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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (2000) 461-477

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Aristotle on Hope

Mount Union College


Since the earliest of the Christian writers, hope has been considered one of the three major theological, and specifically Christian, virtues. But what history has the discussion of hope had among philosophers writing from a more secular perspective, and what sort of value can be placed on hope in a non-Christian context? As part of this inquiry, I intend in this paper to look at the place of hope in Aristotle.1 Aristotle mentions hope and hopefulness in several contexts, but perhaps most notably in his discussions of courage, and I will begin my investigation there.

First, however, a remark on methodology: The Greek term typically translated as "hope" in the Christian New Testament is elpis. In the New Testament context, elpis by itself generally implies "good hope," or "hope for good things" (e.g., Rom 8:24), even if such hope is misdirected (1 Tm 6:17).2 In Aristotle, however, the term elpis (along with its verbal form elpizô) plays a more neutral role, being the rough equivalent of mere expectation. In On Memory, for example, Aristotle contrasts memory, which concerns the past, with elpis, the looking forward to the future, without any indication that this future will be good or evil (De Mem 449b25-27; see also 449b11-12). In an ethical context, we find both those who anticipate [elpizousi] evil for themselves (NE 9.4, 1166b15), and those whose, "hopes for the future are good [tôn [End Page 461] mellontôn hai elpides agathai]" (NE 9.4, 1166a25).3 In all of these contexts, elpis itself is used in a neutral sense, and one can "hope for"—or, better, "anticipate" or "expect"—either good or evil, destruction or salvation (elpis tôn sôtêriôn, Rhet. 2.5, 1383a18). When Aristotle wants to indicate specifically a hope for good things, he generally uses a modified phrase such as elpizein agathon, or the descriptive term euelpis,"hopeful."4 The latter term does not even appear in the New Testament writings, arguably because its positive aspect was already implied, either by the term elpis itself or by the assumptions of the religious context.5 Thus, when we are looking in Aristotle for the concept of hope—a hope for good things—we are to look not for mere elpis, as we find in the early Christian writings, but for the appropriate modification of elpis, or, as I will begin with here, for euelpis.


As indicated above, some of the most noteworthy occurrences of the term euelpis—Aristotle's term for being hopeful, as opposed to being merely [End Page 462] expectant—come in connection with Aristotle's discussions of courage. In particular, Aristotle sets up several contrasts between those who are euelpis and those who exhibit the virtue of courage, contrasts that may lead us to question the value of hope in an Aristotelian framework.

At NE 3.6, Aristotle claims that

[P1] a courageous man is also fearless at sea and in illness, though not in the same way as sailors are. Because of their experience, the sailors are optimistic6 [hoi de euelpides eisi para tên empeirian], while the courageous man has given up hope of saving his life [apegnôkasi tên sôtêrian—he has turned away from the judgment that he will be saved] . . .
(NE 3.6, 1115a35 ff.)

This passage should be paired with those passages in NE 3.8 where Aristotle discusses in more detail the pseudo-courage that arises from experience [empeiria]. This pseudo-courage is displayed not only by sailors at sea, but also by mercenaries [stratiôtai] in battle, soldiers who have professional experience and skill in warfare:

[P2] For they have the best insight into the many false alarms which war seems to <bring with it>. They give the impression of being courageous, because the others do not know what is happening. Moreover, their experience [empeirias] enables...


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