OPTIMISM, Voltaire’s Candide said, “is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” Candide’s complaint is that cheeriness in the face of seemingly endless calamity — the Lisbon earthquake, disease, war, thievery, and murder — makes optimism a ridiculous reaction to our circumstances. Candide, no doubt, would have been just as wary of those who advocate for “the power of positive thinking” today. Sunniness earns our suspicion and contempt because it isn’t always merited by the world we live in. Affirmative smiles and refrains like “it’s not so bad,” while appropriate when you’ve spilled a cup of coffee, in other circumstances — that is, in the face of death, injustice, and loss — look both unhelpful and unempathetic. Optimism is woefully pre-programmed. What we need, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton argues in his most recent book, Hope without Optimism, is something deeper and more reason-responsive.
Enter hope. In some respects hope is the go-to political virtue, a counterweight to disaffection and despair. Barack Obama promised us hope and change in the 2008 US presidential election. Across the Atlantic, Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party under the banner of “Project Hope,” in contrast to austerity measures dubbed “Project Fear.” Both remind us of Bill Clinton’s catchphrase, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” Hope is what is used to mobilize the activist base; optimism is noticeably absent. But why doesn’t optimism play the political and social role that hope does?
Conventional framing positions optimists as willfully naïve for thinking that things will turn out okay. After all, there is nothing intrinsic to a situation that merits an optimistic or, for that matter, pessimistic response. There are many good reasons to think things will turn out well, but what is characteristic of optimists is that they think things will go well on account of the mere fact that they are optimistic. That, critics allege, is nothing more than wishful thinking.
The subtext, though, is deeper: optimists are conservatives. “Faith in a benign future,” Eagleton argues, “is rooted in [the optimists’] trust in the essential soundness of the present.” An optimist’s assurance in the future is grounded in a sense that things aren’t so bad as they are, and that there are still things of value that should be conserved. According to the political theorist Samuel Huntington, this is conservatism’s defining commitment: “the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” In short, it would be hard to be optimistic if one had the conviction that only revolution or rupture would save today’s world. But this “not-so-bad” attitude can be too easily manipulated to preserve a status quo that benefits private interests rather than the common good.
A sense that things are alright can also stem from a belief in the inevitability of progress. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned with the slogan “Acche din aane waale hain” (“the good days are coming”), which eerily bore echoes of Tony Blair’s campaign promise in 1997: “Things can only get better.” But is this even true? Eagleton is quick to admit that, in many ways, things have grown better over time. Take, for instance, basic technical advancements — imagining the horrors of surgery before anesthesia is a nice reminder. But technical progress and moral progress are not bound in a linear relationship, as social theorist Theodor Adorno reminded us when he talked about progress as the continuum from “the sling to the atom bomb.”
This is not to understate the important ways that today’s world is better than it was in the past — the abolition of slavery most readily comes to mind. But it is unfair to conclude, on the basis of our rejection of slavery, that we are morally superior to our ancestors. We too easily ignore that black Americans bear the burdens of a skewed criminal justice system which incarcerates them at a rate nearly six times higher than it does whites. And, as artist Cameron Rowland adeptly shows, African Americans are still subject to racist and institutionalized exploitation of their labor.
Alexis de Tocqueville, as a French observer of American society at the beginning of the 19th century, noted what is now received wisdom: Americans, he thought, “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man […] They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.” But where what Eagleton calls the “prophets of perfectibility” go wrong is not in thinking that things can get better, but in all too easily convincing themselves of the “law of perpetual improvement.” If things are gradually inclining upward, then we can too easily tend toward complacency. Political and social action are difficult, and if everything will get better eventually, why not just do without unnecessary effort? Defeatism and destinarianism, then, are two sides of the same coin. What is insidious, then, is not so much a way of thinking about our action, what Gramsci famously called optimism of the will, but optimism of the intellect, an attitude where we think things are on the up and up. Pessimism is also prescribed: an awareness that social processes are determined and that certain results are unlikely.
What is interesting, though, is the way that these two critiques cut against each other. Eagleton, on the one hand, argues that optimism is a default setting, a disposition independent of reasoned analysis, “a monochrome glaze on the world.” But simultaneously, he condemns optimism for its distinctively theoretical commitments to the inevitability of progress. How can optimism be guilty of both offenses at once? Perhaps the real way to challenge optimism is to suggest not that it is completely independent of the data about the social, economic, and political challenges that we face, but that it doesn’t adequately take account of them.
Vices, though, are often deformed virtues. Optimism, Eagleton avers, is just a “degenerate, incorrigibly naive form of hope.” In spite of optimism’s flaws, without some kind of forward-looking positive response, it is impossible for social, political, or even religious movements to get off the ground. Activism requires seeing the potential for something different — the prospect of sublimating widespread dissatisfaction. Maybe this is why Ernst Bloch argues that a Marxist “does not have the right to be pessimistic,” for such a right would be a kind of betrayal of the very fact that there are things worth fighting for, even if they are not to be achieved. That electoral politics, at least in the United States and in the United Kingdom, has rallied under the banner of hope, then, is unsurprising. Hope, as recent events confirm, is compatible with dissatisfaction with things as they are. What’s needed is the potential to picture things otherwise; this is all we ask of for political participation. And this is what is needed for political participation.
Wittgenstein begins Part II of the Philosophical Investigations by arguing that while we can imagine a dog angry, frightened, unhappy, or startled, we can’t imagine a dog hopeful; hope and grief, are the province of language-governed creatures like humans. Part of the story is that human hope isn’t something immediate or innate like other responses to our circumstances. Adults shout with pain. Babies chuckle and chortle. But hope is something different — it is not a pure response, but mediated by our thinking and wishing. That is why, for Wittgenstein, dogs can’t hope. In order to be capable of hope, we need conceptual resources that infants and non-linguistic animals lack: a sense of the continuity of time, the abilities to remember and picture situations that are different from the current one, the ability to form and express expectations.
