Has hope a future?

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MONIQUE ATLAN and  ROGER-POL DROIT share a very European perspective on the need to revive hope in the 21st century, despite the many reasons why people have given up hoping for a better future.

Q: Hope is supposedly a very simple and familiar concept. Yet your survey has shown that it is far more complex than it seems, as throughout the course of history hope has often been obscured and belittled. Could you please tell us more about it?

MA & RPD: It is actually very simple. Hope is a human strength par excellence. It is what makes us move forward, act, progress, etc., even in the worst of circumstances! So it is wrong to believe that hope is at odds with action. In fact, there is no action without the hope that it will succeed, and yet to expect success the action must have already started.

Nevertheless, it remains difficult to precisely define what hope is. It is at the same time a wish, a desire, and an expectation of something better, but it’s not only these things. Being the matrix of our lives, and of our individual existence as well as of our collective challenges, hope cannot be framed within a rigid concept.

Hope is fraught with ambiguity, plurality, and it is always impure, that is, it is woven from conflicting feelings, illusory beliefs, magical thoughts and dreams, as well as reasoning and probabilities. Hope is both a call-to-action and at the same time it is based on emotional thinking.

Our research into the history – particularly in ancient Greece, in Jewish sources and in Christian thinking – shows that hope is always two-sided and ambiguous: individual and collective, earthly and heavenly, fluctuating and unchanging, etc.

If you imagine that it is only for good things, bound to have a positive outcome, you would be quite wrong: terrorists also hope for the maximum number of casualties.

Of course, there have always been highlights when the collective hope was positive. The Age of Enlightenment and the social movements for emancipation in the nineteenth century are good examples, as people believed that human progress would follow. More knowledge and accessible education, a greater number of tools and methods, and freedom and ethics were all supposed to follow. Such was the great hope that progress represented – a continuous and triumphant hope.

But as the 20th century showed, culture and progress do not safeguard us from barbaric acts, science can also bring destruction, and better tomorrows can lead to totalitarianism and terror. So we now have a tendency to shun hope, and most of the time we’d rather live without it.

Q: Can we possibly live without hope?

MA & RPD: Of course not! Hope is a constituent of the human condition. Our primary question has been: How is it that collective hope should break down, whereas individuals go on having personal hope and plans for themselves and for their relatives? All the polls and surveys show that the very people who claim that they are pessimistic about the future of their country or of humanity also claim that they are rather optimistic as far as their personal situations are concerned. In other words, hope is indeed what the psychologist Guy Lavallée calls an ‘energy matrix’, the source of our plans and actions, even though collective expectations have currently lost momentum.

If we are each imbued with such a deep sense of hope, how is it that we no longer dream of a future that reflects our inner hopes ?

It is actually very simple.
Hope is a human strength par excellence.
It is what makes us move forward, act, progress, etc.,
even in the worst of circumstances!
So it is wrong to believe that hope is at odds with action.

That is what we have tried to diagnose through what we call a ‘philosophical un-blocking’ in order to rekindle it. We know that we cannot force hope on anyone, so our challenge is to revive the process by giving it the consideration it deserves and by better understanding its limits and mechanisms.

The current eclipse of our collective hope is above all due to the disasters of the last century, to our having lost our sense of history, to a weakening of the awareness we have of inheriting from the past and of needing to build a future, and to the triumph of presentismand immediacy. But there are also more profound and ancient causes, which are to be found in our European culture.

We have seen through the ages that any universal feeling of hope has not been loved by our philosophers, at least most of them. Therefore, as far as hope is concerned, the failure has also been in our thinking.

Starting with the ancients and the stoics and moving forward to our contemporary philosophers, practically no one has given particular and prominent attention to hope. Either they ignore it, avoid dealing with it, express a lack of confidence or reject it outright. The rationale they use is always the same: to reject hope in order to avoid all the risks and discomforts due to the fear of unfulfilled hope. They then attach value to the present only, to living in the moment, in order to guard against all the uncertainties and expectations that hope brings.

Here are a few examples :
“Don’t hope and you will be fearless,” the stoic philosopher Hecaton of Rhodes used to say, as quoted by Seneca.
Montaigne added, “Fear, desire and hope impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to have us spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more.”
As for Spinoza, the greatest hope fighter, he wanted to chase away all sadness in order to reach the wisdom that could be drawn from philosophical joy. He concluded by saying, “In proportion as we endeavor to live according to the guidance of reason, shall we strive as much as possible to depend less on hope.”

