In his 1959 sermon “Shattered Dreams,” written three years after the successful Montgomery bus boycott as he anticipated even greater challenges ahead, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. reminded his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that “very few, if any, of us are able to see all of our hopes fulfilled.” Describing the allegorical painting Hope by the English Symbolist artist George Frederic Watts—reproduced on the cover of this issue—King noted that Watts “depicts Hope as seated atop our planet, but her head is sadly bowed and her fingers are plucking one unbroken harp string.” Without having to spell out whose dreams he was referring to, King asked, “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?”
Enigmatic as the allegorical image might seem, the simple fact that the blindfolded figure continues to pluck on the remaining string was clearly not lost on King. Indeed, it is central to the point his sermon builds to (in words hauntingly prefiguring those of his 1968 Memphis “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech): “Of course some of us will die having not received the promise of freedom. But we must continue to move on. On the one hand we must accept the finite disappointment, but in spite of this we must maintain the infinite hope. This is the only way that we will be able to live without the fatigue of bitterness and the drain of resentment.”
Infinite hope, hope against hope, is nothing less than what the great Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard understood as authentic hope. By contrast with worldly hopes that focus on transitory goods such as success and happiness, authentic hope is nothing less than the will to live in faithful relation to the ideal of eternal and unchanging Good. To live without such hope, the Sage of Copenhagen held, is not only to live in despair but to abandon the task of becoming a self, a true individual.
The great danger of our time is the loss of such hope. In his new book, The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us, cultural critic Adam Kirsch observes that humanists are at an impasse: They must either reject continued progress (and the freedom and moral autonomy bound up with it) or acknowledge, on rational grounds, the merit of transhumanist and posthumanist arguments that a world without human beings is superior to one in which humans exist. The latter view, he suggests, might even be considered the humanistic equivalent of those held by various religious traditions that have “always seen the end of days as both wonderful and dreadful.” If the end of humanity is the consummation of humanism, Kirsch concludes, “there may be no choice but to accept the paradoxical promise that Franz Kafka made a century ago: ‘There is hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.’”
The comfort of that promise might be far too cold for most of us. Yet there is a growing and almost palpable sense that the human species, in this age dubbed the Anthropocene, is exercising its dominance of the world toward catastrophic ends. And it is not only the possibility of environmental catastrophe or endless global health crises that challenges a hopeful outlook. Declining faith in once-revered institutions, including democracy itself, growing social isolation and loneliness, rising numbers of “deaths of despair,” the resumption of dangerous conflicts among the world’s great powers—any or all of these are enough to provoke cynicism or despair about our individual and collective futures.
Great as these challenges and crises may be, however, we might ask whether they are truly the cause of our growing sense of hopelessness or, in fact, are the result of it. The essays in this issue advance the latter proposition: that our multiple crises stem in large part from the absence, or at least the precariousness, of those ideas or ideals, those ultimate meanings, on which true hope must depend.
Whether such meanings are grounded in religious belief or binding metaphysical commitments, they point beyond transient goods toward a larger eternal good—the Good in the Platonic sense, for example, or the Kingdom of God, in the Christian tradition, or the Way of many Asian traditions. When such meanings cease to be the anchors of human hope, lesser goods—including democracy, material well-being, and even health, become something like idols, venerated in and for themselves, and often distorted in dangerous ways as a result. The individual person, deprived of higher purpose or direction, is reduced to an autonomous rational actor, a consumer facing an infinite array of choices; community and nation become militantly idealized expressions of collective identity; a cautious faith in the forward movement of history, often seen as providential, becomes a blind belief in Progress; Reason and Science, for all their manifold benefits, are virtually deified as sources of all truth; religion becomes political, and politics becomes religious. Such transvaluations occur among all of our tribalized factions, progressive or reactionary, liberal or conservative, secular or religious, MAGA or woke. The result is not only a blurring but a hollowing of values, which nonetheless are ever more fiercely fought over.
What is lost need not stay lost, however. And there is still the chance, philosopher Ian Marcus Corbin argues in “Deep Down Things in a Time of Panic,” to rediscover sources of hope beyond the madding crowd’s capture by catastrophism. As Corbin writes, “A thousand times in history—a million, more likely—visionaries, prophets, artists, and philosophers have wandered away from the social world that made them and sat themselves in nature, to see what could be seen when you stop demanding that nature echo back precisely the creeds of your community.”
“There is nothing very sexy about hope,” writes Tara Isabella Burton in her essay “On Hope and Holy Fools.” “Certainly,” she continues, “there is nothing sexy about grace. The idea that we might be redeemed by an act of love—a wordless affirmation of something beyond the paradigms through which we are capable of understanding ourselves—is, well, a little mawkish, a bit cringe.” Yet drawing on reflections on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Burton finds that such redemptive hope may be the only antidote to the various nihilisms emanating from the extremes of our culture.
Confident declarations of the triumph of liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War were, we now see, misplaced. But the end of the most recent “end of history” and the resurgence of authoritarianism, ultranationalism, and other illiberal developments might be understood, Michael Weinman and Isaac Ariail Reed show in “Gnosticism in Modernity,” as only the most recent recurrence of the Gnostic impulse in Western culture. “It would be convenient for analysis if such Gnostic tendencies could be located uniquely in the explosion of illiberalism not long after the Cold War or in the twentieth-century European bloodlands. However, the insistence that the radical restructuring of society must begin with a destruction of the world as we know it runs far deeper than the past thirty, one hundred, or even two hundred years.” Reckoning with this challenge, the authors continue, may be the first step toward dealing with the “meaning deficit” that bedevils liberal democracies.
“What hope is there for those who want to build?” asks British essayist Mary Harrington. Throughout most of human history, building has required families, which in turn has required solidarity between the sexes, which in turn has required marriage. But the institutional character of marriage has changed with historical circumstances, and our current conception of marriage still draws on qualities it acquired during the industrial era, including the increasingly impossible idea of what Harrington labels “Big Romance.” Yet most conservative calls for a return to traditional marriage are not traditional enough, she says, proposing a more promising template for our times, one that “owes more to the 1450s than the 1950s.”
It is seldom indeed that, in the words of poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme.” No people have learned this more tryingly than the Jewish people, exiled from their homeland and forced to settle in alien lands, yet enduringly hopeful of recovering their home and the vision of peace—Jerusalem—that was promised to them. Even the return to Zion would prove demanding in ways that continue to test the faith of this peculiarly chosen people. In “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew,” critic and author David Stromberg explores the meaning of that enduring mythic figure as a complicated and convoluted missing persons case—a mystery, as it were, within a Mystery: “People were forever inventing their own versions of the Wandering Jew,” Stromberg writes, “and sometimes these inventions were reflected in real Jews left with few options but to wander. There were those Jews who wandered through the imagination of others, and those Jews who wandered the paths, streets, and roads of the real world. Either way, they were Jews, and this was something no one in the history of the world had yet figured out how to change.”
Far from being a Hallmark card sentiment, our authors suggest, hope may be the most demanding virtue—and, in our time, the one in greatest need.