Imagining a Good Future
Then Pul king of Assyria invaded the land,
and Menahem gave him a thousand talents of silver
to gain his support and strengthen his own hold on the kingdom.
2 Kings 15:19 New International Version
Pul, known in history as Tiglath-Pileser III, ruled Assyria, a major world power in the 8th century BC. Menahem of Israel was a bit player on the world stage. The Bible records him as a “bad king” for his religious failings, but this particular episode shows him buying off Tiglath-Pileser, no doubt using money extracted via taxation, to maintain his hold on power. In effect, Menahem was a vassal under the Assyrian overlord, a collaborator. He was a petty king paying a bribe to hold a life of wealth and power—for a very short while. Menahem’s reign lasted ten years.
A life of wealth and power—I take Menahem as a symbol of the ruling class in any culture in world history. Far too often, people are willing to do just about anything for money and power. As a king, Menahem did not labor in the fields. He had servants. He set policy. He lived in greater ease and comfort than anyone else in Israel.
Now compare Menahem’s ease and comfort with yours—or that of your contemporaries. Menahem lived before anesthetics; I wonder: did he ever have an abscessed cavity (as I have)? In my experience Novocain is a wonder drug. Menahem lived before antibiotics, before synthetic fabrics, before trains or cars, before phones or telegraphs, before inexpensive publications (everything from great novels to comic books), before television. Menahem sold out his countrymen (at least some of them would have said he did) for a quality of life far below the life we take for granted. (That is, quality of life as a function of material comforts.)
That comparison may strike you as bizarre. What’s the point of comparing the ease and comfort of a life in the ancient world with our lives today? When Menahem considered his life, he compared it to the lives of people he knew in the world he knew, such as the peasants that he taxed to pay off the Assyrians. Compared to them, his life was good. The comforts and pleasures of modern life never so much as entered Menahem’s mind. Such comforts and pleasures were unimaginable to him.
And that’s the point. We live our lives, including the moral choices we make, against the background of what we can imagine. We act to achieve some good. Hope is a virtue that looks forward to some good, judges that the good is at least possible, and also judges that the good is of sufficient value to incorporate hope for that good into one’s life. (Here I am parroting Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis.”)
We may be wrong about the good we pursue, in that we misjudge some end as being good when it really isn’t. And we may pursue our ends in immoral ways, not realizing that the evil we do along the way obviates the value of the good we desire. Nevertheless, hope always focuses on a good that we imagine. Menahem never hoped for a hot tub. The best he could imagine was to be attended by servants as he lounged in a pool.
But wait a moment. Does hope always fix on an imagined good? Jonathan Lear argues that in extreme cases, cases of “cultural devastation,” we may resort to “radical” hope. There might be times in our lives when we have no substantive image of the good future that we hope for. Lear says that in radical hope we “thin out” our substantive moral concepts. For Plenty Coups of the Crow, the coming of Europeans to the plains meant that courage could no longer be exemplified in traditional ways, such as planting one’s coup-stick in battle or raiding the Sioux to capture horses. Courage had to be reconceived. The traditional images of courage had to be replaced by new images. The courage of the clandestine raid became the courage to master European-style schools. Radical hope hopes for a good future, Lear says, even when “good future” doesn’t convey thick images.
As I type these words, the news channel reports on villages in Syria. After five years of civil war, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions living as refugees, what kind of hope do Syrians have? Some of them probably imagine going back—to the way it was before the way, to their homes, to their villages. But others probably realize that will never happen. Their hopes focus on a future very different from the past. For some of them, their hope may be a radical hope. They cling to the possibility of a good future without thick concepts of what it would be.
These reflections raise a question: is religious hope “radical”? When religious believers hope for a good future, their hope rests on faith in God. Do they have thick images of what they hope for? What is the place of imagination in religious hope? I will return to these questions in a later post.