by Sam Buntz
“Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead.” – King Lear
The word “hope” has an oddly positive reputation in our corner of the universe: it is the stuff of greeting cards and political campaigns. But the ancient Greeks knew better.
Hesiod relates the famous myth of “Pandora’s Box,” in which the first woman, Pandora, (much like Eve) unwittingly opens a box (actually, a jar in the original) containing all evils. They escape into the world, save one—hope, which remains for humanity’s possession. Contemporary readers often interpret hope as a boon left to console mankind, although Hesiod makes it clear that only evils were contained in the box, and goes on to deprecate hope later in his poem, referring to it as “empty.” Friedrich Nietzsche provides the best comment: “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”
Hope wishes to perpetuate itself—it is a self-sustaining pleasure, and it wishes to remain intact, one way or another, with or without the attainment of the hoped for object. It is, in this sense, just like desire. People think that their desires are going to be satisfied by attaining their respective objects—but I doubt that desire has ever ceased to exist once it has attained or ultimately failed to attain the longed-for goal. Fulfillment is not the aim of desire, oddly enough, and hope functions in precisely the same manner. What desire or hope truly want is not satiety and silence—they wish to continue raging in the void.
Our high spirits are more often derived from the hope that certain events will occur than they are by the actual satisfactions provided by such events when they do come to pass. Our happiness, then, comes out of and flows into a vacuum. This exposes the terrible gap between what we can conceive and what we can enact, and how frequently we prefer to dwell in the world created by the former rather than in the world created by the latter power. Yet there is a philosophy that deals with that latter world—the world of things-as-they-are or of what I would call “as-it-is-ness.”
When Thomas Carlyle writes, “Take no thought for the harvest, but only for proper sowing,” he is reflecting the wisdom of The Bhagavad Gita, the best commentary on the nature of human hope that I know of and the best antidote for all of our sentimental Western nonsense about it. We have no right to hope for a particular result and can only work for that result with our hearts more intent on the labor itself. For Life—real, warm, palpable, human Life—lies in the work, and not in the expectation of reward. We can easily take more delight in the actual performance of an action than in the expected fruition of that action—whether we find, in the end, that the fruit is already withering on the vine or not. One must learn to take joy in pushing a boulder that will not be budged by human power—what else is there to do?—and to accept that it will move only at the pleasure of the gods and not at the behest of our own idle wishes. But the gods’ decision to move the boulder for some of us—the boulder blocking the exit out of our cave, as it were—is, I believe, related to the great entertainment with which we supply them by our most valiant efforts in that direction.
Above hope, over desire, wisdom honors apprehension—awareness. Rather than striving after something else, some state one will never reach, one merely perceives what is set before one’s self in the fullness of its being, appreciating all its aspects and angles. These “privileged moments” or “spots of time” lie beyond the ambit of hope’s mad swerve. A philosophy that holds the cultivation of such moments as its goal, while disparaging a treasured “Idol of the Cave” like hope, cannot be accused of pessimism.
A person who can live in the midst of the throng of hopes and desires without being swept up in them has reached that state which the philosopher Schopenhauer calls “attainment to music.” Rather than being lost in the constant pressure of the hopes related to the eventual but always postponed satisfaction of desires, one begins to hear and see the movement of all of our desires as a great throbbing symphony, the ceaseless movement of the universal pulse of desire from which one has been liberated. You begin to approach it aesthetically, as music, rather than as a desperate death-march.
One desires to go beyond desire, to attain to a state of detachment that is, nonetheless, not indifferent to or isolated from the broader currents of life. This is the triumph of knowledge—of the light of real experience, as unwavering as a candle kept steady and bright in a windless space—over hope. It is the triumph of the present over a future always deferred.