What Can a Pessimist Hope For?

Hopeful Pessimism

  • Theology
  • Philosophy of Religion

Principal Investigators

Jesse Couenhoven
Associate Professor of Moral Theology
Villanova University


Americans are well known for their optimism. It is widely thought that optimism motivates working towards desired outcomes, because optimists trust in the efficacy of their efforts, and believe their efforts are likely to be rewarded. Such optimism can be presumptuous, however, when optimistic individuals consider themselves special cases, not bound by common limitations or vulnerable to the tragedies befall others. This presumption can easily make optimistic dispositions fragile. An optimism based on unrealistic expectations is in danger of collapsing into despair when agents are forced to confront the ways in which success is often a matter of luck, or encounter the bounds of their capacities in other respects. One might seek to develop a deeper conception of optimism to deal with these concerns, but I believe that religious believers, at least, would be wise to draw on the rich and nuanced conception of hope contained within their own traditions.

In the Augustinian tradition hope is not opposed to a virtuous kind of pessimism about the limits of human agency and goodness, or the imperfect nature of the world in which we live. In fact, it incorporates an expectation that human agents will not live up to their ideals and that tragic experiences are not uncommon. What distinguishes this religious hope as a virtue is the way in which the beliefs and desires it consists of are founded in a rationally defensible faith in God’s redemptive action in the world and the expectation that God’s action enables human action. For religious believers, hope reflects a distinctive set of desires shaped by their beliefs about the good God desires for them, and a trust that these desires are attainable, by grace. Hope may therefore mean giving up on the optimistic expectation that one’s current set of desires will be fulfilled, in exchange for a perspective that learns from God’s desire to redeem, forgive, and restore. Such hope is eschatological—it looks forward to a better future—but does not encourage giving up on this world. Rather, it seeks to develop realistic expectations regarding what we can accomplish while persevering in the face of setbacks. The goal of such a “somber” hope is to live in contact with ultimate reality. A proper hope, Augustinians claim, helps us to live more truthful lives. Yet although religious hope is not mainly to be defended on pragmatic grounds, it has practical advantages as well. A hopeful pessimism combines an acknowledgement of human limitations with a refusal to relinquish idealism about ultimate ends: this powerful union enables resilience which distinguishes it from mere optimism, or hopes founded on other grounds. Those with hope founded in a power beyond themselves seek to combine a patient waiting for the perfect with an eager search for the goods presently available.