Hopelessness and How to Defeat It (Part 1)
Do you believe philosophers when they say that life has no meaning or purpose?
Posted Jan 08, 2019
It is often the case that when I write an essay on this blog site, those of you who comment become my teachers. You help me to see the world from a different point of view. You give me fresh insights. Thank you for that. Lately, I have come to realize, based on some of your comments, that there seems to be more hopelessness in the world than I realized. This insight has led me to reflect on this issue of hopelessness. I am convinced that there are ways out of hopelessness and so I am writing a series of essays toward that goal: to help those of you who have the goal of shedding hopelessness to be able to accomplish the goal.
I further realize that not everyone wants to be free of hopelessness. For example, one person intimated that it may be better to stay in a state of hopelessness than to be continually disappointed by shattered dreams and broken expectations.
The point of this first essay on defeating hopelessness is to show you that we all are surrounded by hopeless thinking that we too often absorb without even realizing it. I will be briefly reviewing three influential philosophers whose ideas have taken root in the 20th and now in this early 21st century. We may be influenced by them to a much greater degree than we realize. Thus, by examining their views, let us become aware of how they have influenced us, too often in a negative way, and do our part to counter these subtle and sometimes largely unconscious influences.
First, let us define hope. Hope involves a desire that is held with a certain conviction that the desire will be accomplished. To hope is to trust in certain future outcomes. The outcomes can include: a) an inner transformation (reduction in anxiety, greater inner peace, as examples); b) a change in relationships (finding one's true love, as an example); c) an alteration of environmental circumstances (better living conditions, a new job, more money); d) and transcendent expectations (eternal life of happiness).
Hopelessness is the reverse of the above. One expects: a) the inner torment to continue; b) one will remain alone or in frustrated relationships; c) one will struggle with few worldly goods; and d) there is nothing other than this world; when one dies, that is the end of the story.
Hope, according to the eminent psychologist, Carl Rogers, is essential for psychological health. He observed that those who improved during his humanistically-focused counseling sessions were the ones who came to counseling with the most hope for a positive outcome (point a in the two paragraphs above).
Let us now examine three philosophies of hopelessness. We start with the ancient Greek philosopher Gorgias. In one of his now-lost works, he made the following assertions (in summaries that have survived from others' writings about him):
Even if something exists, it can never be truly known in an objective sense. We do not have the capacity to truly understand anything objective in this world, such as a shared and unalterable sense of what justice actually is in truth. Gorgias went farther in asserting that even if something can be understood, it cannot be communicated sufficiently through language. Thus, there is no hope in understanding, communicating, or even finding meaning, purpose, and inherent importance in this life (Because nothing can be known with any certainty, how will anyone know what one's purpose actually is?) We are left with nothing because no substance or abstract concept (such as love) can be fully understood or communicated to others. Hope in a certain outcome, especially such an outcome that we can share with others, is an illusion.
Our second philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century philosopher. He surmised that because there is no objective truth, then there are no firm and objective goals for us to pursue. We are living in a world without meaningful end-points. There, thus, is no hope for finding **the** right way to live, the right means of achieving the good, and therefore one should abandon the illusion that there are meaningful goals in life that we all share, that there is an end-point of true happiness. Abandoning hope, especially the transcendent kind, therefore is inevitable.
Our third philosopher is Jean Paul Sartre, who, like Gorgias and Nietzsche, saw no hope for a shared set of goals for humanity. We are free to create our own existence, which includes, in his view, angst and, as he says in Being and Nothingness (1943), "Nothingness haunts being" and "I am condemned to be free," and "It is certain that we cannot escape anguish, because we are anguish." There is a certain kind of hope in Sartre's philosophy: Once we realize (in his view) that humans are not made in a certain way for certain ends, we can construct ourselves in whatever way we want... and yet, as he says in Being and Nothingness, we are "doomed to failure." As an aside, some classify Satre as a philosophical nihilist (the Latin nihi = nothingness, meaninglessness) while other do not. I am one of those who does not see him as a strict nihilist because of his emphasis on human existence (e.g., we make our own existence for ourselves). Existence cannot be a literal nihilistic viewpoint because existence is not nothing. Yet, because of his emphasis on human angst and despair, he does have elements of nihilism in his philosophy.
As you look at the ideas of Gorgias, Nietzsche, and Sartre, which of their ideas have you uncritically absorbed? Which do you need to challenge? For example, is it true that we are condemned to angst and despair within (Sartre)? Is it true that we are hopelessly separated from other people because we cannot communicate with them (Gorgias)? Is it true that there is no meaning in this world (Gorgias and Nietzsche)? Is it true that we are condemned to our own freedom that can be so different from everyone else that we have no friends (as Sartre admitted about himself)?
You absorb the ideas of these thinkers at your own peril, I think. They are robbing you of the hope of psychological thriving, of meaningful relationships, of shared goals that are good and uplifting, of finding and delighting in shared purpose.
I am not the only one who sounds a warning about influential philosophical thinking that can enter into you and infect you, hurting your happiness, destroying your hope, and leading you to a kind of despair. As we end this Part 1, I challenge you, as a thought exercise, to reflect on the words of the famous novelist Flannery O'Connor, who saw hopelessness rising as early as 1955. Do you stand with Ms. O'Connor or with the three philosophers surveyed here?
"If you live today you breathe in nihilism... it’s the gas you breathe... It is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”
— Flannery O'Connor, Letters to A. Autumn, 1955
I find it fascinating that Ms. O'Connor uses the word "bred" as if we are being led by the ideas of the hopeless to foster such hopelessness within ourselves. Perhaps it is time to challenge those whose project (either deliberately or unwittingly) is to discourage in the name of something good and powerful and free.
Where do you stand?