Regardless of one’s politics, it’s hard not to feel a bit disheartened in these first days of 2021 (especially after the violence on January 6 during the electoral college vote count in the Capitol). The pandemic touches an increasing number of American families, with more than 400,000 citizens dead from complications related to COVID-19. Though some now receive vaccines, it likely will take many months before mandates for masks, social distancing, and quarantines are dropped. Thousands of businesses have closed, many never to reopen, and according to some estimates it may take four years to regain the jobs lost since the quarantine began.
Why, one might wonder, should we retain hope in such desperate times? Simply because the alternative is too morbid? Because no one likes a killjoy? Of course, that Americans daily rise from their beds and go to work—whether within their homes or out in the world—suggests that even in trying times, hope remains an almost ineradicable quality of the human experience. Yet on what does this hope lie? Answering this question is the purpose of German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s essay Hope and History, recently republished by Cluny Media.
Pieper wrote Hope and History in the midst of the Cold War, when for the first time it seemed possible that humans might actually annihilate their own species. “Anyone investigating the historical future of man cannot exclude the possibility of total catastrophe,” he observes in the first chapter. This reflected a dramatic shift from Immanuel Kant’s words only 150 years earlier, when he had triumphantly declared: “Deterioration cannot continue indefinitely in the human race.” To such optimism, Pieper could reply with just one word: Hiroshima. In these times, we might say, “pandemic.”
Nevertheless, observes Pieper, “no man can keep from hoping.” But what is hope? Pieper identifies a number of attributes of hope. In hoping, we expect what is good for us; we exude confidence and joyous expectation. Yet hope is complicated. Counter-intuitively, the most authentic hope appears precisely when lesser, more ephemeral hopes—perhaps in sensual pleasure, professional success, or even our own health—have been frustrated. Disappointment opens the way for the “purging of all illusory hopes”; “out of the loss of common, everyday hope true hope arises,” notes Pieper, citing German scientist Herbert Plügge.
Pieper identifies what he considered the three most prominent “essential” hopes that have captivated the attention of modern man. The first of these is an Enlightenment-inspired modernism that believes reason will realize a perfect society, which he calls the “idealistic philosophy of progress.” Kant is representative of this thinking. We read from him: “I now assert that even without the spirit of a seer I am able to predict the progress of the human race towards the better, a progress which can never again be entirely reversed.” Kant continues: “Violence on the part of those in power will gradually diminish, obedience to the laws will increase;” wars will be “more humane, then more rare, and finally to abolish[ed] . . . entirely.”
It is remarkable that the renowned Enlightenment philosophe could be so naïve. His two reasons for confidence are even more absurd: (1) the “empirical proofs of the superiority of morality in our age, in comparison to all previous ages”; and (2) that the victory of human moral endowment will necessarily occur “under a wise rule of the universe.” Kant died in 1804, in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars that would claim about 2.5 percent of the European population. So much for the “superiority of morality in our age.” As for the second reason, that God is wise and reigns supreme is no promise of an irrepressible, progressive human “victory.”
The second secular hope stems from scientism and contends that evolutionary processes and scientific progress will inevitably facilitate the perfect society. Pieper cites two proponents of this theory: Austrian behavioral scientist Konrad Lorenz and French Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Lorenz argues that “love and friendship should embrace all humanity” via evolution. “Evolution can do it,” he announces, proposing that “selection and mutation,” meaning some sort of genetic change in man’s physical constitution, will bring us to the promised land. Pieper dismisses this as a “fantastic and basically desperate thought,” since it is of course based not on any evidence in evolutionary history, but sheer assertion.
Teilhard de Chardin, in Pieper’s estimation, is equally romantic to the point of risibility. The Frenchman believes that science will overcome hunger and disease as “the mystical Christ” attains his “full growth” via evolution. The hopes for such a world will assuredly harmonize perfectly with his “theory.” Pieper responds: “The hypothetical tone is truly astonishing. For by theory he cannot very well mean anything but his own evolutionistic concept.” In other words, Teilhard de Chardin has supreme confidence in a certain future . . . because it’s the future he predicts. As with Lorenz, this trust in evolutionary (and eschatological) positivism is unfounded.
Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the last secular hope originates in Marxism and its call for a radical restructuring of politics and the economy to realize that perfect society. Pieper labels the Marxist vision a “kingdom of God—without God,” attained via what German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called the “socialistic transformation of the world” and, in another Blochian phrase, the “attainment of humanity.” This hope also takes on religious language in Bloch’s claim that the prophetic heritage of Judaism is alive and well in Marxism: “Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem!” Besides the fact that the twentieth century was an unequivocal refutation of Marxist utopias, Pieper offers another searing critique of its this-worldly ambitions: “What reason have we to believe that man’s longing for the ‘full life’ will actually be satisfied by some form of activity within history, no matter what its nature? . . . How can we be certain that the outcome will not be just the opposite?” Like Kant and the evolutionists, Marxism is based on its own irrational self-confidence.
Pieper then asks perhaps the most important question: what about death? “What becomes of our hopes if we must die after all?” Hope, at its core, is the act of an individual person, not a collective, and that person must eventually encounter death. He continues:
No conception of a future state which simply ignores the fact of death, which leaves out of consideration the fact that men are destined for death, that their lives are a movement towards death, and which likewise ignores all those who have already died—no such picture of the future can seriously claim to be an object of human hope!
Pieper anticipates and rebukes those who might counter that their hope is for a future society that they themselves may not enjoy, but that they work to build. He notes that such an object of hope isn’t worth much if the individual fails to realize it. That man is, as the bluesman sings, “dead and gone.” Says Pieper: “They are the emptiest of promises, are a totally abstract, deceptive consolation, offering man something that lies entirely beyond the here and now of his real existence.” If the object of one’s hope lies entirely beyond one’s grasp, what’s the point?
“The frontier of death is what separates historical humanity from its own perfection,” Pieper argues. Such a hope—which can only be realized postmortem—takes Pieper into transcendent waters. This, like the failures of so many of our daily material hopes, seems at first counterintuitive. He acknowledges that it “looks more like destruction than like progress and fulfillment.” Yet this is the only option. If our existence is only material, our hope is absurd because we never obtain what we hope for. The thing we existentially hope for must “burst the bounds of ‘this’ world,” or it dies a bitter death with our mortal flesh.
For those who need more philosophical proof for such an argument, Pieper would, like any good Thomist, direct the skeptic to the fact that man possesses immaterial traits (e.g. intellect and will) whose actions require an immaterial object, and point to an eternality of the soul. For those perhaps less skeptical, he notes that the Book of Revelation presents a vision of fulfilled hopes and promised objective goods that curiously correlate with those of various secular visions. Revelation speaks of “a happy ending infinitely exceeding all expectations; triumph over evil; conquest of death; quenching of thirst from the wellspring of life; resurrection; drying of all tears; the presence of God among men; New Heaven and New Earth.”
Indeed, Pieper believes that positivism, whether it be of an Enlightenment, evolutionary, or Marxist character, offers a spes implicita, implicit hope. Those who stake all of their hopes on a future perfect human society defined by truth, justice, and happiness, “participate in the hope of Christendom.” The problem is not only that their hopes are incoherent and illogical, but that they represent a certain delimiting of hope, because they set their sights too low. And in this premature demarcation, they actually undermine human nature and its true telos.
What, then, of the man who truly understands that his hope is transcendent? The “true hoper” says Pieper, will, “devote his inner energies not so much to militantly promoting defined, planned goals and eschatological social aims (in the name of which, all too often, human solidarity is trampled by marching feet). Rather, he will devote those energies to doing daily whatever is prudent, good, and just at the time.” Such a man does this because he knows that every action is oriented not only towards the goods of this world, but of the next. The ancients would call such a person the ideal citizen. The faithful would call him a saint, reminded that hope is a theological virtue. Either way, such a life reflects a broadening, rather than a limiting, of hope. For 2021, such an understanding of hope is just what the doctor ordered.