I just read an article in the Guardian by Lea Ypi titled “The day my students stopped me in my tracks – and changed how I thought about hope“. There is someone wrong on the internet and I have to put it right by tea time!
Lea Ypi is a professor of political theory at LSE. The thrust of the article is that whilst giving a lecture on Kant’s 1784 essay, “What Is Enlightenment?” her students pointed out that having a duty to hope for a better future was a luxury of the privileged and didn’t stop genocide and all the terrible things that happen today. Lea had a crisis of faith and lost hope herself. She describes getting over it as follows:
I tried to remind myself of my particular standpoint in the world. And how my existential despair, my philosophical dilemmas and my questions reflected my privilege. The people who suffer from injustice, who withstand daily insults to their dignity, who are marginalised, silenced, exploited, left to die or killed cannot afford to ask themselves if they have hope. They cling on to life, they try to cope, they fight. Their continuing struggle, whatever form it takes, cannot afford the loss of faith.Lea Ypi (2023)
Two things amaze me about this article. Firstly is the assumption that there are two kinds of people, the privileged and the people who are suffering, and that the latter don’t have complex inner lives in which they might suffer existential angst. There is a whiff of arrogance about this world view but what is more worrying is the assumption intellectuals can afford big thoughts because they are not going to suffer, die and be forgotten! This implies ignorance of the nature of being human.
I take great comfort from a Buddhist practice called the Five Remembrances which monastics have chanted daily for two millenia:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I’ve condensed this down to a single word or kōan that I use. I simply ask: Is that a requirement for my happiness? Is it a requirement of me taking a compassionate action? It doesn’t take much thought to see that anything, and I mean anything, that is conditional on a particular outcome leads to misery. We know that purchasing “things” doesn’t make us happy but neither does expecting anything else of the world.
There is a famous (probably apocryphal) story that when St. Francis of Assisi was hoeing his garden, a person asked him, “What would you do if you learned the world would end tomorrow?” St. Francis replied, “I would continue hoeing my garden.” The existence of the garden beyond tomorrow wasn’t a requirement of his hoeing. Other examples in Christianity include the prayer of St Ignatius: “To labour and not to ask for any reward. Save that of knowing that we do thy will.” Or there is the opening of Ecclesiastes 1: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” which can be translated as meaning all is empty. Hindu and Jain religions, indeed probably all spiritual traditions, stress non-attachment to the results of your actions and trusting in divine will or fate as a key to happiness. There is a famous quote from Krishnamurti on being asked why he was so happy:
“I don’t mind what happens. That is the essence of inner freedom. It is a timeless spiritual truth: release attachment to outcomes, deep inside yourself, you’ll feel good no matter what.”Jiddu Krishnamurti
Where then hope? There is the mundane, contemporary meaning of hope that we use every day. This is the one that is used to sell the gullible lottery tickets. I think we can agree that version of hope is corrosive. It leads to a cargo cult mentality and ultimately disappointment and misery. Then there is the spiritual version of hope. The second of the three Christian spiritual virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Hope in this context is not attached to a worldly outcome. St Paul says “But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.” (Romans 8:25). By not seen he means the spiritual, beyond the material, rather than a square meal you “hope” is around the corner. Digging around the Greek word that is translated to hope in the bible is ελπις which would better be translated as “expected”. We have faith because we expect something to happen not because we yearn for it to happen. This is closer to the archaic meaning of hope which was close to trust. The thing we expect or trust in is spiritual not physical. In Buddhism there are the five powers of faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. I think the diligence and ελπις overlap here. You keep going because you have faith in the process leading to liberation/nirvana/God – not a material outcome.
In Lea Ypi’s article she confuses the two types of hope. Firstly she says “Being hopeful has nothing to do with how the world goes.” but then loses hope because she expects “… that, at some level, politics can remain accountable to morality?”. Her hope is bound to an outcome, a requirement of the world to fit in with her will. This is an example of assuming that the world gives two figs about what you think. No matter how clever your thoughts are they are not the world. The great spiritual traditions of the world have known this for millenia. The theistic religions frame the solution as submission to or trust in God’s will. The non-theistic religions place trust in the process leading to release from suffering. In Western philosophy it might be summed up by the absurdism of Camus and others where meaning is found in moment to moment relationships.
Having gone backwards and forwards through the article a few times I can only conclude Lea Ypi still doesn’t have a clue what hope is. Her closing comments:
Perhaps this is the real political meaning of the Enlightenment: whether there is hope or not is only a relevant question for those who have the privilege to doubt it. That is a small fraction of the world.Lea Ypi (2023)
Let’s “hope” this whole thing has just been mangled by a sub editor on its way to publication and that politics professors actually think more clearly than this.