Hope without Optimism, by Terry Eagleton

Priyamvada Gopal ponders the emancipatory potential of the ‘poor relation’ of faith and charity

December 10, 2015
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Burston Strike School Rally, Norfolk, 2015
Source: Rex
Jeremy Corbyn: his rise to Labour leader has been described as ‘Project Hope’

“Once I gave up hope, I felt much better” goes one of those pithy nuggets that internet wisdom offers up from time to time. Yet hope is also often enjoined upon us not just in pep talks and inspirational fridge magnets but also as political principle.

As with Barack Obama’s election, often mocked by the Right as “that hopey-changey thing”, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party has been described as “Project Hope”, a counterweight to the inflicting of austerity through “Project Fear”. And hope, Terry Eagleton shows in this insightful new account of it as a disposition – rather than an emotion or experience – has had a rich and varied intellectual and political life, distinct from that of optimism, much as the two are often conflated. Where optimism, a predilection, can often have no rational basis, dwindling instead into voluntarism, “authentic hope”, Eagleton avers, “needs to be underpinned by reason”. Optimism is a conservative ideology for him, inasmuch as its “faith in a benign future” is based on a sense of the “essential soundness of the present”. This is why governments and tyrants insist on it as a prophylactic against disaffection.

In a whistle-stop tour of (almost exclusively male and white, although George Eliot gets a look-in) European literary and intellectual figures, from Virgil, Cicero, Shakespeare, Pope, Leibniz and Condorcet to Aquinas, Marx, Derrida, Popper, Ricoeur and Camus, Eagleton aims to draw out the distinctions between “morally dubious” forms of both the more respectable optimism, and hope – “the poor relation of the theological virtues” of faith and charity. Despite what he describes, not entirely persuasively, as the Right’s sniffy relegation of hope to a petty hankering and the Left’s wariness of a disposition that might impede the construction of Utopia by confiscating its energies, he sees in it emancipatory potential when based on reason.

Hope without Optimism is a frequently insightful but too often elusive piece of writing. Based on lectures that Eagleton gave at the University of Virginia, the four chapters that comprise this slim volume are written with a characteristic mix of erudition and colloquialism, but the reader finds herself frequently wishing for more sustained engagement with theorists who too often figure as quickly dropped names. Far too much reads like a collection of bon mots and pithy pronouncements – enjoyable up to a point, but tedious when it passes for an organising principle for an argument about the merits of hope that gets made obliquely at best.

The few close readings are, however, rewarding: a trenchant critique of the fatal imaginative limitations of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; an explication of Walter Benjamin’s pursuit of “a non-progressivist form of hope”; and a reading of Kierkegaard as anticipating the “fictional mode” of “pure possibility” that is post-modern subjectivity, a form of despair. Finally, there’s the relatively neglected Ernst Bloch, whose famed work The Principle of Hope, not unlike Eagleton’s own volume, is “a great grab-bag of a book” that “disowns any rigorous structure in the name of freedom and diversity”. While appreciating the many nuances of Bloch’s thought, Eagleton ultimately deems it an un-Marxist, but also un-Christian, species of theodicy, or believing that good can come out of evil. And it is here, in an affirmative combination of both those traditions, that we get a clearer sense of his own understanding of hope: “the resurrection is hopeful precisely because what it redeems is the agony and desolation of the cross”.

Priyamvada Gopal is lecturer in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

Hope without Optimism
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 176pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780300217124
Published 15 October 2015

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