Updated: Apr 7
“We are,” [Kafka] said, “nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that rise up in God’s head.” This reminded me of the worldview of the Gnostics: God is an evil demiurge; the world reflects his fall into sin. “Oh no,” he said, “our world is just a bad mood of God, a bad day.” — “So outside of this world manifestation, which we know, would there be a world that knows hope?” — He smiled: “Oh, hope enough, infinite hope — just not for us.” -- Max Brod, “The Poet Franz Kafka,” Die Neue Rundschau, 1921
Looking at a painting or a photograph, where the sun meets the horizon, it’s not always easy to tell if it’s dusk or dawn. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell in real life as well. In such uncertain moments, rather than looking at sunset or sunrise to establish directions, we look for our compass to offer guidance – to catch the sun, and earth’s intentions.
This is how I feel now, during Passover – celebrating emancipation from slavery, calibrating my compass, emotional and moral – in Israel, where the light of liberties flickers in limbo, the country’s fragile democracy lingering between death and rebirth.
Entering a slightly dreamy mood, I recalled a recent moment when popular culture hit home, and a Netflix show I thought was fun to watch became, with a single scene, personal, perhaps too personal.
But even for Sandman, that weaver of dreams, are there certain dreams that are too much to dare? What should we hope for, how much, and when should we stop hoping? When should we give up on causes, on people, on our people? What is it that kills hope? What is it that keeps it alive?
The equation of hope seems simple enough: Hope = Aspiration + Good + Uncertainty + Efficacy. We hope when we aspire for an uncertain good, which we (believe we) can aid. But we rarely consider all these before we utter “hope”; the word is often just one offhanded comment away. “I hope to do well in the exam.” Well, duh! We rarely hope to fail, unless we deem failure as good.
Hope then is a bit banal sentiment, so pervasive to be almost transparent. That much is plain in philosophy and psychology, and politics. Eminent thinkers made hope a cornerstone of human life but only noted this in passing. Thomas Hobbes, for example, rarely discusses hope in his political psychology, but when he does, it’s the “equality of hope” in the state of nature that should make people seek the protection of the mighty Leviathan. Spinoza too pays hope just scant attention but argues that together with fear, it’s the basis of political power, and the reason people follow the social contract.
Immanuel Kant took hope more seriously. In his Critique of Pure Reason, “What can I know?” and “What should I do?” are Kant’s two well-known questions, the “is” and “ought” pillars of philosophy. But then, alongside this famous twin, Kant surprises us with a third fundamental conundrum: “What may I hope?”
And here it gets interesting, since - atypical of Kant - emotions kick in, and so does God. For Kant, a prime good to hope for is personal happiness. But a precursor to The Good Place’s Chidi, always seeking the ethical good (though perhaps not amidst sunset), Kant doesn’t just want to be happy – he wants to be happy because he’s good! But who can ever assure us that good people would be happy, and, presumably, bad ones miserable? Not a single person, Kant realizes, as he summons the “highest reason,” namely God, to help us hope for moral progress, personal and universal, which would lead to happiness.
Kant failed. While asking, “What may I hope?” Kant actually answered to “What can’t I hope without?” Still, God is, at best, a necessary, but never a sufficient, condition for humans’ hope for happiness and for the good. After all, even under God, good people often get the short end of the stick, awaiting their carrot in heaven.
Perhaps Kant failed because he didn’t hope enough. Unlike Kant, Søren Kierkegaard didn’t resort to Reason to give God center stage in his theatre of hope. For the Danish existentialist, earthly, natural hopes are bound to disappoint us. But they serve a superior purpose by paving path for eternal hope, which “is against hope, because according to that purely natural hope there [is] no more hope; consequently this hope is against hope.”
How far can one "hope against hope," against all possible odds? Kierkegaard wanted to go as far as possible, to a father sacrificing his beloved son, believing that somehow his beloved God will save the day. He knighted the faithful Abraham for this remarkable “leap of faith.” But in the process, without realizing it, Kierkegaard tried to redeem God Himself – from His own cruel words and actions.
Kierkegaard’s hope was in fact the reverse of what he sought. He didn't cast divine hope overcoming human hope, but earthly hope, his own, absolving the divine. But then, if humans are so powerful as to absolve God, why do they need that demiurge in the first place? They might just as well do away, and without, Him. What’s left?
A realization: “hope against hope” is a dead end. What is it that kills hope? Well, hope itself, or rather a barren hope. Hope “can survive the anti-life… the dark at the end of everything,” only when it’s not lonely. Otherwise, hope is nothing but a wishful feeling, an unmet desire, an inch away from despair, or worse, destruction.
In human affairs, “I am hope” is never enough; “we are hope” is the only path of realizable dreams. Hope requires partnership, and there is indeed “no hope for us” without it. With it, helping each other hope, often for different things, everything’s possible, and “the dark at the end” can be a bright beginning. What may I hope for? Us. What may we hope for? Anything.