Hope as Passion and Virtue
Charles Pinches approvingly quotes Josef Pieper, who wrote: “It would never occur to a philosopher, unless he were a Christian theologian, to describe hope as a virtue. For hope is either a theological virtue or not a virtue at all.”
Now, in one sense, this is simply false. Jonathan Lear and Adrienne Martin, to take two examples, are contemporary philosophers who have written insightfully about hope. They are not Christian theologians. Why would Pieper make such an obvious mistake? Why would Pinches agree with him?
Pinches and Pieper are Thomistic philosophers; that’s why. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between what he called a natural “passion” of hope and the true “virtue” of hope. Pinches and Pieper are cleaving to their teacher’s doctrine. On this account, real hope focuses on God and is engendered in us by God. The thing that Jonathan Lear and Adrienne Martin write about is properly the passion of hope, not the virtue of hope.
A central idea in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is his claim, which seems manifestly true, that the virtue tradition developed over time. Some traits that were regarded as human excellences (arête) in the Homeric literature, such as physical strength, ceased to be regarded as virtues later on. Later stages in the virtue tradition introduced new virtues. Crucially, from Thomas Aquinas’s point of view, the New Testament identifies faith, hope, and love as virtues.
Aristotle did write about hope, but not as a virtue. On Aristotle’s account, hope is a characteristic of young men who look forward to accomplishing great things. Old men no longer hope; instead their lives are marked by memory of deeds attempted and perhaps accomplished.
So Aquinas had a problem. The great philosopher (often Aquinas does not name Aristotle, merely saying “the philosopher”) did not list as virtues those traits the New Testament identifies as the most important virtues. Aquinas solved this problem by classifying faith, hope, and love as “theological virtues.” The theological virtues are actually the highest and most important. Aristotle, as a pagan philosopher, was ignorant of Christ. Aristotle’s insights into ethics were limited to natural life and the goods of this world. Faith, hope, and love direct us to our supernatural life and the goods of the world to come. Aristotle’s remarks about hope only refer to the natural passion, not the theological virtue.
Can we learn something from this dispute about words? Perhaps there are different kinds of hope. By comparing and contrasting different kinds of hope we may better see how hope may function in our lives. Pinches would agree; he points to connections between the natural passion we call hope and the virtue of hope. One kind of hope can build on another kind of hope.
Whether as passion or virtue, hope exhibits certain features. Hope looks to the future, with desire for a certain outcome. Hope judges that the desired outcome is possible (neither certain nor impossible). And hope sees that attaining the desired outcome is arduous. Hope, experienced as hopefulness, can sustain us through challenges as we pursue a difficult goal. So there are similarities between hope as passion and hope as virtue.
On Aquinas’s view, there is also a crucial difference. The passion of hope is directed toward something we desire, and there is no guarantee that human beings will desire the right things. Sometimes we hope for trivial things: I confess that I hope much for a Mariner pennant; someone else might hope for high scores on the latest computer game. Such hopes seem innocent enough, though we recoil from scenes of soccer fans rioting after matches. More importantly, human beings sometimes desire objectively evil things. It is reported that Hitler hoped for war when he invaded Poland; victories via threat and diplomacy were no longer enough for him. A fraudster may hope to escape detection or conviction. Don Juan may hope to bed his neighbor’s wife. So there is nothing in natural hope, hope as a passion, to count it a virtue. For Aquinas, a virtue ought to “perfect” us, that is, help make us what we truly ought to be.
The virtue of hope cannot go wrong in these ways, thought Aquinas. The virtue of hope focuses on God, our true end. Hope sustains pilgrims; we journey through opposition and difficulties toward a very great good. We cannot truly hope for something that is opposed to that goal.
Aquinas described a movement among the theological virtues. By faith a person comes to believe that God is and rewards those who seek God; the soul becomes aware of the highest good. In hope a person desires that great good and moves toward it; since our journey toward God lasts throughout this life, hope is a virtue for all stages of life. (In contrast to Aristotle’s observation, Christian hope makes us all young.) Love is the culmination of faith and hope; in love we are joined to God in friendship now and forever.
Aquinas’s distinction between the natural passion of hope and the virtue of hope presents a challenge to secular philosophers who see that hope is a virtue. Clearly, people can hope for evil things. The secular philosopher’s analysis of hope needs a codicil: at a minimum, hope must focus on morally permissible objects. Don Juan’s hope to bed his neighbor is a vice, not a virtue. Further, truly praiseworthy hope ought to focus on genuinely good things. My hopes for a Mariner pennant are innocent, but they don’t seem to link up with objective good in the way praiseworthy hope should.
These amendments to secular analyses of hope introduce controversy. How do we know which objects of hope are morally permissible and/or objectively good. But moral philosophers deal with those questions all the time. Different ethical theories will answer in different ways.