Saintly Thoughts

Hope and Desire

"Now faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of things unseen." - Hebrews 11:1

I have had much reason of late to meditate on the nature of hope, both in terms of its relationship to faith and more generally.  These musings, of course, have included the verse above, often referenced as the kick-off to the so-called "Faith Chapter".  Now, while I am using the first clause (link between faith and hope) as a jumping off point, I should probably confess here at the outset that this is really being employed more as a rhetorical device than it is a reflection on the verse itself.  It is an occasion for me to consider the nature of hope, both as it relates to its place as a theological virtue and as a natural and universal aspect of the human condition.  Furthermore, I will confess at the outset that this post is not a polished piece of prose, but instead a more-or-less stream of consciousness consideration of the idea itself.  It is thus a very rough, though very honest, document.  If you enjoy this kind of writing please continue, if you do not, please feel free to look elsewhere.       

Now, in terms of the first clause of the verse above, faith would appear to be in some sense subordinate to hope; I mean this not in terms of categorical dignity, but in terms of priority: to be faithful, one must first have a conceptualization of hope.  Of course, both faith and hope are dependent upon some external object (faith or hope in "what"; though one can reflexively speak of 'hope in hope', it would seem that such still requires some sense of an eventual object of hope--that is, 'hope in hope' does not replace the necessity of hope's final object but may express a situation where the immediacy of hope's object is uncertain or very faint).  What then, do we mean when we speak of objects of hope?  

On some level, this object of hope would seem to be a desire; that is, something which is currently lacking but is wanted.  Might we speak of all desires as objects of hope?  In one sense, it would appear than we do sometimes speak this way; for I might hope for a BLT, or some amount of money, or the love of some woman.  But, in the first instance at least, this would seem to be more a metaphorical use of the concept of hope meant to convey the strength of the desire more than a usage which conveys to us a sense of hope properly understood.  For we also speak of hoping in things--a sense which does not seem to apply to the aforementioned objects qua objects--that is, I may hope for (that is 'want') a BLT or the love of a woman, but I am hardly going to say that I hope in a sandwich.  However, here I notice that one might speak of hoping in the love of a woman--though here it would seem that I am speaking of something other than a simple desire/object paradigm because the desire is for something which, while capable of merely being objectified, is properly understood also as an 'agent' capable of contributing independent and unanticipated qualities to what was originally perceived as basic desire.  Is this then where the distinction between hope and desire lies; that is, hope is a 'desire' for some 'object' imbued with 'agency' (another way to put this would be to say hope is a 'desire' for a 'subject')?

This seems to be getting us closer to the mark; for again, while we may speak of putting our hope in inanimate things such as, say wealth, it would seem that in some sense we are either speaking metaphorically in order to convey emphasis (to say that one puts ones hope in wealth means that one really desires wealth) or we are confusing our categories and speaking incorrectly as though such object conveys agency (so, to put ones hope in wealth is false categorically).  Of course, this raises the question of why this should be the case.  Perhaps we have been too hasty in considering agency (i.e. desire for a subject) as that thing which separates desire from hope.  For, whether or not wealth is something that one should hope in, it would seem that many people do, and it seems unlikely that this has specifically to do with some sense of subjective agency (though, granted, we have not herein yet considered why subjective agency is something worthy of being desired).  Furthermore, when one speaks of putting ones hope in wealth, it would seem that what is meant is not some immediate desire for wealth per se (though I suppose it is possible that someone may find the shape and color of money aesthetically pleasing) but for the power which wealth has (or is perceived to have) to grant other immediate desires (i.e. hunger, comfort, security, etc.).