We may also need the ability to picture things otherwise in order to properly hope. Many have reached this conclusion, but few have said more about the role of imagination in political life than social theorist Raymond Geuss. Geuss observes that our imagination helps guide our actions in two different ways; in either case we are led closer to optimistic fancy than to hope.
Sometimes, imagination convinces us that justice will be served because history is bound to work out that way. At the end of World War II, intellectuals thought peace and technological progress would guarantee economic prosperity within the free market system. Once we had favorable economic conditions, there would be a host of political reforms, and we’d get welfare states that more or less resemble those of the Scandinavian countries. These institutions would ensure equality of opportunity among future generations. As it turns out, this was far from inevitable. But that the imagined prediction was never fulfilled, Eagleton may think, is because it was callow optimism all along.
But there is for Geuss another way that our imagination is engaged in politics: when we think of our fate as infinitely malleable independent of precedent. This leads to what Eagleton sees as a distinctively American kind of boosterism. By thinking that everything is in our own hands, we fail to see the gravity of historical circumstances we are in, and have an almost pathological aversion to failure.
Imagination of this variety, too, then rings of what Eagleton would call optimism. Maybe this variety spares us from inertia, but it nevertheless saddles us with a deeper insensitivity to the ways that certain things are beyond our control.
The Wittgensteinian point — that hope is not purely innate or instinctive — goes some way toward explaining the preference for hope over optimism in religion and politics. Eagleton, too, takes the reason-responsiveness of hope as central. Whereas optimism is a mere predilection that lacks a rational basis, Eagleton argues that “authentic hope” is something that “needs to be underpinned by reason.” When we desire something, or for that matter, someone, it doesn’t matter whether our desires are realizable. But many philosophers think that we can’t form intentions to do something we know full well is impossible: I can’t intend to turn into a pig tomorrow. Hope, Eagleton suggests, behaves similarly: I can’t hope for something impossible. If hope is a rationalized desire, and not just a brute nonrational reaction like optimism, this could explain the view of optimists as dewy-eyed and callow.
Among Eagleton’s insights is that the concept of hope finds itself equally at home in the politics of the Left and in the theology of the Christian Right. Both Marxists and Christians have a prophetic vision of how things will turn out: a classless society in the former case, or the kingdom of heaven in the latter. But far from thinking that things will inevitably glide toward this end, Eagleton argues that Christians and Marxists require more active intervention. That is what makes them hopeful and not just optimistic. What is needed in both worldviews is not progress if that means linear improvements in the way things are now, but something that will properly count as a rupture of things as they are presently conceived.
In the 19th century, many saw industrialization as a process that would help achieve a better set of social and economic conditions. But Marx and Engels, while admitting some of the important achievements of industrialization, drew attention to the creation of the proletariat and its undignified living conditions. Something drastic was required: a revolution that would overturn the very structure of bourgeois society. Progress toward the better required for Marx all-encompassing change: an interruption of the status quo.
Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection play the same role that Marx’s revolution does: both interrupt the mechanical progress of time. This, of course, is not to understate the significant differences between Christian Messianism and Marxism: ultimately they disagree about the domain of our hopes. The Marxist hopes for material-political changes in the world that we inhabit, while according to Pope Benedict’s 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, part of Christian hope relies on understanding what it is that can’t be achieved in material terms: spiritual redemption.
Our desires are fleeting. You can want something one minute and not the next. Our hopes, on the other hand, require that we take a certain attitude toward the future. Even the most banal of our hope-talk suggests as much — saying “I hope to see you again” suggests a kind of future-orientation. This is why hope for Eagleton is “more narrationally inflected than desire.” In the case of Christians, the narrative in question is all of what is called salvation history, at the center of which Jesus’s life is central, though not exhaustive. In the case of Marxists, the narrative is the progression from primitive societies through slavery, feudalism, capitalism, to socialism and communism.
If hope presupposes narrative, that political campaigns have embedded tales of hope in broader stories is unsurprising. Bill Clinton emphasized Hope against a background of growing up in a small town in Arkansas; this beginning, he proffered, led him to a political career. Obama’s narrative of hope during the 2008 election campaign mobilized a fractured populace struggling in the aftermath of unpopular entanglements in the Middle East. Without narrative, which helps us turn disparate data about real political, social, and economic problems into something comprehensible and actionable, are we really going to spend our days toiling for a more just world?
Dante’s Divine Comedy is broken up into three parts, but there is a particular intimacy to the middle book, the Purgatorio. Purgatorio is the only bit that plays out on earth, just like our lives. We get the sensations and associations of living with our feet on the ground — pleasures of music, pain, and suffering, striving but not quite achieving. But what is particularly interesting is that hope is so central to this book of the Divine Comedy: there is no hope in hell (we hear only of the inscription on the gates of hell, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”), and Paradise is the total realization of one’s hopes. Hope, then, is something distinctively human not only because it is mediated through language, as Wittgenstein suggests, but because it is itself mediating. Unlike optimism, hope has an element of tragedy — it involves realizing horrors that are a part of life. Nonetheless, we can dimly glimpse aspiration to a political and social world even while admitting that its onset is not inevitable.
If hope is to be more than a campaign theme or an idle fantasy, it requires an awareness of the darker aspects of life than optimists realize. But as Eagleton rightly argues, though “justice may not flourish in the end, a life devoted to the pursuit of it remains a creditable one.”