Roger-Pol Droit : Hope, a thinking emotion to be renewed


Roger-Pol Droit par Claude Truong-Ngoc, 2013

"In what way could Humanities help us to understand our time, and its relationship with hope?," asks Roger-Pol Droit, at the 4th World Humanities Forum (October 2016). He suggests six tasks, which are both six obstacles to surmount and six priorities for future research. Here is his short list of things to do in order to "get a better understanding of our present time, and maybe a better grasp on our future."

The very first priority is to keep in mind the twofold nature of hope. Hope is at the crossroads of irrational desire and rational strategy. It has to be seen as calculating and rational, not only as confident and emotional. The very first meaning of the old Greek word elpis is estimation and valuing. In the most ancient texts, by Homer or Hesiod, elpis means: estimating what may happen, bad or good.

If we apply this idea to our time, and particularly to the « false desires » created by marketing, we can first note this point: a lot of our hopes seem to be artificial. We really need only a few things, but we are driven everyday to desire more and more things that we don’t need « by nature ».

Up to a point, our estimating about what we need or not becomes false, and our thoughts about what we can hope and what we can dread are made false too.

The twofold nature of hope

To criticize « false desires » is a very old gesture in the field of humanities. You remember how Socrates, after a walk through the market of Athens, among clothes, pottery works, and all kinds of food, finally said « So many things I don’t need! »

Foolish people need more and more. The wise man needs only what is essential for a truly human life. This very idea was strongly developed by Epicurus in this way: the needs of our body are limited and easy to satisfy, the desires created by our mind are unlimited and endless.

Obviously, these are phrases of wisdom. Nevertheless, I wonder whether they are still well adapted to our time. Of course, we could hope that everyone should become wise, that every man should become a philosopher. We can hope that the humanities might give a new moral foundation for our Future… But I am afraid it would not be so simple.

Because, not everything is so bad in consumer society, either in capitalism or in technology. And it might be that something is wrong in any conception of an « original nature » of Man and, moreover, in an « original nature » of society. Everything in mankind is more or less artificial. To pick out any « natural » feature and to value it as authentic is, to my mind, a risky task.

I don't mean there is nothing to hope. I don't say we have to preach delusion, or to advise resignation. Not at all. I only stress this: let us be careful in our judgments, let us avoid being naive, and being both global and one-sided.

Case-by-case analysis

In a book, published in France four years ago, Human (Humain. Flammarion, 2012), Monique Atlan and I have underlined the necessity of case-by-case analysis.

If this book is thick, it is because it deals with a huge question: what is happening today with the idea of Man? What has become of it, in the midst of the deep metamorphosis driven by artificial intelligence, digital revolution, genomics, biotechnologies and so forth?

No global answer, no global hope, no global fear –only case by case, why? For two reasons.

On one hand, the global hope in Progress - with a capital P – is dead. It was born with the European Enlightenment, grew up during the industrial and scientific revolutions, and was destroyed by the 20th century, when the most advanced countries appeared as the most barbarian.

On the other hand, as a second reason to avoid global judgment, a new myth took the place of the one of Progress – the myth of imminent Chaos. Technology growing without control is supposed to destroy Nature, mankind and even every kind of life.

After the illusion of « technophilia » and its naive, one-sided hope of universal happiness, the symmetrical illusion of « technophobia », and its one-sided fear of global annihilation. We think, Monique Atlan and myself, that global hope in Progress was misleading, and that global fear of Hell for tomorrow will be misleading too.

This is the raison why efficient hope can be based on case-by-case only. The good news is that the humanities are fit to deal with that kind of analysis. The bad news: some obstacles must still be overcome, some tasks are remaining, some priorities still await.

The reign of Present

The third priority is to understand the crisis of time in which we are – I mean the crisis of our conception of Time, which is focused, by now, on the one and only Present.

Since the 1980s, the Past has faded, the consciousness of History has seemed less and less vivid, and the dreams, the desires, and projects for Future are also more and more vanishing.

