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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Hope

by Matt Qvortrup

Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. But there are exceptions to the rule. ‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

Hope has always been there. The Ancient Greeks used the word elpis, which made its debut in the poetry of Hesiod. In Works and Days, from 700 BC, the Greek epic poet wrote about Pandora (her of the infamous box), that “Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house.”

Aristotle, some four hundred years later, was rather more analytical. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the Macedonian genius wrote, “The coward…is a despairing sort of person; for he fears everything. The brave man, on the other hand…[is of] a hopeful disposition (Nicomachean Ethics, 1116a2).

But mostly, the Greeks tended to be rather negative. Sometimes philosophers have been a miserable bunch. Plato certainly was one. He wrote dismissively about the gods as “mindless advisers”, who instil “fear” “and gullible hope” (Timaeus, 69b).

Nietzsche, who was trained as a classicist – he became a full professor of ancient Greek before he had submitted his doctorate – took a similar dismal view. In his early book Human, All Too Human, he wrote, “Zeus intended that man, notwithstanding the evils oppressing him, should continue to live and not rid himself of life, but keep on making himself miserable. For this purpose, he bestowed hope upon man: it is, in truth, the greatest of evils for it lengthens the ordeal of man” (Section 71). Nietzsche did not change his perspective, though he became more poetic. In The Gay Science he wrote, “Hope is the rainbow over the cascading brook of life, swallowed up a hundred times by the spray.”

Spinoza, writing in the 17th Century, was more diagnostic, and wrote, in Ethics, that “hope is nothing but an inconstant joy which has arisen from the image of a future…whose outcome we doubt” (Ethics III, 81).

But others have been more optimistic. “To hope, is to act as if you await the possibility of good,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote in The Works of Love. The Dane went on to say,that “To fear, is to act as if you await the possibility of evil.” The existentialist, of course, was ultimately hopeful because he was a Christian who was shaped by reading the Bible, in particular St Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Romans, that “we are saved by hope” (8:24).

The Marxist philosophers might not have had a hope of ‘the great gig in the sky’ – as Heaven was called by the rock band Pink Floyd. But many of them still entertained a utopian dream of a better world. One of the most eloquent writers on the subject was Walter Benjamin, who in the mid 1920s movingly wrote, “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.” (Goethe’s Elective Affinities, p.201)

One may not agree with all – or any – of these quotes. Perhaps the world would be better if we all followed the advice of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch’s book The Principle of Hope from the 1950s. Its stated aim was simple: “What really matters, is to learn how to hope” (The Principle of Hope, 1).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2021

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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