Wishing and Hoping
I met Mark Bernier at a philosophy conference. Each of us read a paper about hope, so we naturally struck up conversation, and we agreed to trade copies of our most recent books. I sent Mark my book, Why Faith is a Virtue, and he gave me his, The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard.
Mark is a Kierkegaard scholar; I am not. Parts of his book are given to arguing for his interpretations of Kierkegaard against other scholars. Kierkegaard wrote many of his books under various pseudonyms, and in many cases the “authors” recount arguments made by fictional characters; it is an open question whether and to what degree the characters and pseudonyms speak for Kierkegaard himself. It may be that Kierkegaard intended that his own views be hidden, that his real goal was to force readers to reflect for themselves.
In any case, I’m not expert enough to adjudicate questions regarding the best interpretation of Kierkegaard. My real interest in Mark’s book is not in technical scholarship but in the larger matter: hope. Whether or not Mark’s interpretation of Kierkegaard best represents Kierkegaard’s actual thinking, does his reading of Kierkegaard offer insights into hope?
Consider the difference between a wish and a hope. Both of these are what Bernier calls “pro-attitudes.” That is, we desire the things we wish and hope for. The difference between them is that we hope for things we think may happen, while wishing is not bound by possibility. We can wish that past events had been different, but we cannot hope that past events were anything other than what they were. Hope, as philosophers have often observed, implicitly contains an epistemic judgment that the thing hoped for is possible.
Now, sometimes we hope for relatively unimportant things. “I hope the Mariners win today’s game.” “I hope we aren’t late for the wedding.” “I hope the stock market goes up.”
But some of our hopes are far more important. They become central themes to our lives; they give meaning to our lives. In Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne spends years planning and working to escape prison. Kierkegaard asks readers to imagine a peasant boy who hopes to woo and marry a princess; the boy builds his whole life around this possibility. Cortez burned his boats after arriving in Mexico; he hoped to conquer the Aztec empire, and he had no back-up plan. We may call such hopes existentially crucial hopes. (That’s not a term from Kierkegaard or Mark Bernier. I made it up. But it seems appropriate.)
Existentially crucial hopes are not necessary ethical hopes. Andy Dufresne’s hope to escape unjust punishment seems right, but Cortez’s hope to conquer the Aztecs was cruel and evil. The embezzler’s hope that his crimes will gain him a life of ease and luxury is obviously immoral.
Hopes can be dashed. I hope the Mariners will win tonight, and when they lose, I suffer. Kierkegaard points out that this applies to existentially crucial hopes just as much as trivial hopes. The peasant boy who has centered his life on his plan to woo the princess may one day realize that he will never succeed. He is no longer a youth, the princess never noticed him; she has married a foreign noble, and she lives far away. His hope is no longer a hope. But, Kierkegaard says, it may remain a wish. It is impossible that he will ever win the princess’s love, but he wishes that things had turned out otherwise. In a sense, the peasant boy’s wish holds the remnants of his hope, and in those remnants the pain of his loss stays with him.
Kierkegaard acknowledges that the boy may, as we say, “get over” his lost hope. He may adopt other life plans. It may be wise to do so, since by moving on he may lessen the pain of loss. (I think that when a hope is existentially crucial, giving it up may be a crisis, akin to conversion. In 1945, some Nazis committed suicide rather than live in a world without Hitler. Their hope for a pure Aryan empire was gone.)
Practically speaking, Kierkegaard says, it may be wise to surrender the wish. But he advises against it. The wish keeps the pain of lost hope alive. If we use it rightly, the pain of lost hope will do us good. Any hope that can be lost, thus transformed into a mere wish that things had gone differently, must be a hope directed at temporal things: escapes, marriages, empires, wealth, etc. Therefore, a crushed hope may remind one—will remind one, if used rightly—that there is another kind of hope, a hope than cannot be crushed.
True hope, which Kierkegaard calls “authentic hope,” is directed at “the eternal.” By “the eternal” Kierkegaard means the God of Christianity, resurrection of the body, everlasting life, and enjoyment of God forever. Mark Bernier, along with other philosophers, suggests that even if one does not identify the eternal in explicitly Christian terms, Kierkegaard’s advice may still be right.
It’s interesting that Kierkegaard’s distinction between mundane hopes and authentic hope has a medieval parallel. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between what he called the “natural passion” of hope and the “virtue” of hope. Natural hopes aim at the goods of this world, while the virtue of hope, properly so called, aims at God and is infused in us by God. As surprising as it might seem to us, it is possible that Kierkegaard never read Aquinas. They may have come to remarkably similar notions of hope independently.
Kierkegaard’s “authentic” hope and Aquinas’s “virtue” of hope direct us toward transcendent goods. But this hope is hoped now. The good that we long for is future, but the longing centers our lives in this world. We build our lives around it, and it makes moral demands on us.
The virtue of hope, “authentic” hope, cannot be an afterthought, a tag-on. It must be, in the term I invented, existentially crucial. Of course, this does not mean that many people today (and in Kierkegaard’s 19th century Denmark) won’t treat eternal hope as trivial. People live their lives, ostensibly committed to Christian dogma, while actually aiming at escapes, marriages, empires, and wealth. They hope for these things—and heaven too, as an afterthought. We should count it a blessing, Kierkegaard would say, that our mundane hopes are so often crushed and made into wishes, because the pain of our wishes may push us toward real hope.