How to Not Hope
Hope looks forward to some good future. The excess of hope is presumption; the deficit of hope is despair.
Aristotle taught that moral virtues fall between two vices, a vice of deficit and a vice of excess. For example, the virtue of generosity is somewhere between stinginess, an unwillingness or reluctance to give in situations where giving is appropriate, and prodigality, unreasonably giving too much. One can miss the virtue of courage through cowardice, too little willingness to face danger in situations where facing danger is appropriate, and through foolhardiness, an irrational taking on of risk and danger. This idea is often called the doctrine of the golden mean. Aristotle warned that virtue should not be thought of as a numerical average, as if courage was exactly balanced between cowardice and foolhardiness; he thought courage was more often closer to rashness than to cowardice. It takes good judgment to know how a virtue should be expressed in a particular situation.
It’s important to notice the role of good judgment, or reason, in Aristotle’s doctrine. Actually, the word he uses is phronesis, usually translated “practical wisdom.” Aristotle thought the intellectual virtue, practical wisdom, had a role in guiding and nurturing moral virtues, such as courage, moderation, or generosity. It is only by phronesis that one recognizes that this is a situation requiring courage or that this is a situation requiring generosity. And if it is a situation requiring generosity, it is phronesis that helps one judge how much and in what way one ought to give. Someone who woodenly follows rules for giving (e.g. “Always give ten percent of your income to your local church”) may find herself creating trouble whereas the giver with practical wisdom effectively blesses those around her.
For Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle was “the philosopher.” On most topics, Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s teaching as far as he could; up to the point where Aristotle contradicted the Bible or the creeds of the church. For example, Aristotle wrote that the world might be an eternal creation of the unmoved mover (God), or the mover may have caused the world at some point in time. Aquinas could not simply approve this conclusion, since scripture and creed say that God created the world at a certain point. So Aquinas said that philosophically, Aristotle was right; though reason demands the existence of God (unmoved mover), it does not say whether God creates the world at a time or continually creates the world. It is only by revelation that Christians know what Aristotle did not know, that God created the world at a time.
Aristotle did not identify hope as a virtue. Guided by the New Testament, Aquinas had to acknowledge hope not only as a virtue, but also as a particularly important one. (1 Corinthians 13:13: “These three remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.”) Aquinas called these virtues “theological” virtues, in that they focused on God and were “infused” in the believer by God. Since “the philosopher” did not know the Christian gospel, he could not be faulted for not discussing the theological virtues. Aristotle’s ethics was not wrong, merely incomplete.
Nevertheless, Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, and he applied it even to hope. Christian hope—the theological virtue—has the same structure as natural hopes. A person can go wrong about hope in two ways, through despair and presumption.
Let’s imagine a case of hope as a natural virtue. Suppose Nancy would like to gain a promotion at work. Obviously, the promotion is a future outcome that Nancy desires. It is not a mere fantasy; if it were, Nancy might wish for a promotion, but she wouldn’t hope for it. Nancy’s case fits Aquinas’s description of natural hope: a desire for a future good that is possible but not certain. (Aquinas says that even animals can display natural hope; the hound chases the hare only when he thinks he may catch it and gives up the chase when it is impossible.) On Aquinas’s analysis, the fact that Nancy wants the promotion does not guarantee that she hopes for it.
First: despair. Nancy may think that her supervisor unfairly favors Edith, who also works in the department. Perhaps Nancy is convinced that she lacks the necessary qualifications. Maybe she thinks that she never gets a break. And so on. Though I just said that Nancy “thinks” or “is convinced” of certain things, the elements of despair do not have to be consciously cognitive. Nancy may just see the world (or the office) as disallowing her promotion. Her feelings of inadequacy may play a role.
Vice can be just as complicated as virtue. In another post, I adopted Adrienne Martin’s suggestion that hope is a syndrome. Despair may also be a syndrome.
Second: presumption. Perhaps Nancy believes the supervisor despises Edith. Maybe Nancy has recently attended a seminar on positive thinking and she willfully repeats her hourly mantra: “I am qualified, I am ready, and I will succeed.” Or maybe Nancy’s Uncle Fred, a vice-president in the company, has taken to visiting the department every afternoon and Nancy sees his presence as her lucky charm.
Aquinas would say that in neither case does Nancy truly hope for the promotion. A person doesn’t hope if she can’t see herself getting the good thing she desires. Nor is it hope if she thinks the good outcome is a sure thing.
Aquinas would apply the same analysis to theological hope. What is the good outcome the Christian desires? Ultimately, the Christian desires the “beatific vision.” One way to express this is to say that the Christian desires to know God as an intimate friend.
Even a little reflection marks this good as a very high goal indeed. How can a finite person, someone who lives a few decades on Earth, hope to be a friend, a companion, of an infinite, transcendent God? How can a sinner who acknowledges his moral faults—yet knows that his self-knowledge is at best partial (he probably has forgotten most of his sins)—be comfortable with a perfectly holy God? The more one contemplates the ontological gap between an infinite Creator and a finite creature, the more one can fall into despair.
But that isn’t the whole story. To escape despair, the Christian must remember grace. The incarnate God has done all the heavy lifting; by his death and resurrection, Jesus brings us into fellowship with God. Christians, Aquinas says, must recognize despair as a temptation. It is a vice. If we persist in it, it is a sin, and a particularly dangerous one. The person who despairs will not repent, because he somehow believes that not even God’s grace can save him.
Sometimes Christians go to the other extreme. Perhaps they reflect for a time on God’s love and grace to sinners, and they conclude that the great good of friendship with God is a “done deal.” In fact, God is already their pal. There really is nothing to hope for. This is the vice of presumption, and it has its own dangers. In its worst case, presumption sees no need for the atoning work of an incarnate God, since God’s love always conquers all.
Hope is a virtue. Like other virtues, it can be improved by habituation—by practice. Part of practice is to recognize and reject despair and presumption.