In Atlas Shrugged , when Dagny Taggart leaves her position at the railroad and "retires" to her cabin in the Berkshires, she thinks about the motor she discovered in an abandoned factory and wonders why such a stunning technological breakthrough was left to rust:
It is not true—she thought…that there is no place in the future for a superlative achievement of man's mind; it can never be true. No matter what her problem, this would always remain to her—this immovable conviction that evil was unnatural and temporary. She felt it more clearly than ever this morning: the certainty that the ugliness of the men in the city and the ugliness of her suffering were transient accidents—while the smiling sense of hope within her at the sight of a sun-flooded forest, the sense of an unlimited promise, was the permanent and the real. (p. 572)
The key word in this passage, I suggest, is "hope."
Hope is a name for the shallowest of human sentiments ("I hope you have a nice day") but also for the deepest. Dagny's feeling was not mere pleasure at the loveliness of the woods and the weather on a spring day. It was a metaphysical experience, a sense that life holds "unlimited promise" for happiness, that success and achievement are possible, that evil and suffering are "transient accidents." Hope at this fundamental level is a matter of profound personal and moral significance.
A central tenet of Objectivism is the benevolent view of the universe: the view that the world is auspicious to man's efforts, and that happiness and success are possible. But this view is not a Panglossian denial that bad things happen. Businesses that took years to build are wrecked by mindless government edicts. Homes are lost to fire and flood. People live with depression that eclipses their aims and stifles joy. Hope is the outlook that gets us through these trials. It is at once a belief and an act of will: a conviction that misfortune is not our normal fate, and a refusal to let it drain our lives of meaning.
To hope, the dictionaries say, is "to long for with an expectation of attainment" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary), "to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence" (Random House Dictionary). These definitions contain two elements: a goal that we long for, desire, or commit ourselves to, and a belief that the goal can be attained. When the object of desire is a fundamental goal, and the belief is a metaphysical conviction about our basic relationship to the world, hope becomes a philosophical issue.
We find this concept in other systems of thought. In Christianity, for example, hope is a cardinal virtue. "Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1817-18).
For Objectivists, of course, our ultimate goal is not beatitude in some other dimension but happiness in this life. And we do not look to some other being to achieve our happiness; it is our own responsibility. With these changes in content, however, what we might call "philosophical hope" is a valid concept. Both of its elements play a vital role in successful living; together they form a value comparable to self-esteem in importance.
The first element in hope is a commitment to one's happiness. This commitment is more than a desire. It includes the choice to pursue the goal, to strive for it come what may. Many philosophers have said that people by nature seek happiness, but this is too optimistic. Perhaps everyone desires happiness, but for many it is a passive desire, a mere wish, not strong enough to overcome even the mundane obstacles that lie in its way: the inertia of old habits, the weight of small disappointments, the tyranny of things we "have to" do.
And then there are the misfortunes that can dampen or drown our commitment. It is here that we find the heroes among us. In the depths of depression, in the shock that follows an accident or crime, it takes enormous strength to sustain one's commitment to happiness, and that commitment in turn gives one the strength to get through the crisis. Like the force that moves a plant to grow through the cracks in a sidewalk, it is the force that moves our lives back into the sun.
A genuine commitment to one's happiness as an ultimate goal means not letting anything stand in its way, not placing anything else above it in value and importance—not the approval of others, nor the comfort of routine, nor the safety of avoiding risk and uncertainty. In William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan is asked why she doesn't abandon her effort to teach the deaf-mute child Helen Keller how to speak. "Give up?" she says indignantly. "That's my idea of original sin."
The other element of hope is the conviction that happiness is possible in this life, particularly the conviction that the world is not inimical to our success. Happiness is partly the result of our own efforts and, in that respect, calls on our inner confidence and courage to sustain the commitment. But it also depends on the world in which we act. Happiness may depend on goals not wholly in our power, on relationships with others who may not respond, on the enjoyment of freedom that the state can squelch. Objectivism does not subscribe to the Stoic view that we should strive only for a kind of inner peace that the world can't touch. And Objectivism is even further from the Buddhist view that, since all suffering has its source in the disappointment of desire, we should stifle all desire.
A commitment to happiness is thus a commitment to a kind of vulnerability. Ayn Rand 's heroes embrace this vulnerability, taking huge risks in life and love, and often suffering as a result. What sustains them is their benevolent view that life in this world is not the vale of tears described by many religions, nor the tissue of absurdities portrayed in much of modern culture, but a vast field of opportunities for achievement and joy. Since we can understand the world by means of reason and produce the values that serve our lives, our nature is adapted to the world. Achievement, success, and happiness are the norm in life; failure, loss, suffering, and evil are the exception. This conviction is the second element of hope.
It is not the same as optimism, which is a tendency to look on the positive side of events or to expect the most favorable outcome. A prisoner in the Soviet Gulag might well not have been optimistic about his chances of escape but still believed to the depths of his soul that his fate was unnatural, the result of evil that could not last—because it was evil.
That conviction may seem cold comfort but in fact it makes all the difference. For one thing, if there is any chance of freedom, however slim, an indomitable spirit and ceaseless effort would be required to find it. But even if success is truly impossible, the refusal to accept one's fate as normal preserves the integrity of one's sense of self and one's rightness for reality.
In The Fountainhead , Howard Roark is sued by enemies who want to destroy one of his buildings—and him. Speaking with Dominique, he says,
“I don't believe it matters to me—that they're going to destroy it. Maybe it hurts so much that I don't even know I'm hurt. But I don't think so. . . . I'm not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops….”
“Where does it stop?”
“Where I can think of nothing and feel nothing except that I designed that temple. I built it. Nothing else can seem very important.” (pp. 344-45)
Roark's philosophical acceptance of the situation is a product of his philosophy. He knows that his fundamental relationship to reality, and the fundamental ground of his happiness, is reflected in his ability to design and build the temple. The treatment of the building by its owner, by architectural critics, or by the public at large is a secondary matter. That's why the pain of seeing them destroy it can only go down to a certain point.
Scenes like this in Rand's novels, where characters deny that suffering is important or view their pain with detachment, have been criticized for encouraging repression. No doubt many readers have been thus affected, and to that extent the criticism is valid. But I think it is truer to Rand's intent—and to the meaning of Objectivism as a philosophy to live by—to read these passages as expressions of hope. Roark's pain does not go all the way down because underneath it is an unshakable commitment to his own happiness and an unshakable conviction that his pursuit of happiness can succeed—even if other people, for now, stand in his way. Dominique, by contrast, is a woman in despair. Believing that the (social) world makes happiness impossible, she actively suppresses her commitment to it, trying not to pursue any goal or feel any attachment to what she values. In effect, through much of the novel, she is a practicing Buddhist.
The two basic elements of hope, commitment and conviction, create different challenges. The commitment to happiness is hardest to sustain in the darkness of personal loss or suffering, but it is the irrationality of other people and the injustice of social institutions that pose the greatest challenge to our conviction that the world is auspicious to our values.
How does a benevolent view of the world give us hope when the problems we face arise from people? To be sure, there are no fundamental conflicts among the interests of rational men. But what if people do not define their interests rationally?
Ayn Rand wrestled with this question in her novels, and their plots reflect her insight into how the benevolent view of the universe applies to social reality. In Atlas Shrugged , Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden struggle to preserve their business enterprises in a world pervaded by a sense of hopelessness, embodied in the catch-phrase "Who is John Galt?" Later, we learn that the waning vitality of this world was caused by one man's great act of hope in taking action to counter the source of evil. Galt's strike is based on the principle that evil is impotent, because it is irrational, and will collapse of its own weight if deprived of the sanction of the good. Even if we cannot convince those who have embraced irrational ideas and values, we can limit their destructive effects by withholding our support.
That's the negative reason for hope. The Fountainhead illustrates the positive reason. Howard Roark's equanimity was a product not only of his independence but also of his belief that truth and justice will prevail in the minds of rational men. Unlike Dominique (or Gail Wynand), he did not believe that people are corrupt by nature or necessity. Fundamentally, he knew, it is ideas that govern human life, and this means that the right ideas always have a chance.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.