Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



Adam Potkay

Hope, at least the word, seems to be everywhere, at least in the United States. On lawns where one once found Christmas “Joy,” “Hope” signs more often reign, and in 2021 some have remained on display throughout the seasons. Hope’s Christian context is decisive, but the word also has a political aura. Martin Luther King’s 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech concludes its litany of “I have a dream” with the summary, “This is our hope.” Barack Obama’s 2008 “Hope” poster, designed by artist Shepard Fairey, represents Obama in beige and blues, above the word “hope” or, in alternative printings, “progress” or “change.”
But under what conditions can hope be considered an unqualified good? Only, I believe, as part of religious life. Or in relation to a progressive political tradition grounded in the French Revolution, aspects of Romantic literature, and the prospective orientation of the Abrahamic faiths.

Hope, per se, is not a virtue. We hope for many things, some of them good, some bad. What we do or don’t do about our hopes may also reflect on us, for better or for worse. One might hope for world peace or an end to poverty, and these appear to be worthy if improbable objects. Yet hoping for such things is not a good, or much of a good, in and of itself. Merely passive hope scarcely seems a virtue; it may appear a daydream. Hope, passive or active, can also be for bad or morally dubious things: “I hope he breaks a leg.” Not that all people would find this a bad hope. Hope for revenge may seem perfectly acceptable, and failure to avenge a slight shameful. There are hopes that fewer would condone: for instance, in President Truman’s account, the Nazis’ “hope to enslave the world.” Yet people can and do hope for the success of persecuting regimes, the elimination of foes and foreigners.
In earlier periods of history, authors often looked askance at hope. It was criticized in classical antiquity, Eastern and Western, as an illusion, a distraction from the present moment, the occasion for irrational and self-destructive thinking, and a presumption vis-à-vis God or the gods: in short, a vice. Some of these arguments, I find, retain their therapeutic value. It’s good not to hope unwisely, or too much.
My book examines the cases for and against hope found in literature from antiquity to the present. Poetry, drama, and novels, mainly in the Western tradition, are at the forefront of my history, but I engage as well with philosophy, theology, and political theory. I give a sympathetic account of hope as a theological virtue, alongside faith and love, in Dante and in seventeenth-century literature. Yet my emphases are on the ancients’ criticism of hope, which I stress to unsettle facile trust in it as a secular value, and on the Romantics’ transformation of religious hope into something less determinate, more political, and still very much with us.

Hope: A Literary History by Adam Potkay
Hope: A Literary History by Adam Potkay

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Adam Potkay

College of William and Mary, Virginia...

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