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Is Hope a Virtue?

13 Jul, 17 | by Iain Brassington

It’s perfectly understandable that hope should have featured so prominently in the coverage of the Charlie Gard case; each proposal is presented as offering fresh hope, each reversal presented as dashing hopes.  In either case, hope is something presented as desirable.  A bit more deeply, hope is one of the Theological Virtues, and so anyone who has grown up in the West, irrespective of their doctrinal commitments, will come from a culture in which there’s an overwhelming sense of hope being something good.  For some, it may even be an unalloyed good – I’ll return to that in a moment.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a culture in which hope is not fairly straightforwardly desirable: in which, that is, hope’s desirability is the exception rather than the rule.

Hard, but not impossible.

Here’s Hesiod, telling the story of Pandora in Works and Days (from Dorothea Wender’s translation for Penguin):

Before this time men lived upon the earth
Apart from sorrow and painful work,
Free from disease, which lets the Death-gods in.
But now the woman opened up the cask,
And scattered pains and evils among men.
Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing,
Hope, only, which did not fly through the door.
The lid stopped her, but all the others flew,
Thousands of troubles, wandering the earth.
The earth is full of evils, and the sea.
Diseases come to visit men by day
And, uninvited, come again at night
Bringing their pains in silence, for they were
Deprived of speech by Zeus the Wise.  And so
There is no way to flee the mind of Zeus.

Hesiod is ambiguous about hope here.  Was it placed in the cask by Zeus as a sort of remedy for all the other evils?  That’s the interpretation of the story to which I was exposed as a 10-year-old.  It’s plausibly quite a Christianised reading, with Hope as the consolation for the cares of the world, and a shield against despair.  That might have been how some contemporary Greeks took the story, too.  But there’s nothing in the text to indicate that it’s the correct interpretation; it does seem to be something we’d have to infer based on an assumption that Hope is good, and Hesiod offers no grounds for that assumption.  And there’d be puzzles left to solve for this interpretation to work.  Why would Zeus, intent on making humanity suffer, provide an antidote to suffering?  Well, maybe he had a change of heart.  But that seems implausible, since hope was sent with all the evils of the world.  A change of heart would be better expressed by not sending the evils – or not quite so many of them – in the first place.

Might Hope itself have been one of the evils sent by Zeus, then?  That’s be perplexing to a modern audience, but that counts for little; Hesiod was alive at roughly the same time as Homer, in the seventh or eighth century BC, so there’s plenty of time for all kinds of cultural contortions.  Maybe Hesiod’s audience was one in which hope had undesirable connotations.

But why should hope be seen as evil?  Well, Nietzsche has an answer to that in §71 of Human, all too Human:

Hope.  Pandora brought the jar with the evils and opened it.  It was the gods’ gift to man, on the outside a beautiful, enticing gift, called the “lucky jar”.  Then all the evils, those lively, winged beings, flew out of it.  Since that time, they roam around and do harm to men by day and night.  One single evil had not yet slipped out of the jar.  As Zeus had wished, Pandora slammed the top down and it remained inside.  So now man has the lucky jar in his house forever and thinks the world of the treasure.  It is at his service; he reaches for it when he fancies it.  For he does not know that the jar which Pandora brought was the jar of evils, and he takes the remaining evil for the greatest worldly good – it is hope, for Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew.  To that end, he gives man hope.  In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.

In other words, it’s less the case that where there’s life there’s hope than it is the case that where there’s hope there’s life; and life is a necessary condition of Zeus making us miserable.  Why the Greeks’d cook up that kind of mythos is unclear; but maybe that’s just how they rolled.  (How Hope got into the world – for good or ill – given that Pandora closed the lid on it is a further question.)

Love him though I do, Nietzsche is admittedly philosophy’s greatest contrarian and hyperbolist, so we probably oughtn’t to take his word for it.  And he’s not always quite so dismissive of certain kinds of hope anyway, with a few lines scattered here and there throughout his work that express a limited and rather special kind of hope about what the future may hold for humanity.

But the general idea, that hope is more ambiguous than we might like to admit, holds good.  And that casts its own light on how we should regard its place in stories like Charlie Gard’s.  Even if we think that hope is generally a virtue (giving us a reason to act to pursue the good for ourselves or others, for example), it doesn’t follow from that that it’s the overwhelming virtue, or that it’s always a virtue.  One can be over-optimistic, and let hope override judgement; this can have undesirable outcomes.  Sometimes the admirable thing to do is to abandon hope in favour of pragmatism: for example, a person who spends his entire paycheque for the month on lottery tickets in the hope that they’ll solve his money worries is not acting in an admirable way, however earnest he may be.

Hope can be self-destructive; but it can also destroy others.  It is possible to imagine situations in which one person’s interests end up being sacrificed for the sake of preserving another’s hope, or because that other person’s hope has outgrown its proper place.

In short, there’re times when an all-else-being-equal virtue might turn vicious.  The knack is knowing when hope is motivating desirable actions, and when it’s turned bad.  Its mere presence is not enough.

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