The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Radical Hope: Philosopher Jonathan Lear on the Paradoxical Seedbed of Courage and Cultural Resilience

Radical Hope: Philosopher Jonathan Lear on the Paradoxical Seedbed of Courage and Cultural Resilience

“Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future,” wrote the poet and philosopher David Whyte in contemplating crisis as a testing ground for courage. But the future at which courage must aim its gaze is often one obscured by the blinders of our culture’s current scope of possibility.

In January of 2009, Elizabeth Alexander took the podium at the Washington Mall and welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her exquisite poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which made her only the fourth poet in history to read at an American presidential inauguration. Seven years later, facing a radically different and radically dispiriting landscape of possibility, Alexander took a people’s podium and reminded us that our greatest ground for hope is in the once-unimaginable, which the present that was once the future has proven possible. Looking back on that historic moment in 2009, she reflected:

That was a beautiful moment that so many elders never thought they’d live to see. So there are things that we don’t yet know, that we don’t think we’re going to live to see, that are also going to give us power and beauty if we hold up our own.

What Alexander is articulating — the notion that our cultural conditioning limits what we know to hope for, until the unimaginable proves itself possible — is what philosopher Jonathan Lear examines in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (public library).

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Simultaneously echoing and complicating Susan Sontag’s notion that the courage of an example is what mobilizes communities, Lear considers the paradoxical seedbed of the kind of courage that propels culture forward:

We rightly think that the virtue of courage requires a certain psychological flexibility. A courageous person must know how to act well in all sorts of circumstances. We recognize that there can be times in life when the stock images of courage will be inappropriate, and the truly courageous person will recognize this extraordinary situation and act in an unusual yet courageous way.

This ability to be courageous beyond the culturally prescribed forms of courage, Lear points out, is therefore an inherently countercultural ability, which reveals the central paradox of cultural resilience. He writes:

If we think of the virtues, or human excellences, as they are actually taught by cultures across history, it is plausible to expect that the virtuous person will be ready to tackle the wide variety of challenges that life might throw his way. It is unclear that there is anything in such training that will prepare him for the breakdown of the form of life itself. We would like our ethics to be grounded in psychological reality. Thus whatever flexibility is required of a virtuous person, it ought to be something that can be inculcated in the education and training of a culture. But a culture does not tend to train the young to endure its own breakdown — and it is fairly easy to see why. A culture embodies a sense of life’s possibilities, and it tries to instill that sense in the young. An outstanding young member of the culture will learn to face these possibilities well.

But things grow more complicated when the situation at hand is the breakdown of this very sense of possibility within a culture. Lear writes:

The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture… A culture tends to propagate itself, and it will do that by instilling its own sense of possibility in the young.

The ability to envision possibilities beyond those handed down by our existing culture, Lear argues, requires what he calls “radical hope.” He explains:

For what may we hope? Kant put this question in the first-person singular along with two others — What can I know? and What ought I to do? — that he thought essentially marked the human condition. With two centuries of philosophical reflection, it seems that these questions are best transposed to the first-person plural. And with that same hindsight: rather than attempt an a priori inquiry, I would like to consider hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence… What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified?

The answer to that question is what Lear goes on to explore in the remainder of the elevating and lucidly mobilizing Radical Hope. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Hope in the Dark — a book that preceded Lear’s and in many ways exceeds it in transcending theoretical discourse to offer a muscular, livable-with model for hope in the pulse of life.

Published November 28, 2016




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