Vertically, through faith I access unconditional divine love for which I am very grateful.
    My service is in reciprocating this love to God, ideally with all my being, but in reality alas, I only do so in my limited way.

    Horizontally, faith motivates me to serve others by passing on that love to them as much as I can.
    Again, in practice, I do a very limited job.

    Why love God?

    In God I have my ultimate role model-teacher: God loves me and everyone else unconditionally and through such love, God is the ultimate servant to me and to the rest of God’s creation.
    So faith motivates me to serve: to attempt to love God with all my being and to try to love others as myself.

    Why love others as myself?

    Because my identity is made up of both others and of my unique individuality.
    My uniqueness can only flourish spiritually as part of my ‘other halves’; vertically my Divine Provider and horizontally, all the other human beings.

    When Christ says:
    ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, to me, he literally means that others also make up my identity.
    So my identity is my being the UNIque, beloved child of God as well as mystically also being the other half of all other human beings as my ‘UNIversal’ self.

    Hence, I am only one whole, if I love my Divine Lover and potentially all the other children of God as my other halves.

    Alas, this is virtually impossible in practice. As a teacher remarked to us once:

    ‘So, you want to love the whole of humanity? But to love even a single person is difficult.’

    That of course does not mean, that I should not try to love God with all my being and another person and all others as myself.
    I will always fall short of doing justice to such task.

    Yet it is this goal alone that gives spiritual meaning to my life, no matter what an impossible dream it is to achieve.

    I see my liberation in becoming a voluntary, loving, servant-slave of such unconditionally loving Ultimate Servant Being to us all.

  4. “Should We Have Hope?” Asks our Host Dr. Messerly

    Truly defeated People have no Hope, so having ‘Hope’ is not a choice it is a sign that your defeat is not yet complete, a hopeful attitude allows the possibility that conditions may change for the better, and that Happiness and love may again find a home in our breasts!

    “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.”

    A good Philosophy is the best attribute a Human can have to help them on their journey through their Lives, This is a ‘Good’ Philosophical outlook if it is coupled with realistic desires and the emotional maturity to understand that even if Things were just the way we now ‘think we want them to be’ we still wouldn’t be satisfied, because by then, having achieved what we though we wanted, we would again find that inadequate to satisfy our (Ever changing) desires. Desires and wants change and expand with greater opportunity!

    Materialism is the (unrecognized) God we Worship, like all things believed Religiously, it is inculcated into us as children and does appear as such a reason for living, that it is rarely, if ever, discussed as such, Everybody wants ‘More of something’ that is the ( Obvious, though Oft unstated) Purpose of life as we learn our Roles by watching the older Players in our lives play their Roles!

    Materialism as a ‘Raison d’etre’ has a lot to recommend it, it is simple and as such is easy to understand, the Winners and Losers, the ‘In’s and Out’s’ are obvious by the ‘Wealth’ they display, everybody wants to be an ‘In’ and live the ‘Good life’ and I believe it is unconsciously believed that the Wealthy get a ‘Wink and a Nod’ from the Mythical ‘Big Guy’ in the Sky, of whom it has been said; The ‘Big Guy’ loves everyone but He loves the Rich best! To challenge this is Heresy in the Materialist faith!

    Materialism doesn’t necessarily deliver Health, Love or Happiness, perhaps not even Hope, no doubt there are many Souls trapped and crushed by Materialism, we who post here and share our ideas with Dr. John and his friends are among the ‘Lucky’, Fate has given us roles that supply us with what we need, we have the time to ponder these questions, and for the most part, we are not directly responsible for anything except what we actually do as we interact with our fellow humans!

    We Humans ‘Again’ are cycling through interesting times, interesting times are often unhappy times, so we look for villains to blame for our condition but there are only other Humans playing the roles Fate has handed them, some seemingly more competent than others, but all of us hurtling ‘pell-mell’ into a Future that hasn’t been written yet, so no one can know, for sure, what it will look like, Some people think they know what they want the Future to be like and they are going to use their Power called ‘Money’ to shape and create the Future of their dreams, but can they really? Does Money really have any power outside the Minds of Men? To cast any doubt upon the ‘Power of Money’ is also Heresy in the Materialist Universe, but I do think the Power of money is exaggerated by those who have it and in the minds of those who wish they did!

