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Ancient and modern

Politics, Pandora and the tender leaves of hope

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

With parliament irretrievably deadlocked over Brexit and the EU intransigent, there remains little belief that either of the prime ministerial candidates can find an even remotely happy solution to the problem. All they can currently offer are the tender leaves of hope.

The ancient Greek farmer poet Hesiod (c. 680 bc) told the story of this ambiguous commodity. The gods, determined that life on Earth should be one of suffering, fashioned an irresistibly beautiful woman, Pandora, and sent her down among men with a large storage jar, which she proceeded to open. Out from it flew all the ills of the world, but Zeus ensured that she put the lid back in time to keep Hope — man’s sole antidote against total despair — securely inside (the imagery is illogical, but this is myth).


That life was hopeless was a common piece of popular wisdom: whatever humans did would probably be in vain. Hesiod disagreed: hope could come to fruition, he said, since life mixed good with ill, and the wise peasant could take practical steps to become self-sufficient through unremitting toil. This would produce full barns to enjoy in good times and insure against bad times. By contrast, ‘a work-shy man, waiting on an empty hope, stores up trouble for himself’.

Greek tragedy highlighted the way delusional aspects of hope generated overconfidence, with catastrophic results. The political and military historian Thucydides took up the theme. Desire and hope hunted together, he said, the one encouraging men to take risks, the other persuading them that their luck would hold. ‘But both these invisible influences are ruinous, far more powerful than the dangers in full view.’ Far better, he said, to find a reason for hope by ‘awareness of odds in our favour’. Then ‘you do not have to think about it, but can fight with every hope of winning’.

Aristotle, asked what hope was, replied ‘A waking dream’, i.e. illusory, transitory and ambivalent. But hope need not be ‘empty’. Hesiod’s ‘unremitting toil’ and Thucydides’s ‘awareness of odds in favour’ will be needed to neutralise the determination of a ‘democratic’ parliament and EU to thwart the people’s will. If not, a killing frost awaits those tender leaves.


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