Monday, September 7, 2009

More on Lear and Radical Hope

In this post I began a discussion of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Here I would like to discuss more specifically the content of radical hope.

In Ch. 3, the "Critique of Abysmal Reasoning", Lear writes this about radical hope:

I would like to consider hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence. In the scenario outlined in the preceding chapter, Plenty Coups responded to the collapse of his civilization with radical hope. 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.

The reason Lear says that the hope transcends the current ability to understand it is that the Crow understanding of the good life was specific to their mode of living - hunting buffalo, roaming the plains, "counting coups" against their enemies. This way of life was inevitably doomed with the coming of the white man, a future Plenty Coups anticipated through several dreams he experienced as a youth. In these dreams he was advised to pay attention to the "wisdom of the Chickadee", a bird that is smaller than other birds yet is more intelligent and perceptive. Plenty Coups applied this wisdom as a chief, allying the Crow with the U.S. Army against the Sioux, rather than fighting a hopeless battle against irresistible U.S. government force. The end result was that the Crow were unusual insofar as they never suffered a defeat at the hands of the U.S. military, and they were also able to retain their ancestral lands under their own possession (with the usual encroachments and false dealing by the U.S. authorities.)

My philosophical interest in this post is Lear's statement about a hope that is directed toward "a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is." For hope to be any sort of hope at all it must have some content. Hope is hope for something. We can't merely hope that "things will be different" because things might become different by becoming worse; we only hope if we can anticipate some state of affairs that we recognize as desirable in itself. It must have a goodness that doesn't entirely transcend our current ability to understand it so we can direct ourselves toward it as an end. The situation is similar to the attributes of God. If the goodness of God is a goodness that utterly transcends any possible conception we might have of it, then God is not a being who can be an object of our desire. In fact, according to St. Thomas, we can have a genuine but limited notion of the goodness of God through analogy.

And, in fact, the hope of Plenty Coups was not a leap into the dark or across an abyss but had some content. Arguing the point that the radical hope of Plenty Coups was not simply wish-fulfilling fantasy, Lear writes:

Finally, it has been the aim of this entire chapter to argue that Plenty Coups's radical hope was not mere wish-fulfilling optimism (criterion 5), but was rather a radical form of hope that constituted courage and made it possible. After all, through a series of canny decisions and acts, the Crow were able to hold onto their land, and Plenty Coups helped to create a space in which traditional Crow values can be preserved in memory, transmitted to a new generation, and, one hopes, renewed in a new historical era.

Lear is certainly right that Plenty Coups was a man of outstanding virtue, a man who was able to transcend the concept of courage as it was taught him in the Crow tradition when it became clear that the traditional notion of courage was no longer relevant. But the fact that he and the Crow were able to preserve their lands through "canny moves" shows that they had some notion what they were doing. A man with a contentless hope can't make canny moves, because he doesn't know what he is moving toward. Plenty Coups saw in his wisdom that "counting coups" in the traditional sense against the U.S. Army was futile; he realized that planting the coup-stick in no way intimidates the man firing a Gatling gun. But by allying themselves with the white man, and learning his ways, he seems to have understood that some parts of the Crow nation might be preserved - in particular, their land. This is not a hope that transcends understanding, but a hope that is real but limited. Plenty Coups was remarkably successful in handling the encounter of the Crow with the white man, but there is a sense of melancholy in what he says of life after the Crow were included in the reservation system. "After this," Plenty Coups said, "nothing happened." This is a statement of limited hope fulfilled. 

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