is hope an intellectual virtue (or a virtue at all)?

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently that the “black political tradition is essentially hopeful,” yet the historical record gives many indications that injustice is tenacious and unlikely to yield. That means that a historian or a political analyst deeply cognizant of history should not be committed to hope:

A writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.

Coates is critical of “only writing hopeful things” and of assuming that “your writing must be hopeful.” He is not saying: abandon all hope, you who enter into historical thought. But he is distinguishing the cultivation of hope from the pursuit of truth. If hope emerges from truth, that is a matter of sheer chance and not to be counted on.

I have argued, more generally, that truth, justice toward others, and inner psychological wellbeing are distinct goods.* It would be wonderful if they could fit together neatly, and even better if each caused the others. That would be the case in a universe constructed by an omnipotent and just creator, which is why the Bible says things like “the truth will make you free.” But I see no particular reason to believe that truth will make you happy or just, that justice will make you happy or truthful, or that happiness will make you truthful or just. In many situations, knowing the full truth just causes sorrow and paralysis; committing fully to justice requires sorrow and untruth. In my view, all three goals are estimable, but they conflict, and that is one reason it is so hard to live well. This position is consistent with Coates’ admiration for both the truth-telling historian and the hope-instilling tradition of Black politics in the US.

In the previous paragraph, I wrote about happiness in contrast to justice and truth, dropping the word “hope.” For some, hope is a form or close relative of happiness. But one can debate whether hope is a good at all. Neither the classical Greeks nor the ancient Indian thinkers thought that it was. Hannah Arendt observed that “Greek antiquity ignored [faith and hope] altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box” (The Human Condition, p. 247.).

Indeed, a Stoic or a Buddhist can endorse a strong argument against hope. First, hope is a thought about the future, but wisdom lies in fully experiencing the present, which alone is real. Like nostalgia and regret, hope is a source of irrational disquiet.

Second, hope is about matters beyond our control. For instance, it makes no sense for me to “hope” that I will answer a question honestly. If I am an honest person, I will just answer it honestly. To hope about our own actions is to renounce responsibility. By the same token, we ought to spend no energy hoping that others will be honest–or otherwise ethical–because that is beyond our control. They will do what they will do, and we should respond in the best possible way.

Third, we should not make hope the precondition of acting right, for that is moral weakness. We must do right regardless of the odds of things turning out well.

Most pre-Christian thinkers of the Mediterranean and Northern India ignored or opposed hope. Christians then turned hope into one of the three greatest virtues. That made sense because of their theistic commitments. Indeed, hope is closely connected to faith and charity because it is faith in the Creator’s charity or grace that (alone) substantiates hope in a world of evident suffering.

Arendt was a non-Christian author who thought that the Christian concept of hope had been a positive contribution, related to her own core virtue of amor mundi–love of the world. Notwithstanding the Stoic and Buddhist arguments against hope, and notwithstanding the real tensions between hope and truth that Coates explores–hope could be a virtue. It could be a virtue if it is a resource that human beings need in order to act well. Then instilling hope increases the odds of good action, just as giving people courage does.

In both Stoicism and at least some classical Indian thought, quietism is a common theme. The wise person accepts what is–in which case, hope is irrelevant and distracting. But activists must think about more than the present. They must form plans, which requires estimating the probability of success. When the probability approaches zero, it is time to form a new plan. That means that hope is a rational precondition of action.

And possibly hope is an intrinsic virtue. By Act IV, Scene 1 of King Lear, Edgar has already suffered much, having been cast out of his family and society and onto the wild heath. He convinces himself that he can still be happy because he can still have hope (“esperance”):

Yet better thus, and known to be contemn’d,
Than still contemn’d and flatter’d. To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.
The lamentable change is from the best;
The worst returns to laughter. Welcome then,
Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace!
The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst
Owes nothing to thy blasts. 2255

Immediately following these lines–in a perfect illustration of tragic irony–Edgar’s father stumbles into view. We have watched his eyes being deliberately thumb-wrenched out of their sockets, and now we see him “Enter …, led by an Old Man.” Edgar cries:

But who comes here?
My father, poorly led? World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age.

It was not true that Edgar had seen the worst or that the subsequent changes would be for the better. Things were about to get much worse. And things ultimately get worse for all of us. Yet it was better for Edgar to have those moments on the heath than not to have had them. It was to his credit that he could forgive and “embrace” life. He chose to describe his state as hope, and that seems praiseworthy. Hope wasn’t an accurate prediction of the future but rather a choice and a disposition.

To return to the beginning: I agree with Coates that history is not hope-instilling and that the rigorous empirical historian should not go looking for hope in the record of the past. At the same time, a human being who manages to be hopeful seems to be praiseworthy and a gift to others. The historian is a human being, and like all of us, must navigate these two inconsistent values.

*See also: on hope as an intellectual virtue (with the opposite thesis from today’s post); unhappiness and injustice are different problems; why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so; three truths and a question about happiness; and all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.