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What is hope? What would it mean to wish that 2016 will be any better than 2015? As we enter the New Year the latest book by the prolific Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism, offers a brief but wide-ranging meditation on the meaning of a seemingly simple concept that escapes easy definition.

Eagleton’s preface sounds a cautionary note:

As one for whom the proverbial glass is not only half empty but almost certain to contain some foul-tasting, potentially lethal liquid, I am not perhaps the most appropriate author to write about hope.

But his vast learning across fields traversing literature, philosophy, politics and theology, and an irreverent turn of phrase, makes for a sharp, witty guide to a rich though not always wholly sober history of reflection on the subject.

Hope ≠ Optimism

As the book’s title makes clear, Eagleton is emphatic that hope is not to be confused with optimism. In an opening chapter dedicated to disentangling the meaning of two words often used interchangeably, Eagleton is at pains to clarify optimism as a much weaker concept than hope: an unreflective attitude that refuses to confront the stubborn obstacles the world presents to realisation of our objectives, a subjective feeling that things will turn out well for no reason other than a blank assertion that they will do so.

Like pessimism, optimism spreads a monochrome glaze over the whole world, blind to nuance and distinction.

For Eagleton the complacent outlook of the optimist underpins the ideology of Progress, the notion that the vector of history is necessarily positive, that inexorable moral, cultural, technological and political advance is somehow hard-wired into the very structure of the world. While it is plain common sense to believe in progress – that over the course of history much has changed for the better – advocates of Progress take things much further by insisting that instances of changes for the better collectively indicate that – despite occasional mis-steps – history is essentially locked into a positive groove.

The exuberant idea that things are getting better all the time is often assumed to belong to the history of ideas, a utopian offshoot of late 19th century liberalism thoroughly discredited by the bruising events of the 20th century. But Eagleton notes that it is very much alive and well today in certain libertarian ideologies. It informs our world’s pervasive techno-utopianism, a sunny Californian faith in the capacity of technology to put the world’s problems right, the solutionist creed that engineers can fix the planet’s problems, in much the same way as they would issue a software patch, if meddlesome politicians would only get of the way. And an assumption of Progress has insinuated itself into the heart of economic libertarianism, evident in the neoliberal’s serene confidence that the unrestrained play of market forces will always work for the liberation of human potential and the generation of greater prosperity.

One of the pleasures of reading Eagleton is his perennial inventiveness in finding new ways of ridiculing facile faith in the benevolent workings of the market, and he doesn’t disappointment here, on this occasion focusing his withering fire on Matt Ridley’s libertarian apologetic The Rational Optimist.

Eagleton does acknowledge that Ridley is at pains to shun the notion the world is any kind of free market utopia, and that even after decades of globalisation much still needs to be done to begin to lift hundreds of millions out of dire poverty. And he agrees with Ridley that the world has indeed made some progress in recent years: there is new prosperity in China and India, and technology continues to generate unforeseen solutions to hitherto intractable problems. But for Eagleton Ridley’s analysis is blindsided by a false image of progress. Ridley thinks of capitalist modernity as an unequivocal force for good, as a lamp gradually lighting up the world, illuminating benighted pockets of deprivation as it encounters them. Progress will march on if the process of globalisation is quickened to allow market forces greater opportunity to work their magic.

Eagleton thinks things are more tragic than that. The very processes of change eulogised by Ridley give with one hand but take away with the other. Globalisation and technological advance, like Pandora’s Box, set free new demons as well as the putative spirit of progress. The development of a global marketplace has brought new prosperity for some, but new miseries for others. The shift of industries and services to the developing world has unsettled the developed world, and the creation of a vast global workforce in pursuit of an insufficient supply of decent jobs has led to creeping economic insecurity across the board. New technology, for all the undoubted benefits it bestows, further threatens livelihoods through automation, and has made possible the development and abuse of ever more sophisticated weaponry and surveillance techniques. And of course rapid economic growth threatens to destroy the planet’s capability to support it.

For Eagleton the real story of freewheeling capitalist ‘progress’ is riven with contradiction and paradox, a complex narrative generating fresh wonders and horrors alike:

Humanity’s problem is not simply a lack of power or resources, but the very capabilities it has so magnificently evolved. It is hubris that threatens it, not simply backwardness. If history is a record of human advance, it is also a nightmare weighing on the brains of the living.