    All the best to everyone!

  5. Thanks John: Here are some reflections on hope from Ernst Bloch, who wrote a three volume work, The Principle of Hope. These are just a couple segments from his introduction to the work that seem very relevant.

    “Everybody’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just stale, even enervating escapism, even booty for swindlers, but another part is provocative, is not content just to accept the bad which exists, does not accept renunciation. This other part has hoping at its core, and is teachable. It can be extricated from the unregulated daydream and from its sly misuse, can be activated undimmed. Nobody has ever lived without daydreams, but it is a question of knowing them deeper and deeper and in this way keeping them trained unerringly, usefully, on what is right. Let the daydreams grow even fuller, since this means they are enriching themselves around the sober glance; not in the sense of clogging, but of becoming clear. Not in the sense of merely contemplative reason which takes things as they are and as they stand, but of participating reason which takes them as they go, and therefore also as they could go better. Then let the daydreams grow really fuller, that is, clearer, less random, more familiar, more clearly understood and more mediated with the course of things. So that the wheat which is trying to ripen can be encouraged to grow and be harvested.”

    “Primarily, everybody lives in the future, because they strive, past things only come later, and as yet genuine present is almost never there at all. The future dimension contains what is feared or what is hoped for; as regards human intention, that is, when it is not thwarted, it contains only what is hoped for. Function and content of hope are experienced continuously, and in times of rising societies they have been continuously activated and extended. Only in times of a declining old society, like modern Western society, does a certain partial and transitory intention run exclusively downwards. Then those who cannot find their way out of the decline are confronted with fear of hope and against it. Then fear presents itself as the subjectivist, nihilism as the objectivist mask of the crisis phenomenon: which is tolerated but not seen through, which is lamented but not changed.”

    “Hopelessness is itself, in a temporal and factual sense, the most insupportable thing, downright intolerable to human needs. Which is why even deception, if it is to be effective, must work with flatteringly and corruptly aroused hope. Which is also why hope is preached from every pulpit, but is confined to mere inwardness or to empty promises of the other world. Which is why even the latest miseries of Western philosophy are no longer able to present their philosophy of misery without loaning the idea of transcendence, venturing beyond, from the bank. All this means is that man is essentially determined by the future …. Well: let the dead bury their dead; even in the hesitation which the outstaying night draws over it, the beginning day is listening to something other than the putridly stifling, hollowly nihilistic death-knell. As long as man is in a bad way, both private and public existence are pervaded by daydreams; dreams of a better life than that which has so far been given him. In what is false, and all the more so in what is genuine, every human intention is applied on to this ground. And even where the ground, as so often before, may deceive us, full of sandbanks one moment, full of chimeras the next, it can only be condemned and possibly cleared up through combined research into objective tendency and subjective intention.”

    “Corruptio optimi pessima: fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope its most dedicated benefactor.”

  6. Thank you for your reply Darrell Patrick Arnold, I do enjoy submitting my Ideas on some of the subjects Dr. John selects for comment!

    ““Corruptio optimi pessima: fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope its most dedicated benefactor.””

    Fraudulent Hope is the tool of Slavers and Genuine Hope is the tool of free people, people who are enslaved by chains or conditioning may practice a pseudo Hope that will allow them to continue to live, but in their Hearts,,, well people hope to win the Lottery and some do! so I suppose we never should say never!

  7. What can offer hope is evolving from killer apes—with our WMDs, we are worse than apes—
    to X.
    We don’t know what the future can be, but there won’t be any future as killer apes.

  8. My wife’s name is Hope, so this has always been a touchy subject in our house. I’ve said for years that I never liked the idea of hope – at least as I saw it – carrying a weak and somewhat vulnerable feeling with it. I’ve always preferred “confidence”. Or I’ll throw in optimistic confidence. I see it a bit like what I imagine the Wright brothers had.

    I get the idea that there’s this assumption certain failures or unexpected setbacks in the face of optimism somehow make optimism a bad choice. To me, if that was the case, maybe it wasn’t true optimism in the first place.

  9. There’s certainly hope in cyberspace; justice can be had in cyberspace. However in the ‘outside’ world there’d have to be a consensus on the definition of justice.

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