Ancient and modern

The ancients would have thought Boris was deluded

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

The gloom that envelopes the Labour party stands in strong contrast to the confidence and hope that the Prime Minister exudes. But is he wise so to exude? Most ancients regarded hope as a delusion.

Achilles in the Iliad argued that the best man could hope for was a life of mixed good and evil. The farmer-poet Hesiod described how all the world’s evils flew out of Pandora’s jar (not box), leaving only hope inside. But did that mean hope was available to mankind, or kept from him? Hesiod went on to emphasise its double-edged nature — it could energise the active man or delude the idle. Greek tragedy usually emphasised the huge gap that lay between men’s hopes and the actual outcomes. The historian Thucydides saw a connection between hope and desire, each urging the other on, usually disastrously, unless constrained by reason.

The Romans who, unlike the Greeks, at least had a formal cult of Hope (Spes), were not much better. ‘In the face of chance, hope is not always enough’ was one grim assessment. The philosopher Seneca argued in a striking image that hope and fear marched in lockstep, ‘like the prisoner and the guard to whom he is handcuffed’. The reason was that ‘both belong to a mind on the edge, apprehensive about the future. That is because we project our thoughts far ahead, instead of adapting to the present’.

But Aristotle disagreed: confidence was the key. He treated the subject in his discussion of courage and fear. The coward, he said, was a man of no hope, since he was unable to deal with fear. True courage, he argued, required confidence, which was the mark of a man full of hope in fearful situations, e.g. where life and death were at stake. At the same time, confidence also underlay another virtue: deliberation — taking steps to deal with an unknowable future — because fear made people deliberate, and no one deliberated where the situation was hopeless. That too required confidence — and therein lay nobility of soul, a greatness of purpose.

And if Aristotle said it, it must be right. Exude on, Prime Minister.

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