What to Hope For?
The psychology and philosophy of hope
Posted Nov 10, 2014
[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]
Hope, said Aristotle, is the dream of a waking man.
More prosaically, hope is a desire for something combined with an anticipation of it happening. It is, in other words, the anticipation of something desired.
To hope for something is to desire that thing, and to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the probability of it happening, though less than one, is greater than nought. If the probability of it happening is one or near enough, it is not a hope but an expectation. If it is nought, it is a fantasy, and if it is next to nought it is a wish.
Even though hope involves an estimation of probabilities, this rational, calculative aspect is far from exact—and, indeed, often unconscious. When we hope, we do not know what the odds might be, but still, choose to ‘hope against hope’. This coming together of uncertainty and defiance, this ‘hoping against hope’, is at the heart of what it means to be hopeful.
In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates says that Pericles, who led Athens at the peak of its golden age, gave his sons excellent instruction in everything that could be learnt from teachers, but when it came to wisdom, he simply left them to ‘wander at their own free will in a sort of hope that they would light upon virtue of their own accord’. This usage of ‘hope’ suggests that hoped for things are largely if not entirely outside our personal control.
One opposite of hope is fear, which is the desire for something not to happen combined with an anticipation of it happening. Inherent in every hope is a fear, and in every fear a hope. Other opposites of hope are hopelessness and despair, which is an agitated form of hopelessness.
It can also be instructive to compare hope with optimism and faith. Optimism is a general attitude of hopefulness that everything will turn out for the better or best. Hope, in contrast, is more particular (even a pessimist can be hopeful about certain things), and also more personally engaged. To hope for something is to make a claim about that thing’s significance to us, and so to make a claim about ourselves. Aquinas said that faith has to do with things that are not seen, while hope has to do with things that are not at hand. If hope is more engaged than optimism, faith is more engaged still.
Hope features prominently in myth and religion. In Æsop, hope is symbolized by the swallow, which is among the first birds to appear at winter’s end. The saying, ‘one swallow does not make a summer’ comes down from one of Æsop’s fables, The Spendthrift and the Swallow.
A young man, a great spendthrift, had run through all his patrimony and had but one good cloak left. One day he happened to see a Swallow, which had appeared before its season, skimming along a pool and twittering gaily. He supposed that summer had come, and went and sold his cloak. Not many days later, winter set in again with renewed frost and cold. When he found the Swallow lifeless on the ground, he said, ‘Unhappy bird! what have you done? By thus appearing before the springtime you have not only killed yourself, but you have wrought my destruction also.’
In Greek myth, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and shared it with mankind. In retribution, Zeus ordered Hephæstus to create the first woman, which he did out of earth and water, and ordered each of the other gods to endow her with a ‘seductive gift’. Zeus named this ‘beautiful evil’ Pandora (‘All-gifted’) and sent her off with a jar of evils to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora had been warned not to open the jar, but her natural curiosity got the better of her. As she lifted the lid, she released every evil onto the earth, bringing man’s golden age to its close. Aghast, she hastened to replace the lid, but all the contents of the jar had already escaped—all, that is, except for Hope.
Aside from the blatant misogyny, the myth of Pandora is hard to interpret. Does it imply that hope is preserved for men, making their torments more bearable? Or, on the contrary, that hope is denied to men, making their lives all the more miserable? A third possibility is that, like the other contents of the jar, hope is an evil, a mechanism for tormenting men anew. All these interpretations and more are in the nature of hope, and so perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate.
In Christianity, hope is, alongside faith and charity (love), one of the three theological virtues—‘theological’ because it arises from the grace of God, and because it has God for its object. Christian hope is not to be understood as the mere probabilistic anticipation of something desired, but as a ‘confident expectation’, a trust in God and His gifts that frees the faithful from hesitation, fear, greed, and anything else that might keep them from love, which, according to Paul, is the greatest of the three virtues: ‘But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ Like Christian prayer, Christian hope is an expression of our connection with and dependence on something other and greater than ourselves. In that much, it is more akin to faith than to hope: it is faith in the future tense.
In Dante’s Inferno, the inscription over the gates of hell suggests that Christian hell amounts to hopelessness, that is, the severance of the bond between man and the divine:
Through me you enter the city of woe,
Through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me you join the godforsaken tribe.
Justice moved my exalted Creator:
By the divine power was I erected,
And by supreme wisdom and primal love.
Before I was made nothing had been made
But things eternal, and I too am such.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!
Back upstairs in the land of the living, there is a saying that, ‘there is no life without hope’. Hope is an expression of confidence in life, and the basis for more practical dispositions such as patience, determination, and courage. Hope provides us not only with goals, but also with the motivation to attain those goals. As Luther preached, ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.’
Hope not only looks to the future but also makes present hardship easier to bear, whether loneliness, poverty, or sickness, or simply the daily grind. Even in a theoretical absence of hardship, still hope is needed, for man is not content to be content, but yearns for adventure and advancement.
At a deeper level, hope links our present to our past and future, providing us with an overarching narrative that lends shape and meaning to our lives. Our hopes are the strands that run through our lives, defining our struggles, our successes and setbacks, our strengths and shortcomings, and in some sense ennobling them.
Running with this idea, our hopes, though profoundly human—because only human beings can project themselves into the distant future—also connect us with something much greater than ourselves, a cosmic life force that moves in us as it does in all of nature. This expansive, inter-dependent aspect brings us back to the spiritual or religious dimension of hope.
Conversely, hopelessness is both a cause and a symptom of depression, and, within the context of depression, a strong predictor of suicide. ‘What do you hope for out of life?’ is one of my most important questions as a psychiatrist, and if my patient replies ‘nothing’ I am bound to take that very seriously.
Hope is pleasant in so far as the anticipation of a desire is pleasant. But hope is also painful, because the desired circumstance is not yet at hand, and, moreover, may never be at hand. Whereas realistic or reasonable hopes are more likely to lift us up and move us on, false hopes are more likely to prolong our torment, leading to inevitable frustration, disappointment, and resentment. The pain of harbouring hopes, and the greater pain of having them dashed, explains why people tend to be modest in their hoping.
For seeming irrational, hope gets a bad rap from philosophers, who yet would not philosophize without some hope that this might lead them somewhere, if not to wisdom then at least to a tenured position. Existentialist philosophers share in their brethren’s disdain for hope, arguing that, by sheltering us from hard truths, hope can ease us into a life that is disengaged and inauthentic.
Yet, the existentialists also have something very interesting to say about hope. In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, a mythological king who was punished for his deceitfulness by being made forever to repeat the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. ‘The struggle to the top’ concludes Camus, ‘is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’
Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.