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May 11, 2004

Cornel West on Hope | quotables

"Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it's not optimism. I'm in no way an optimist. I've been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there's sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better. I don't believe that. I'm a prisoner of hope, that's something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called "The Sentiment of Rationality," where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that's what I'm talking about."

-- Cornel West, from the 1993 commencement speech at Wesleyan University (full text at humanity.org)

The "hope vs. optimism" theme has been repeated elsewhere, particularly in the works of Vaclav Havel, often quoted or echoed by the Rev. Peter Gomes. As for me, I fear that I am hopeful far too often. But I guess that's better than the alternative.

12:01 AM in Quotables | Permalink


now, i've got nowhere near the brain power that cornell west does (i mean, just look at my bad grammar!), but i have to argue with his definitions of hope & optimism.

for instance, he says about optimism:
"if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better."

i think that to be optimistic is to wholly embrace the notion of change... to believe that the universe is improving through actions of its inhabitants.

hope, on the other hand, to me infers a level of passivity. it's a wish, an expectation.

i can sit back and hope all day long, but only optimism will get me off my butt.

Posted by: christa | May 11, 2004 11:54:59 AM

Thank you, thank you, Christa -- for your thougthful post! I like your clear distinctions and definitions. At first blush, I suspect that you and West are not so far apart -- though you both assign the definining labels differently. Would West make more sense to you if he simply swapped the hope/optimism words? Your own embracing of the notion of change [through] the work of acting -- that seems to agree somewhat with the James quote, which West is correlating with hope.

Regarding the Gomes take (similar to West, with another opportunity to make semantic distinctions which are less important than the simple idea that there are two concepts, label them however we like):

"So, the struggle is very real, which means that patience is the most important witness -- which is the third thing. Patience is the most important witness. How does the old hymn go?

Not to the strong goes the battle,
Nor to the swift goes the race;
But to the true and the faithful,
Victory is promised through grace."

Does that mean that I'm optimistic? No. I am not optimistic; and no Presbyterian I know is ever optimistic. We live in a fallen world ruled by totally depraved people who do not understand the sovereignty of God.

I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. What is the difference? Optimism cannot stand the bright heat of the noonday reality: mere optimism wilts and has no inner resources with which to combat the seeming hosts of evil all around it. Optimism fades very quickly; but the hopeful are the ones who, in spite of the circumstances, in spite of apparent reality, in spite of the moment, understand that hope endures all things and ultimately carries all before it in God's time. When we had Nelson Mandela at Harvard last fall, somebody asked him whether in prison he had been optimistic that this day would ever come. He said, "I never was optimistic, but I never lost hope."

Posted by: Phil | May 11, 2004 12:21:54 PM

yet more on West, with Havel

You have to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said “optimism” is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to “hope,” which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I’m full of hope but in no way optimistic. – Cornel West

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. – Václav Havel

pulled from here: http://laughingmeme.org/2009/04/14/hope-vs-optimism/

Posted by: Phil | Oct 20, 2009 2:08:28 PM

Viktor Frankl talks about the perils of false optimism in Man's Search for Meaning, when he observed that the prisoners who pinned their "hopes" to release by a particular date or milestone were the ones who were likely to die.

Posted by: Phil | May 21, 2010 10:15:06 AM

I am fascinated by educated, street wise or proper schooled, individuals who strive though failure and conquer fear to become their true destiny. The greatest self. This is a miraculous transformation and is mostly about the journey. Those that use their discovered skill like a finely welded sword made strong by the fired steel and sharpened to a slivery tongued edge, can cut through even the toughest enemy.

Posted by: Lia | Feb 13, 2011 5:22:16 AM