A C Grayling: Euphoria will fade, but hope springs eternal

It appears irrational and ill-founded, but the powerful emotion that brought Obama to power will outlive any disappointments ahead

Share
Related Topics

Among the numerous gems of eloquence with which Barack Obama strewed his path to the White House, one that has already gained a footing in collections of quotations is this: "We have been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."

Because the resonant ideas of hope and its necessary correlative, change, inspired so many Americans to vote who had never voted before, especially among the young and hitherto disaffected, an immediate reaction among observers is to ask: given the inevitability that not all, or perhaps even many, of the hopes that Obama has raised can be realised, surely he has taken a great risk in loading his presidency with such expectation? Why is it that people fail to realise how unlikely it is that all the hopes generated by his campaign will come to fruition?

These are good questions because they are prompted by one of history's clearest lessons: that almost all political endeavours end in failure and disappointment, whether or not they start in a joyous riot of welcome and relief. A minor forerunner of Obama's capture of the White House is Tony Blair's election victory in 1997, which reminds us of a painful truth: the higher the starting point, the steeper the eventual fall.

Obama inherits a disastrous legacy of wars, financial crisis and poisoned alliances, an America still divided despite the signal achievement of his victory as a black man, and surrounded by an unstable and uncertain world. Failure in some or most of the tasks that face him is a near-certainty. Yet he is launched on those tasks on a tsunami of expectation. What place can the euphoria of hope have in this, other than to blight him eventually?

The answer lies not in whether the hopes will materialise in future, but in the catharsis of having hope in the present. Along with something to do and someone to love, having hope is one of life's essentials. It is an obvious but important fact that genuine hopelessness is a destructive, suicidal, terminal state of mind for an individual, and equally corrosive for a society. Even unrealistic hope is enough to get people out of bed in the morning, and to try again after failure or rejection.

Hope is a psychological necessity, and perhaps it is a distinctive mark of humanity too; for alone among animals, human beings have foresight which, informed by memory, would seem to give a truly rational individual good grounds for steeling himself against hope as much as possible – and yet most of us do exactly the opposite most of the time.

In describing a second marriage as the "triumph of hope over experience" the inimitable Dr Johnson exploited the central fact about hope: that it is an emotion, and moreover one of those emotions, such as fear, greed, desire and love, that trump rationality every time. Dr Johnson's contemporary, the philosopher David Hume, argued that reason cannot move people to act, only emotion can; unless we felt strongly enough to exert ourselves in one direction rather than another, we would do nothing, but would suffer the fate of Buridan's Ass, which starved to death between two bales of hay because, having no reason to eat from one bale rather than the other, it could start on neither.

Hope, however, is one of the strongest of motivating emotions. As a non-rational sentiment it has no interest in weighing the likelihood of success; it just adds more hope, that things will work out as hoped; that "this time things will be different"; that the very strength of hope will itself surmount obstacles and alter realities. In the not infrequently self-fulfilling way of emotions, hope is thus its own best hope, because in sufficient quantity it can indeed be powerful. If proof were required, one has only to note that the hopes generated by Barack Obama's candidacy carried it to success.

The hard realities of office over Obama's coming four years are of course a different matter. Even if hope continues to run at fever pitch, which it will not, it cannot by itself be enough. Others have hopes too: Obama's opponents, among them those who positively hate him and hate the fact that he has been elected, hope that he will fail, and some doubtless even hope that he will be assassinated. Like the intoxicating hopes raised by a liberal, eloquent, new force in American life, these perverse hopes also help some to get out of bed in the morning. Hope is no respecter of principle or morality.

The main point, though, is that although hope by its nature is a forward-looking emotion, its real effect lies in the present: it is what motivates and encourages now, it is what makes a difference to how the world seems to us even in the middle of difficulties. Those cheering multitudes in Chicago's Grant Park and the streets of other American cities, who had both hope and a vote, to say nothing of delighted people around the world who had no vote but only hope, were reaping hope's benefits in the moment.

The future was then only relevant as the site of dreams. One hopes that the fact that they hoped will sustain them as euphoria fades.

A C Grayling is Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Content Leader

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role requires a high level...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Drop Driver

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This food distribution company ...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Drop Driver

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This food distribution company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne walks down the stairs from a submarine during a visit to the Royal Navy's submarine base at Faslane on August 31, 2015 in Faslane Scotland  

Sorry George Osborne, but it's Trident that makes us less safe, not Jeremy Corbyn

Kate Hudson
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent