Putting our faith in hope is futile

Tony Benn was wrong about hope, and it’s time we learned the lessons of defeat.

Tony Benn, who died last month, once said that “hope is the fuel of progress.” He was wrong. Hope is a cheap trick, self-conjured by a desire to anthropomorphise the cosmos – a plea, born of a near-solipsistic narcissism, for the preferential treatment of providence. Hope is often treated as a mitigating factor in the passage of judgement on humankind. Yes, we may steal, maim and murder each other all the time – but at least we possess this faculty for glorified wishful thinking! In fact, to command someone to be hopeful – as the protagonists of our favourite uplifting films often do – is to enact an injunction which offends against the reality of our lived experience. Such injunctions, with which we are bombarded from every orifice of human culture, merely serve as a garish border encircling the black hole of our lives, a tawdry smear of lipstick round the bottomless maw which consumes all the detritus of our essentially futile and impotent existence. Hope is a tormentor, assaulting us with daggers forged from utopian visions of a better world which will never come, and sharpened on the grindstone of everyday misery.

Tony Benn, as I mentioned above, died recently. In this, he was not unusual or unprecedented. We will all die sooner or later, although we hope we won’t. This hope deludes many of us into a belief into the afterlife or reincarnation, and the fact that such wishful thinking can convert itself into an unassailable fact in so many people’s minds may give us an indication of just what it is that is so problematic with hope. To be specific, there are two properties of hope as a human emotional faculty which make it so defective and inimical to our welfare. The first property is hope’s cruel and dishonest role in which every failure is made more crushing, every blow more devastating by the perpetual proffering of the counterfactual – the what-if alternative in which some imagined happy ending comes true. But it rarely if ever does. For most people, the diet of daily and reliable disappointment will only rarely be leavened by a morsel of good fortune. As such, for most of us, hope is not only probabilistically useless but functionally nasty. Hope is the tormentor who tantalises the starving prisoner with a juicy steak only to throw the meat to the dogs. Am I going too far? In a world where 80% of the population lives on less than ten dollars a day, I don’t think so.  For the other 20%, hope not only reinforces but in many ways creates our defeats and failures. Hope that your favourite soccer team will arrest their fall down to the bottom of the league? Nope – they get hammered at home in the derby. Hope that that teaching position is only a resting place on the path to literary glory? Too bad – twenty years later and you’re still teaching geography to the brats while that manuscript yellows in the drawer. Hope that the routine check-up will go fine? No way – better make it to the Cliffs of Moher while you can still crawl. Hope is the impotency which doubles back on itself.

The second harmful property of hope is the passiveness which it engenders. Like a prayer, it is an abnegation of will, a surrender of the soul. Hope encourages us to give up on ourselves and put our faith in some sort of cosmic guarantor. In the popular film series, The Hunger Games, the sinister dictator President Snow is constantly fretting about the possibility that the plucky Katniss Everdeen will provide hope for the downtrodden citizens, inspiring them to rebel. In fact, the most well-calibrated systems of oppression function to constantly engender hope in their citizens. Probably the best example of this is the in the USA, where perhaps the most monstrously unequal class system in the developed world is sustained through the illusion, almost universally entertained, that, per the American Dream, anyone can rise up from rags to riches. The role of Hollywood in this ideological pacification is obvious. The director Steven Soderbergh said in a talk last year that “The other thing I tell young filmmakers is […] when you’re going into one of those rooms to try and convince somebody to make it, I don’t care what you’re pitching – it can be about genocide, it can be about child killers, it can be about the worst kind of criminal injustice that you can imagine – but as you’re sort of in the process of telling this story, stop yourself in the middle of a sentence and act like you’re having an epiphany, and say: You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.”

So hope makes our lives more miserable by taunting us with utopian scenarios and by engendering a passiveness that discourages rebellion against oppressive systems. As such, we should reject hope and replace it with two other viewpoints: firstly, a robust pessimism (or what appears to be pessimism), and secondly a strong faith in humanity. The connection between the two components of this new approach is not necessarily obvious – maybe even they seem, in principle, contradictory. But the connection is there, and it can be revealed by a beautiful maxim produced by Orwell: “Any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”

This line is certainly pessimistic. Some might see as a nasty and brutish take on the human species. But actually, as well as being empirically correct, its sentiments actually spring from a profound empathy, in fact a love, for humanity in general. This type of love is agape, one of the four types of love described by the Ancient Greeks. Agape is true, unconditional love. The notion has survived through the Christian notion of God’s unconditional love for all men and women as symbolised by Jesus’ willingness to undergo crucifixion to “atone for humanity’s sins”. But this is not an exclusively Christian notion. The idea of oikeiosis, which is a core precept of the Stoic philosophy, holds that there is a natural affinity between all persons. The historical development of the concept of a universal and unconditional love for our fellow humans reaches its apotheosis in the left-wing revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. Che Guevara famously said “at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” That these movements combined such sentiments with brutal, and often summary, violence is not a contradiction. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, Christ himself augmented his message of universal love with a commitment to the use of radical violence. “I came not to bring peace,” he says in Matthew 10:34, “but to bring a sword.”  The point of this exposition is to underline the connection between a commitment to radical egalitarianism – a commitment shared, in some form, by Jesus, the Stoics, and revolutionary socialists – and a feeling of universal, unconditional love for humanity. This love is not one that admits the shallow idealising of erotic love, but a love which acknowledges and embraces failure as an inevitable and inalienable feature of the human condition. This is the true meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross – not an erasing of sin (which is, in other words, moral failure), but absorption of sin into the human being who is the subject of universal love. Thus, the robust pessimism I spoke of above is really this kind of love. This was the perspective underlying Orwell’s dictum. Orwell, who went out of his way to experience the poverty of the downtrodden, and who fought for them in the Spanish Civil War, was deeply committed to radical, egalitarian politics. As such, his statement that everyone’s life is, in some way, a series of failures consists of an acceptance, and a celebration, of failure. This orientation towards failure as a fundamental constitutive principle of human existence is the essence of agape, and, as such, the essence of the “strong faith in humanity” which I mentioned above.

This faith is not the religious kind, i.e. it is not a kind of one-size-fits-all epistemic guarantor by which any fantasy can be raised to the level of fact. It is, instead, the type of faith held by the boxer who knows they will win they fight. Of course, this is not the kind of knowledge involved in knowing that one and one is two or that putting tinfoil in the microwave will cause a fire. It is rather the strength that carries us through a project or an ordeal. It is an emotional faculty which is rooted in activity. In this it is contrasted with hope, which is rooted in passiveness.

So hope is an exercise in vanity and in solipsism. It is a faculty whose logic entails that special pleading will bestow some sort of cosmic grace on us. It is an end to which we expect to be gifted the means, ex nihilo. The faith I have spoken about here, by contrast, is not an end but a prevailing bond underwritten by the universality of the human essence – that is to say, the universality of failure.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.