A recurrent question in my life, lately, has been the nature of hope. It is something with which I am moderately familiar from an academic, intellectual standpoint, but not something which has often occupied my mind, until late, in praxis. Not to say that my life has been “hopeless” or that I have lived in despair, but it has, for the most part, been an abstraction or considered in terms of the transcendental and not an immanent reality. In the terms of phenomenology, it could be said that I have a sense of the content of hope, but little lived experience of it.
But I am not writing this to share my personal experiences; I am reflecting upon their significance in illuminating what hope means, both in the theoretical and in the concrete.
We tend to consider hope from two perspectives. The first is that wherein we discuss it as a theological virtue, situated between faith and love, ordained to eternal happiness. This is a hope for some end that we cannot attain ourselves but which can be given by another. The second is that which belongs to common, ordinary life, and which has for its object those things that we can obtain by ourselves—meaning not things that are actually within our individual grasp, necessarily, but those things which can possibly occur through the exercise of the natural powers of human beings.
We could talk, therefore, about ordinary hope and theological hope; but it would be somewhat mistaken to completely separate the two, or even to completely separate the objects. The first is a gift, a virtue infused from divine grace; but grace always builds upon nature. My concern here, therefore, is principally to discuss ordinary hope, i.e., the objects which pertain to our daily lives, but also to consider the subjective element of hope, the nature upon which that grace builds, which provides the continuity between the ordinary and theological objects.
Václav Havel once wrote in an essay that “The kind of hope I often think about (especially in hopeless situations like prison or the sewer) is, I believe, a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.” (Esquire 1993). What Havel said about hope is true and gives insight about the subjective aspect. Hope is most definitely not something that the world itself gives to us, nor is it something we can really give to another. At most, we can give an opportunity in which someone else can find hope—just as we can give someone an opportunity to become educated—but hope about the world always comes from within. It is, indeed, a state of mind.
But like all states of mind, hope is an intentional state, meaning that it is of or about something else. Hope requires a object, something towards which it is ordered, regardless of whether that object is something that we can attain by ourselves or not. Thus hope is not a merely subjective phenomenon—it is not something which simply happens within us—but is a tending towards; it is a motion outwards towards something we do not possess, with which we are not united. As Thomas Aquinas says, “hope denotes a movement or a stretching forth of the appetite towards an arduous good.” (Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q.17, a.3, c.). Hope is a state of mind; but it is not a passive state. This does not mean that we are always acting for the which we hope to attain, only that it is something towards which we, in some way or another, are striving. Sometimes this striving takes the form of wishing—that is, wanting something outside of our present power; sometimes, it takes the form of prayer—that is, beseeching God that its attainment is His will; and sometimes it entails strenuous effort—as when I spend hours upon hours working on my dissertation, or when a charitable organization seeks out sufficient funds to give to those who have not.
Moreover, we do not hope for things easily attained, but only for goods not readily grasped. What makes something an “arduous good”, bonum arduum? Obviously, it is a good for which we must struggle. Obstacles impede our attainment of it. These obstacles can be either something internal, our own deficiencies and weaknesses, or something external, from financial duress to a corrupt system or the whim of another human being. The external obstacles can feed the internal, and the internal can magnify the external; seldom, if ever, is an object of hope an arduous good solely because of external impediments. The greater struggle is in our own disposition towards such goods’ attainment: our tendency to give up, to doubt, to pursue lesser, more easily attained goods. We overcome these internal impediments only, on the one hand, by being aware of them, and on the other, by knowing as much as possible the true good of the object sought.
But what makes these things truly good, that is, good for us as human beings? Someone could hope for unlimited wealth, unfettered opportunity for promiscuity, or the death of an enemy. There is a part of each thing which is good—the means to some other end afforded by money, the pleasure of sex, the lack of disruption caused by an enemy—but on the whole, these things are bad. What makes a good worthy of our ordinary hope, ultimately, is its subordination to the highest good, the eternal happiness which we all desire and which is the object of the theological virtue of hope. The goods we desire, be they arduous or not, are desired because we believe, fully consciously or not, that being united with them will result in a greater perfection for ourselves. Since our highest perfection is completed only in unity with the Divine, through the Beatific Vision, it follows that all of our hopes are justified in their subordination towards this end.
The preeminence of the Beatific Vision as an object of hope does not mean that ordinary hope or the objects of it are worthless or insigificant; for the instruments whereby God directs us towards Himself are multitudinous. On the side of the objects hoped for, these can direct us towards Him inasmuch as they reflect in some finite way His infinite goodness. On the subjective side of ourselves, they direct us towards Him inasmuch as we are made virtuous, and thereby better lovers of the good, in their pursuit. Most especially, the things for which we hope in this life give us ample opportunity for humility. As aforementioned, unity with the things hoped for in this life, while they are within the reach of natural powers, are not always within the natural powers of the one hoping. Very often, almost all the time, really, we need the help of others to attain them. Sometimes, they are entirely beyond our reach.
This teaches us one final thing about hope: namely, that it is not the same as expectation. The phrase, “don’t get your hopes up” is really inaccurate as to the meaning of hope, for what is meant is “don’t set your expectations too high” or, often, “don’t expect this to actually happen.” No one can expect salvation or unity with the Beatific Vision; no one can expect the world, as Havel rightly said, to give us the things for which we hope.
Both hope and expectation are anticipatory, true; but expectation is the anticipation of the person who looks to have control over the object desired. Hope, genuine, rightly ordered hope—both theological and ordinary—is the anticipation built upon faith which looks towards love.