Think of the various personal crises we suffer. Discouraged and uncertain about the future, we might pour out our lament to a friend or relative. The other person listens, then shrugs and says, “Well, hope springs eternal.”
Um…okay. But just what does that mean, exactly?
As a cultural idiom, it suggests a general encouragement to remain optimistic, perhaps something on the order of “Hey, don’t give up yet–who knows what might happen?”
But it should mean so much more.
The phrase is used by Alexander Pope in an 18th century philosophical piece on human nature entitled An Essay on Man. Pope wrote the essay in rhyme “to strike the reader more strongly” and be “more easily retained” (his own words, in an introduction). He envisions a divinely ordered universe in which human beings have their proper place, but are unhappy because they can’t see the future. Arrogantly, they question divine providence and even put themselves in the place of God by passing judgment on the rightness of their own situations.
In the excerpt below, Pope suggests that ignorance of the future is our lot in life; that God has a plan which we won’t understand until after we die; and that divinely given hope is our blessing in the present:
Oh, blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may fill the circle, marked by Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
His counsel for human happiness, therefore, is that we must know our place and submit to the unseen wisdom of God’s power and providence:
Cease, then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heaven bestows on thee.
Submit. In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.
Pope’s vision is not specifically Christian. In places, for example, the essay teaches something similar to the “natural theology” of Romans 1. There is no suggestion of why one should trust divine providence on the basis of the cross and resurrection, nor for that matter, the witness of the Holy Spirit. And yet, as Christians, we might ask ourselves: Do we know ourselves to be “safe in the hand of one disposing Power / Or in the natal, or the mortal hour”–in other words, safely in God’s hands at every moment from birth to death?
Hope is not an open-ended optimism toward the unknown, but a forward-looking trust in the goodness of God, the God who raised Jesus from the dead and gave us his Spirit. That’s good news. And when we feel discouraged about the future, we could all use a little good news.