The Real Lesson of Pandora’s Box, or Why We Need a Politics Beyond Hope

This is my introduction to the Existential Citizenship Project. I will roll out the Existential Citizenship Project in subsequent posts, filling in more of the details as I go, until a complete picture emerges.

One of the starting points of the Existential Citizenship Project is the unconventional claim that hope, as conventionally understood, is a root cause of many of the most pressing problems in contemporary politics, and particularly those pertaining to citizen engagement (e.g., apathy and pessimism). This is likely going to sound to most as a patently ludicrous claim. However, as the Existential Citizenship Project unfolds over time, evidence of all different kinds—historical, empirical, philosophical, etc.—will be provided to demonstrate this point.

The primary exception people will take to this proposition that hope is not a solution but a cause of so many fundamental problems in politics will likely stem from the difficulty most people will have in even imagining any other motivation for positive political engagement than hope. This is a quite understandable, but also quite mistaken, point of view. Again, the weight of the accumulated evidence will show instead that, despite the fervor with which this widespread belief is held, hope is ultimately a toxic influence in politics.

This claim is likely to be heard by most as an invitation to apathy, cynicism, pessimism, and nihilism in politics, because—obviously—what else could a politics without hope be but apathetic and nihilistic? This conclusion, though, is based on a false dichotomy, confuses causes with their effects (i.e., apathy, cynicism, and nihilism are not the absence of hope, but rather the product of hope), and is itself symptomatic of the very problems in perception and understanding which stem from this pervasive blind faith in hope.

As such, the main purpose of the Existential Citizenship Project is to offer an understanding of people and of a politics beyond hope that allows for the frank acknowledgement of politics as it actually is (i.e., unclouded by hopeful misconceptions of the political system), while also still providing a justification for meaningful and enduring political action that resolves all of the issues created by hope-based political engagement.

The Real Lesson of Pandora’s Box

To adequately explain where this misguided belief in hope comes from, and why this fundamental error is so prevalent in contemporary politics and society, would require at least a book-length treatment. That said, I can at least give a thumbnail sketch here to provide a skeleton framework of both the need for and the benefits of the Existential Citizenship Project.

Our hope

One quick way to demonstrate the origins of this uniquely modern and politically toxic conception of hope is through tracing the transformations over time of the Greek myth of Pandora.

There are countless variations of this myth, as a fable, as a children’s fairytale, and as a common metaphor. The basic gist of the contemporary narrative is that a female character named Pandora has a gilded box given to her, with the instructions that the box should never be opened. Eventually, usually because of insatiable curiosity, the box is opened and found to contain evils, or vices,[1] which then escape into the world to plague humankind. Afterwards, though, the embodiment of Hope is found as the last thing in the box, which acts as a salve for Pandora. Thus, the general moral of this story is that in the end, no matter how bad the world gets, there is still the soothing consolation of hope that will take away the sting of all the evil and viciousness in the world.

The conception of hope revealed in this story, which for us moderns has become little more than a quaint children’s story or easy metaphor, is so interwoven through the fabric of contemporary Western (i.e., modern liberal) culture that its full implications hardly ever raise an eyebrow. However, our version of this fable is actually such a fundamental reconfiguration of the original Greek myth that the two versions are practically incompatible.

The differences between the original myth and our version of it reveal heretofore unrecognized implications of our contemporary collective worldview, with real world consequences for our politics. Thus, the utility of the seemingly trivial children’s story of Pandora is this capacity for indicating the breadth and the depth of these implicit assumptions about hope, in the process demonstrating the very real need for the Existential Citizenship Project.

Their hope

According to the prevailing scholarship, the earliest known version of the Greek myth of Pandora is usually attributed to Hesiod, a near contemporary of Homer and also generally considered the creator of didactic (or moralizing) poetry. Like Homer, the writings of Hesiod are still principal sources on Greek mythology and on other important aspects of ancient Greek life.

There are different versions of this myth from this era as well, but the seminal version from Hesiod begins with Zeus seeking retribution against mankind for accepting from Prometheus the gift of fire which Zeus had commanded be kept exclusive to the gods. Zeus thus asks his son Hephaestus to fashion a beautiful female form out of earth and water upon which the other gods would bestow all their gifts, asking specifically for Hermes to bestow her with “a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.”[2] Zeus then calls her Pandora (from the Greek, meaning “all-gifted”) and sends her down from Mount Olympus to be the first human female, as “a plague to men who eat bread,” and “an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction,” as the price for fire.[3]

In particular, Zeus sends Pandora to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Even though Prometheus had previously warned Epimetheus not to accept anything from Zeus “for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men,” Epimetheus is enchanted by the beauty and gifts of Pandora and takes her as his wife. At some point during her time with Epimetheus, Pandora encounters a large, heavy jar[4] and removing the lid releases all that was within. Before the arrival of Pandora, according to Hesiod, “the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men,” but in opening this jar Pandora scatters “all these” (i.e., the ills, toil, and sickness), thereby causing “sorrow and mischief to men,” fulfilling the retribution of Zeus.

