Next summer I have to give a paper on the loss of hope, despair. Since I have to deliver it and discuss it in another language, I’m starting early. Right now I’m working on trying to give an accurate account of hope on which I can then base a discussion of despair. So, hoping that writing this will help me get my thinking going and that what I say may be of interest to you in some way, I’m going to try to say something about hope in a series of fragments ending with some questions.
It seems that hope is unavoidably future-oriented. That is why Josef Pieper, following the tradition, can describe it as a function of youth (Ü¢er die Hoffnung 43). Then what about statements like “I hope I didn’t break my leg”? Whenever I say that, my leg is already broken or it is not, so I am hoping that it will turn out that it is not; I have hope with respect to what I will learn about what has already happened. As future-oriented, hope involves imagination, imagining a possible future. But hope is not just future-oriented. It has a stake in the future for which it hopes. Not just any future will do. I can only hope for a future that is important to me.
Though hope is future-oriented, it is not a consciousness of the future anymore than memory is a consciousness of the past, though it is past-oriented. In hope I am consciousness the object for which I hope and of the fulfilment of my hope, not of the future as future.
Christian philosophers who write about hope have remarked that hope’s future-orientation makes it a mark of youth: the young have a longer future than the old, so they can be more hopeful. Christian hope, however, renews life, giving one youth again by giving one hope for the future. “Hope for the future” can, of course, mean “eternal life” or “life after death.” Those are important meanings of the word for a Christian. But “hope for the future” can also be understood more broadly, as hope in a future that is no longer measured merely by my death, but by something beyond my death, whether what is beyond is life after death or God, who measures my life without regard for death. On that view, Christian hope does more than give us more nows; it changes the now itself.
Hope also seems to be for something that is objectively unlikely. Given my life right now, it would be odd for me to say, “I hope I awaken tomorrow morning.” It is likely that I will wake up tomorrow, so I expect to, and I don’t seem to be able to hope for what I expect. We could say that hoping is being in a confident state of not-yet, without being in a state of expectation.
But hope is not self-deception. It is not to insist that something is real that is not, for hope knows that what it hopes for is objectively improbable. It doesn’t deny that improbability and it doesn’t expect something other than the probable. In spite of that, it hopes in the face of improbability and in the absence of expectation. Thus, one hopes for the improbable, but not for the impossible. The latter would be false hope, which is not the same as disappointed hope. False hope hopes for the impossible; disappointed hope hopes for the improbable but possible. That toward which genuine hope is underway is realizable.
So, to hope for something is to be temporally oriented toward it, to be underway toward it, for it to be objectively unlikely though possible, and for the one who hopes to know that it is unlikely. In addition, the one who hopes has a stake in the fulfilment of her hope and something like confidence (but not expectation) that she will achieve it.
It also seems that hope is always for the good. I cannot hope for something that I think is bad. Hope is, therefore, a kind of high-mindedness, a commitment to the possibility of an improbable good. At the same time it is a species of humility, for hope is always a recognition that the good I hope for is not only improbable, it is beyond my control. It makes no sense for me to say, “I hope I will write with my right hand.” It is in my power to write with my right hand.
And hope is patient: it awaits but doesn’t demand. I can be impatient if I wish for something, if I want it, if I expect it. But I cannot be impatient if I hope for it.
If I hope, I yearn for that which I hope for. I do not hope to be covered in dung because I don’t want to be covered in dung. I don’t usually hope for a glass of orange juice with breakfast because, though I would like to have one?I want one?I don’t yearn for it. The desire of hope is more than the desire of wanting.
Yearning also differentiates hoping from wishing: “I wish for a glass of orange juice” means something like “It would be nice to have one, but I will not be much disappointed if I don’t get it.” “I hope for a glass of orange juice” means that I will be disappointed not to have one. Why will I be disappointed in hope but not wish? Because hope involves yearning and wish does not.
These things suggest that hope is a cognitive act, not an emotion. Emotions may sometimes coincide with hope, but they are not the same as it. In the technical terminology of philosophy, hope is one kind of intention towards possibility.
[FN: I don’t want to get ahead of myself to talk about despair, but if hope is a cognitive act, Ernst Bloch argues, then the opposite of hope is memory, the gathering of the past, rather than fear (The Principle of Hope vol. 1:12). This would mean that despair is a function of memory. I have my own thoughts about memory and because of them I disagree with Bloch. Nevertheless, he is a very interesting if sometimes strange philosopher. Because he sees Christianity as a religion of hope, which is future-oriented, and Marx as the only philosopher for whom the future is real, he takes Marx to be the only Christian philosopher. The argument looks something like this: Until Marx, philosophers, including Christian philosophers, perhaps especially them, posited the real as already given. As a result, philosophy could not take seriously the idea of the future and the new; it defused hope. Only Marx and non-philosophical Christianity take hope, i.e., the new, seriously, and they understand it in much the same terms. So Marx is a Christian philosopher in spite of himself. (See Hope 17-18.) Bloch also argues that since consciousness is necessarily future-oriented, we cannot understand it sufficiently if we don’t understand hope (7).]
But instead of a cognitive act, perhaps hope is what Heidegger calls, a Stimmung, an existential (rather than psychological) mood or attunement. Or is that hopefulness, the background against which the act of hope occurs?
What kind of dependency does hope reveal? A solipsist cannot hope, so hope at least reveals a relation to a world: there is something more than me. Does it also reveal a relation to another? Does hope always imply someone other than myself? Of course Christian hope does, but the question is whether Christian hope is the type for all hope.
Christian philosophers have understood the loss of hope to begin in acedia: indifference, indolence, the sorrow of the world (2 Corinthians 7:10) that comes from turning away from the joy that hope brings, refusal to be oriented toward the coming of the Good promised by the Gospel, in all the ways that he can come. (See Pieper 58-60, for example.) On this understanding, to lose hope is to flee from the good to which we have been called. Once again, I wonder whether Christian hope can be understood as a type for all hope.