To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure firstname.lastname@example.org
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Key Romantic authors sought to salvage hope and love as virtues separable from theology and without a clear basis in faith. We find in Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and Goethe a post-theological insistence on the absolute value of hope and love as forms of imagination that free us from the constraints of experience. For Wordsworth, hope – political, social, though ultimately transcendent – is continuous with imagination, and thus also “intellectual” or spiritual love. Shelley repeatedly sought substitutes for faith within the Christian triad he would otherwise maintain: Queen Mab advances joy, hope, and love; “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” love, hope, and self-esteem. Shelley yokes the re-envisioned theological virtues to the service of an erotic vision of polity, without entirely surrendering hope in individual immortality or its possible secular equivalents. Goethe concludes his masterpiece Faust with a quasi-Dantean vision of Faustus’s redemption by his sublime hopes, intermixed with few if any good deeds and many bad ones, in a heaven without God or evil. Indeterminate hope does the work of faith in Goethe’s poem, just as moral hope does in the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
Without a Messiah expected, and if one’s current pain or trial is meaningless, why not commit suicide? In the Modernist canon, suicide is typically putting an end to one’s misery because there’s no reason not to do so, or because one is in any event a machine caused to do so by necessary causes and effects. Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus is an essay on how to live without hope or suicide; his novel The Plague starts with an averted suicide and ends with limited hope – or a hope for limits. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins and ends with the central duo’s wish, both times deferred, to hang themselves. Modernist responses to the question of meaning, and the attendant problem of suicide, include: persisting in hope or waiting despite the minimal probability of hope’s fulfillment (Franz Kafka, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Beckett); the epiphanies of the everyday, getting what it seemed you hoped for even without exactly having hoped for it (Virginia Woolf); affirmation of the repetitions, recurrences, and accidents of natural and human life, overcoming their sameness through an act of will (Camus).
This chapter examines the double vision of hope, sacred and profane, epitomized in English literature by the jointly authored poem, “On Hope,” in which Cowley’s satire on worldly wishes is interlaced with Richard Crashaw’s encomium on religious hope. Yet religious hope is de-centered in the Protestantism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Milton, in Paradise Lost, shies away from hope as a theological virtue, seeing it tied to ambition and original sin. Hobbes, focused on things seen rather than unseen, treats worldly hope as a necessary part of human motivation and the reason, along with fear, for the strictures of civil authority. Hobbes’s naturalism tinges subsequent Christian writers, including Addison, Pope, and Johnson, who alternately satirize worldly hopes and treat them as inevitable and consolatory. In the French Revolutionary era there arises a new, properly political hope, aimed at alleviating or eliminating the structural conditions of poverty via democratic-representative activity. Hope as an anodyne for poverty, and for slavery, is questioned by laborer poets and the former slave and anti-slavery polemicist, Olaudah Equiano.
Is hope a virtue? Not necessarily. We hope for many things, some of them good, some bad. What we do or don’t do about our hopes may also reflect on us, for better or for worse. Is hope pleasurable or comforting? Again, not necessarily. Hope may involve anxiety and pain. What about hopes in as well as for others? As good and generous as such hopes may sound, even they are not necessarily virtuous. If hope appears an unqualified good to you, independent of any specific context, it is likely for one of two reasons: first, you belong to or have been influenced by one of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), in which faith-based hope counts as a virtue; second, you are a political liberal. Starting with supporters of the French Revolution, hope has served as shorthand for progressive politics. I start my literary history with the classical counterpoint, in which hope is at best problematic, something in need of regulation and restraint if not extirpation. I then turn to Judeo-Christianity, and European and American Romanticism, and offer a preliminary sketch of the reasons why hope features as a good thing in these over-lapping but distinct contexts.
This chapter addresses five authors who respond to Romantic hopes in indefinite futures: John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In Mill’s late writing on religion, hope in eternal life constitutes a link to Romantic poetry, a motive for taking life seriously, and a wan empirical possibility. In Eliot’s novella The Lifted Veil, blind hope, or our uncertainty about other people and any future we might share with them, may be necessary for love and engagement in this life – or it may be a grievous, fatal error. Along with Dickinson, Eliot supplies a bridge to the Modernists’ largely ironic representation of hope, more or less stripped of its possible virtue. The art of Dostoevsky is also oriented toward emerging Modernism, even as he exposes the ills of modernity, ultimately affirming something akin to Christian hope. Nietzsche sketches a new hope that might rise on the grave of Christianity. Despite his well-known adage on Pandora’s jar – the hope it contains is “the worst of evils” – Nietzsche more often prophesies, in his later writings, the “highest hope” of becoming who one is.
