The Hopeful Self: Nothing and the Future

The Slavic word for hope is nada.  The same word in Spanish means “nothing.”  Perhaps the link between hope and nothing can help to forge a new meaning for this much-abused concept.  How do we get beyond the need for hope?  Can we free ourselves from the need to navigate between hope and hopelessness?  Hope as Peter Drahos argues, “is constituted of imagining and believing in the possibility that some state of affairs in the future will come to pass” (19).  Drahos shows how hope can be private, public and collective.  On the private level, hope can be enabling.  It can help a person to get through the day, a disease, a prison term.  If hope means that there is an expectation that X will happen, one has to remain focused on the expectation.  If X does not happen, then dreaming is the result. 

            Public hope is given through corporations that often sell unattainable goals.  Here hope leads to destructive disappointment.  For example, a country liberated from years of communist rule, does not receive the hoped for liberties.  In this instance, individual hope must free itself from the public hope that has not produced the promised for results.  Hope functions within unfreedom.  If I am free, I have no need to hope.  I simply do.  Politicians often invoke public hope.  Many naively believe that a new face in an old office will effect change.  Public hope when simply spoken does not carry a performative force.  The decree may change nothing.  The person who says, “this isn’t what I hoped for” shows what is wrong with hope. Its orientation may not be enough. Public hope as Drahos shows is “potentially dangerous because it allows political actions to harness emotional collectivities to economic and social agendas that are poorly understood.”  Hope can be manipulated to serve the private goals of those who are supposedly in the “public service.”  The world is full of public hope, private hope and collective hope, yet poverty, sickness, war, disease, famine, etc. are present.  Even the gospel maintains this state of affairs.  “The man who has will be given more and the man who has not will forfeit even what he has” (Mark 4:25).  In his poem, Burnt Norton, T.S. Eliot expresses the view that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”  In this inability to bear one’s cross, hope asserts itself as the final straw to clutch.  Is it better to have not hoped when X does not arrive or is it better to still go on hoping even when you are aware that X will never arrive?  If I am confident, I do not require hope.  I have my anticipation, my illumination and the fulfillment of my desire.  Hope is felt by those who suffer and do not know why.  In this sense, hope is related to ignorance.  The wise person does not hope.  The wise person does.

            In Corinthians, St. Paulidentifies hope, faith and love as virtues.  For Aquinas, hope is defined as the future good that one desires along with the help that one expects to attain it.  For Aquinas, God is the object of hope.  He argues, “hope goes wrong and is mistaken when you rely on your own strengths.”   In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asks the following three questions:  “What can I know?  What ought I to do?  And for what may I hope?”  While Kant does not give us a full treatment of hope, he declares that hope is linked to living happily.  For what may I hope?  The question is asked by Kant but not many answers have been given.  If one acts, there is no need for hope.  Instead of inspiring hope or allowing hope to breath, one should inspire action.  In this manner, we avoid the feeling of helplessness in the face of adversity.  If the first path is blocked, hope waits rather than find another way.  Hope does not lead to emancipation, action does.  Action transforms the conditions of our situation.  Hope dreams that the conditions can be transformed.  Hope building strategies are like giving a fishing pole to a person in the desert and then telling them that all they need is a lake full of fish, and a colorful lure.  Hope deceives us especially when it is done through marketing and spin-doctored into the next best thing.  Hope linked to economy alone distorts justice and becomes a system for taking advantage of others.  In other words, the logic of hope can lead to totalitarianism where the promise of equality manifested itself in the gulag and grave.  Hope has nothing to do with cognitive resolve.  Hope does not think.  Hope resolves nothing.  The avalanche of facts dissolves hope into a stream of incapacity.  Rather than revert to hope when faced with the adversity of life we might consider another response that does not daydream its future away on false expectations.

             I think that A.C. Grayling, in the Meaning of Things is wrong to insist that, “the best of what we are lies in what we hope to be.”  I imagine that Grayling wrote his many books based on the hope that they would be written.  Since hope realizes very little, Grayling’s vision of what is “best” falls short.

            Here, I remain a cynic, understood in the original Greek sense of the word.  A cynic is a critic of culture or the basis of reason.  Cynics were followers of Socrates who pointed out the shortcomings of adopting certain positions.  Hope falls short of its goal.  The opposite of hope is not hopelessness, but action.  Instead of hoping, do something.  This is why action requires courage, persistence and imagination.  Action can overcome lethargy, indifference, and hesitation.  Action prepares for the outcome.  Hope does nothing to prepare for what it wants fulfilled.  To be without hope does not mean to be accompanied by despair.

            In Human All Too Human, Nietzsche argues that hope “in truth is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”  Here Nietzsche reads the story of Pandora’s Box differently.  When Pandora opened the box, she released all the evils except hope.  The Greeks did see hope as dangerous, but it would accompany human beings as they navigated their troubles.  When Pandora returned, she let hope out of the box as well.  Hope is the last thing to leave the box.  This makes it either the worst of evils or that which can do nothing to overcome evil.  It is the last thing to emerge out of the box.  The hidden and unrealized come to fruition through action, not hope.  Hope chases what it cannot obtain.  It is utopian.  Here I disagree with the German Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch.  In his Principle of Hope, Bloch maintains that hope is the essence of our humanity because it propels us into the space of absolute futurity.  The not-yet of hope leads to the u-topos or no-place that does not exist.  So hope places us within the nothing.  We flee from the topos of the now into the u-topos of an imagined future.  The doors of the now must be opened.  The door of the future does not exist.  Why choose the not instead of the now that can be transformed?  The question of what I am and what must I do with my life is not answered by hope.

            In Greek mythology, Elpis or Hope was said to be the child of Nyx, goddess of the night.  Hope was the mother of Pheme or the goddess of rumor.  Hope’s genealogy allows for a revealing disruption.  Hope is related to the night.  She is birthed from the night.  Mother night gives birth to Momus (blame), Ponos (toil), Moros (fate), Thanatos (death), Hypnos (sleep), Nemesis (retribution), Apate (deception) and Eris (strife).  Hope is a shadowy figure.  Traditionally seen as the last goddess.  Hope is the last resource available to us when night and her children come to devour what remains.  Hope was depicted as hitching her skirt while holding flowers and the horn of plenty.  Hope is the final seduction and the final disappointment for “this muddy vesture of decay” as Shakespeare writes in The Merchant of Venice.  How fortunate for the angels who do not need hope according to Aquinas, because they are already in the presence of God.  In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas writes, “there is no hope to be found in either the blessed or the damned, it exists only in those who are still en-route (viatoribus)” Aquinas uses the image of the journey or quest which was a feature of medieval thought.  Here, hope is seen as a companion on the roads.  Aquinas’ road is already predetermined.  To travel on this road is to use an old path that prescribes where to go.  Following Nietzsche, Antonio Machado writes, “Pilgrim, there is no path; you yourself are making it by walking.”


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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