Notice that I immediately flinched from that idea that wealth is a proper object of hope even though it may grammatically be spoken of in that way.  Was this merely to save my earlier sense that hope correctly understood involves a desire for something with agency?  I am going to suggest that this is not the case, because I could have simply modified my earlier position of hope being desire for an object imbued with agency to hope being a desire for an object imbued with apparent agency insofar as that quality of agency has (or is perceived to have) the power to deliver to us other goods and desires.  Now, I might be uncomfortable with this because it, in turn, essentially destroys my distinction between desire and hope in that what I thought to be a special innate quality of hope separate from desire now appears to be a secondary corollary by which the thing hoped in has the capacity to meet other desires.  Actually, this may be useful as it suggest that hope is a process by which we discover the objects of hope rather than a distinct and concrete category or desire, but I think my discomfort reveals that I have already imported preconceived ideas concerning the correct and incorrect objects of hope.  While attempting to consider an aspect of a moral system (for what can be more central to morality than hope?) I discover that I have already presupposed a moral system.  For my purposes, this is not exactly a problem, (especially considering the fact that the aforementioned verse is definitely nudging us in a very specific direction) but instead illustrates the slipperiness of these categories which I must be aware of if these reflections are to have any meaning.  

So, taking a step back, let us consider what it is about wealth that may make us wish (rightly or wrongly) to speak of putting our hope in wealth.  As I already suggested, we could take the tack that this perception destroys any strong distinction between hope and desire since wealth may be perceived as simply the power to fulfill other desires (I'm not going to go into it here, but I take it as a given that wealth does not partake of an ontological category).  In this sense, the only difference between hope and desire is that hope becomes the desire for all desires; might another way to put this be that hope is the ultimate desire as object (if we may be allowed to speak in such terms) combined with the presumption that such object has the power to effectuate such desire?  I kind of like this idea.  And note that the term 'power' has reared its head again.  This seems important, and may explain our earlier fixation with the idea of agency.  I mean that an agent (one of the reasons I preferred agency to mere subject terminology) necessarily contains an innate power to effectuate 'some thing' which is here the object of some ultimate desire.

Now, as we have gotten away from the idea of specific desires and are thinking more in terms of an overall sense of desires generally (and power to effectuate such desire), it might be a good time to return to our earlier moral consideration: that is, are there moral hopes and immoral hopes?  Notice that, at least from within the context of the aforementioned verse, the existence of hope or even of faith does not presuppose morality: one can (presumably) hope in better or worse things (or, to put it another way, hope in things that are good and things that are not good--whatever goodness may mean).  What then might be the means by which we can judge what hopes might be better or worse?  If we are correct (and at this point, while I am convinced that we are on the right path, I am in no way ready to claim that these categories are settled) that hope is the combination of desire (in an absolute--though subjective--sense) and the perception of some object that has the power to effectuate said desire, then one must analyze this question based on the following analytic model:

1. Is the desire (note: since we are speaking of absolute subjective desire, it will be necessary to first analyze the desires of a desiring individual) itself 'good'?

2. Does the object in which the individual hopes have the power to effectuate this desire?

3. Are the means by which the desire effectuated 'good'?

Notice that we have now, since this was always meant to be a moral consideration, imported into our discussion the concept of 'goodness', itself a tricky category.  It was never my attempt to here provide a full account of what we mean when talk about hoping, but I did want to get us to this point before I ended this particular musing.  Notice something about the tools necessary to analyze these categories in relation to our current societal moment: the second consideration is well within the grasp of modern theory resting as it does on pure utilitarian calculations (can the means effectuate the ends), but both the first and the third considerations require some perception of the idea of moral goodness.  We may still be able to do some work with the third category, depending as it does (at the very least) on an effects/harms matrix, we might still be able to determine a 'thin' utilitarian sense of goodness as to the harms caused by the means when weighed against the utility (if any such utility there be) of the ends.  But the first, tied up as it is in our individual idiosyncratic perception of the universe; does not the very existence of the desire present the desire as itself 'good'?  What might be our means of analyzing our own desires?  

This is really the question that interests me, but I thought it useful to tie the question of desire to a larger and more morally fraught consideration than the mere individual preference that desire would appear to elicit.  Our age is one in which we have expanded the realm of 'morally acceptable' desires perhaps as far (if not farther) than reality will allow.  Maybe it is time to dust off our logic textbooks and see if there is some rational means by which we can analyze and categorize the nature of our innate desires.  In fact, might it not be possible that the very permissiveness of our present societal moment aid us in not immediately being too parochial in the construction of our categories?  I think this is a worthwhile project, if for no other reason than fundamental desire seems, on some level, to underlie and control all human action (in fact, desire and power might properly control ALL human action, thus hope might control all human action).  So next I will turn my consideration to the nature of desire, and we shall see where such musings lead.