a time for hope not optimism
We are all worried about the future and how to stay optimistic, or should it be hopeful? We have plenty to worry about. Currently top of the league for recorded Coronavirus infections is the USA followed by Russia. Brazil has jumped to third place. Astute observers may notice similarities between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, though finding exactly the right word to describe what their leadership has in common is difficult. Shall we just say they are not noted for their overwhelming concern for the welfare of their citizens, nor for their moral scruples. So it is disturbing to find the UK in fourth place. If we use a different measure, Coronavirus deaths per 100,000 , only Belgium and Spain, comparable democracies with a slightly higher median age than UK, are ahead of us. Germany, with a higher median age is way below. Anxiety is justified.
Of course, recorded infections depend on population size, demography and the amount of testing done. But the overall picture puts Britain in a bad light; according to the Financial Times today, in the most reliable measure Britain is the worst in Europe and second only to the USA globally for excess deaths (the increased mortality - above the usual for the period - during the pandemic to date). If we think about our future it is hard to be optimistic. Yet, perhaps a comforting ritual for some, at the end of television interviews with the scientific experts comes the standard question: “So are you optimistic?” and what seems to be the required answer “Yes”. By this they do not mean, as did the 17th century German Enlightenment philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz, that we live in the best of all God-created worlds, or that imperfections in it are designed to draw us towards what is truly good. They mean that the belief in human ingenuity and scientific wisdom, in short, the diffuse idea of ‘progress’, now interrupted, will resume its onward course.
The problem with faith in progress is that scientific knowledge does not bring about change in a vacuum. Things, events, people get in the way. Chinese bureaucrats in Wuhan terrified of being the bearers of bad news to the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party initially supressed and punished the scientific expertise that identified a potential pandemic. British government ministers became so immersed in the task of leaving the European Union that they neglected the necessary measures set out by ‘the science’ for preparing for a pandemic. We are not automatically drawn towards what is truly good or rational but towards immediate competition for scarce resources (PPEs, vaccines), in a narrow nationalism in which there is one rule for the rich and the governing elite and another for the people, and yet another for foreigners. We know it doesn’t have to be like this. We hope for something better.
In this national and global crisis, we want to talk about our present predicament and our future, to hope, but we have lost the language for such a discussion. An important missing ingredient for the discussion is our formerly Christian understanding of what it means to be human. We no longer speak of bad actions, of evil or sin. Instead we make do with ‘misspeaking’ rather than lies, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘mistakes’ rather than intentional acts of deceit or criminality. If actions are really bad we resort to semi-therapeutic words such as ‘sociopathic’. We hardly speak of what a good person or a good society is like. We end up with political leadership being the art of appearing to care about society’s wellbeing.
Being optimistic while equipped only with our etiolated repertoire of moral language and with unchecked governments realising their propensity to use power for bad purposes, is not rational. We need more than scientific rigour. We need to talk about the cultivation of virtue and the purification of desire and we need these habits of mind to be qualifiers for public office. If you baulk at Christian discourse on the nature of true leadership call it integrity if you like, but it is a prerequisite for sustaining genuine hope. The absence of these qualities, or the absence of majority public concern about them, must not be taken as a political given within a secular culture.
Hope, in its realism and refusal to despair but act, not knee-jerk optimism, is the ‘appropriate’ virtue for these times. Hope contains an element of desire for the good, or Common Good, and a – theological – sense of expectation (understanding that the hoped-for future is not going to come by human agency and human desire and expectation alone). For hope to be rational it will inevitably be a hoping against hope, for example, to imagine after Coronavirus a more just and peaceful world with leaders who care effectively for the planet. And who could disagree with that in a world which automatically dismisses the political implementation of such an idea as utopian, a world dominated by two superpowers and one wannabe-again superpower led by Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. Those who have got into the habit of hoping also have reason to agree with another kind of leader, Nelson Mandela. “It always seems impossible until it is done”, he once said, most reasonably. He was speaking not abstractly but from his own experience of leadership and of hope.
See The Article 28/05/20 "How to be Hopeful"
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