In the denouement of this story, Hesiod writes how after all the ills of mankind had thus been scattered by Pandora, “only Hope [Elpis] remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her by the will of Zeus […] who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full.” In other words, although Hope was initially included among the other evils in the jar, at the last moment Zeus caused Hope to be caught by the lid, and to not escape the jar. Why Zeus did this, though, is not explicitly explained by Hesiod.

The original understanding of hope

Etymologically, the definition and usage of elpis as hope in the Greek is somewhat ambiguous, though in general meaning expectation, which could be for the good or for the bad. For the ancient Greeks, though, there was a clear tendency in the valence of hope (elpis) as expectation.

One quick demonstration of the ancient Greek understanding of hope is found in the famous history of the Peloponnesian War by the historian Thucydides, in which he invokes elpis as hope or expectation around 150 times. Of particular note in this regard, observes one commentator, is the degree to which Thucydides constructs this history “on the fatal contrast between what men say and the underlying reality of their situation,” via his repeated invocations of “logoi menergoi de (‘this was what was said’…’but in reality’),” especially as the difference between their elpis, or their delusions about their abilities, versus the reality (akribea) of their actual situations.[5] For example, the Mytileneans in their revolt against Athens are described by Thucydides as acting boldly with expectations (elpisates) greater than their actual powers, only to be crushed by their own hubris and by the failings of their supposed allies.[6]

In the context of the Pandora myth in particular, Willem Jacob Verdenius addresses the questions of whether hope was intended as a good or an evil, and whether hope was kept in the jar for the benefit of mankind (i.e., the jar as a “pantry”), or from mankind (i.e., the jar as a “prison”).[7] After working through all the possible permutations, and referring to other examples from the literature, Verdenius ultimately concludes that “the only possibility left is that it is the expectation of evil,” (also concluding that this contextual evidence likewise indicates that the jar held only evils, and specifically not moral evils such as vices but rather misfortunes that can befall humankind).[8]

A statistical analysis of the work of Hesiod by Leineiks supports Verbenius’ conclusion in finding that elpis as an expectation of evil appears five times as often as an expectation of good.[9] Thus, per Verbenius, the most appropriate interpretation of the original intention of Zeus for including Hope with all the other evils in Pandora’s jar was so that “any evil which was to strike man should be seen coming,” That Zeus caused Hope to be confined within the jar at the last moment Verbenius takes to mean that by thus retaining Hope in the jar at the last moment Zeus decided instead that these misfortunes should come unexpectedly upon humankind, because otherwise “this continual expectation of evil would have made life a torture beyond bearing,”[10] which would have been a penalty disproportionate to his intention in punishing mankind for their appropriation of fire.

A New Hope?

Again, the Pandora myth should not be taken as a literal belief of the Greeks in gods and jars of Evils, but rather more as a common story the Greeks shared with each other that reflects a communal understanding of how the world works. As such, what this story reveals is that the ancient Greek understanding of hope was clearly much different than our own, such that hope was generally seen by them not as a virtue at all, for the foolhardy actions it prompts, or for the lack of action it can induce, or for the subsequent pessimism that it spawns when it is unrealized. Given the magnitude of these differences in cultural orientations towards hope as revealed via the Pandora myth—and particularly given the harmful effects of hope in contemporary politics, which is the primary motivation for the Existential Citizenship Project—a reasonable question is how and why did this change in the conception of hope occur?

Dora and Erwin Panofsky identify the changes in the Pandora myth with the increasing influence of Christianity in Western society, observing that “curiously enough, the Fathers of the Church are more important for the transmission—and transformation—of the myth of Pandora than the secular writers.”[11] For example, they describe how Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Origen invoked comparisons of Pandora with the biblical Eve “in an attempt to corroborate the doctrine of original sin by a classical parallel, yet to oppose Christian truth to pagan fable.”[12] Notably, this is also when other details of the classical story began to be changed, such as the vessel morphing from a large earthen jar to an ornate box,[13] as well as the contents of the box being described as both Goods and Evils, and so on.

These modifications of the Pandora myth, though, also signaled a much more profound shift in European society at large, marking the emergence of a new conception of hope based primarily on the Christian belief in an afterlife. Given the singular role of hope in Western religion and politics, and the magnitude of this change in the understanding of hope, it is remarkable how little attention has been given to this evolution of hope in Western intellectual history. As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry for “Hope,” although discussions of hope “can be found throughout the history of philosophy and across all Western philosophical traditions [and] almost all major philosophers acknowledge that hope plays an important role in regard to human motivation, religious belief or politics,”[14] hope has curiously not been the focus of the same kind of systematic attention as other attitudes like belief and desire. As such, this move from pre-Christian accounts of hope as “an attitude to reality that is based on insufficient insight into what is true or good” towards hope as “one of the most central virtues of a believer” represents one of the most substantial—if woefully underanalyzed—changes in Western thought over time.

