Horst Jürgen Helle

The Varieties of Hope

In: Heinz Friedrich (Hg.) Facing the Future. Hope in the Modern World, Munich: Rotary World Convention, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag 1987.

I. The Objects of Hope

For anyone who has the good fortune to be a citizen of one of the affluent industrialized countries, who enjoys a reasonable standard of living, and whose health and personal relationships are intact, hope may well consist in the wish that everything should remain as it is. This kind of contentment with the status quo is particularly common among people who at some previous point in their lives have encountered suffering and hardship. Hence it is to old people, rather than to the young, that we tend to concede the right to hope that the circumstances of their lives will remain unchanged. We generally think of adolescents and young adults as harbouring a more dynamic form of hope, directed towards ends whose fulfilment lies somewhere in the future.

However, the prevailing attitude among a large number of young people today in the industrialized nations diverges considerably from this expectation. The responsibilities of adulthood in the private sphere, at work, in politics and in religion are often seen as a burden rather than a challenge. In many youth subcultures, the ambition to succeed and the wish to use one's time as profitably as possible are seen as evidence of an unseemly impatience and lack of detachment. The hopes of these young people are quite different from those of the rest of society: their object is social and political change and the propagation of new religions. For those who set their sights on aims such as these, patience is indeed an essential quality. It thus becomes apparent that hope takes a variety of forms, depending on the age and personal circumstances of the individual.

Religious belief is also an important factor in determining the nature of hope. A person whose religion teaches him that he only has one life in which to realize his aspirations will undoubtedly view the concept of hope in a quite different light from somebody who believes in the idea of reincarnation, which would make it possible to carry over the unfulfilled aims of this life into the next. The main reason why so many people have become interested in Eastern religions is that a belief in reincarnation makes it easier to accept their present failure.

The particular type of hope which we embrace thus depends on our attitudes to the world in general. Platonic and Christian thinking promoted the idea that there are two separate worlds: the present and the hereafter. Whereas our mortal existence is finite and transient, the life beyond is a realm of eternal truth and light. Before the invention of the aeroplane, it was possible to visualize this idea directly: the hereafter was a place somewhere high above the clouds, beyond man's immediate reach. This belief in the real existence of two different worlds is also the basis of a form of hope. The hopes of the Christian are directed towards heaven and the eternal life to come.

There is a further kind of hope which is also based on the assumption of two worlds. In this case, however, the crucial distinction is between the real world in which we live and the hypothetical world of our imagination. Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) describes an imaginary island whose inhabitants live in peace and harmony, having abolished all distinctions of rank or title. In his Lettres Persanes (1721), Montesqieu used the fiction of an exchange of letters between two Persians travelling in France to criticize the condition of his country. The comparison between Utopia or Montesqieu's invented image of Persia and the actual circumstances of the present opened up a new perspective and gave rise to a new form of hope; these ideal models pointed to the possibility of social and political change.

In addition, there is a third variety of hope founded on a notion of 'otherness' which is anchored in present reality rather than in the hereafter or the imagination. The facilities offered by the modern world for foreign travel have extended the scope of our opportunities for new experience, which in turn has the effect of stimulating our potential for hope. The alternatives to which we attach our hopes are real and tangible; if one knows that something already exists in some other part of the world, it becomes possible to make it an object of one's present hopes. Hence the world in general becomes a source of hope for the individual. The distinguishing feature of these three forms of hope is the location of their respective alternatives to the actual state of things: in the hereafter, in the imagination, or in certain selected areas of the present.

II. Hope and the Hereafter

Hope is best insulated against disappointment where the alternative to the status quo is located in the hereafter. Since nobody has ever actually seen the place on which one's hopes are focussed, one can allow one's imagination to roam at will; the state to which one aspires is not an empirical reallty: it is beyond the bounds of time and mortal existence. Therefore the danger that one's hopes will be refuted during one's own lifetime is just as minimal as the chance that they will be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, a belief in life after death has significant consequences for life in the present. The prospect of the hereafter is the yardstick by which the present is judged: everyday actions are seen as anticipating or preparing for the life to come. This is not merely an individual matter, but the concern of a whole community whose members all share this hope. The interpretation of these hopes and their application to the present is a frequent object of controversy between particular sections of the community or between individuals and the specific groups.

The foundation of the state of Israel was accompanied by protests frorn a group of Talmudic scholars and devout Jews who saw this as a heretical anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Only when the Messiah actually arrived would the Promised Land be restored to the Jews; human intervention to expedite the fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy was an offence in the sight of God. There have been similar disputes among Christians about the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, the question being whether Christ's words refer to eternal salvation and the life beyond, or whether they are to be understood as precepts for political action in the present - or indeed whether both these interpretations are admissible.

The element of 'otherness' in hope can also be supplied by another person. In the past, the mutual expectations of marriage partners were relatively low; where disappointments nevertheless occurred, the dissatisfied partner generally attached his or her hopes to another person, despite the lack of any prospect that these hopes would be realized in the present: under such circumstances, love had to remain strictly platonic. This takes us back to Plato and the Platonic and Christian idea that there are two worlds, separated by a gulf which can only be traversed by the immortal soul. Belief in the hereafter depends on faith in the eternity of one's own being. Where this faith is absent and death is seen as the end of all things, the hereafter ceases to be an object of hope.

III. Hope as Interpretation

Unconditional belief in the possibility of eternal life becomes more and more difficult as the importance of scientific and technical thinking increases and the significance of religious experience declines. In the eyes of modern man, forces whose existence cannot be experimentally proven have no reality: the idea that something may be hidden from human perception but nevertheless exist is wholly alien to the scientist. The march of progress in science spells the death of metaphysics. Scepsis, which at one time was condemned as the vice of the unbeliever, has become a virtue, a basic principle of modern theories of knowledge.