Obviously, when people can’t imagine any Future, they are unable to really hope for anything – I mean any historical horizon for their society, nor for mankind.

No future, no hope. You can reverse the proposition: no hope, no future. Hope makes and opens up the future as much as it requires it. We have here a reciprocal causality, without a first element.

I leave aside the hard question of « how », and above all « why », the Present has finally overwhelmed the two other dimensions. In slow societies, the « cold » ones, people lived as their parents and grand-parents. The Past was the model, and the rule, for the Future. The main hope was to remain in the same status, to avoid trouble, to maintain equilibrium.

Modern Times changed this model: people understood that new discoveries, new inventions were going to change their lives, and those of their children. Then, the Future became the horizon, the aim, the final goal or the ultimate reference. Everything in the present was made or planned for a better Future. Even the Past was understood as the very first step for Future. Here was the reign of History, Progress, Revolutions and so on.

Today, the crisis of this modern model is presentism. It means that Present seems to be the one and only dimension of our time. We are reluctant, or unable, to imagine how people will live and dwell in only 100 years. We forget the way they were living even 100 years ago.

If the main obstacle to Hope is this reign of Present, the first step to surmount it is to be aware of this crisis of time. We have to see it, we have to understand it, and we have, as far as possible, to overcome it.

But this will be not enough.

Crisis of action

The fourth priority is to understand the peculiar crisis of action that we are facing now. I want to stress a special feature, which is too often neglected: our time intends to master everything, without waiting. Chance, randomness, and risk are less and less welcome. It seems more and more necessary to eradicate them, by controlling everything… in « one click », or even better, without any click. As we know, the growing domination of « big data » leads to action without delay, most of time without choice or human decision.

This fading of human action has a direct impact on hope, because hope presupposes that the results remain still dubious, and the Future still uncertain. If we don’t yet accept that our knowledge and our powers have limits, we would evacuate hope from our minds!

I don’t say that is really the case, because it seems to be properly impossible. I suggest that we are dreaming, more and more, of such a society that is devoid of hope, because it is empty of risk, empty of doubt, empty of trouble itself, the beautiful trouble of human action.

Here also, we have to become aware of such a crisis, in order to be able to analyse it and, perhaps, to find a path to escape the society of control that is linked to it.

These last obstacles to hope today - crisis of time, crisis of action - lie outside of the humanities. They can help to understand them, perhaps to solve them, but these obstacles don’t affect them from the inside.

The two last priorities I want  to point out concern obstacles which may be considered as « internal ».

Killing hope is dangerous

Hope has been mistrusted by philosophers. There is a great deficit of thought about hope in the history of western philosophy, and even a strong mistrust or suspicion about its existence.  At the first glance, this is a surprising situation, because hope is so important in everybody’s life, so crucial in history that we could expect to find many developments about its nature, its powers or its limits. Hope might have been scrutinized as much as freedom, justice or love, for instance. This is not the case.

On the contrary, the rare pages devoted to it by ancient or modern philosophers are mostly negative and their criticisms are based on two main points.

First, hope drives us outside of reality: « Hope is the dream of a man awake » said Aristotle. When we hope, we are taken out of the present day, out of the present place. We live in a illusion instead of facing the world as it is. This argument, invented by Epicurus, occurs for instance, under different guise, in Montaigne, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Camus… among others.

The second main criticism of hope consists in emphasizing its link to fear. If you hope for something, you fear that it might not happen. And if you fear something, of course you hope that it would not occur. Therefore, there is no hope without fear, as was remarked by Epicurus, stressed by Spinoza and several contemporary philosophers.

The conclusion is very simple: hope is a bad thing, an illusion to avoid, even a poison to set aside. The wise man doesn’t hope: he lives here and now, and nowhere else.

As one can see, when we need to discover some weapons for fighting against the crisis of hope today, we are not so lucky in the field of philosophy…

By going more deeply into this question, by asking why philosophers mostly despise hope and try to eliminate its existence, we came to the following hypothesis: western philosophy is mainly focused on the Present, even on Eternity, and it neglects becoming as well as the Future.

