Confusion as ‘stay alert’ replaces ‘stay home’

Red to green: “It’s all Greek to us, Boris” – this morning’s headline in Metro.

Is hope a moral duty? Britain may be exasperated and divided by its PM’s guidance last night. Critics say the government’s strategy lacks clarity. But wise voices say we have to keep hoping.

In Hesiod’s classic tale, Zeus curses mankind by releasing all the evils from Pandora’s box.

Only hope remains inside.

Whether this is the greatest evil of all – or a silver-lining for the afflicted mortals – has been the subject of debate for millennia.

Just last Thursday, hope was all over the front pages. The Star looked forward to a “Magic Monday”. The Mail promised: “Lockdown freedom beckons”.

But last night, Boris Johnson dashed those dreams. “No, this is not the time simply to end the lockdown,” he announced in a TV address watched by millions.

Instead, from Wednesday, unlimited exercising and park-going will be allowed, while some workers will be encouraged to walk or cycle to work – if they can socially distance once there.

If the infection rates continue to slow in the UK, then primary schools and some shops could open from the beginning of June. Should progress keep being made, then some secondary school classes and some restaurants could start readmitting people from early July.

Reaction was fierce. Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said the speech “raises more questions than it answers”.

“We are living in a mad country, governed by clowns. Who will save us from this, or must it just go on forever?” wrote one newspaper columnist.

But for many, hope remains a duty. The Queen expressed this on Friday when she said the main message of VE Day was: “Never give up, never despair”. For her, as for Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, hope is one of the three virtues alongside faith and charity.

This is a controversial notion, as historians of ideas like to point out. Most important thinkers have regarded hope as a damaging waste of time. For Plato, it was wishful thinking; for Seneca, a byproduct of fear; for Spinoza, irrational; for Schopenhauer, a folly; for Nietzsche, the worst of all evils, and for Camus, a distraction.

The great modern champion of the idea was Barack Obama. His 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, argued that far from it being “blind optimism” or “ignoring the challenges”, nothing worthwhile ever happened “except when somebody somewhere was willing to hope”.

Change comes about, Obama said, by “imagining, and then fighting for, and then working for, what did not seem possible before” – and it is a lesson for the current crisis gripping the world.

Does that mean that hope is a duty for us all?

Yes, we can?

No. Most suffering is brought about by hope for dreams of health, happiness, and success. Pessimism is a healthy antidote to the oppressive modern demand to look on the bright side, allowing us to bond with others around an honest admission of reality. We should not expect so much from politicians – then we could all be less indignant.

Yes. The abolitionists who helped end slavery; the progressive housing and health reformers who fought slums, sweatshops, and epidemic diseases in the early 1900s; the suffragists who battled to give women the vote; the civil rights pioneers who helped dismantle slavery, and the activists who since the 1960s have won hard-fought victories for environmental protection, women’s equality, and gay rights. All progressive change starts with hope. This pandemic gives us a choice: hope or despair. Hope is the only choice.

You Decide

  1. Can you think of a time when hope got you through a really difficult situation?
  2. Should the government focus on giving people hope during a crisis or providing them with hard facts?


  1. Go around your household, asking everyone what they are hoping for. Put together an infographic of your home’s hopes.
  2. Come up with three new slogans that the government could use.

Some People Say...

“Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British prime minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that hope is good for us. Jerome Goopman, chair of medicine at Harvard Medical School and writer for the New Yorker says, “Belief and expectation – the key elements of hope – can block pain [...], mimicking the effects of morphine.” He adds, “In some cases, hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation, and motor function.”
What do we not know?
Whether hope can also be bad for us. The modern emphasis on “living the dream” and “if you want something badly enough, then you will have it” can be scarring psychologically. There is much evidence that we fail to develop into mature individuals unless we learn the more important lesson: to live with disappointment.

Word Watch

An ancient Greek poet active between 750-650BC, around the same time as Homer. His poem, the Theogony, outlines the origin stories of the Greek gods.
Pandora’s box
After Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, Zeus took his revenge. He offered a box or an urn as a gift, but filled it with death and disease.
Thomas Aquinas
Considered one of the Catholic Church’s greatest theologians and philosophers, he lived from 1225-1274.
Widely considered the pivotal figure in the history of ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle. He is believed to have died in 348BC.
A Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. He died in AD65.
(1632-1677). One of the early thinkers of the Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and the Universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-Century philosophy.
(1788–1860). Best known for his 1818 work, The World As Will and Representation, in which he characterises the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will.
(1844–1900). German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist (someone who studies the history of languages).
(1913–1960). French philosopher, author, and journalist. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44, the second-youngest recipient in history.
Barack Obama
The first African-American president of the US (2009-2017).

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