The Psychology and Philosophy of Hope


Hope is the dream of a waking man. —Aristotle

HOPE can be defined as the desire for something combined with an anticipation of it happening. In short, hope is the anticipation of something desired.

To hope for something is to desire that thing, and to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the probability of it happening, though less than one, is greater than nought. If the probability of it happening is one or very close to one, it is not a hope but an expectation; if it is nought it is a fantasy; and if it is very close to nought it is a wish. The borderline between a hope and a wish is moot, and more a question of emphasis than anything else.

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates says that the statesman Pericles gave his sons excellent instruction in everything that could be learnt from teachers, but when it came to virtue he simply left them to ‘wander at their own free will in a sort of hope that they would light upon virtue of their own accord’. This usage of ‘hope’ suggests that hoped for things are partly or even largely outside our personal control.

Even though hope involves an estimation of probabilities, this rational, calculative aspect is often imprecise—indeed, it is often unconscious. When we hope, we do not know what the odds, or at least our odds, might be, but still, choose to ‘hope against hope’. This combination of ignorance and defiance, this ‘hoping against hope’, is integral to hope.

One opposite of hope is fear, which is the desire for something not to happen combined with an anticipation of it happening. Inherent in every hope is a fear, and in every fear a hope. Other opposites of hope are hopelessness and despair, which is an agitated form of hopelessness.

With any hope, the desire can be more or less strong, and, independently, so can the anticipation. For example, it is possible to desire something very strongly, and yet believe that it is very unlikely to happen. In general, something that is strongly desired seems more likely to happen; conversely, something that is very likely to happen, by virtue of being attainable, seems more desirable. In other words, desire is somewhat correlated with anticipation. These same patterns and principes also apply to fear.

It can be instructive to compare hope with optimism and faith. Optimism is a general attitude of hopefulness that everything will turn out for the better or best. In contrast, hope is more particular and more specific (even a pessimist can be hopeful), and also less passive, more engaged, and more vested. To hope for something is to make a claim about something’s significance to us, and so to make a claim about ourselves.

The 13th century philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas said that faith has to do with things that are not seen, while hope has to do with things that are not at hand. If hope is more active than optimism, faith is more active still. Faith is deeply committed.

Hope features prominently in myth and religion. In Aesop’s fables, hope is symbolized by the swallow, which is among the first birds to appear at the end of winter. The famous moral, ‘One swallow does not make a summer’ belongs to the fable of the Spendthrift and the Swallow (or the Young Man and the Swallow).

A young man, a great spendthrift, had run through all his patrimony and had but one good cloak left. One day he happened to see a swallow, which had appeared before its season, skimming along a pool and twittering gaily. He supposed that summer had come, and went and sold his cloak. Not many days later, winter set in again with renewed frost and cold. When he found the unfortunate swallow lifeless on the ground, he said, “Unhappy bird! what have you done? By thus appearing before the springtime you have not only killed yourself, but you have wrought my destruction also.”

In Greek myth, Prometheus stole the secret of fire and offered it to mankind. To punish mankind, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to mold the first woman, a ‘beautiful evil’, out of earth and water, and ordered each of the gods to endow her with a ‘seductive gift’. He then gave this woman, called Pandora (‘All-gifted’), a jar of evils, and sent her to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora had been warned not to open the jar under any circumstance, but her natural curiosity got the better of her and she lifted the lid, disseminating every evil over the earth and, in so doing, bringing man’s golden age to its close. Pandora hastened to replace the lid, but all the contents of the jar had escaped—all, that is, except for Hope, which lay all by herself at the bottom of the jar.

Aside from the blatant misogyny, the myth of Pandora is difficult to interpret. Does it imply that hope is preserved for men, making their torments more bearable? Or, to the contrary, that hope is denied them, making their lives even more miserable? A third possibility is that hope was simply another evil in the jar, either a mechanism for tormenting men anew or the kind of false hope that is empty and corrupting. All of these interpretations are in the nature of hope, and so perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate.

In Christianity, hope is one of the three theological virtues alongside faith and charity (love)—‘theological’ because it arises from the grace of God, and because it has God for its object. Christian hope is not to be understood as the mere probabilistic anticipation of something desired, but as a ‘confident expectation’, a trust in God and His gifts that frees the believer from hesitation, fear, greed, and anything else that might keep him from charity, which, according to 1 Corinthians 13:13, is the greatest of the three theological virtues. ‘But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’

Thus, Christian hope is more akin to faith than to hope, it is faith in the future tense. Like prayer, it is an expression of the subject’s limitations, and of his connection with and dependence on something other and greater than himself. Hope is attractive because it is an act of piety, an act of humility.

The inscription on top of the gate to hell which features in Dante’s Inferno suggests that Christian hell amounts to hopelessness, that is, the severance of the bond between man and the divine.

Through me you enter the city of woe, through me you go to everlasting pain, through me you go among the lost people. Justice moved my exalted Creator: by the Holiest Power was I made, and Supreme Wisdom and Primal Love. Nothing before I was made was made but things eternal, and I too am eternal. Abandon all hope, Ye Who Enter Here!

Back upstairs in the land of the living, there is a saying that, ‘there is no life without hope’. Hope is an expression of confidence in life, and the basis for more practical virtues such as patience, determination, and courage. It provides us not only with goals, but also with the motivation to achieve or attain those goals. As Martin Luther says in Tabletalks, ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.’

Hope also makes present hardship less difficult to bear, whether this be loneliness, poverty, sickness, or just the trafficky daily commute. Even in a theoretical absence of hardship, still hope is needed, for man in general is not content to be content, but yearns for enterprise and change.

At a deeper level, hope links our present to our past and future, providing us with a metanarrative or overarching story that lends our life shape and meaning. Our hopes are the strands that run through our life, defining our struggles, our successes and setbacks, our strengths and shortcomings, and in some sense ennobling them.

Running with this idea, our hopes, though profoundly human—because only humans can project themselves into the distant future—also connect us with something much greater than ourselves, a cosmic life force that moves in us as it does in all of mankind and all of nature.

Conversely, hopelessness is both a cause and a symptom of depression, and, within depression, is a strong predictor of suicide. “What do you hope for out of life?” is one of my stock questions as a psychiatrist, and if my patient replies “nothing” I have to take that very seriously.

Hope is pleasurable, because the anticipation of a desire is pleasurable. But hope is also painful, because the desired thing is not yet at hand, and, moreover, might never be at hand. The pain of harbouring hopes, and the even greater pain of having them dashed, explains why people tend to parsimony with their hopes.

At the same time, the sheer desire for something to happen can lead us to overestimate the probability of it happening, and, in particular, the probability of it happening to us. Many if not most hopes are to some extent false, but some, such as the hope of winning the lottery, are beyond the pail.

Whereas realistic or reasonable hopes may lift us up and move us forward, false hopes prolong our torment, leading to inevitable frustration, disappointment, and resentment. By preventing engagement with reality, false hopes entrench an attitude of passivity and servility.

Letting go of false hopes can set us free, but, unfortunately, freedom is not for everyone. Although akin to the grandiose delusions seen in mania, false hopes may be all that a person has to keep going, to prevent the ego from disintegrating, and, in short, to keep sane. Such a person simply cannot afford to be free.

Hope generally gets a bad press from philosophers because it is largely irrational and so inimical to the values and self-construct of the philosopher, who yet would not philosophize without the hope that philosophizing might do something for him. For many philosophers, hope is a sign of helplessness, a regression from reality into fantasy, good for children and Pandora, perhaps, but certainly not for grown-up men.

Existentialists philosophers share their brethren’s disdain for hope, arguing that, by hiding the hard truths of the human condition, hope can lead us into a life that is disengaged and inauthentic.

Yet, the existentialists also have something very interesting to say about hope.

In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, a mythological king of Ephyra who was punished for his chronic deceitfulness by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.

Camus concludes, ‘The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ [La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut s’imaginer Sisyphe heureux.]

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.


We can have hopes, indeed, we have to have hopes; but we also have to have insight into our hopes, and into the process and nature of hoping.

Otherwise, we will take ourselves too seriously and suffer for it.


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