This chapter entertains four questions: first, what are hope’s conceptual relations to the other theological virtues, faith and love? Second, is there eternal hope for some people only, or for everyone – for the rich as well as the poor, for non-Christians as well as Christians? (I argue that Dante, in the Divine Comedy, offers some salvation hope for his pagan guide, Virgil.) Third, is hope inherently self-regarding or not? Fourth, does hope come to an end, as no longer necessary, when eternal life is fully inhabited – or does it continue eternally? In some accounts, hope will no longer be necessary once the kingdom comes, and God is all in all. Yet my chapter title refers to hope as a component of eternal life, hope that motivates eternally. The theological belief that souls eternally strive for perfection is developed in the Greek writings of the early Church Father St. Gregory of Nyssa.
For ancient authors, hope tends to be a dangerous thing. It can set us up for practical as well as moral failure. Elpis, the Greek word we translate as hope, is typically an attitude or emotion that is desiderative and goal-oriented, but it can also denote neutral expectation of evils as well as goods. The first author to treat elpis as an unqualified good, given a very specific object of desire (eternal life in Christ), is St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament. Before him, good hopes – including eschatological hopes expressed in other ancient mystery religions – had to be designated as such to be distinguished from bad hopes, which preponderate in Greek literature. But the ancients recognize good hope, foremost in the competitive strife that defines public life. Hope could be seen as a necessary motive, linked to confidence and courage. The ancient world, especially in Jerusalem and Rome, knew also hope in a future ruler, a hope more soteriological than political. Whatever hopes might be expressed for the city-state or empire, the philosophical schools of antiquity developed the case against personal hope and passionate agitation.
Hope for us has a positive connotation. Yet it was criticized in classical antiquity as a distraction from the present moment, as the occasion for irrational and self-destructive thinking, and as a presumption against the gods. To what extent do arguments against hope today remain useful? If hope sounds to us like a good thing, that reaction stems from a progressive political tradition grounded in the French Revolution, aspects of Romantic literature and the influence of the Abrahamic faiths. Ranging both wide and deep, Adam Potkay examines the cases for and against hope found in literature from antiquity to the present. Drawing imaginatively on several fields and creatively juxtaposing poetry, drama, and novels alongside philosophy, theology and political theory, the author brings continually fresh insights to a subject of perennial interest. This is a bold and illuminating new treatment of a long-running literary debate as complex as it is compelling.
Pity and gratitude are often classified among the moral emotions: pity responds to an undeserved ill that has befallen another, while gratitude affirms as good something given to us, as well as the agent who gave it. To some philosophers, however, pity and gratitude are never or rarely appropriate. For the Stoics, pity is unnecessary suffering for the person who pities, grounded in a mistaken view of what constitutes privation; Wollstonecraft and Godwin add that in a just society, there would be no pitiably needy people. Similarly, if assistance is reconceived as something due a person as a right, then the obligation to feel or express gratitude, or to render reciprocal service, is largely eliminated. Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice is indebted to the Stoical, pitiless, and gentle Houyhnhnms of Gulliver's Travels, and it prompts in turn Wordsworth's representations of interpersonal encounter in “Simon Lee,” The Ruined Cottage, and The Prelude.
Judging by literary accounts, it was not uncommon in the later eighteenth century to withdraw to rural solitude to better hear the ‘still, small voice’ of conscience. This faculty could be understood (especially by evangelical Christians) as God's guiding voice, and not simply his scourge. But Wordsworth, in his verse of the 1790s and early 1800s, depicted something quite novel: withdrawing to hear not conscience but rather music. The nature of Wordsworth's ‘music’ is complex: in various contexts, it might mean either actual music or the harmonious sounds of natural surroundings; alternatively, receptivity to music might figure receptivity to nature, including human nature. In any case, whether listening to music or acting as though one were listening to music, something very different is happening than being guided by voices. Music prompts an affective state that we may call, with Alexander Gerard, ‘a pleasant disposition of soul’ that ‘renders us prone to every agreeable affection’,1 but it is not, like conscience, directive: it does not tell us what to think, feel, or do. Thus to suggest, as Wordsworth does, that moral response begins either in music or on the model of our response to music is to challenge a logocentric ethics of obedience, a challenge that, especially in the 1790s, evidently has political as well as theological implications. That Wordsworth was aware of these is, I believe, strongly implied by his adoption of a more or less Christian conscience as his supreme value in The Excursion, a value that even the often-contrary Solitary does not contest. Wordsworth's turn to conscience in his later poetry highlights, in his career, his earlier avoidance or eschewal of it, setting conscience in dialectical opposition to his tentative assays at an ethical subject shaped by music.
