I am motivated by a thought met in passing during a read of Nietzsche’s incendiary ‘The Anti-Christ’ to briefly revisit an old story or myth everyone has heard of, and that everyone has failed to understand.
The story is that of Pandora’s Box. What everyone knows about this is that the box contained all the evils of the world, and when it was opened they escaped into the world, and all that was left behind was hope. We use this story, the opening part anyway, to mean an action with disproportionately severe consequences. Fair enough. What we don’t seem to question is the sense that this retention of hope is a good thing. Multifarious evils now abound in the world, but so long as we have hope it isn’t as bad as it could be.
But this was a box of nothing but evils. It wasn’t a box of everything. Hope, the ancient Greeks could understand, is potentially a horrible evil. In one sense it must connote something negative. Those who hope, with real fervour or desperation, are those in the worst straits. The content, those who have what they need to want, don’t hope with any conviction, for they have no reason to. But this is a fairly banal and low-level form of harm endemic to hope. There can be much worse.
Banal hopes can be satisfied, their objects can be met and the hope, and its attendant misery, can be removed. Not so with all hopes, especially the hopes that are so vast and so precious to most of us.
It was the Anti-Christ that I was reading, after all. There are certain hopes which even if we do not naturally feel the need to possess them, can have them inculcated. We hope for meaning, we hope for continuation (fear of death), we are even made to hope for redemption (when made to believe we are sullied simply for being). And in religion, Christianity especially, the placement of those hopes, their source, their conclusion, is beyond the very fabric of the world. It is hope hyped to astonishing levels and stripped of all potential for achievement. And yet hope is taken almost universally as a great good. Something so blindingly good no one questions its inclusion in a box of all evil.
Nietzsche made much of the inversion Christianity achieved with many such concepts. As the story about the Greeks indicates, they had no such conception of hope. They understood that to hope was to suffer. They would also have understood that to take up hope and place it eternally out of reach, to strand every person in an unending state of unsatisfiable helplessness, was comically perverse. But even gallows humour draws a line upon realising how an evil has become a good.
And not only one. And not only in that direction. But perhaps they each in turn will have their moment.