Many commentators attacked the rhetoric of hope that marked the last presidential election, deploring it as empty and manipulative. But whether they were right or wrong about the uses to which Barack Obama put the word, in Hope in a Democratic Age Alan Mittleman shows that the idea of hope should be of keen interest to anyone trying to reflect responsibly on democratic politics.

A professor of Jewish Philosophy at Jewish Theological Seminary, Mittleman is before all else a scholar, and one of the most Germanic sort: slow, methodical, and thorough. Like much of his other work, Hope in a Democratic Age: Philosophy, Religion, and Political Theory (OUP, 2009) is marked by a mentally taxing but productive tension between nuanced scholarly exegesis of key texts and the positive argument toward which the scholarship is, in principle, ordered.

Mittleman contends that hope, rightly understood, is a universal virtue that democratic societies should embrace and encourage, but also that hope is dangerous when wrongly understood. These fairly straightforward claims are central and controlling, but Mittleman develops them against the background of a scholarly history of the notion of hope in the West. He constructs this story by careful attention to the Bible and the writings of representative Christians, Jews, pagans, and modern secular thinkers.

The pagans were, at best, ambivalent about hope. Hope was good when it provided the energy needed to overcome moderate difficulties in certain situations. But it was not considered a virtue, that is, a durable, praiseworthy disposition (a habit) toward life as a whole. Hope was often viewed negatively, as an unreasonable passion that set its victim up for bitter disappointment. Life already had enough difficulty and bad luck—it would only make things worse to expect too much.

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This pagan resignation contrasts sharply with the biblical outlook. As Mittleman shows (most illuminatingly in his reading of Paul and Aquinas), Jews and Christians consider hope a virtue. After all, as they tell the story, an infinitely benevolent and omnipotent God created the world good, providentially guides history and the lives of persons and communities, and has made irrevocable promises to those who trust in him. It is not only reasonable but imperative to manifest trust in God, desire to cooperate in his providential plan, and show proper appreciation of the essential goodness of reality and its possibilities by maintaining hope even in the face of grave difficulty. For Jews and Christians, life is properly pursued with energy, resilience, and daring—if such attitudes generally require ingrained hopefulness, how could such a disposition fail to constitute a virtue?

Mittleman does not hesitate to declare his commitment, as a practicing Jew, to the biblical worldview. He exhorts modern liberal societies to value hope as a virtue, and therefore to craft policies with an eye to protecting and stoking it. This view obviously lends support to the liberal democratic aim of increasing and maintaining a wide range of social, intellectual, and economic opportunities for all citizens. Without possibility there can be yearning, but not hope. But, Mittleman also argues, since hope involves the inclination of the appetite towards a good viewed as possible but at least somewhat difficult to attain, then attempts to create a world that does not require or reward struggle, daring, or initiative (Mittleman is plainly not an admirer of the so-called nanny-state) are misguided. Indeed, it would seem, if Mittleman is right about the value of hope, such policies indirectly insult being as such. They make it difficult to pay existence due homage by passionately responding to its value against the adversities that test and elicit the lover’s ardor.

Despite his enthusiasm, however, Mittleman is careful to nuance his argument, and these nuances provide the most stimulating and helpful elements of his book.

His most important point is that hope, although it necessarily regards the future, does not necessarily involve desire for liberation or even change. The liberationist attitude so characteristic of modernity (which, Mittleman is careful to say, is in some cases justified) is unjust to the good aspects of past and present. A man may take as the object of hope the maintenance or intensification of present goods or the retrieval of lost goods.

Mittleman also warns, channeling Eric Voegelin, against the dangerous modern tendency toward utopianism. Utopian thought assumes that the object of ultimate hope may be achieved in this world, primarily through the saving action of the state. There are many central human yearnings (most notably the transcendent yearnings which are the object of religion) which the state cannot satisfy, but this does not prevent the state from trying, with disastrous results. When the state shows itself incapable of satisfying such hopes, it attempts to trivialize and marginalize them.

Mittleman’s proposed corrective is for associations within civil society, especially religious associations, to insist that the hopes that define them are of vital importance to social health, and that there is no possible state-administered substitute for the social forms and disciplines by which they pursue these hopes.

Although Mittleman does not point this out, there is here a striking connection to ideas developed by Wendell Berry in his seminal 1971 essay “Discipline and Hope.” There Berry seeks the cause of decay in areas of American life as seemingly disparate as political discourse and the art of agriculture. He argues that Americans have learned to seek in mindless partisanship, jingoism, technocracy, and the gospel of free markets the political, cultural, and material flourishing that only hard personal and communal disciplines can provide. Thus, for instance, Americans have fallen into the indiscipline of sound-byte politics because they despair of achieving political health through the proper means of painstaking public deliberation. Because, at least in this case, means are not ultimately separable from ends, despair of political discipline amounts to despair of politics. It amounts, in fact, to the end of politics in the proper sense.

It follows that the key to healing society is not so much the negative task of discarding false hopes as the rekindling of humbler, more demanding, but ultimately more rewarding hopes. That thinkers as different in style and substance as Berry and Mittleman seem to converge on this interesting argument surely counts in its favor.

But putting aside the detailed political implications of this valuation of hope, we must ask a prior question. If, according to Mittleman’s own scholarship, only biblical cultures have sustained the notion that hope is a virtue, why would those who do not accept the biblical story accept Mittleman’s recommendations? Why should we expect a consensus about hope in a secular, pluralist democracy?

Mittleman’s response is to downplay the significance of explicit philosophy. He observes that even dogmatic materialists conduct themselves as though the universe were far more than matter in motion. They love, cherish, strive, and hope. For this reason, he believes, we should begin not with consensus about the correct worldview or religion, but about the undeniable value of certain goods, attitudes, and commitments. This common ground established, we can then begin asking what kinds of stories about the world make the best sense of our attitude toward reality. Mittleman argues that even secular thinkers (his main examples are Ernst Bloch, Immanuel Kant, and Hannah Arendt) cannot give an honest accounting for the central importance of hope in human life without invoking some notion, however sketchy, of the sacred. So at present, it seems, hope is as likely to inspire belief as belief is to inspire hope.

Intentionally or not, in justifying his high view of hope by appealing to universal principles of practical reason that have a mutually reinforcing relation to biblical revelation, Mittleman has made an idiosyncratic approach to a doctrine of natural law. This is unsurprising. In a democratic and pluralistic age, where public reason does not stand under religious authority, no serious discussion about ordering our common life can long avoid questions of natural law. Perhaps Mittleman is too deep in other projects to accept another load, but a scholarly history of natural law would make a worthy supplement to this insightful and engaging book.