06 December 2007

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all

I've been reading Spe Salve, the Pope's new encyclical on the theme of hope. It's a fascinating document, as remarkable for its clarity as for its scope. Centred at all times on Our Lord, it considers true hope as an active choice, an ultimate decision to place our faith in Jesus alone. Despite newspaper reports painting it as an attack on atheism and individualism, it's no attack; rather, it's a profoundly positive analysis of hope as a Christian virtue.

Yes, as a Christian virtue. The Classical world of Greece and Rome recognised four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. You'll find them spelled out by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. To these St Paul added faith, hope, and love -- or charity, depending on how you translate agape. The Church distinguishes these 'theological virtues' from the human virtues as being infused in us purely by the grace of God and by having God himself as their origin, motive, and object.

That sounds rather formal, so I'll drag Chesterton in to lighten the tone a bit:

The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural, virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity. Now much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact (in marked contrast to the delusion of the dancing pagan)--the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.

As the word "unreasonable" is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature, and that this is not true of any of the typically pagan or rationalist virtues. Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and, eclipse [...] For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful [...]

My general meaning touching the three virtues of which I have spoken will now, I hope, be sufficiently clear. They are all three paradoxical, they are all three practical, and they are all three paradoxical because they are practical. it is the stress of ultimate need, and a terrible knowledge of things as they are, which led men to set up these riddles, and to die for them. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of charity which any weak spirit wants, or which any generous spirit feels, is the charity which forgives the sins that are like scarlet. Whatever may be the meaning of faith, it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.

It's not merely the Pope that's gotten me thinking about this over the last week or so; the controversy in America over Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and more particularly the film of The Golden Compass has led me to read up on quite a few interviews with the author. Of particular interest is a 2002 interview with the unfortunately-named Huw Spanner:
HS: Throughout His Dark Materials there’s a strong sense of ‘ought’. All the most attractive characters – Lyra and Will, Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, Mary Malone – are driven in the end by a sense of duty, at least to their loved ones if not to the world. Where in a world without God does that sense of ‘ought’ come from?

PP: I’m amazed by the gall of Christians. You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they’ve got the idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isn’t it your experience that there are plenty of people in the world who don’t believe who are very good, decent people?

HS: Yes. I’m just curious to know where it comes from.

PP: For goodness’ sake! It comes from ordinary human decency. It comes from accumulated human wisdom – which includes the wisdom of such figures as Jesus Christ. Jesus, like many of the founders of great religions, was a moral genius, and he set out a number of things very clearly in the Gospels which if we all lived by them we’d all do much better. What a pity the Church doesn’t listen to him!

I think he's rather missing the point here, although this may be the fault of the interviewer. The issue isn't that one can't be good unless one believes in God, rather it's a question: if there is no God, is there such a thing as objective morality? And if there is, whence does it arise? Pullman's reference to accumulated human wisdom surely indicates a development in our understanding of morality, not a development in the morality itself. After all, can that which is good on Monday really be bad on Tuesday?

Pullman picks up on these points in a recent interview with Peter T Chattaway, which is an improbably good name for an interviewer. Unfortunately, Chattaway does an even worse job of phrasing the question that Spanner had done.

PP: What on earth gives Christians to right to assume that love and self-sacrifice have to be called Christian virtues? They are virtues, full stop. If there is an exclusively religious sin (not exclusively Christian, but certainly clearly visible among some Christians) it is the claim that all virtue belongs to their sect, all vice to others. It is so clearly wrong, so clearly stupid, so clearly counter-productive, that it leads the unbiased observer to assume that you're not allowed in the religious club unless you leave your intelligence at the door.


PTC: Tony Watkins, for one, has raised the point that true virtue doesn't seem possible in a materialist world, because no one truly acts freely; instead, our actions are the end results of various deterministic (and, following quantum physics, random) forces -- our genes and memes, basically. (My phrasing, not Tony's.) It may be wrong to say that virtues belong to a particular religious sect -- and I would agree -- but without some sort of religious basis, there seems to be no particular motivation to be virtuous, nor does it seem possible.

Does looking at it from that angle make any more sense?

PP: Well, I think that's a very bleak and limited view of human possibility. No motivation for virtue if you don't believe in God? What about the joy you feel when a good action of yours brings a happy result for someone else? What about the basic empathy we feel even for creatures who aren't human - a rabbit caught in a trap, a little bird inside the house trying to get out through a closed window, a polar bear drowning in a world where the ice is melting? That's not due to religion: it's due to the fact that we're alive and conscious and able to imagine another's suffering.

As for the existence or otherwise of free will, that is so profound a question that philosophers and scientists have been plumbing it for centuries if not millennia and the answer is still as far off as ever. But the only way we can live, it seems to me, is to believe that our will is free. A sort of psychological confirmation of this (though, like everything else, it may be deceptive) is that good things, or the right things to do, involve more effort than bad things, or the wrong things. We have to struggle against ourselves sometimes, and thus we can 'feel' the existence of free will, even if we can't demonstrate it logically or scientifically.
It's interesting that Pullman recognises that whether or not there is such a thing as free will, life is only workable if we assume that free will exists. This isn't very far from the Kantian principle that we can only assume an objective morality if we assume the existence of God, or indeed to Chesterton's 1903 response to Robert Blatchford's question as to why he believed in the central doctrines of Christianity: 'Because I believe life to be logical and workable with these beliefs and illogical and unworkable without them.'

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