James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson
reports an English lawyer saying to him: 'I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in'. This states a common sense point of view. It combines an anti-intellectual point of view with an optimistic attitude, a looking forward in a positive frame of mind. Mr Micawber expresses the cheerfulness, the optimism of the common sense attitude in the phrase with which his name is associated – 'Something will turn up'.
The value buried in these and many similar common phrases is hope. Hope, of course, can be dashed; it has a dual nature. Alexander Pope in An Essay on Man
brings out the dual nature of hope – it is always with us but never fully realised:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be blest
It is not just the common sense attitude which values hope; major religions do also. In Christianity, for example, hope stands beside faith and love as one of the theological virtues, and its opposite, despair, will take you to the bottom of Hell, as in Dante's Inferno
. Within medical care, the therapeutic value of a hopeful attitude is recognised as an important ingredient in cure and healing.
What is hope? Three basic expressions contain the elements of the concept – 'hope that', 'hopeful that', and 'hope to do'.
In the case of 'hope that' the object of hope must be wanted by the hoper. As we say, 'Why do you hope that?' The object of hope must be seen as a recognisable human good. Moreover, the hoper must believe that the fulfilment of the hope lies within the range of probabilities.There is no need to hope for what we know will happen; and there is no sense in hoping for what we know can never happen. In the latter case, what we feel is not a hope but a wish. Since 'hope that' exists in the area of probabilities and therefore improbabilities, there will sometimes be an oscillation between 'hope that' and 'fear that'. Instability will be one of its features.
But when we move to the second expression – 'hopeful that' – we are in a more positive frame of mind; we think the probabilities are on our side. In colloquial speech, 'hopeful that' has been sidelined in favour of an adverbial import from German – 'hopefully'. For example, 'I'm hopeful that we will succeed', has commonly been replaced by the more informal sounding 'Hopefully we'll succeed'. Nevertheless, both expressions indicate why being hopeful is thought to be a good thing in common sense attitudes as well as in a religious framework.
From a religious point of view, being hopeful implies a settled belief in certain propositions and an accompanying spiritual serenity. But even from a secular common sense point of view, we regard it as a good thing to be hopeful. To be hopeful in this sense is not necessarily to hope for any specific object – not necessarily to 'hope that' – but rather to be of a cheerful and optimistic disposition. In the same sense, of course, it is possible to be 'too hopeful'.
The third case of hope – 'hope to do' – satisfies the conditions of 'hope that' and the further condition of 'being hopeful'. If you hope to go abroad in 2021, you will want to do this and believe it to be not only probable but likely that you will. But there is yet another condition – a connection with the will of the hoper. In other words, there is a connection between 'hope to do' and 'intend to do'. But the connection is a loose one. I can intend to do something only where the probabilities are fairly certainly known. But in the case of 'hope to do', the probabilities are not certainly known. Nonetheless, there must at least be a loose connection with intention.
Of course, a person may express a 'hope to do' but have no real intention to try. Hope of that sort is either insincere or what Lady Macbeth would call a 'drunk hope'. When we dress ourselves in 'drunk hopes' we are not so much hoping as idly wishing.
Out of this analysis two points can be drawn, both of which are valued in common sense attitudes and also in various therapeutic procedures. One concerns the importance of having positive attitudes. 'Cheer up', we may say to our friends – 'Look on the bright side'. The other concerns the link with intention, the importance of approaching life with aims, projects and ways of carrying these out.
These points have been taken up by assorted types of therapist. Therapists help clients to set realistic goals and overcome obstacles which have hindered them in the past. Sometimes people become fixed in some kind of narrative about themselves and feel trapped and hopeless. The job of a therapist, or a good friend, might be to suggest other ways of looking at themselves or their situations. In general, patients who can maintain a high level of hope seem to have less pain and to recover more quickly.
But to be therapeutic, hope must be realistic, and sometimes patients can see through false hope. A clergyman from a hospice told me he had tried to encourage a very ill patient by saying, 'There's always hope'. He received the robust reply, 'Like when your team's two nil down and it's three minutes to full-time'.
Like so many beliefs of common sense, we can find their roots in Greek mythology. The roots of the belief in hope are to be found in the myth of what is usually known as Pandora's box. There are various versions of the story, but the core of it is that Zeus imprisoned all manner of bad things in the box. Despite being warned not to, Pandora opened the box and unleashed harmful spirits that caused pandemics and instilled bad attitudes in human beings, such as greed and hatred and mistrust. But the jar also contained the spirit of hope which had the power to heal and enabled people to bear the bad things inflicted on them by the evil spirits.
The myth seems to be correct in its moral. In times of affliction, hope becomes strong. It is therefore not surprising that it is a basic value of common sense. Hope is obviously a use value, in that it helps us to overcome adversity, but in the serenity it can bring it expresses one kind of flowering of the human spirit. This makes it also an intrinsic value.