However, doubt does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of hope. The sceptic usually concedes that although there is no conclusive proof that the hereafter exists, its nonexistence cannot be proved either. He therefore admits the possibility that there may after all be a world beyond the grave: a possibility which is strong enough to form the basis of a hypothesis. The occupants of Plato's cave who see only flickering shadows on the walls do not believe that the world outside the cave is real, but they are obliged to assume its existence in order to interpret the shadow images.

Belief can thus be a heuristic principle, allowing us to interpret our present experience in the light of another, hypothetical world. Mankind would be a great deal better off if we could arrive at some kind of consensus in respect of our hopes for the future development of this, the real world. The precondition for such a consensus would be the acceptance of a unified perspective as a point of reference for the interpretation of experience. Our hopes for the future will inevitably vary according to the construction which we place on the idea of Utopia or the comments of Montesqieu's astonished visitors to eighteenth century France.

Whether or not the primitive communism of Marx's dreams ever in fact existed is unimportant. It is the ideal governing an individual's hopes which determines his attitude to the present and his actions. The question whether Margaret Mead's description of Samoan sexual behaviour was inaccurate, as Derek Freeman has claimed, is a matter for the anthropological experts: the ethical significance of Mead's writings consists in their impact on young people's sense of what is natural and human. The sole determinant of the importance of utopian ideas is their degree of plausibility as alternatives to the mundane routine of everyday life.

A unified interpretative framework of the kind referred to above also strengthens the element of hope in personal relationships. It encourages the individual to view his neighbour in a charitable light, to assume - in the absence of evidence to the contrary - that the intentions of his fellow human beings are benevolent, and thereby to facilitate a form of interaction which fulfils his hopes instead of disappointing them. Provided that one approaches life with a sufficiently positive attitude, it is possible for optimism to become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: the assumption that people are fundamentally good encourages them to behave accordingly.

IV. The Future in the Present

The third form of hope of which I spoke earlier on dispenses with the assumption of an actual heaven in the hereafter and rejects any attempt to use utopian ideals as heuristic principles. Instead it concerns itself with those aspects of present experience which afford grounds for hope. Rather than Sir Thomas More's Imaginary Islanders or Montesqieu's fictional travellers, the inhabitants of the real world - the Japanese, the Americans or the Russians - become the focus of hope. In this way we arrive at a vision of the future in the present: the pace of development differs from one part of the world to another, so that what is already a reality to me may be seen by someone else as belonging to his future.

This variety of hope includes an element of apprehension, stemming from the lack of general agreement about the long-term aims of humanity and from a growing unease about the direction in which the world is developing. According to the philosopher Ernst Bloch, hope and fear coincide at the point where man becomes aware of the uncertainty of his aims and begins to question the meaning of Iife. Anguish and fear have both a social and a temporal dimension: they mirror the relationship of the frightened individual to his fellow human beings, and an awareness of time passing is one of their central constituents. The harder we try to escape the future whose image we discover in the present, the darker our forebodings become.

This means that our fears cannot be allayed by simply ignoring the future, since it is precisely the future which inspires them; and it is to the future that we must therefore look if we are to find a means of conquering these apprehensions. Ernst Bloch, whose thinking influenced the ideas of both Catholic and Protestant theologians (one thinks especially of Karl Rahner and Jürgen Moltmann) spoke in this context of the 'ultimate principle of hope'. In the words of Bloch: "The important thing is that we should learn to hope. Hope never fades: it aspires to success rather than fallure. It is superior to fear, for unlike the latter it is neither passive nor a prisoner of nothingness. It enriches people instead of impoverishing them and is eternally curious about their innermost aims and aspirations. The work of hoping calls for people who are prepared to throw themselves body and soul into the process of becoming of which they themselves are a part." (Das Prinzip Hoffnung, p. 1)

Bloch maintained that the future was the primary location of human awareness, that it takes time for man to become conscious of the past, and that there is hardly anny real present in his mind. Since the present always includes the future, man is obliged to choose between fear and hope. In Bloch's view, hope is the normal attitude in flourishing societies, but when a society begins to disintegrate, "those people who are unable to see a way out of decline grow fearful of hope. A crisis then ensues, whose subjective face is fear and whose objective mask is nihilism: the twin consequences of people's inability to understand or to alter the circumstances which they so bitterly bewail." (ibid. P. 2)

The more man looks to the present for guidance, the greater bis confusion becomes. "The immediate present eludes out perception, and it recedes even further from our grasp when we focus all out attention on it; at the moment of its emergence into being, the world is dark." (ibid. P. 338) This is even true of the moment at which long-cherished hopes are finally realized. Such a fulfilment can only be savoured at a certain distance; at the instant of consummation, the individual is not in a position to enjoy his success to the full.

In the sphere of personal relationships, this third variety of hope enjoins us to see others as they might be, emphasizing their positive features and celebrating these as the realization of the possibilities latent within their character. At the same time, the bearer of hope may actively seek to realize that part of his potential possibilities which is still lying dormant. In every social context, at whatever level of the social system, we face the agonizing choice between allowing hope to degenerate into doubt and fear or using it as a basis for determined action to secure its fulfilment.

Finally the question arises how hope is to be defended against the charge of being mere fancy and illusion. Max Weber singled out two traditional strategies for sustaining hope: the attitude of the 'worldly ascetic', the activist who seeks a better future by changing the real world, and that of the mystic, who seeks salvation through contemplation. Christianity yoked these attitudes together and at the expense of clarity and logical consistency – arrived at a solution of the problem of hope, consisting in the principle that we should try as far as possible to realize our hopes but should not abandon them if their fulfilment appears impossible.


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