I’ve mentioned before that I’m working on a paper on hope. That was, in fact, the topic of my first post (which I do not know how to find and, so, do not know how to refer you to—but it doesn’t matter). The truth, however, is that next month I’m presenting a paper on the loss of hope. Doing that required that I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about hope, and I’ve been writing about it. Now I’m down to the last one-third of my paper, and I’ve got to stop talking about hope and say something about its loss. Perhaps, dear readers, you can help me. I trust that my situation is not hopeless.
The short version of my long discussion of hope: hope is (1) a state of belief; (2) in that state one intends some good; one recognizes that (3) the good one intends is, to some degree, improbable and (4) that good is something that is not fully in one’s power, if at all. (And I must stop here for a note on the technical language of philosophy: as used here “intends” means something like “is directed at.” It doesn’t mean “does on purpose.” Sorry about that, but it’s a handy word.)
My question is, “What does it mean to be hopeless?” Hopelessness must be more than the absence of hope. When I’m bored, hope is absent, but I’m not hopeless. Hopelessness connotes a loss of hope rather than just an absence. So what gets lost in hopelessness? And how?
Let me lay some groundwork for the deluge of responses that I hope will follow: Medieval thinkers thought about hopelessness a lot, and they thought of it in a particular form: acedia (Latin) and wanhope (the waning of hope—English). It was one of the deadly sins, so it wasn’t just laziness (something that probably surprises you—hopelessness was understood to be a kind of laziness or sloth), it was slothfulness in virtue, not having the energy to be virtuous, for example, losing confidence in spiritual gifts such as prayer and, so, finding oneself unable to take part in them any longer. (For a good discussion of acedia as well as some interesting thinking about what it has to do with contemporary “critical distance” and “commitment to high ideals” see R. R. Reno’s essay in First Things.)