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Radical Hope: Philosopher Jonathan Lear on the Paradoxical Seedbed of Courage and Cultural Resilience

“Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”

Radical Hope: Philosopher Jonathan Lear on the Paradoxical Seedbed of Courage and Cultural Resilience

“Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future,” wrote the poet and philosopher David Whyte in contemplating crisis as a testing ground for courage. But the future at which courage must aim its gaze is often one obscured by the blinders of our culture’s current scope of possibility.

In January of 2009, Elizabeth Alexander took the podium at the Washington Mall and welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her exquisite poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which made her only the fourth poet in history to read at an American presidential inauguration. Seven years later, facing a radically different and radically dispiriting landscape of possibility, Alexander took a people’s podium and reminded us that our greatest ground for hope is in the once-unimaginable, which the present that was once the future has proven possible. Looking back on that historic moment in 2009, she reflected:

That was a beautiful moment that so many elders never thought they’d live to see. So there are things that we don’t yet know, that we don’t think we’re going to live to see, that are also going to give us power and beauty if we hold up our own.

What Alexander is articulating — the notion that our cultural conditioning limits what we know to hope for, until the unimaginable proves itself possible — is what philosopher Jonathan Lear examines in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (public library).

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Simultaneously echoing and complicating Susan Sontag’s notion that the courage of an example is what mobilizes communities, Lear considers the paradoxical seedbed of the kind of courage that propels culture forward:

We rightly think that the virtue of courage requires a certain psychological flexibility. A courageous person must know how to act well in all sorts of circumstances. We recognize that there can be times in life when the stock images of courage will be inappropriate, and the truly courageous person will recognize this extraordinary situation and act in an unusual yet courageous way.

This ability to be courageous beyond the culturally prescribed forms of courage, Lear points out, is therefore an inherently countercultural ability, which reveals the central paradox of cultural resilience. He writes:

If we think of the virtues, or human excellences, as they are actually taught by cultures across history, it is plausible to expect that the virtuous person will be ready to tackle the wide variety of challenges that life might throw his way. It is unclear that there is anything in such training that will prepare him for the breakdown of the form of life itself. We would like our ethics to be grounded in psychological reality. Thus whatever flexibility is required of a virtuous person, it ought to be something that can be inculcated in the education and training of a culture. But a culture does not tend to train the young to endure its own breakdown — and it is fairly easy to see why. A culture embodies a sense of life’s possibilities, and it tries to instill that sense in the young. An outstanding young member of the culture will learn to face these possibilities well.

But things grow more complicated when the situation at hand is the breakdown of this very sense of possibility within a culture. Lear writes:

The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture… A culture tends to propagate itself, and it will do that by instilling its own sense of possibility in the young.

The ability to envision possibilities beyond those handed down by our existing culture, Lear argues, requires what he calls “radical hope.” He explains:

For what may we hope? Kant put this question in the first-person singular along with two others — What can I know? and What ought I to do? — that he thought essentially marked the human condition. With two centuries of philosophical reflection, it seems that these questions are best transposed to the first-person plural. And with that same hindsight: rather than attempt an a priori inquiry, I would like to consider hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence… What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified?

The answer to that question is what Lear goes on to explore in the remainder of the elevating and lucidly mobilizing Radical Hope. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Hope in the Dark — a book that preceded Lear’s and in many ways exceeds it in transcending theoretical discourse to offer a muscular, livable-with model for hope in the pulse of life.

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Moon Man: Tomi Ungerer’s Timeless Vintage Illustrated Fable of How Fear and Cynicism Blind Us to Benevolence

A radiant reminder that we transcend our darkness only by choosing to turn toward the light.

Moon Man: Tomi Ungerer’s Timeless Vintage Illustrated Fable of How Fear and Cynicism Blind Us to Benevolence

For billions of years, the Moon has remained our steadfast companion bearing witness to every tumult and triumph of this world, its benevolent radiance reminding us that even the darkest of earthly eras shall pass. The poet John Keats placed it alongside the verses of Shakespeare as one of the few reliable realities of existence. Leonard Cohen was guided by its light to where the good songs come from. It has populated our mythologies and captured our curiosity for as long as the human gaze has risen toward the night sky — from our earliest cosmogonies to Galileo’s revolutionary Moon drawings to the way NASA marketed the Moon to Earth.

In 1967, as the unheralded black women mathematicians of the space race were working to put the first human foot on the moon, beloved French children’s book artist and author Tomi Ungerer (b. November 28, 1931) offered a very different take on our lunar imagination with Moon Man (public library) — the sweet, subversive, and lyrical tale of a friendly cosmic visitor who wants to partake in the jubilation of earthlings, but finds himself mistaken for a malevolent invader. At the heart of the story, a favorite of Maurice Sendak’s, is a subtle admonition that our fear and cynicism end up dimming goodness and driving it away — like the Moon itself, we are saved from the darkness that does exist only by turning toward the light so that we may become luminous ourselves.

