1. The Basic Structure of Hope
In one sense, everyone is familiar with hope. Consider Thomas Aquinas’s example of a dog. If the dog sees a rabbit too far away, it won’t chase the rabbit, because it has no hope of catching it. But if the quarry is closer, the dog chases it, hoping to catch it. When the dog catches the rabbit, she no longer hopes, because she has what she wanted.
Aquinas’s imagined dog illustrates crucial components of hope. First, the dog wants the rabbit. Since Socrates, philosophers have taught that people only desire things they judge to be good. So hope is directed toward the good (or what a person thinks is good).
Second, the dog’s desire for the rabbit is for something she does not have. Sometimes we desire things we already have, as when I desire to be with my family while eating Thanksgiving dinner with them. Hope’s desire, unlike desires for things I have already, is usually directed toward the future.
Is this always the case? Consider a family whose loved one was a passenger on an airplane that has gone missing. They have received no news about whether the plane crashed or about possible survivors. Perhaps we would say that they hope that their loved one survived the crash, if indeed there was one. This seems to be a hope for something in the past rather than the future. We do speak this way (e.g. “I hope she survived”), but the example confuses what actually happened with our knowledge of what happened. Whatever happened in the past is fixed; it isn’t subject to change or chance. Imagine the family learns there was a crash and their loved one died. They might wish things had happened otherwise, but they no longer hope that that things had happened otherwise. About the family who does not yet know what happened to the missing plane, it would be more accurate to say they hope they will learn that the loved one survived. So, yes: hope is directed toward the future.
Third, the dog judges that it may catch the rabbit. Hope’s desire is directed toward possible things. We don’t hope for things that are impossible (the rabbit that is too far away) or things that are already achieved (the rabbit in the dog’s mouth, the family gathered at the table).
Hope, then, is directed toward possible future goods (or what a person thinks to be good). But what is it?
Aquinas would say that so far we have only described a natural passion, something we share with higher animals, which must be distinguished from the virtue of hope. As a passion, hope moves us to act; it has what Aquinas would call an appetitive function. At the same time, the natural passion of hope also includes a kind of intellectual judgment; it judges that the desired future good is possible, neither impossible nor actual. In natural hope, then, there is room for both appetite and intellect. Aquinas thought these features of natural hope carried over to the virtue of hope; the virtue of hope, though focused on something very different than natural hopes, also combined appetite (of a kind—our desire for friendship with God is both like and unlike our desires for natural goods) and intellect.
In one way or another, philosophers who write about hope endorse this analysis. In hope there is a combination of desire/feeling/emotion on one side and judgment/rationality/intellect on the other. And this suggests a question: How ought the two “parts” of hope be put together? Should rationality control emotion? Do the feelings associated with hope overpower reason? I will return to this question later.
We need to see that if hope is an appetite directed toward possible future goods, there are going to be many kinds of “hope,” varying according to the ends that people desire. Think of Gollum, guide and would-be nemesis for Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. Gollum leads the hobbits on a secret path through the mountains into Mordor, a path that will expose them to the terror of Shelob. Gollum hopes Shelob will kill the hobbits and discard their clothing—including the one ring, which Gollum will then reclaim. Gollum clearly hopes, in the sense that his appetite is directed to a possible future “good,” yet his hope is evil.
Ordinarily we think of hope as a virtue. But hope can only be a virtue when our appetites are directed toward genuine goods. Though he desires it, possession of the one ring is not a good for Gollum; in fact, the ring causes his death and desire for it destroys his soul. It is possible for human beings to desire false goods and worship false gods.
We should modify our first analysis of hope. Hope is directed to possible future genuine goods.
But which goods are genuine goods? To return to Aquinas; he says the natural passion of hope is not the same thing as the virtue of hope. In a very recent essay, Charles Pinches quotes Josef Pieper, “It would never occur to a philosopher unless he were also a Christian theologian, to describe hope as a virtue. For hope is either a theological virtue or not a virtue at all.” Pinches agrees with Pieper and says that among philosophers “…few would think of hope as a virtue, that is, something that perfects us, what we must practice as a habit, be trained in, and work properly to preserve.” I think this is clearly false.
Historically speaking, Pinches and Pieper may be right, but in recent years non-Christian and atheist philosophers have paid attention to hope as a virtue. Jonathan Lear, Jill Graper Hernandez, and Adrienne Martin are all interested in how hope contributes to a flourishing human life and how we may train ourselves in it.
We should not say that only the best and highest good is a genuine good. There are many goods—at the minimum, morally permissible ends—that human being desire. We just need to recognize the great diversity among goods. Pinches himself writes: “hope grows from hope”; that is, the virtue grows out of the passion. We can learn about higher hopes by comparing them with lower ones.