We could also quote Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Camus, Comte-Sponville and many others. In spite of their different philosophies, they all agreed that hope is a harmful illusion, and we must rid ourselves of it. The fear of being disappointed made them throw the baby out with the bathwater, because hope implies taking a risk!

You said, “Hope should be the main instrument for building a new future.” But how is it possible in a world where we have lost all our illusions ?

It is possible, provided we stop confusing hope and illusion. Losing our illusions does not mean losing hope. On the contrary, hope is a means to practice gaining insight. Our gross desires and our scattered aspirations need to be carefully refined. They must be sifted, channeled, rid of their superfluities and fantasies, and adjusted to reality. If that is wanting, hope remains a mere mechanical repetition of the same formulas and therefore it is totally useless. It is worth working on hope, and worth tempering it.

Q: What can we hope for nowadays?

MA & RPD: No period in history, even the darkest, has ever seen hope disappear completely. Its flame lingers, even when everything seems to want to blow it out. That is why, at the heart of the great tragedies of the 20th century, Ernst Bloch and Hans Jonas embraced the idea of a world that constantly needs constructing; a world where the central dimension of life dwells in the future. Here comes the most important lesson to remember: hope requires thinking beyond oneself.

So we appeal for a total inversion of the western philosophical software. Instead of being essentially focused on the individual’s thought at the moment of death, we need to think beyond ourselves, about all living creatures, and about what we have to transmit to future generations. As long as we remain focused on the individual alone and facing death, the world and time will appear absurd. But if we accept the idea of human beings carrying on, then we place ourselves in an unfinished project, one that is always open and under development.

Q: So hope can be shared, right?

MA & RPD: The philosopher Catherine Chalier pointed out that “Hope is always to be shared.” Sharing it is the essential dimension, as hope can never be lived by one person alone. As Erri de Luca wrote in his book, Alzaïa, the Hebrew word tiqva simultaneously means hope, a rope and a climbing team. It is the rope that binds prisoners to each other, but it also keeps human beings together and gives them some freedom, just as alpinists secure each other. Hope is never a solo race. It binds us and we pull together when we share that hope.

Q: What would you like to say about hope to the youth of today?

MA & RPD: We have no ready answer and no unfailing knowhow. The issue is for us to understand, and then to help them understand. We must tell the youth about the past, about the depth of our history and about those who defended our civil liberties all through the course of history. We must explain to them that immediate gratification cannot be the only prevailing value, and that the super heroes in Star Wars and the Avengers who fight off evil fail to reflect the full picture of the world. Finally, we must relentlessly draw the line between a virtual and a real world, since confusing them only leads to unrealistic expectations.

We do not hold the keys to the future. It is up to the youth to forge these keys, provided that we, the adults, are fully aware that the world doesn’t end with us, and that transmitting to future generations will reopen the horizon and hope.

As a matter of fact, there can only be hope if and when we accept that the world does not end with us, and that we need to build it over and over again, all together. Hope is what makes us act, due to the shared conviction that the game is still ongoing, that the world is not yet complete, and that the story continues.

Yet if we want to advance, we do still need the story. Hope must be formulated, and it must be told, put in words, myths and stories. We must talk about it, transmit it, and live it. It also requires imagination and vision. Such tales are actually missing and they must be created and restored so that hope has a foundation, the ground on which to stand.

Q: And for you personally, what gives you hope?

MA & RPD: The fact that the unexpected does exist and that it endures. Let the story remain unfinished. Remember that the inscription above Dante’s Gate of Hell reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” What defines hell is that it is a confined space, with no possible openings or dreams. Conversely, in our world, human dignity consists in constantly maintaining aspirations for a better world. Ernst Bloch, in his book The Hope Principle, showed that he well understood that our being aware of the future was an engine for all human beings. He stated that, “So far, hope has remained as unexplored as Antarctica.” We do think it’s high time for hope to be explored.

1 Philosophical presentism is the view that neither the future nor the past exist.

To explore these ideas further, read their book, L’espoir a-t-il un avenir?, published by Flammarion in 2016.

Interviewed by  SYLVIE BERTI-ROSSI

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