We could say, still roughly speaking, of course, that philosophy is a kind of presentism which existed in the field of Ideas a long time before it appears as a social reality around the globe. In any case, the heritage of philosophy is more of a burden than a true help for thinking about the nature of hope and the ways to renew it.

Dreaming, an essential part of human dignity

Why so many different thinkers, from different centuries, tried to eliminate hope? We have found a way to answer this question by reading Emmanuel Levinas. In 1975, in a course delivered at la Sorbonne, later published with this title: God, death and time, Levinas compares the conceptions of time in Martin Heidegger and in Ernst Bloch.

To summarize the result in a few words: Heidegger, following the main path of philosophy, based his definition of time on the relationship of an individual to his own death. On the contrary, Ernst Bloch, who published the Principle of Hope in 1959, is privileging the relationship to life, the transmission to coming generations, and privileged the Future instead of the Present.

To conclude on that point, the main challenge, from a philosophical point of view, is to renew, even to rebuild, an analysis of Hope.

It would include dreaming as an essential part of human dignity. It would moderate illusion by the use of rationality and lucidity. It would accept to fear and to fail for the sake of keeping hope. In other words, it would refuse to the throw out the baby with the bath water, as most of the philosophers did. Indeed, we think that to kill hope is by far more dangerous than the so-called dangers of hope.

Above all, we have to consider the Future as the main dimension of Human existence, which is never ending and never fixed for ever. By privileging the Future, we say human history is always unfinished, Man and Society are always unfinished, as are Sciences, Arts, Thought and so forth.

There are a few important landmarks toward such a thought in the works of Ernst Bloch (The principle of Hope), of Hans Jonas (The imperative of Responsibility). Even if they don't agree on everything, they are both « Future oriented », if I dare say. They know the future is more important to man’s mind that the present. Almost everything we hope, everything we desire and plan to do, concern tomorrow.

I have said: « we hope, we desire and plan to do ». That leads me to the last obstacle we have to surmount for thinking efficiently about hope. It is not only a desire, it is also a rational strategy. It is not only a feeling, but also a thoughtful feeling, including calculus and plans for avoiding failure and acting successfully.

But this is not easy to conceive, which is why we need to elaborate a new analysis of the « thinking emotions ».

The thinking emotion

By « thinking emotion », Monique Atlan and I mean that any hope is first a raw desire, which may be near to hallucination, but which has to be shaped and worked, to be transformed by thought and experience.

This kind of double reality of hope – both feeling and thinking – is baffling for classical frameworks of thought. Everyone knows there is a huge and solid dividing line between « reason » and « emotion » in the history of philosophy. On one hand, there are logic, arguments, the sciences – the side of the mind. On the other hand, there are dreams and desires, irrationality, imaginary beliefs – the side of the body.

Of course, this is highly schematic. But it remains powerful, even in the humanities today. We are still more or less reluctant in the face of the combination of thinking and feeling. Or we feel ill-equipped, out of tools, out of grasps. We have to elaborate a new analysis of hope, taking account of this specificity.

Ernst Bloch wrote than Hope was still « as unexplored as the Antarctic ». We think that these explorations are to be established, as new topics for research in the humanities.

My very last words will be a quote from a classical genius, the Italian poet Dante. In the Divine Comedy, at the front door of the Hell, he put this words: « You who enter here, abandon all hope ».

What does this mean? In Hell, there is no act 2. The story is over, all the parts have been played, the theater is closed. The damned are here forever, forever in fire and suffering.

If we want to avoid such a fate in the real world, we have to renew hope, by waiting and by acting, by feeling and by thinking. Because history is unfinished. This very belief is part and parcel of human dignity. 

Roger-Pol Droit


R-P Droit is a French academic and philosopher. He has written numerous books and co-authored with Monique Atlan Humain and L'espoir a-t-il un avenir?

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