Hope ≠ Desire

Another common confusion, Eagleton argues, is to conflate hope with desire. Certainly hope can be thought of as a kind of desiring: there can be desire without hope, but no hope without desire. And there is a sense in which hope may be understood as an open-ended yearning for a better future, a stubborn refusal to give up on the possibility of that things can improve, even in the midst of failure and defeat.

But for Eagleton a recognition that hope has a unconditional element can be taken too far, severing the act of hoping from any grounding in the material world and suffusing it with an esoteric mystical quality. He takes rarified concept of ‘absolute hope’ as elaborated by influential Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel as representative of this tendency. According to Marcel, to hope is to be unconditionally orientated to the future, to persist with unshakeable faith in the belief that all will ultimately be well regardless of what rational grounds there might be for thinking that it will be so (or not).

What Marcel calls absolute hope is not based on experience, indeed takes no account of it, and rises from the ruins of all specific aspirations. It disdains all rational calculation, sets itself no limit or condition, preserves an unshakeable assurance, and is immune to disappointment, subsisting ‘in a zone of utter metaphysical security’.

Here hope is an unflappable desire for some nebulous future beyond the capacity of language to describe, unsullied by entanglement with base material circumstance. For Eagleton Marcel’s rhapsodic interpretation is a particularly eloquent example of the philosopher’s tendency to reify hope into an ideology. It is true that both religious and secular hope requires humility, a keen sense that its object might be obscure, discernible only ‘through a glass darkly’. But to deserve the name even the most tentative, cloudy hope must have some kind of content, some outline, however hard to make out. For Marcel, however, hope must be a pure white light, an incandescent desire for nothing in particular. One senses that no future state of grace could be quite good enough for Marcel:

The only Messiah who is likely not to let us down is the one who never shows up.

Eagleton goes on to devote an entire chapter to an influential secular thinker liable to a similar equation of hope with desire, the enigmatic Marxist Ernst Bloch, whose exhaustive study The Principle of Hope is perhaps the most sustained philosophical effort to tease out every conceivable nuance of the word:

Bloch’s work may not be the most admirable in the annals of Western Marxism, but it is by far the longest.

Like Marcel, Bloch understands hope as a disposition towards the world, an unflinching desire that transcends the realisation of any particular objective. For Bloch we are by nature restless beings, faces set ever towards the future, drawn ever forwards:

We cannot know the future directly, but for Bloch we can feel its ghostly pull all the time, like a force that warps space out of true. It is to be found in the unfinished nature of the actual, discernible as a hollow at its heart.

Indeed, Bloch thinks of hope as merely the human manifestation of a dynamic inherent within matter itself. The world’s transience, its perpetual motion, signals a dynamic built into the very structure of the universe oriented towards the infinite: the world itself desires its own continual betterment.

As with other mystics like Marcel, it is easy to be swept along by the force of Bloch’s rich, metaphorical prose, propelled by a bright-eyed utopianism. But Eagleton notes the rather obvious point that it is far from clear that transformation is always necessarily good. Worthwhile change must be open to judgement against moral criteria. Change encompasses the concept of decline as well as growth. Hope may be a mode of desire, but it is a rational desire that can be trained towards specific ends.

Both hope and desire can be groomed and nourished, learning to take as their end what is objectively good; and in both cases this requires the intervention of reason. Reason does not enter the picture simply when it comes to the question of how to realise one’s hopes or desires … it must be present, however dimly, from the outset.

Eagleton suggests that the extreme note that sounds in the ecstatic philosophies of hope elaborated by the likes of Marcel and Bloch owes something to their writing during some of the darkest periods of the last century, Marcel in the Nazi-occupied France of the 1940s, Bloch in East Germany under the Stasi. Both developed transcendent, untouchable ideals of hope capable of shining through the darkness that surrounded them. During times of desperation esoteric interpretations of hope such as theirs will always surface, speaking to the deep-seated human need to believe in transformation even when there seem few rational grounds for doing so.

Against hope

Eagleton often turns, not without some relief, to consideration of a venerable philosophical tradition that asks whether hope actually has any value at all, wary of the elusiveness of the concept, its tendency to encourage fanatic interpretations, and the threat that unrealistic hope can pose to peace of mind.

