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Should our Attitude to the Cosmos be one of

Calm Despair or Defiant Hope?

The early Greeks are continually held up to us in literary works as models of the healthy-minded joyousness which the religion of nature may engender. There was indeed much joyousness among the Greeks—Homer’s flow of enthusiasm for most things that the sun shines upon is steady. But even in Homer the reflective passages are cheerless, and the moment the Greeks grew systematically pensive and thought of ultimates, they became unmitigated pessimists. The jealousy of the gods, the nemesis that follows too much happiness, the all-encompassing death, fate’s dark opacity, the ultimate and unintelligible cruelty, were the fixed background of their imagination. The beautiful joyousness of their polytheism is only a poetic modern fiction. They knew no joys comparable in quality of preciousness to those which we shall erelong see that Brahmans, Buddhists, Christians, Mohammedans, twice-born people whose religion is non-naturalistic, get from their several creeds of mysticism and renunciation.

William James

The pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything—they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything—they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.

G. K. Chesterton

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.

Bertrand Russell (from A Free Man’s Worship, 1903)

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth (Macbeth)

Optimists have no need of hope because they know that history, reason, luck, or whatever, is on their side. But they are ill-equipped to deal with the real world of disappointment. Hope, on the other hand, is familiar with disappointment and is ready to meet it again. Hope is more a religious than a psychological category. It’s the need for optimism that many people have that prevents them from finding hope.

Despair is the one emotion that it is truly a pity to have missed.

Soren Kierkegaard




Thoughts about Hope & Despair

A calm despair, without angry convulsions or reproaches directed at heaven, is the essence of wisdom.

Alfred de Vigny

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!

(Epitaph on W. B. Yeats’s tombstone)

Console yourselves that for the greater part of your life you have been happy, and remember that what remains will be short. Comfort yourself with the thought that in your useless old age you will enjoy the respect of your neighbours.

Pericles (addressing the parents of dead soldiers)

Cheer up, there’s no hope.

Despair and the incapacity for leisure are twins—a revealing thought that explains, among other things, the hidden meaning of that very questionable saying, ‘work and don’t despair.’

Josef Pieper

Work is a product of misery, and discontent. I only work because I’m unhappy. If I was happy I should never work.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim.

Graham Greene

Faith is the reality of hope, and of illusion.

Northrop Frye

Many people identify hope with illusion.

God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.

Paul Valery

I no longer wished for a better world, because I was thinking of the whole of creation, and in the light of this clearer discernment I had come to see that, though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.

St. Augustine

Hope in every sphere of life is a privilege that attaches to action. No action, no hope.

Hope is the basic ingredient of all vitality.

Erik Erikson

Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.

Samuel Johnson

You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.

Oliver Edwards (to Samuel Johnson after a church service)

It is absolutely incredible how futile life can be; and if one doesn’t become engrossed in its futility, I don’t see that there is anything to stop one going mad.

Leonard Woolf

Perhaps the most despairing cry of the pessimistic mind is that the world is never quite as bad as it ought and should be for intellectual purposes.

Bernard Berenson

Man, at least when educated, is a pessimist. He believes it safer not to reflect on his achievements; Jove is known to strike such people down. Dangers, uncompleted tasks, failures remain in his mind.

John Kenneth Galbraith

Because pessimism appeals to the weaker side of everybody the pessimist drives as roaring a trade as the publican.

G. K. Chesterton

The mind which renounces, once and forever, a futile hope, has its compensation in ever-growing calm.

George Gissing

If you do not hope, you will not find what is beyond your hopes.

St. Clement of Alexandria

The miserable have no other medicine,
But only hope...

Measure for Measure (Claudio)

The best healer is the most ingenious inspirer of hope.

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.

James Branch Campbell

If optimism means a general approval, it is certainly true that the more a man becomes an optimist the more he becomes a melancholy man. If he manages to praise everything, his praise will develop an alarming resemblance to a polite boredom. He will say that the marsh is as good as the garden; he will mean that the garden is as dull as the marsh.

G. K. Chesterton

The world itself is but a large prison, out of which some are daily led to execution.

Sir Walter Raleigh

The real world is a place I’ve never felt comfortable in.

Woody Allen

Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.

George Santayana

Cynicism is often really about hope: fear of it, fear of being seduced by it.

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