Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hope : Virtue or Vice ?

Sometimes I think bishops do nothing but attend conferences with grandiose titles on the evils of the modern world. The latest is the "annual Plenary Assembly of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences" promising to confront the "challenges of our time: social and spiritual aspects." And what are these social and spirituality aspects ?

In fact, at this time of economic difficulty, people today, the European citizens of our countries, can easily allow themselves to succumb to the major epidemic of our time: desperation. The lack of hope is the greatest evil of our time. An anthropological revolution is underway which disorientates the human person, deceives the person and runs the risk of making the person lose him or herself. The Church is grateful to the Lord for having received the answer to the most profound expectations of humanity, to its most hidden yearning and nostalgia for the Other. The answer is Christ. The new evangelisation, the theme which has been accompanying us in recent years, is an opportunity and an appeal, to work so that Christ, always the same yesterday and today, can be understood and welcomed by everyone. A heart which has found its way in Christ will be able to perform miracles in the family, at school, at work and in different national and international institutions”. [link]

Yawningly cliched stuff.  But I find this phase interesting:  "The lack of hope is the greatest evil of our time". Why is hope given such importance by Christians

In Christianity hope is considered one of the three key theological virtues, the others being faith and charity. Hugh Mille denounced Atheism as "the death of hope, the suicide of the soul". In our Christian derived culture countless films and books such as the Lord of the Rings propagate the Christian belief that hope in the face of near certain death is a supreme act of courage: The lone band of heroes with nothing but a 'fools hope' bravely defying overwhelming odds while lessor men  crumble in despair etc etc.

But interestingly other traditions consider hope a vice. Classical Stoic philosophers for example considered hope one of the two ills which prevented peace of mind; the second ill was nostalgia.

The reasoning runs roughly like this : To a Stoic, the past and future do not exist. There is only the present. So by attaching oneself to the past or by hoping for a better future, we devalue the present and prevent ourselves from living life to the full. Stoicism then articulated what Freud would echo centuries later : "that he who remains a prisoner of the past will always be incapable of acting and enjoying." The same applies to the person who is living for tomorrow, always waiting for their life to begin.

Hope, according to Stoic thought, is by nature an absence, a lack, a source of constant tension because we live our lives in terms of plans, hoping for some distant goal on which our happiness depends. But having reached our goal, we may experience a puzzling sense of disillusionment and immediately our desires force us into hoping for the next distant goal. "We wait for life as life passes" is the famous phrase by the Stoic philosopher Seneca. The good life then, is a life stripped of both hopes and fears. Hoping for happiness is to "seek it where it is not and neglect to seek it where is it" (Epictetus).

I was surprised to discover this Stoic teaching was echoed in Buddhism: " You must learn to live as if this present moment was the most vital of your life. For nothing else exists in truth: the past is no longer and the future is not yet". Even Nietzsche weighed in against hope which we 'shoulder' like 'beasts of burden' because of our inability to love reality for itself.

Even some Humanists have condemned hope. Contemporary French philosophy Andre Comte-Sponville points out that "to hope is to desire without consummation,without knowledge, without power".

To desire without consummation because by definition we do not have what we hope for; to desire without knowledge because if we knew how to obtain the object of our desires, then we would do so; desire without power because, again, if we had the power to obtain our desires, we would do so. Hope then according to Andre leads to frustration and impotence.
This highlights an important difference between Christianity and philosophy:  Christianity teaches the world is not as it should be; that we live in a cursed and fallen world. We therefore hope for the grace of God and for the Kingdom of God and for our own salvation. Classical philosophy on the other hand aims to understand the world and to accept our place within the world. Christianity teaches dissatisfaction, that despair can be defeated by hope. Stoicism teaches despair is caused by making faulty judgements on the world, that hope is as best worthless. 

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