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Define and Conquer

by Jo Page on July 11, 2012

When Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the Soul” I think she comes closer to a definition of hope than Julian Baggini, a British philosopher, does in his lips-tightly-pressed-together piece, “Hope Against Hope” in the online magazine, NewHumanist.org.uk.

He engages in some deft word play and studs the article with quotations from everybody he knows and some he doesn’t—Benjamin Franklin, Jean Paul Sartre, a British comedienne, the British comedienne’s mother—just barely saving it from prim-faced misanthropy. But his zeal to dash all hope comes across as mostly overwrought, over-thinking.

He begins by describing the pitiful prayer requests he’s discovered in a notebook in a church in southern England and he observes that the hope these requests seek is not only wrong, but cruel, as well. “No amount of prayer can remove a tumour,” he writes, but tempers this thinking with quotes by Andre Gide, Pope Benedict and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, all of whom are advocates for hope of one kind or another. Baggini seems to agree that can be a good thing, if you’re hoping for the right thing.

Which is what he thinks atheists know how to do—hope for the right thing? He quotes philosopher A.C. Grayling who observes that “it may be that atheists are much more likely to hope for better for people in this life than people who have given up on this life and just hope for endless hymn singing after they’re dead.”

Baggini is smart enough to refute Grayling whose other philosophical insights, it is to be hoped, are of greater intellectual heft than this one. Not quite taking Grayling to task, he does point out that “Much religious hope is about this world too, not just that God will intervene to cure the sick, but that justice will ultimately prevail, that evil will not be allowed to win, that we might live in communion with the transcendent and in accordance with a divine purpose.”

He goes on to point out that he believes all of this is false, but even so it’s about hope in this life and not one in a life to come. Not every person of faith has given up on the conditions of this world. How’s that for a generous concession to those who practice religion?

But where Baggini really falters is in how narrowly he wants to define what hope can be and what hope says about those who are atheists and those who claim some belief in divine possibility.

Where he falters is in failing to recognize that that, first and last, this distinction is really of no significance at all.

Rather than castigate the religious for having the wrong kind of hope or commend the atheist for hoping in a better way, Baggini sets up an intellectually false duality, giving “hope” invisible quotation marks and raising the notion that it is something we can control or discard. He sees hope as a verb with no implied action; that it is in fact suggestive of passivity or a kind of scrim for despair.

Among the many bon mots he finds to debunk the intellectual construct he has made of hope, he quotes Camus—out of context—from his book-length essay The Rebel: “He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool.”

The problem with Baggini’s selection is that in The Rebel Camus is writing about the terror that resulted from the attempts of the revolutionaries to kill God and squelch religion during the French Revolution. True, Camus does not mount a defense of religion, but he cites the failed historical myth of human self-perfectionism which was a central Enlightenment project.

Just about the only quote he doesn’t use in his catalogue of allusions is the famous Latin quote attributed to Cicero, “Dum spiro, spero,”—“while I breathe, I hope.”

It’s an omission that speaks volumes about Baggini’s project to define, divide and conquer hope.

Cicero’s words describe a hope that is less confined and more existentially organic than Baggini’s ironically parochial approach to managing the problem of hope. Rather than concede to the ineluctability of hope, Baggini distills it into something we can think away, if we try hard enough and life will be all the better for that.

Not so. We are wired for hope as we are wired for any of the other great, animating aspects of being human. Yes, we fear, we despair, we love, we fight, we delude ourselves. But then, second-by-second for the length of our lives, we breathe. We are animated. We hope.

I know that’s too amorphous an observation to present as a counter to the kind of argument Baggini is trying to mount. But his is really a kind of emperor-with-no-clothes undertaking. And guess what? The emperor breathes!