In its basic structure hope is directed to possible future genuine goods. This chapter will explore that idea.
The notion of telos—an end or goal—is built into hope. Since people aim at many different goals, there will be many kinds of “hope.” Some hopes, like Gollum’s hope to recover the one ring of Sauron after Shelob kills the hobbits, are immoral. Is it surprising that “hope” can aim at a bad thing?
As far as I know, philosophers have not addressed this question in regard to hope, but they have wondered about a parallel question in regard to courage. Everyone recognizes that courage is an important virtue. Life confronts all of us, at some time or another, with danger; seeing the danger, we are tempted to do what we should not do or leave undone things we ought to do. Courage is the virtue of correctly facing danger so that we are not diverted from right behavior. So far, so good.
But what should we say about the “courage” of a Nazi prison camp guard? (This is the usual example in the literature, but we can easily think of others. Consider the courage of a 21st century suicide bomber as she takes her place among shoppers in a crowded market.) The prison camp guard faces dangers that tempt him from doing his duties, as he understands them. He certainly seems to exhibit courage in the performance of those duties. But his courage serves the evil purposes of a prison camp; it seems that it would be better, all things considered, if he exhibited cowardice. Perhaps more prisoners would survive if he were a coward.
Philosophers respond to this question in different ways. Some insist that a virtue must be a good thing, so the prison camp guard’s “courage” is actually only a simulacrum of courage. The virtues imply one another, these writers say. The Nazi prison camp guard lacks the virtue of justice (as witnessed by his willingness to serve a thoroughly evil regime), with the result that his seeming courage is actually a vice. Other philosophers deny that the various virtues imply one another. On their view, it’s possible to possess and practice some virtue(s) without having some other virtue. They say the prison camp guard and the suicide bomber may be exemplars of courage even though their lives, taken as a whole, are vicious.
In one sense—a practical sense—we don’t need to settle this debate. Both sides would agree that the moral ideal incorporates many virtues. No morally serious person would aim to develop courage without justice. We can treat the debate as semantic. One side defines courage more narrowly than the other. Once we are clear about how this or that author uses “courage,” we can read him or her accurately.
Now, Thomas Aquinas uses “hope” in a specific narrow sense. Hope (like faith and love) is a “theological” virtue, he says. True hope aims at our highest and best end, friendship with God = felicity in heaven. Hope shares the basic structure of the natural passion of hope, in that it aims at a future possible good. But natural man knows nothing about his true end, eternal friendship with God. Even the greatest of pagan philosophers, Aristotle, who has much to teach us about other virtues, such as courage and temperance, says nothing about the theological virtues. To this day, philosophers in the Thomist tradition, such as Josef Pieper, will use Aquinas’ language. Strictly speaking, they will say, “hope” should be reserved for the theological virtue. But they will also say, with Charles Pinches, that “hope grows from hope.” We can learn about theological hope by examining natural hope.
The very structure of hope is teleological. The ends we hope for matter. Here are four general categories.
(1) Some hopes are immoral, as when “Don Juan” (there are many such characters on my television) hopes to seduce his neighbor’s wife. Hitler hoped to establish a thousand year Reich. The immoral nature of the goal infects the hope.
(2) Some hopes are morally permissible, but seemingly unimportant; for example, I hope the Mariners will win the pennant next summer. My neighbor may hope her roses flourish. Someone might argue that the innocence of such hopes makes them morally praiseworthy, and there is much to be said for such a view. “Innocent” hopes may be individually unimportant, but a life without any such hope would be dull indeed. Of course, there is a danger that someone might give so much attention to an innocent hope (watching scores of baseball games each summer) that he neglects some moral duty, in which case the innocent hope has ceased to be innocent.
(3) Some hopes are morally praiseworthy, even though they seem to be detached from friendship with God or the coming of God’s kingdom. Consider my friend Bernie, who is dying of brain cancer. He hopes to provide, by means of life insurance and investments, for his children. Surely this is a worthy hope. Bernie is also an atheist. He has no hope of friendship with God, nor does he hope that God’s will be done on earth. Bernie could hope for a more just society in the future, and in a metaphorical sense he might be said to hope for the “Kingdom of God,” but only in a metaphorical sense. There are many others like Bernie, who hope for human flourishing without any reference to friendship with God. Such morally praiseworthy hopes are not theological hope, as Aquinas defines it. Yet they are important, and that is why we find secular philosophers giving more and more attention to hope as a virtue.
(4) The theological virtue of hope aims for eternal friendship with God, according to Aquinas. It seems to me we must add as a corollary: theological hope aims for the Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom; Christians may properly hope for it.
The boundaries between these categories are not bright and clear. Consider aspects of the kingdom of God: for peace among nations, justice for powerless people, or the conversion of non-Christians to faith in Christ. Suppose someone focuses her hope on peace in some particular place—e.g. peace between rebels and government in Colombia. Does her hope fit in category 3 or category 4? It is a morally praiseworthy hope and it does partake of one aspect of God’s Kingdom.
In this book I will use “immoral hope” to describe things like Gollum’s hope or Don Juan’s hope. I will use “hope” for all morally licit hopes. I quite agree that some hopes are more important or “higher” than others, and I will use various locutions to indicate differences. But since the basic structure of hope is the same, I will use “hope” generically.