Category Archives: Hope – Other Views

Brief Analysis of “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, before returning to her family home in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most of her friendships depended entirely upon correspondence. She lived primarily as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest of all American poets. Here is one of my favorites.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Analysis – Dickinson likens the concept of hope to a singing bird. Hope’s sound is sweetest during in the gale of despair, which itself feels sore by its battle with hope. Hope withstands cold and the unfamiliar, providing solace without asking for recompense. (My own views on hope are summarized here.)

Summary of Schopenhauer on Hope: From “Psychological Observations”


I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the critique of hope found in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. (I considered his pessimism in my last post.) He speaks of hope most directly in his essay, “Psychological Observations.” Immediately preceding his brief discussion of hope, he makes these pertinent observations:

 it is usual throughout the whole world to wish people a long life. It is not a knowledge of what life is that explains the origin of such a wish, but rather knowledge of what man is in his real nature: namely, the will to live.

The wish which everyone has, that he may be remembered after his death, and which those people with aspirations have for posthumous fame, seems to me to arise from this tenacity to life …

We wish, more or less, to get to the end of everything we are interested in or occupied with; we are impatient to get to the end of it, and glad when it is finished. It is only the general end, the end of all ends, that we wish, as a rule, as far off as possible.

These considerations of wishing, especially that we don’t die, lead him directly to his discussion of hope.

Hope is to confuse the desire that something should occur with the probability that it will. Perhaps no man is free from this folly of the heart, which deranges the intellect’s correct estimation of probability to such a degree as to make him think the event quite possible, even if the chances are only a thousand to one. And still, an unexpected misfortune is like a speedy death-stroke; while a hope that is always frustrated, and yet springs into life again, is like death by slow torture.

Notice here that his conception of hope entails expectation, the kind of hope I also reject. But surprisingly, in the following passage he seems to defend hope:

He who has given up hope has also given up fear; this is the meaning of the expression desperate. It is natural for a man to have faith in what he wishes, and to have faith in it because he wishes it. If this peculiarity of his nature, which is both beneficial and comforting, is eradicated by repeated hard blows of fate, and he is brought to a converse condition, when he believes that something must happen because he does not wish it, and what he wishes can never happen just because he wishes it; this is, in reality, the state which has been called desperation.

Essentially he’s saying that to lose expectant hope, which he says is both beneficial and comforting, is to despair. This suggests that hope is good after all. Yet this brief discussion of hope must be taken in the context of his entire philosophy. First, what he writes here is more description than prescription; he says that people do find comfort in hope, not that they should. Second, he would reject the action-motivating attitudinal hope that I advocate because he believes blind will motivates action, and we are all better off dead. In the end, Schopenhauer’s philosophy challenges the hopeful among us.

Doug Muder on 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.

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.

Kazantzakis’ Epitaph: Rejecting Hope

Now that I have summarized some of the main ideas in Kazantzakis’ thinking, and have also written a detailed summary of his, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, I would like to consider further his idea of hope, which I first encountered in this passage:

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope. [i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines so many years ago. I had rejected my religious upbringing as a youth, and never regretted my decision, but why couldn’t I still hope that life had meaning, that things matter, that there is ultimate justice? Why was Kazantzakis taking away these hopes?

After all, I had comforted distraught students over the years saying that, although we don’t know that life has meaning, we can still hope that it does. Often these students were distressed by the meaninglessness and absurdity they encountered in existential thinkers like Sartre and Camus, or by the erosion of their religious beliefs after classes in the philosophy of religion. Was I wrong to comfort them with vague hopes?

Kazantzakis thinks rejecting hope is so important that in, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, it is one of the three duties to be fulfilled in preparation for the spiritual life. The first duty is to bravely accept our cognitive limitations, and the second duty is to accept the heart’s anguish at being unable to find meaning in life. This leads to the third duty:

The moment is ripe: leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward, take the third step. 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. This is the third duty.

Moreover, his epitaph, carved on his tombstone in Greek reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” 

Analysis of the Epitaph

A few have questioned the translation of the epitaph. The most common English translation is: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” A few others translated it: “I expect nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”  As this commentator explains:

The first translation may be the most literal, but the second — at least in my view — is the one that best captures the true spirit of Kazantzakis’ philosophy. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, Kazantzakis was not opposed to that form of hope that is often coupled with faith and optimism. He was opposed to hope that is based upon desire and  expectations of favorable outcomes, because he believed that desire and expectations, like fear, keep people focused on future events, rendering them incapable of living and experiencing life in the present moment.

