Hope without Optimism by Terry Eagleton
As his title suggests, Terry Eagleton aims to make a distinction between two concepts that are often used interchangeably: hope and optimism. The latter, he [End Page 236] suggests, comes in various forms, all of which are more or less spurious. There is, for instance, a sort of constant optimism, a wearing of "rose-colored" glasses. There is a Panglossian "optimalism" that holds we live in the best of all possible worlds. And then there is a future-oriented optimism, which believes that a better world is steadily and discernably unfolding, albeit with some snags along the way. This last form of optimism, Eagleton suggests, is particularly widespread in modernity. As Eagleton explains, such optimism is not a matter of recognizing concrete progress in various domains, such as antibiotics in medicine, but of comprehensive faith in capitalized "Progress," the belief that "history as such is climbing upward" (7).
The problem with optimism in general is that it tends to downplay the contingency of existence, to avoid, minimize, look past, or rationalize calamity. Hope, on the other hand, or at least the sort of hope that occupies Eagleton for much of this study, "acknowledges the realities of failure and defeat, but refuses to capitulate in the face of them and preserves an unspecified, non-purposive openness to the future" (65). Because it reckons with failure and disaster, this sort of hope, unlike optimism, is closely connected to a cluster of other virtues: "patience, trust, courage, tenacity, resilience, forbearance, perseverance, long-suffering, and the like" (59).
Eagleton critiques both liberals and socialists for their optimistic faith in Progress. He agrees with liberals like Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker, for instance, that modernity has seen advances in many areas and that markets often deserve the credit for this. He is wary, though, of how they downplay the chronic problems of modernity. He notes, for instance, that both Ridley and Pinker are particularly dismissive of the threats of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. Eagleton argues for a more complex assessment of modernity:
A judicious apologist for market forces would point to their role in the rapid accumulation of wealth, as well as in the general advance of global civilization, while acknowledging that this has involved not only poverty and inequality but a crassly instrumentalist rationality, ruthless acquisitiveness, economic instability, selfish individualism, destructive military adventures, the withering of social and civic bonds, pervasive cultural banality, and the philistine erasure of the past (16).
Eagleton (who published a book in 2011 called Why Marx was Right) argues that Marx holds such a complex view and that, properly read, his works do not necessitate a belief in Progress. Still, Eagleton devotes much of his study to critiquing the widespread optimism among Marxists who did not read the master in this way. For Marxists have often tried to "immanentize the eschaton" (as conservatives in the wake of Eric Voegelin have charged), and they have often been willing to systematically purge those standing in its way. Eagleton, to his credit, does not shy away from this violence or the ways in which communist regimes failed to deliver on their promises of Progress. Commenting on the rhapsodic closing of Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924), Eagleton wryly notes, "Soviet bank clerks failed to run for [End Page 237] buses like ballet dancers, few shopkeepers learned how to control the circulation of their blood, while the voices that barked orders in the labor camps were not always melodious" (27). Eagleton spends a full chapter critiquing the Marxist Ernst Bloch's optimistic tome The Principle of Hope (1954–59).
In Hope without Optimism, Walter Benjamin is the main foil for Bloch on the Left. Benjamin rejects Progress in favor of an oracular messianism, one in which the messianic event promises to break into the wreckage of history. Eagleton much prefers Benjamin to Bloch but notes that there is still a danger in the former's apocalypticism. It can make the disjunction between history and hope too radical. Here Eagleton, with his idiosyncratic fusion of Catholicism and Marxism, argues that orthodox Christian belief is instructive, given its teaching that "the future kingdom is immanent in human history yet at the same discontinuous with it. If it is stealthily at work in the present like yeast in a lump of dough, it also steals upon men and women like a thief in the night" (37). We can try, and should try, to share in the work of redemption, but we cannot usher it in ourselves, and there is a fragility to our efforts. As Eagleton puts it, in such a creed "there is hope, then, but no callow optimism" (37).
Eagleton's study challenges a pessimistic conservatism, as well as an optimistic belief in Progress, and in particular it carries on Eagleton's extended feud with George Steiner about hope, Christianity, and tragic drama—a feud that is central to Eagleton's important study Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (2002) but also shows up in later books like On Evil (2010) and Culture and the Death of God (2014). In short, Eagleton takes issue with Steiner's two-part claim that "absolute tragedy" is resolutely without hope and that Christianity, an optimistic religion, contributed to the "death" of tragedy. The latter claim, of course, is not isolated to Steiner. It is widely held in the scholarship on tragedy, from some of the Romantics through I.A. Richards and Karl Jaspers. Eagleton, like the theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and Donald MacKinnon, both of whom responded to Steiner's work in the mid-twentieth century, claims that Christianity is indeed hopeful. Still, the crucifixion and the way of the cross mean that it cannot be blithely optimistic. The Resurrection, Eagleton argues, does not cancel out the cross. He points out that "the risen body of Jesus [still] bears the marks of his execution" (126).
And Eagleton suggests that a Christian lens can reveal something in tragic drama that a radically pessimistic lens cannot: "Tragedy is concerned with what, if anything, survives when humanity has been hacked down to almost nothing. Whatever residue then remains, whatever still refuses to give way, is what can assuredly be built upon" (71). Eagleton is interested in the sort of fundamental hope that tragedy lays bare. This sort of hope is often no more than an "'active waiting,' whereby one casts aside any strenuous project or definitive objective for a vulnerable openness to what the world may come up with" (66). It is a type of hope that comes close to stoic resignation or even pessimism. In an extended reading of King Lear, Eagleton elaborates on this sort of hope, arguing that the play is "all about ripeness, patience, and endurance" (69). Edgar, who accepts the role of Poor Tom and tries to rescue his father from despair, is a representative of fundamental [End Page 238] hope. His hope is a refusal to give up on life and time. Certainly, characters deny this conviction onstage (Gloucester's lament that we are like flies to the cruel gods), and the explosive indeterminacy of tragic art can indeed shock us with a vision of metaphysical horror. Still, tragic drama cannot be rigorously absolute in Steiner's sense because "there can be no tragedy without a sense of value, whether or not that value actually bears fruit. We could not call tragic the destruction of something we did not prize. If tragedy cuts deeper than pessimism, it is because its horror is laced with an enriched sense of human worth" (115). Furthermore, a minimal hope can be drawn from the very fact that tragic drama is narrated, for "as long as calamity can be given a voice, it ceases to be the final word" (122). This means that an "absolute" tragedy would have no words at all.
To some degree Eagleton turns Steiner into a scarecrow. He claims that for Steiner hope "is a kind of indignity, fit for social reformers rather than tragic heroes" (39). Yet Steiner's broader worldview cannot be conflated with that of "absolute tragedy." This is only one strand of his wider intellectual project. While Steiner is certainly a somber thinker, he sees life as a hybrid affair, and he has written with great power and insight elsewhere in his body of work about the remarkable human capacity for hope in the face of cataclysmic violence. In his 1989 masterwork Real Presences, for instance, Steiner has claimed, "there is no word less deconstructable" (232) than hope. Eagleton, too, is concerned not just with the stage but with history, with hope that has been sustained amidst the greatest of disasters. They share more in this regard than Eagleton acknowledges. Still, Eagleton is persuasive about the impossibility of "absolute tragedy" and about how tragic drama may help us to contemplate and honor, however imperfectly, the human capacity for fundamental hope. It is indeed a hope far removed from optimism, and it is one that our less than perfect world too often demands.