Eagleton writes with evident regard of the ancient Epicureans and Stoics, for whom an ordered emotional life required the shunning of hope and the disorder it can bring to an otherwise disciplined mental universe:

Ataraxy, or tranquility of mind, is best preserved by foreclosing future possibility. To ensure that one’s victories are minor is to warrant that one’s failures are equally modest. If the good life is one of placid self-possession, it is necessary to abandon both hope and despair. To jettison the future is an instant cure for anxiety.

Eagleton is also sympathetic to more recent expressions of this ancient wisdom tradition, including the dignified refusal of false hope found in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the novels of Thomas Hardy, and a certain strand of Burkean political conservatism, with its wariness of radical reform. The conservative is not without hope, but is content to wish for no more than that the future will not be worse than the present, and will safeguard some of the best traditions of the past.

Hope according to Eagleton

In the end though, Eagleton, the lifelong political radical, most certainly sees value in hope, of which he offers his own definition in the book’s final chapter. Real hope, he suggests, must have a moral dimension, ultimately concerned with the general good and not just our own, and it must be credible, taking account of the obstacles the world will present to its realisation. It must be addressed to and grounded in the world as it is, open to the possibility of failure:

Tragedy is concerned with what, if anything, survives when humanity has been hacked down to almost nothing. Whatever residue then remains, whatever still refuses to give way, is what can assuredly be built upon. It is thus that nothing veers on its axis to become something.

But though Eagleton respects the conservative’s sane scepticism regarding the wisdom or feasibility of radical change, he nonetheless persists in remaining open to its possibility. We might reject Progress as illusory, but progress has been made in the past, is happening now, and, we have reason to trust, will happen in the future:

Nothing is more otherworldly than the assumption that the world as we know it is here to stay.

The present contains the seeds of a better future, if we are prepared to look hard enough, one that may surprise us with an unexpected richness:

If radical transformation is a hard concept to seize, it is because it demands foresight and lucidity, precision and calculation, but all in the name of an end that is necessarily opaque. To project a future is inevitably to draw upon the experience of the present, and thus to fail to surpass what we know already; yet how otherwise can a future which exceeds our present understanding be brought to birth?

It will come to no surprise that for Eagleton – the left-wing literary critic who as a young man was on the verge of joining a Catholic order – it is the best elements of the Christian and Marxist traditions that offer the richest resources for developing an adequate understanding of what it is to hope. Both are willing to confront the world as it is, in all its fallenness, yet remain open to the possibility of a profound transformation:

Both Marxists and Christians are gloomier about the current condition of humanity than liberals and social reformers, yet far more hopeful about its future prospects. In both cases, these two attitudes are sides of the same coin. One has faith in the future precisely because one seeks to confront the present at its most rebarbative.

Christian faith in the resurrection makes possible the grandest of hopes for the world’s ultimate salvation, but it is a hope dearly bought through Christ’s suffering on the cross, the extraordinary claim that the world’s transfiguration is made possible only because its creator has plumbed its depths.

Eagleton’s abiding respect for Marxism stems from Marx’s deep insight that progress and suffering are inexorably linked. The Communist Manifesto praises capitalism in even more extravagant terms than the utopian neoliberal, but insists that the system is self-thwarting: the very processes that generate growth also foster inequality, insecurity, alienation and ecological crisis.

Viewed from one angle, history represents a movement onward and upward, as human beings acquire more complex needs and desires and evolve new powers and capabilities, all on the back of their material development. Seen from another angle, however, it is a question of lurching from one form of organised injustice to another, so that the story is also a tragic one.

And yet the political radical dares to believe this is not the whole of the story, that the contradictions that have so far been inherent in material progress can be worked through, and, so far as may ever be possible, be resolved. The radical still hopes that capitalist modernity does not represent ‘the end of history’, and continues to propose alternative economic and political systems that will both generate wealth and maintain social and environmental balance.

For Eagleton, those who continue to hope for radical change, like the Christian, are both rooted in and strangers to the world, caught between ‘between what is palpable but imperfect and what is absent but alluring, between the insistence of the actual and the promise of a future.’ An elusive state of being to attain, no doubt, but perhaps one worth hoping for.

Hope Without Optimism by Terry Eagleton is published by Yale Books.

This review first appeared on Sceptical Scot.

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Literature, Politics, Reviews