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Ungerer’s lunar fancy and his fascination with whimsical instruments are perhaps not coincidental — his father, who died when Ungerer was a little boy, was a historian, artist, engineer, and clock-maker, who built astronomical and solar clocks.

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On clear, starry nights the Moon Man can be seen curled up in his shimmering seat in space.

From his celestial vantage point, the Moon Man watches earthlings dance and finds himself envious of their jubilation. So he catches an opportune comet tail and arrives on Earth with a crash.

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The locals are at first curious about this pale, soft creature, but soon succumb to that lamentable human fear of the unfamiliar and spiral into alarm.

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Government officials were alerted. Statesmen, scientists, and generals panicked. They called the mysterious visitor an invader.

The incredibly detailed uniforms of the characters in the book, like much of Ungerer’s body of work, draw on his childhood under the Nazi occupation of France — which he captures in his iconic 1999 memoir of the Holocaust told through a teddy bear — as well as on the mandatory military service he had to perform as a young man, despite being a pacifist himself.

The Moon Man’s dreams of dancing with the crowds crumble as he is thrown in jail.

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But then his celestial nature comes to the rescue.

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One night as the Moon Man sat wondering why he was so cruelly treated, he noticed that his left side had faded. “Why, I must be in my third quarter,” he thought happily. Every night as the moon grew thinner and thinner so did the Moon Man, until at last he was able to squeeze through the bars of the window.

As the generals are gripped with puzzlement and fury upon discovering the empty cell, the Moon Man roams the wilderness, slowly regaining his plumpness as he cycles through his lunar phases.

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Eventually, he finds his way to a garden party and gets to live out his dream of dancing “blissfully for hours.”

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But after “a grumpy killjoy” complains about the decibels of the merriment, the police arrive and set out to capture the Moon Man.

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As he flees into the woods, he stumbles upon a whimsical ancient castle, where he is welcomed by an eccentric man named Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel — “a long-forgotten scientist” who has spent centuries “perfecting a spacecraft to reach the moon.”

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Now finished, the intricate machine rested on its launch pad in the castle turret. Doktor van der Dunkel had grown too old and too fat to fit into the capsule. He asked his guest to be his first passenger. The Moon Man, who had realized that he could never live peacefully on this planet, agreed to go.

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After a teary farewell, the cosmic visitor launches back into space. For the feat of propelling his rocket, Doktor van der Dunkel finally receives the commendation he has longed for and is “elected chairman of an important scientific committee.”

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Having satisfied his curiosity, the Moon Man never returned to earth and remained ever after curled up in his shimmering seat in space.

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Complement the immeasurably wonderful Moon Man with Ungerer’s Snail, Where Are You?, A Cat-Hater’s Handbook, and Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.

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Einstein on Widening Our Circles of Compassion

“Our task must be to free ourselves … by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Einstein on Widening Our Circles of Compassion

“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sang as she put one of her father’s poems to music, “for you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” But without the recognition that those wars are shared wars — that our suffering is always a part of the suffering, common to the human experience — compassion becomes an intellectual abstraction. Only through such recognition can we come to grasp what Martin Luther King so poetically termed our “inescapable network of mutuality,” in which “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

That’s what Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) explored in a beautiful letter of consolation to a grieving father named Robert S. Marcus, political director of the World Jewish Congress, whose young son had just died of polio. The letter was later included in The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (public library) — the remarkable encounter between molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist-raised astrophysicist Trinh Thuan.

Long before Carl Sagan wrote of compassion as our only mechanism for moving beyond “us vs. them,” Einstein writes in February of 1950, in a possibly imperfect translation:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Draft of Einstein's letter to Marcus (via On Being)
Draft of Einstein’s letter to Marcus (via On Being)

To be sure, Einstein was a master-consoler in the face of loss and grief, and it was often in moments like this that he articulated his most spiritually oriented ideas — take, for instance, his exquisite letter of consolation to the Queen of Belgium about grief, eternity, and the privilege of old age. This raises an interesting chicken-or-egg question: Did Einstein, when confronted with mortality, deliberately dial up the spiritual dimension, or is a confrontation with mortality where our most existential and transcendent ideas organically emerge? It’s an interesting question, but ultimately a moot one — neither the occasion nor the direction of causality matters in the end, for what greater feat than wresting from the terror of our finitude a more expansive, perhaps even infinite, circle of compassion?

The Quantum and the Lotus, which also gave us physicist David Bohm on how we shape what we call reality, is a mind- and spirit-enlarging read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Einstein on wonderment and the nature of the human mind, his message to posterity, and his advice to Marie Curie on how to handle haters, then revisit Karen Armstrong on compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule.

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