Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Hope as the human death-drive;

The concept of hope has its roots in Greek mythology as a content of Pandora’s box, the sole content left unreleased by the time Pandora was able to slam the lid back down upon the jar. Thus, it may surprise many of us to find that hope was given a vague, if not negative, connotation from the very beginning.

Hope continues to be a matter of debate for philosophers and theologians, and has a complicated history of analysis that ranges across a spectrum of thinkers as wide as Aristotle and Kant, Martin Luther and Nietzsche, Camus and Zizek.

In theological terms, hope has often been considered contradictory to faith. One can’t really hope if one has faith—you’re already certain. Having hope for an afterlife would imply one doesn’t really trust in God’s promise. Similarly, having hope in one’s lifetime would be obscenely worldly and, again, an implied distrust of God’s guarantee of salvation. Integrating the concept of hope into the Christian religion as a matter of righteousness was a transformation that really required the whole act going pop.

Secular philosophers, meanwhile, are essentially divided between whether to consider hope moral, evil or a necessary deception, but common to almost all philosophical interpretations of hope is the sense that, in the end, it is little more than a subjective stance, something with no base or empirical value whatsoever, which can serve only as a prism through which to view the world. Though hope defies, in their view, any precise definition, its importance is not called into question, and the distillation of much theory into practical advice would be that no human should trust entirely in hope’s allure, for it can be exceptionally nebulous and deceitful. However, neither should it be totally discounted or devalued.

This all essentially amounts to a sound set of counsels about the need for skepticism toward one’s own beliefs, but also, at the same time, little more than a handful of truisms and creative ways of seeing through hope’s fractal prism. We do see visions, but the kaleidoscope itself is no closer to being understood.

Hope, however, is not—as seems to be the consensus amongst secular Western philosophers—a structural or perceptual illusion. Hope, on an individual level, is a vital force that provides people with motivations, goals and ideas. In simple linguistic terms, it is the belief in potential. But when writ large, the act of hope is a very real manifestation of the death-drive of the human species.

In many ways this truth can only be glimpsed now, at the teetering point of our biological hegemony. The human mechanism has proven capable of overtaking and defining life on earth for all other creatures, but this feat should not be misconstrued as evidence of the mechanism’s perfection. Far more likely is that the impulse for expansion is the exact opposite: evidence of a fatal flaw in human consciousness.

Hope, if closely examined from every angle and in every conceivable situation, revolves around the cessation of physical or mental suffering (whether real or perceived), which is directly tied to a cessation of any scarcity of material wealth or the comfort it provides. Even the most desperate, humble of hopes and the most abstract, idealistic ones are, at root, a desire for augmentation, especially augmentation of circumstances. To augment one’s circumstances, an expansion of available resources is required.

Hope is a constant emotion for all human creatures—even in situations where to have hope seems a cruel fate—and in almost all cases it can be traced to what we will classify as technically selfish motivations. Given hope’s irrefutable constancy and its self-interested nature, we might then see this emotion, if we should persist in perceiving it as an emotion, as a more intricate and ineffable outgrowth of the mind’s self-preservation principle.

To substantiate these claims, let’s examine two of the most supposedly “selfless” types of hope which seem, on the surface, to transcend any sort of expansionist desire.

First, the idealistic hope for the end of all political violence, or, in the more recognizable language of beauty pageants, world peace. Although such a desire expands well beyond the self to include all individuals on a global scale, one which wishes to see all people reach their full potential and happiness without the possibility of any physical threat, it is also an ideal that, in practice, would mean expansion: the growth of societies and therefore economies, as well as ever-increasing consumption of resources—essentially an augmentation of material capacity, without which, we know very well, human happiness and the conditions for earthly peace are effectively impossible. We will also add here a somewhat facile but relevant point: whoever wishes for world peace is necessarily included into the arrangement, meaning that they, too, will experience the benefits{1}.

Second, the noble hope that by sacrificing oneself, others will be spared from suffering. This class of hope is undoubtedly amongst the highest, but nonetheless, hope for the betterment of another at the expense of the self is almost always defined by a lack of remaining options for the self. Also by the necessity—linked to the inexorable instinct for survival—to project one’s ego onto a separate existence(s), one(s) still expanding, or with the possibility (hope) to expand, in order to escape, even if only symbolically, the infernal circumstances of hopelessness, which is life devoid of expansion, a reality sharply defined by impenetrable, fixed limits.

Limitation is the most pronounced and identifiable of human anathemas. Restriction of growth or the inability to overcome boundaries are antithetical to the nature of the species. These things represent, in the human mind, death and hell.

Hope, writ large, is precisely the mind’s inability, or refusal, to conceive of, abide by or live within a construction which proposes or admits to any system of limitation, up to and including the constructions of religion and nation-statism.

Our refusal to stop expanding materially is the manifestation of human hope in the physical universe. But our system is limited to the planet upon which we live and the resources it bears, and because we cannot accept this fact, hope is revealed to be, in the end, the enactment of the death-drive of the species.

This proposition, if taken on its own, has no precise moral implications—it is simply an exigency of human life. However, if one were so inclined to perceive any sort of intelligence on nature’s part in the design of our so-called “spiritual” workings, it might be that hope represents a possibly unstoppable, and ultimately ironic, in-built limitation to the potential of human beings. There is evidence to suggest that our biology may dictate we expand until we destroy ourselves and—perhaps necessarily, for the survival of earth as a functioning system—contract in numbers as a species.

But let’s avoid, here, the temptation to assign any such conclusive, symmetrically-pleasing meaning. A more sober question might be, why would an emotion so deeply linked to survival also manifest itself as a type of doom? I happen to believe the answer to this is that hope is not properly an emotion, but an instinct, and many instincts, in the context of rapid technological progress, can become outmoded and lead us toward fatal consequences if given over to utterly, or followed blindly{2}. Hope can no longer be viewed as a purely positive value of the human spirit. Rather, it should be viewed as a potentially dangerous tendency if allowed to get out of control—as it has currently. The challenges that face us in this century are not problems which require the engineering of expansions, but of limitations. In order to evolve as a species, and therefore survive, we must not see ourselves as boundless despite our inherent need to do so. Ours will undoubtedly be the burden of having to embrace death and hell in order to render them both virtuous.

{1} This is in no way meant to denigrate or make light of the hope to see the end of all political violence. I am not suggesting that it is some kind of selfish crypto-desire to see a personal increase in wealth, but simply that even the most inclusive hopes obey a specific set of logic. And, while we’re happily digressing, this seems an appropriate place to just plainly assert that the purpose of this essay is not to proclaim some grand cynicism, but rather an attempt to define hope as an unvarying drive of the human psyche. Hope is a notion that has taken on an overwhelmingly positive societal connotation in spite of a long history of great thinkers’ uncertainty of just what it is. Down here in this footnote, we will recognize that hope is something undoubtedly exceptional and admirable. But it should also be kept in mind that there are many kinds of hope, not all of them equally beneficent. For instance, can we say that the hope of a war criminal to never be brought to justice is exactly as good as the hope for world peace? I’m merely suggesting that hope is rooted in a deeper human drive, namely the survival instinct, and that this has logical implications for how we should fundamentally view the concept.

{2} To name a familiar one, humans’ instinct to override satiety of hunger, i.e. over-eat, due to the nature-based principles of “feast-or-famine” and the relatively quick decomposition of food (compared to its lifespan when refrigerated, frozen or preserved chemically).

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