Hope or Optimism?

True Christian hope reaches far beyond and soars above mere feel-good optimism



Hope and optimism are often confused. An American wit, whose name I can’t recall, once defined a pessimist as “an optimist with the facts.” I must admit I love that kind of pithy, cynical humor that Americans do so well. Such cracks work well because there’s at least a grain of truth in them.

An optimist is one who looks on the bright side of things, but without necessarily much regard to reality.  A cheerfully optimistic statement such as “most people can always be relied on to do the right thing” might make us feel good, but if we do take the trouble to look at the facts we quickly discover that there were times and places in human affairs when most people didn’t do the right thing!

It’s more comfortable to look to the past than the present for examples. Most people in the antebellum US south kept slaves or had no principled objection to slavery; most people in pre-war Germany thought that Jews were a threat to their society and acquiesced, at least, in their removal; most Vikings thought that coastal villages were fair game for pillage and rapine; most Romans in Nero’s time probably thought that all Christians were arsonists and traitors.

We can all make our own lists – it’s not hard to do – to undermine our confidence (if we had any) in the essential decency of most people’s behavior most of the time.

But those instances are all in the past, aren’t they? The optimist trusts that we’ve learned from the lessons of history and believes that we’ve moved on and that we’re heading for a kinder, gentler society: no more bullying, less intolerance and bigotry. They point to the abolition of capital punishment in many jurisdictions, an end to caning and beating in schools, equal rights for women, wage justice, social security networks, free education and public libraries, vastly superior medical treatments and longer life expectancy.

All these things together amount to a strong argument for optimism. I truly hope that we’re right in coming to that conclusion. But hope is the key word. On the basis of my experience of human activities I’m afraid that there are grave reasons for a certain amount of pessimism. I hope that things will improve always and everywhere, but I know that they won’t unless we are constantly vigilant against the nastier aspects of our nature that can pop up — even in disguise — at any time, anywhere. The very existence of Twitter and Facebook reminds us that there is a great deal of anger and hatred circulating in the cybersphere. We know, too, that unpopular or unfashionable opinions will not generally be reported in the mainstream media, or if they are will be distorted and their sources often maligned. If we are Christians, our Hope reaches far beyond and soars above mere feel-good optimism.


David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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