Hope in Ancient Greek: Aristotle on hope, optimism, and courage

Continuing in my study of the term “hope,” I also ran across a really interesting article on Aristotle’s understanding of the term hope: “Aristotle on Hope,” by G. Scott Gravlee, which appeared in the Journal of the History of Philosophy in October 2000. I previously wrote about hope in Hebrew as well as the Greek goddess Elpis, who appeared in the story of Pandora. I also talked about the elements involved in the cognitive process of hoping, according to psychologists. As I’m working on developing an ecotheology of critical hope, I want to find out what the words we translate as “hope” in the Bible meant within their cultural milieu, how the authors of the Christian Testament received, utilized, and transformed these ideas, and ultimately how these stories and concepts have shaped our present culture. My ultimate goal is to then do similar reinterpretation (or “remix,” thanks to Wess Daniels, see my post on his book) of these received traditions to speak to the need for hope in our current context, in which humanity seems to be having a difficult time finding hope for the future, and therefore we’re using up all our planet’s resources right now with no thought to future generations.

In “Aristotle on Hope,” Gravlee clarifies two different Greek words Aristotle uses that are generally translated “hope,” one which means something more like expectation (ελπιϛ = elpis, though it is used in the Christian Testament to mean a deeper hope), and one that gets more at what we generally mean by the term hope: ευελπις (euelpis), “eu” meaning good and “elpis” meaning expectation—in other words, expectations for a positive future, as opposed to regular elpis, which could refer to expecting either a positive or a negative future. A fascinating point is that Aristotle states that one cannot truly hope (ευελπις) unless one has experienced fear: if one feels vulnerable, that one might not succeed. One cannot hope unless there’s a chance that one’s hope will not be realized.

Courage is a hallmark of this second kind of hopeful person, since one must realize that one’s goal is not surely obtainable, and realistically take stock of one’s abilities. A person who hopes for a positive outcome but does not act courageously in the face of his or her fear is, according to Aristotle, not really hoping: he or she does not take the courageous steps needed in order to bring about that good end, it’s just expecting something positive to happen in the future. The act of courage in the face of fear, on the other hand—of willingness to recognize one’s vulnerability and pursue one’s goal anyway—is the agency required in the hope system.

Optimism can be a type of not-quite-hope that does not take any courage. It is a positive outlook because one knows (or at least believes) the outcome is almost assured. When one feels fear, one can recognize that this indicates a hope buried somewhere within. Those who do not hope for anything also do not fear, but are apathetic. Fears can point toward hope if one takes the time to mentally process one’s reaction. When an individual notices feeling fear, s/he can choose either to continue on the route of feeling fear, or s/he can choose courage and move in the direction of hope. Or, though not necessarily stated in this article, one can stop feeling and go in the direction of apathy.

Gravlee’s explication of Aristotle led me to wonder whether perhaps there is a “hope in a negative direction,” as in, an expectation that what we fear will occur. In English we don’t have a specific word for that, although when I was talking to my then-eight-year-old son a few months ago about hope, he expressed this kind of negative hope. He said it didn’t feel like fear and it didn’t feel like despair, but that his body expected the situation to turn out in the outcome he could envision but did not want. While in that space, he had a very difficult time being willing to entertain ideas of how to solve the problem positively, even when I suggested possible solutions, and he instead thought about taking steps to ensure that this negative outcome was inevitable, and would have done so had I not stepped in.

What happened was that he lost a LEGO piece and intensely feared he would not be able to find it. Rather than pursuing solutions, such as looking for it more thoroughly or using a different piece from his LEGO bin, he was going to give the whole rest of the LEGO set to his brother, since it was worthless to him without that one piece. This might be what Aristotle through Gravlee calls “resignation,” a pessimistic outlook that the outcome is going to be negative so there is no point in trying to change it through personal agency or pathway generation, but I usually think of “resignation” as fairly inactive. In this case, my son’s resignation was leading him to want to take active steps to ensure the feared future outcome would occur. His negative hopes would occur and he would reach his goal, so this fits the definition of hope. He would be actively making his expected future inevitable by setting steps in motion to bring about the feared outcome.