To appreciate Wordsworth's turn from and back to conscience requires our having some historical sense of what the term meant or could mean in the early Romantic era. It is, primarily, the English version of the Vulgate Bible's conscientia, itself a rendering of St Paul's Greek concept-word syneidēsis : the law written in the heart of the Gentiles, the moral code that all humans possess independently of revelation.
How did the Romantics conceive of the sublime? This question, to which I will return, is less easily answered than a related one: how have critics conceived of the Romantic sublime? In the critical literature, “the Romantic sublime” refers to the mind’s transcendence of a natural and/or social world that finally cannot fulfill its desire. Revealed in the moment of the sublime is that the mind is not wholly of the world, but this revelation may be triggered by a particular setting in the world. The lonely grandeur of lakes and mountains, or the solemn interior of a cathedral, invite sublime musings. And these musings are typically conveyed in a heightened style that may itself be described as sublime or awe inspiring. Often cited as the epitome of the Romantic sublime is a passage from book 6 of William Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude:
Our destiny, our nature, and our home, Is with infinitude – and only there; With hope it is, hope that can never die, Effort, and expectation, and desire, And something evermore about to be. The mind beneath such banners militant Thinks not of spoils or trophies, nor of aught That may attest its prowess, blest in thoughts That are their own perfection and reward – Strong in itself, and in the access of joy Which hides it like the overflowing Nile.
At this point in his narrative, Wordsworth has just crossed the Alps unwittingly, failing en route to achieve the grand prospect view he earlier imagined. He turns from his disappointment to praise the imagination as a power superior to any actual experience and to celebrate, in these lines, the soul as fundamentally alien to the world of the senses. Wordsworth expresses a yearning for the infinite, the unbounded, the supersensible; he expresses, as though it were a natural or intuitive aspect of our being, the desire to transcend the limitations imposed on us as finite, historically situated beings. Although this yearning evidently has religious roots (particularly neo-Platonic and Augustinian ones), its quasi-secular or at least nonsectarian expression comprises what we now think of as the Romantic sublime. Whether or not this yearning aptly or sufficiently characterizes what authors of the Romantic era actually took to be sublime is a question I shall address in this chapter.
When you hear the Bible echoed in a Romantic poet, expect to find it transformed. I start with a biblical echo in William Wordsworth’s early poem, Descriptive Sketches (1793). In the following passage the speaker rejoices in the “Soft music from th’aëreal summit” (421), and in the absence of man:
– And sure there is a secret Power that reigns
Here, where no trace of man the spot profanes …
An idle voice the sabbath region fills
Of Deep that calls to Deep across the hills,
Broke only by the melancholy sound
Of drowsy bells for ever tinkling round;
Faint wail of eagle melting into blue
Beneath the cliffs, and pine-woods steady sugh;
The solitary heifer’s deepn’d low;
Or rumbling heard remote of falling snow.
(424–39, emphasis mine)
In the “Deep that calls to Deep across the hills,” a basso continuo over which plays an array of “melancholy” (but not saddening) sounds, Wordsworth recalls the first line of Psalm 42:7 – “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts” – while signally omitting its parallel line, in which the sound of waters becomes a vehicle for the speaker’s despondency: “All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.” Wordsworth’s lines reverse the Biblical dynamic; here inner landscape seems to give way to outer. The deeps that concern him are those of nature, not of human spirit, and they call, but not primarily to us, the speaker’s witness notwithstanding. Whereas Psalm 42 as a whole uses natural imagery to describe, analogically, the individual’s inner striving towards God – “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God” (v. 1) – Wordsworth, antithetically, describes the elements of nature in relation to one another, “where no trace of man the spot profanes.” In short, Wordsworth turns the Bible on its head.