Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, December 29, 2008


(photo of Jacques Ellul, looking hopeful)

A professor from whom I took graduate courses in 18th century literature (many moons ago) especially liked this quotation from Samuel Johnson:

"The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope."
Johnson: Rambler #2 (March 24, 1750)

He was bit dour, this professor (as was Johnson), rather chronically disappointed in almost everything. So I think he interpreted the quotation as bearing on humans' penchant for false hope.

Given the news from almost everywhere about almost everything, hopelessness is a tempting position. Turn where one might, much seems hopeless: the plight of the poor everywhere, the health of the planet, Middle East politics, and so on. No doubt you have your own pertinent list handy.

At the same time, one might posit that hopelessness is a luxury. For example, today I found myself lapsing into a hopeless attitude toward conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, but at the time I was driving on calm, if pot-holed, streets, headed to a well-stocked grocery store. Easy for me to indulge in hopelessness. If I were trying to raise a family and/or support friends somewhere in the midst of conflict, violence, and oppression, I might not have the option of focusing on my private hopelessness. I'd probably have to focus on surviving, getting through a day or a week.

And, indeed, perhaps the most important word in the Johnson quotation is "natural," a word about which social scientists, among others, are quite skeptical. Nature v. nurture, essential v. constructed, and all that. Maybe there is some hopeful hard-wiring in the brain, however. Who knows?

At the same time, as a close friend of mine is fond of saying, particularly of organizations that can't get their stuff together, "Hope is not a strategy." I find that assertion hard to argue against. In my limited experience, preparation, attention to detail, persistence, and focus have seemed to be more productive than hope. But I'm also open to the argument that hope helps make these practices possible.

I'm also emboldened, or at least made hopeful, by people who maintain hope in extreme situations, who "beat the odds," at least for a while, and who do what had seemed like the impossible. Emily Dickinson, who knew much hardship and pain, famously took the side of hope in this poem:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird—
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

There may be some of Dickinson's attitude in that of Jacques Ellul, 20th century French theologian and political scientist. Ellul's book, Propaganda, is arguably the very best single volume on the subject, and what he had to "say" about propaganda and mass media seems more pertinent with each new technological "advancement" in media. Ellul's book is not entirely hopeful, and Ellul himself had seen France occupied by Hitler's military (but then also unoccupied, or liberated). Oddly enough, Ellul settled on a combination of anarchy and Christianity as his hopeful, feathery perch amid the gale. He saw Christianity as having been rooted in anarchy--"anarchy" in the sense of being opposed to oppressive hierarchy. And he perceived non-violent Anarchism as the stance most likely to lead to liberty and justice.

How does Ellul reconcile Christian faith and political anarchy (not chaos, mind you, but the political philosophy of anarchy, as defined by Bakunin and others)? Well, in the short run, I'll rely on a one-paragraph summary taken from

"Jacques Ellul blends politics, theology, history, and exposition in this analysis of the relationship between political anarchy and biblical faith. On the one hand, suggests Ellul, anarchists need to understand that much of their criticism of Christianity applies only to the form of religion that developed, not to biblical faith. Christians, on the other hand, need to look at the biblical texts and not reject anarchy as a political option, for it seems closest to biblical thinking. Ellul here defines anarchy as the nonviolent repudiation of authority. He looks at the Bible as the source of anarchy (in the sense of non-domination, not disorder), working through the Old Testament history, Jesus' ministry, and finally the early church's view of power as reflected in the New Testament writings. 'With the verve and the gift of trenchant simplification to which we have been accustomed, Ellul lays bare the fallacy that Christianity should normally be the ally of civil authority.'" - John Howard Yoder

In the long run, I'll rely on Ellul himself. A translation of his book, Anarchy and Christianity, appeared in 1991 and is still available in paperback, and maybe in a locally owned used bookstore of your choice. If, however, the combination of anarchy and Christianity just seems too preposterous to you, seems to be a perch to which you have no hope of (or interest in) reaching, then I hope you'll glance at Ellul's Propaganda sometime, if you haven't already. One absolutely need not be either Christian or anarchist to benefit from that book; indeed, it's the sort of book that's easily imported to all sorts of world-views. As is the wisdom in Sam Johnson's essays and poems (and the dictionary), come to think of it. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, as one might say about this post, "no one wished it longer."

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