Interestingly, this shows a kind of hope and agency—in the direction of the negative outcome. He looked at the possible outcomes, he decided which one he could see pathways to get to and that he felt like he had the agency to achieve, and he started setting plans in motion to get to it. I would argue that he didn’t realistically look at all the options, since it’s not that hard to find a LEGO piece when you know exactly where you lost it, and he also didn’t have a very tenacious idea of what he could achieve or a willingness to try something different when his original ideas didn’t work, but low hope is still a form of hope. He chose instead to focus on his fear, rather than generating ideas that might take more courage and effort to achieve. (That this example of negative hope fits so well within the system of the psychology of hope is one of the reasons I think the psychological understanding doesn’t fully explain hope, helpful as it may be.)

Together, my son and I eventually found the missing LEGO piece, and then we talked through the experience later. I had my son repeat back to me what had happened so that he can use the experience as a basis for positive hope next time. Perhaps he will be able to have “courageous confidence,” as Aristotle terms good-hope. Since one cannot be certain of the outcome for which one hopes, moving forward in confidence regarding one’s sense of agency and choosing a path in the positive direction takes courage in the face of fear. Also, trying something else if one’s first idea fails is an important piece of hoping (one that Gravlee doesn’t really address here, but is addressed in other places by philosophers and psychologists). It is also possible to take action that ensures a negative outcome, having given up on the positively-hoped-for outcome.

I am intrigued by this situation, because it may provide an explanation for the self-sabotage that many human beings seem to do intentionally (though probably not consciously) when they know the situation facing the planet with climate change, and take active steps to ensure that the world continues going in that direction. To truly hope in the face of climate change takes courage in the face of real fear, an acknowledgement of vulnerability, and the choice to move in the direction of a positive outcome anyway.

What is it about self-sabotage that seems appealing? I assume it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s easier to not feel. We would rather be apathetic, because feeling hurts too much.

My son said he would rather never have had the LEGO set than to have it and lose the piece. This shows a level of defeatism that has given up and doesn’t want to have to move through feeling fear and any other negative emotions so much that it would rather also not feel the good feelings. I wonder what makes people feel this way. I think it’s probably not learning to acknowledge, name, and be okay with feelings (so this is something I’ve definitely been working on with my kids since this LEGO experience!).

Overall, I find this ambivalence about the direction of hope to be a helpful way to think about our responses to the future. We can be optimistic or pessimistic about the future but take no real action to ensure that either one happens, but this is not really hope. We can also actively “hope” in a positive or a negative direction. In English, we’ve come to use the term “hope” to mean acting courageously to bring about a future we perceive as positive, while in classical Greek the term had not taken on this meaning but was any action taken in order to bring about a future state. Hope involves experiencing fear, and our response to that fear determines whether our action is euelpis (courageous good-hope) or self-sabotaging resignation: whether we’ve recognized our fear and decided to move in the direction of our hoped-for future anyway, or whether we’ve remained frozen by fear and intentionally taken actions (or intentionally not acted) to bring about our feared future. I wonder if this self-sabotaging resignation is the same as despair?

Both of these types of Aristotelian hope (positive and negative) can be distinguished from apathy, in which case we do not even feel fear—or perhaps we have acted so long in a state of self-sabotaging resignation that we are numb to the fear. If we’re feeling fear, we can then choose to act positively or negatively, but if we no longer even feel the fear, that’s when we’ve really moved beyond the category of hope. Despair is different from apathy, because it shows that there is still something that one hopes for, one simply despairs of it happening. One fears that it is impossible, or at least that one has no pathways, motivation, or agency to get there.

So, the presence of fear shows that there is still a spark of hope. If we are willing to do the hard work of acknowledging our fear and working through it, and if we are willing to find the place of courage within ourselves to move in the direction of a positive future even though it scares us to death, we can move out of the space of despair and into hope. In previous posts I’ve mentioned that this isn’t always possible without medication/therapy in cases of mental illness, and in future posts I want to share more about the connection with a community that I think is vital in helping us move beyond despair, transforming that fear and despair through meaning-making and storytelling into good-hope.


Gravlee, G. Scott. “Aristotle on Hope.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (October 2000): 461-477.

Image: detail of Aristotle and others from the “School of Athens” by Raphael


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