Hope and Nihilism: The Terrible Twins of Modern Politics

There is obviously a much more extensive history to be related here, tracing the Christianization of Western moral and political thought, and the subsequent penetration of this new concept of hope into the very bones of modern liberalism, which time and space do not permit. Regardless, this redirection of political focus and civic virtue away from present circumstances and towards an abstract and idealized future will be shown to be the key characteristic of the modern conception of toxic hope, and therefore a catalyst of the political nihilism which inevitably follows.

Notably, this tendency towards nihilism is particularly evident when this otherworldliness of hope is removed from its original theological contexts and is completely secularized. As described in great detail and depth by Friedrich Nietzsche throughout his writings, once these values and ideals become unmoored from the original religious contexts which imbued them with their seemingly transcendent significance, the secularization of these theological concepts practically ensures this nihilism as “the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals.”[15]

This is not to say that a political hope based in religious belief is somehow exempt from this inevitable slide into nihilism. In fact, as will also be shown, the real world exigencies of actual day-to-day politics are brought into even higher relief in comparison with the elevated expectations of religion, with the result that the subsequent crash is even more extreme in either the depth of the apathetic withdrawal from political life or as fanatical absolutism which is the antithesis of reasonable compromise. In other words, regardless of whether this hope is based in religious or secular beliefs, the inevitable byproduct of its lack of fulfillment is disillusionment, which leads to apathy, pessimism, cynicism, and, ultimately, nihilism.

Thus, what is needed is a justification of and for meaningful political engagement that does not depend upon hope. Providing this justification for meaningful and enduring political engagement beyond hope is the central cause and purpose of the Existential Citizenship Project.

What do you think? Is hope a toxic influence in politics, or its saving grace? Is a politics without hope even possible? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this post or about the Existential Citizenship Project.

[1] These evils are portrayed in different forms (e.g., stinging moths, malicious fairies, noxious vapors, and so on), but almost always as the embodiments of Greed, Envy, Hunger, War, etc.

[2] The version of the Pandora myth related here is from the H.G. Evelyn-White 1950 edition of Hesiod’s Works and Days, reprinted in Panofsky, D. & Panofsky, E. (1978). Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol. Princeton University Press, pp. 4-5.

[3] There is also an extensive literature on the role of Pandora as the first woman, which is particularly noteworthy given the intentions of Zeus for Pandora as plague upon mankind, and on the connections drawn between the biblical Eve and Pandora, but this is not the focus of this piece.

[4] As detailed by Dora and Erwin Panofsky (1978, 8), the actual provenance of this jar is unclear from Hesiod’s account, although the jar is also “never represented as a personal possession of Pandora, brought down by her from Mount Olympus.” Instead, per Hesiod, the fateful jar is just in the house of Epimetheus and Pandora, “taken for granted as forming part of [their] domestic establishment, so to speak.” The Panofsky’s go on to observe that some readings suggest that the jar was sent to Epimetheus by Zeus, or that it was originally sent by Zeus to Prometheus, or that satyrs delivered it to Prometheus, who then forwards it to Epimetheus with instructions to not open it nor to let Pandora into his house in case she might open the jar. Still other more recent readings suggest that Prometheus had satyrs steal the jar from Zeus before he could release the evils into the world, which he then forwards to his brother with the previous instructions, and that this may have been such a common understanding of the myth of Pandora that Hesiod was not inclined to include it in his own account.

[5] Clay, Diskin (2007). Plato Philomythos. In Woodard, R. D. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Greek mythology. Cambridge University Press, pp. 210-211; 234.

[6] Morrison, J. V. (2006). Reading Thucydides. Ohio State University Press, p. 127.

[7] Verdenius, W. J. (1971). A ‘Hopeless’ Line in Hesiod:” Works and Days” 96. Mnemosyne, 24(Fasc. 3), 225-231.

[8] (1985) A Commentary on Hesiod: Works and Days, Vv. 1-382. Brill: Leiden, p. 70.

[9] Leinieks, V. (1984) Elpis in Hesiod, Works and Days 96. Philologus 128 1–8.

[10] Verdenius (1971), p. 229.

[11] Panofsky (1978), p. 11.

[12] Ibid.

[13] This change from a jar to a box in the Pandora story, which seems like such a relatively minor detail is—somewhat bizarrely—the primary focus of the book-length exegesis of the Pandora myth by the Panofsky’s, as compared to the changes in the conception of hope, which seems a much more critical and fundamental aspect of the myth. I think this focus itself, though, is representative of the myopia of many Western scholars in regards to the substantial differences of the modern liberal conception of hope from that of other cultures, as revealed by the contortions scholars, including the Panofsky’s—put themselves through to avoid naming Hope as one of the Evils.

[14] Bloeser, Claudia and Stahl, Titus, “Hope”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hope/&gt;.

[15] Will to Power, Preface, 4.

4 thoughts on “The Real Lesson of Pandora’s Box, or Why We Need a Politics Beyond Hope

  1. Pingback: Hope, Tragedy, and Political Engagement | The Existential Citizen

  2. Pingback: The Life-affirming Values of the Existential Citizen | The Existential Citizen

  3. Pingback: Complexity, Absurdity, and the Problem of Political Control | The Existential Citizen

  4. Pingback: Politics, Thermostats, and Existentialism | The Existential Citizen

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