What Hope

This is the twentieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XX: The Divine Comedy, Dante

Having descended to the very pit of hell, and climbed the mountain of purgatory, Dante the pilgrim at last ascends into the celestial spheres of paradise. As was the case through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante meets many souls in Paradiso. Among them, James son of Zebedee. St. James poses three questions about hope.

In context, the questions clearly refer to hope as a theological virtue. In the previous canto, St. Peter inquires about faith. In the next, St. John tests Dante on charity. Canto XXV is about the sister of those two virtues: hope. But how do Dante’s answers square with the common definition of hope rather than the theological?

What is hope?

Dante says that hope is the sure expectance of a joy to come. This oversteps the usual meaning of hope. It is possible to hope for a joy that never does come. (As when I hope that my favorite baseball team will win.) On the other hand, if one is absolutely certain that a joy is forthcoming, we might not call that hope at all. Such certainty would preclude mere hope.

Rather than Dante’s formulation, it seems more likely that commonplace hope is the present experience of a joy to come. Hope allows us to experience now some portion of a possible future joy. For example, I hope one day to visit Munich for Oktoberfest. That present hope of a potential future occurrence allows me to experience some joy today in the planning and dreaming. Even though I am not certain that I will ever make it back to Germany, I hope that I will. I am therefore able to take present joy in the hoping.

How does it flourish in you?

Dante does not answer this question for himself. Rather, Beatrice vouches for his hope. She tells St. James that not a single member of the church has more hope than he.

Taking the mundane meaning of hope, we may see that people are always possessed of some hope. Humans are always forward thinking. To be sure, sometimes we do not think very far ahead, but we always think ahead somewhat. Even as we reach for the beer mug, we look forward to the pleasure of taking a sip. Is the expected joy more than a moment away? No. But is it in the future relative to when we start to reach for the glass? Absolutely. Because the first motions toward any objective are aimed at the completion of that objective, there really is no such thing as “instant gratification”. Rather, every single decision is made with an eye to a future good. The only truly instant gratification that exists is hope. Even before we begin to move toward the future good, we experience some joy of it through hope.

What is its source?

Dante, still discussing the theological virtue of hope, says that its source is scripture. He singles out the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Epistle of St. James. (What an apple-polisher!)

Surely scripture can be a source of commonplace hope, but we need not set our sights so high. In fact, it is the smallest things that may be the greatest sources of hope. As discussed above, every action is performed with the hope of achieving some goal. The smallest actions are the most likely to succeed. I flip the light switch in hopes of lighting the room; I go to the bar hoping to get a beer; I cross the street hoping to get to the other side. In all of these things, my chance of success is so high, that I am entitled to hope for the best. Cynical as it may sound, I have virtually no hope of becoming an astronaut at this late stage in my life. So, although the potential future joy is very great, the present “hope value” is quite low. And although the joy of trying a new beer is relatively low compared to visiting the moon, the odds that I will like the beer of the week are quite high. As a result, the present hope value (to coin a term) is quiet high.

Anyway, I hope you liked this post.

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Beer of the week: Mississippi Mud Black & Tan – From the celestial spheres to the Mississippi Mud. Pre-bottled black & tan misses out on the very best feature of the classic mixed beer: the layering. Layering is not only visually appealing, it allows the drinker to experience the two beers as they mix, so no two sips are ever quite the same. Even so, pre-mixed black & tan is usually delicious. This is a very tasty combination of porter and pilsner. It is deep amber in color with a creamy tan head. The aroma is of fresh sourdough and cocoa. The flavor is full without being heavy, with some nice dark cherry notes in the finish. Good thing it is sold by the quart; one glass might not be enough. Oh, and the name is a lie; Mississippi Mud is brewed in upstate New York.

Reading of the week: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Canto XXV – This canto is pretty well outlined above.

Question for the week: Is Dante’s definition of hope (the sure expectance of a joy to come) or my definition (the present experience of a potential future joy) better? Is there a better definition still?

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You Bet

Supposedly, the single greatest invention in casino gambling (from the point of view of the casino owners) is the board next to the roulette table that displays the results of the last several spins. Potential players will see, for example, that the last 10 spins have all been black, and they will think, “The odds of 11 straight black spins is quite low! It is more than usually likely that the next spin will be red!” Or, in short, “Red is due!”

But red is not due. The odds of any given spin of a roulette wheel are the same as every other spin. Each individual spin of the wheel is completely independent of each other. So although it is true that the odds of 11 straight black spins is quite low, the odds of the eleventh spin are not at all affected by the 10 that preceded it. The board does not lie, but it does present information that makes it easy for people to lie to themselves.

There have been suggestions that television and the internet have a similar effect on people. The new media grants us access to unimaginable quantities of information; more than we could ever really process. But, as in the casino, more information does not necessarily mean more understanding. In fact, extraneous information can make it harder to think clearly about what is really going on. And often, the information that is thrust upon us by the house (even when it is not untrue) is the kind of information that is really designed to obscure the way we think about what is actually important.

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Beer of the week: Shock Top Choc’ Top – This week is something of a three-for-one deal. This is the first layered beer drink to be reviewed on this site. It is a combination of Shock Top Belgian White and their winter seasonal, Chocolate Wheat. So first, I tried the component beers:

Shock Top Belgian White – This wheat beer is cloudy and slightly orange colored. According to the bottle, it is brewed with citrus peals and coriander, but I couldn’t really taste the coriander. There is, however, a definite aroma of orange. I was surprised to find that the brewers showed some restraint in not overdoing the orange sweetness. Unfortunately, that is partly because there really is very little flavor at all. The beer is smooth and refreshing, but decidedly bland. Since this beer is unfiltered, at the bottom of my glass I had a little extra sediment that did add a bit of pleasant yeastiness, a little hint of how close this beer gets to being good instead of just ok.

Shock Top Chocolate Wheat – This very dark wheat beer pours with a creamy tan head, which unfortunately dissipates quickly. Vanilla and coffee dominate the aroma. Notes of chocolate and coffee blend with the vanilla to make this taste more like a piece of cake than like beer. I couldn’t drink this often, but as the Preacher says, “A time to every purpose under heaven.”

Choc’ Top (Shock Top Belgian White layered on top of Shock Top Chocolate Wheat) – I was positively tickled with how nicely the beers layered and how pretty the drink looked. Early on, the Belgian White’s flavor dominates, naturally, with just hints of vanilla and chocolate slipping in at the finish. By the end, there is mostly only the darker beer left, though the sweetness is not quite as pronounced as the Chocolate Wheat alone. Overall, I like it. It looks so good that I am willing to forgive the fact that it really is a bit too sweet. I just think of it as a desert beer.

Reading of the week: Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog by Mark Twain – The titular character of this story (also known as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County) is a compulsive gambler. He’d bet on anything: “if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it; why if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first”. But he met his match when he tried to introduce a wringer into a frog jumping contest.

Question of the week: Does the player get any advantage from knowing the result of previous spins of the wheel, or is that information strictly extraneous?