Another Version of Hope and Change
Olsen, Cyrus, Modern Age
Hope in a Democratic Age by Alan
Mittleman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Liberal democratic politics requires a certain kind of hope in order to flourish, argues Alan Mittleman, professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The kind of hope he has in mind is the conviction that good moral action is not only possible but real, ennobling, and worth our effort. Hope of this kind becomes confidence in the individual's ability to change the world for the better. Today's fatalism in the face of inexorable "progress" chips away at a person's confidence that his actions contribute to the greater good. "Systems" and "structures" and "historical forces" replace the primacy of the person and render him a pawn in a larger and largely hostile cosmic game. Stories of this kind are ancient indeed, and have long rivaled alternative wisdom traditions, but in the end they lead only to despair. Mittleman thinks that biblical restoration narratives, and their humanistic development, provide proper ground for an ever-expanding horizon of insight into the free action proper to man. "Somewhere there must be a control upon will and appetite; and the less of it there is within," wrote Edmund Burke, "the more of it there must be without." Like Burke, Mittleman wants to strengthen internal controls upon will and appetite, controls best gained in the quest for virtue. But that quest requires background beliefs and narratives capable of sustaining the journey. Citizens today must renew hope in the freedom and dignity of individual acts of goodness if our democratic age is to be redeemed.
Admirers of Alasdair MacIntyre's work will find in Mittleman a similarly deft guide through the historical transformations of hope in Western culture, beginning with the Hebrew Bible and culminating in more recent philosophy, religion, and political theory. Essentially Mittleman argues for the metaphysical stand asserted by acts of hope, which human beings cannot but make as long as they live. "To hope is to assume or to affirm a vision of the world that places human (and, for religious Jews and Christians, divine) agency and the confidence that attends agency at the center" (4-5). In order for human action to be oriented to a goal the person must be able to place an end before the mind's eye. How that end gets situated in the imagination, and so becomes capable of animating the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, is the business of beliefs, stories, and metaphysics.
The first chapter synthetically presents a case for Jewish biblical hope as it has been enriched by cultures across the world, from ancient Greece to modern democratic political theory. It is in this chapter that hope itself is examined as a virtue. That virtue is then contrasted with negations of hope, as these are found in the Stoic praise of suicide, for example, as well as in such thinkers as Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Analyses of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are also offered as necessary correctives to ongoing critiques of hope. Selected philosophers of hope, such as Condorcet, Kant, Bloch, and Arendt, give further bite to the metaphysical and ethical implications of hope in the contemporary world. Theologies of hope are also examined, from Hermann Cohen, Rosenzweig, Buber, Rauschenbusch, Hauerwas, Moltmann, and from a text of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes. Mittleman concludes with suggestions, "Towards a Politics of Hope," which include a subtle defense of what some would call subsidiarity, or the building blocks of civil society, understood as the seedbed of virtue necessary for the flourishing of liberal democracy.
Although the myth of the juggernaut called Progress, conceived as a kind of fate, charges through our advertisements and political campaigns, supposedly unstoppable and inevitable in its motions, Mittleman argues for a recovery of individual responsibility to act in light of the good, even in the face of potential opposition and indeed failure. …