Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Václav Havel: "hope is not optimism"

As Advent, the "season of waiting," winds to its close, Václav Havel has died.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. (Disturbing the Peace p 181)
This is a motif that runs through Havel's work from Letters to Olga to his many late addresses, collected in The Art of the Impossible. In the wake of Havel's death I have been turning this distinction over in my mind. I have said before that philosophy is in some sense optimistic, but Havel's "hope" is far closer to what I mean.

I know it's a strange thing to contend: that philosophy is "hopeful." But philosophy arises (in Greece at any rate) out of the question of whether life can be good. The tragedians were by no means sanguine about this, and Solon's famous warning ("Call no man happy...") is meant to resonate with the sad wisdom of Silenus: Best for man is not to be born, and next-best, to die soon. I believe Socrates means to counter this dour tale (and if I were writing a paper, here would be the place for all the stuff about Alcibiades' characterizations of Socrates as Silenus in the Symposium). Socrates says that life can be good, and he tells us what makes it so: "examination." He does acknowledge that life can be not worth living; but he believes he has found an answer to this, the one thing needful, which his fellow Athenians neglect, at risk of moral bankruptcy.

In the same place, Havel says that hope
transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don't think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favorable sign in the world. I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are, though of course I can't--unlike Christians, for instance--say anything concrete about the transcendental.
In pointing beyond the horizon of the world to indicate the unspecifiable grounds of hope, I suspect that Havel is following in the steps of his friend Jan Patočka, whose essay "Negative Platonism" (included here) tries to show that the Socratic orientation of philosophy towards a horizon was inherent in thinking itself. Havel's reticence, his confessed inability to "say anything concrete," is the fitting response to a hope whose articulation would seem to take us even beyond the premises of the meaningful; and Havel is right to gently chide Christians who have been far too ready to wax loquacious on the street address of God, though it is difficult to see how one might entirely avoid "saying too much" here. Havel himself seemed to hold out interest in the Gaia hypothesis and the Anthropic principle, proposals which certainly risk at least as much in the way of trespassing beyond the articulable, at least when explicitly connected to "the transcendental."

Asked whether the death and return of Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings, was meant to suggest the passion of Christ, J.R.R. Tolkien demurred:
Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power. But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write. Here I am only concerned with Death as part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees. (Tolkien, Letters, #181)
Tolkien was of course a Roman Catholic and accepted some measure of our capacity to be explicit about hope, but this explicitness in the end turns out to be always framed by liturgical language and action. Art, he insisted, could not sustain the link between hope and the primary world; it required routing through the imagination.

Even here, of course, one risks a great deal, because the line between art and thinking in general is blurry. All such speech turns out to be a figure of speech.

I hear in the many voices which either expressly avow nihilism--some with a show of regret, others with a kind of unseemly and ill-concealed eagerness--or else impatiently wave it aside as a distraction from their empty triumphalism, a perverse celebration of the mortification of hope. In other quarters, the post-humanists offer bizarre anticipations of a kind of all-too-concrete "hope" of a different kind, not merely seeking refuge in just such a "secondary world" as Tolkien described, but seeking to make it the primary world; indeed to re-make this secondary world over into the primary one. This project will turn out to be the nihilistic one of erasing experience altogether.

One must be willing to (advisedly) risk "saying too much," in facing down the perverse celebrants of the mortification of hope. As Saint Leo the Great said, Inde oritur difficulas fandi, unde adest ratio non tacendi (The difficulty of speaking comes from the same source as the reason for not keeping silent.) I know nihilism from the inside, as does anyone with faith worthy of the name. if I did not, it would be hard to persuade myself that such an attitude is not an abdication of the life of the mind, but one of its essential forms, a necessary part of its life-cycle.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"
From imprisoned dissident to president of his country, Havel could have seen the course of his life as a pure vindication. But for millions of human beings who had the misfortune to, say, die in prison (Patočka was one) before the Velvet Revolution, this eventual historical denouement made no difference--at least none we dare name; the very attempt would tip us over into kitsch. The stature of Havel's character is shown by the fact that he knew very well, after his success, that such "turning out well" meant nothing in terms of hope. What counted was the surety--the faith--that it made sense. But the nature of that "sense" cannot be specified. One can at best try to hazard its grammar, not its content.

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