The Philosophical Case for Staying Hopeful in Dark Times

We can acknowledge the very real pain and suffering in the world today while still living with hope.

When the news is bad and things look bleak, it can be difficult to enjoy the present. As the author and activist bell hooks once put it, “the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair.”

But succumbing to these feelings can wind up producing inaction—which only allows bad conditions to endure. And despair also makes our everyday existence seem unbearable.

Today, as people around the world grapple with hardship and grinding inequalities, many feel confused about how to live happily in the here and now—while others think doing so is downright impossible. But as a philosopher, I think there is a way to make the present enjoyable and open to change. It’s making room in our lives for hope.

Philosophy shows that we can acknowledge the very real pain and suffering in the world today while still living with hope. And hope can be seen as a transformative way of enjoying an otherwise bleak present. Hope is a way of living felicitously despite dark times, believing that tomorrow can be better than today. This does not mean that one passively waits for everything to come out all right in the end. Rather, hopeful people desire a certain outcome, and believe that it is possible.

Hope doesn’t turn on probability assessments. It is not about whether you expect to, say, stamp out white supremacy for good in your lifetime. If anything, hope goes against the evidence. In that sense, hope is a break with history. No pattern of past events underpins it. Hope arises in spite of all that has gone before.

Given this vital onus on possibility, it may seem surprising that hope has its detractors. But there are some philosophers who have depicted it as illusory, disempowering and unpleasant. These objections come from a fundamental misunderstanding of hope.

For example, it has been said that hope involves a sort of error in cognition. The 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer thought that hope confuses that which we desire to occur with the probability that it will.

But hope is not the same thing as illusion or fantasy. I can’t hope to meet a unicorn, because unicorns don’t exist. That is a fantasy. I can, however, hope that countries around the world will adopt a universal basic income. This is possible, albeit unlikely at present. Schopenhauer took a dim view of hope for unlikely events, remarking that hope “deranges the intellect’s correct estimation of probability, even if the chances are only a thousand to one.” But there is nothing irrational about hoping for the unlikely. Indeed, hope can be audacious.

Consider the photographs flashed around the world in May 1968 of student protests in Paris, declaring a determination to “demand the impossible.” Here we have a potent case of hope. The protestors were insisting that there was potential for a better alternative in the here and now, however unlikely this seemed. Their actions have inspired othersever since, who have similarly challenged ostensibly immutable institutions and structures.

Hope might also be considered disempowering, if we see it as a form of passive endurance—waiting around for things to change. But hope is an active way of being. You’re looking ahead to the future, but you experience that interest in your present time. To live hopefully in the present is thus to choose to live amid possibilities that you actively take to exist.

Take political hope of the kind seen in resistance movements. Here the sense of the possible involves a belief in a group that can collectively bring a new vision into actuality. An example of this kind of hopeful collective is seen in Shephard Fairey’s presidential inauguration poster, “We the people are greater than fear.”

This brings us to the most ill-founded objection of all: That hope prevents us from enjoying the present. Albert Camus, for example, suggests in The Rebel that hoping for social utopias distracts us from appreciation of life’s beauty. The supposition is that a person with hope is so focused on the future that they miss out on pleasure now. This view disregards the pleasures of hope itself.

The Stoic Seneca went further and claimed that hope is tied to fear, as both involve anxiously looking into the future. But this logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. To desire an outcome is to eagerly anticipate something and feel pleasure at the prospect of it. Anticipating a world where things can be better than they are is a pleasure that we can feel right now. Fear is an unpleasant emotion, but hope is not, so Seneca’s attempt to disparage hope in this way fails.

Hope doesn’t spoil one’s enjoyment of the present. Rather, it makes a certain kind of pleasure possible, despite the circumstances. Perhaps there is a defiance to it in that regard, a determination to enjoy life despite the grimness of oppression. I think here of Maya Angelou’s iconic poem “And Still I Rise,” with its gleeful repudiation of a downtrodden stance:

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops

Weakened by my soulful cries’

There is a glorious militancy to this living out of the pleasures of hope:

‘Does my sexiness offend you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs

The poem’s delight in being boldly hopeful refuses the expected submissiveness. Instead, it celebrates audacious hope.

So hope’s power lies in its embrace of the present as a time of possibilities. As a practice of enjoyment undertaken despite hard times, hope resists fear and despair. And so if we want lives that are both enjoyable and open to change, we should choose hope even in dark times—because it keeps the possibility of a better world alive for us.

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge. She recently delivered the Royal Institute of Philosophy annual lecture “Dark Times” and is the first philosopher to perform at Latitude Festival. Sandy tweets at @TheSandyGrant.