The appeal of this second translation is that it allows for hope. For to hope for something is not necessarily to expect something. (I can hope to win the lottery without expecting to.) So perhaps Kazantzakis only rejects hoping with expectation but allows us to hope without expectation. And what is it to hope without expectation? This would be akin to wishing or wanting without expecting that our wishes or wants are fulfilled.

Now, this raises another question. Can we hope without there being an object of our hoping? Can we just hope, without hoping for something? I don’t think so. No more than we can wish or want without wishing or wanting for something. But for Kazantzakis, to hope for something—say truth or meaning or the betterment of the world—requires some justification for believing that our hopes have a good chance of being fulfilled. Yet Kazantzakis’ first two duties specifically reject the notion that the mind or heart can justify believing in any of these things—hence the duty to overcome hope.

So while I would prefer to say that Kazantzakis believes that we should have optimism or hope without expectation, he doesn’t believe this. The usual translation fits best with his other writings; he is advising us to reject hope of any kind.


To better understand Kazantzakis’ view consider how Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, distinguishes between: 1) weak pessimism; 2) strong pessimism; and 3) Socratic optimism. Nietzsche associates weak pessimism with Eastern renunciation; strong pessimism with the Eastern notion of harmonizing contradictions; and Socratic optimism with Western philosophy’s emphasis on: logic, beauty, goodness, and truth. For Nietzsche pessimism refers to the fact that reality is cruel, ugly, irrational, and impermanent, 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 become pessimists.

Yet Nietzsche didn’t want us to be weak pessimists who deny the passions and seek nothingness like the Buddha. Instead, he wanted 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 Nietzsche’s language, Kazantzakis was a strong pessimist.


Why then should we abandon hope according to Kazantzakis? Because if we will only struggle when hopeful, then hope impedes our quest since so often we have no reason to hope. Rather than hoping for good outcomes, or to understand with the mind or heart, we should ascend and move forward. Though tempted by optimistic views, the courageous renounce hope, and carry on in its absence.

Kazantzakis includes the rejection of hope among his sacred duties, and in his short epitaph. We may want to think otherwise, but Kazantzakis believed that by rejecting all hope, we find true freedom. To think otherwise distorts his thinking.

Buddha greatly influenced Kazantzakis, but on the topic of hope, Nietzsche was his guide. (Kazantzakis devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography to Nietzsche.) If there are any doubts about Kazantzakis’ rejection of hope or optimism, this profound passage from Report to Greco should put the matter to rest:

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. At all events, 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. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreate, or go about begging. Yes that was what I wanted. Three cheers for Nietzsche, the murderer of God. He it was who gave me the courage to say, that is what I want!


  1. I derived these insights from Peter Bien’s: Kazantzakis, Volume 2: Politics of the Spirit (Princeton Modern Greek Studies).

A Reader’s Comments on the Process of Dying

A recent post of mine entitled: “The Case Against Hope,” elicited some thoughtful comments from a reader. My piece argued that it is best to give up hope in hopeless situations. The reader, a former student of mine who works in a major urban hospital, basically agreed. She argues that false hope is counterproductive, that grieving is not a disease, patients should be respected as autonomous agents. The full comments can be found in the comments section of that post but here is a sampling of her thoughts.

I don’t know exactly why, but there seems to be a very thin line between being hopeful in grim circumstances and being realistic and accepting that our power is sometimes limited. For example, I used to work very closely with very sick cancer patients. Some of them I got to know pretty well, over a long time. I also lost my best friend to cancer, and walked with him through that journey. What struck me over and over is the strong-arming that occurs with patients who are terminally ill/in the very late stages of disease–strong-arming them into projecting this perfect portrayal of hope for survival. Do not misunderstand me—I am not saying that positive outlook and motivation and openness is not important when one is facing a serious illness …I am talking about the cases where the patients involved were in a dire situation, and had certainly maintained hope and effort up until the point the situation became so dire.

It was not uncommon to see this happen: Doctor tells patient that their illness has progressed, that their prognosis was not good, that their estimated time remaining was X. Then the very next thing they would do is say that they were writing a prescription for antidepressants, since patients “have a hard time dealing with this”… I still remember when my dear friend was in this situation–he said to the physician, “I am not depressed. I am upset. Am I not allowed to be upset?”

many times these patients who expressed a wish to cease further treatment were offered major surgeries, really radical treatments that were held out as a “last ditch effort.” … Some of them consented to radical surgeries that did not extend their lives at all, and they ended up expressing regret afterwards. It was unsettling to see this play out again and again … And what I saw was people who were being sold so much hope that they never got to move on to acceptance, and that was very unfortunate.

In my next post I would like to expand on the idea of death with dignity.