Monday, August 6, 2007

Pandora's Legacy

Pandora's Box
One evening, with Epimetheus absent, curiosity regarding Lord Jupiter’s gift overwhelmed her, for something in the box spoke. "Pandora, dear Pandora, have pity upon us! Free us from this gloomy prison! Open, open, we beseech you!”

And she opened the box.

Out spilled evils theretofore unkown: Pain stung her hand; Disease plagued the lands; Hatred filled Man with disgust for all that he did not understand; Anger swept out as a cloud of poison; Sickness spewed forth with a feverish speed. Pandora wept with Sadness as Despair shoved itself into the world.

She slammed the lid.

Epimetheus reproached his wife in bitterest terms, and thus was born the first quarrel, now bane of all marriages. In the very midst of his vituperation they heard a sweet voice entreat for freedom. The sound proceeded from the unfortunate box. "Open, open, and I will heal your wounds!”

And they [ed. note: the fools] opened the lid once again. Thus was set forth Hope, healing their wounds as promised, and giving Man a small glimmer of what could be.

The lid closed quickly behind Hope, and all that remained in the box was Foreknowledge. He alone could doom man beyond any other vile beast that escaped, for he knew mankind’s future, mankind's fate. He could grant the ability to see beyond the beyond, allow the knowledge of whatwas to come. For it is said, to know one’s future, to know the moment of one’s demise, to know the ill that will come and the fate of the lands, would bring the greatest sorrows known, and would send a mortal mind to the brink of insanity, or beyond.

Pandora's Box has been of interest to me since I first fell for Greek myths as a youngster. I formed my own thoughts about the story's meaning, unaware--until the advent of the Intertubes--that some debate exists along these very lines.

One version of Pandora's story has Zeus, in a last-minute tender turn of heart, relenting in his attempted destruction of Man, inserted palliative Hope into the box of ills. Sometimes Pandora slams the lid on Hope, then releases her such that she can benefit Man against sin, pain, and pestilence. Sometimes she closes the lid and thus Hope is held by Man.

In another version, Pandora slams the lid on Despair (or, more accurately, Foreknowledge, especially as it pertains to one's own mortality, which would drive Man to madness or despair), thus protecting Man for the worst of all evils (Despair as folly seems, to me, a rather Christian notion).

But my take is a little different: in many contexts Hope is an evil, a bewilderer, a tempter, leading Man to sub-optimal choice. It is one thing to take a "calculated risk," a weighing of probability; it is quite another to plan or act upon groundless speculation. My mother, for example, uses the Lotto Retirement Plan, that is, she has no retirement: she is counting on winning MegaBucks. This "hope" allows her to e.g., continue smoking, fail to pay off her mortgage, buy new cars, and other financially wasteful actions. How many lives their lives this way, leaving all to merest Hap.

C.H. Moore: "[Pandora] opened a jar containing every kind of evil, which straightaway flew out among mankind. Only Ελπις [Elpis] remained therein — a word hardly equivalent to our Hope, but rather meaning 'anticipation of misfortune'. It is then the only plague to which man is not subjected."

Pietro Pucci: "Ελπις properly means a larger set of expectations than our 'hope', for it implies hope, expectation, and even fear... Hope [Ελπις] is a bad companion for the man in need who sits in an idle place, when he has no sufficient livelihood".

More discussion (not necessarily mine):

In "Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization" Derrick Jensen describes hope as: "a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency." In other words, I do not hope to eat tomorrow, I just do it. On the other hand, I hope my plane will not crash, but I have no agency over that. Derrick Jensen believes we hope too much for things we have some power to change (but are too lazy to take action).

In Judaism the line between human agency and hope is not so clearly drawn. In Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) - a 2nd century Jewish work - Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it."

Hope is what motivates us to act even when we know we are not in complete control. This hope can take many forms: the hope that others will have the same vision and join in, the hope that good eventually wins, the hope that one will become a better person through doing even if the intended goal is never reached, the hope that one's small act fits into a larger whole, and yes, sometimes the hope of assistance from a transcendent being.

However, this assistance is not one-sided. In Judaism, hope is often understood as a reciprocal relationship between G-d and human beings. In Marc Gellman's children's story "Partners" from Does G-d Have a Big Toe?, G-d tells human beings they are His partners. When the first humans ask what that means, G-d explains that 'A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you.'

Later when the angels ask if creation is done yet, G-d says "Go ask my partners."

Some do not Jensen's definition fits very well with the Christian understanding of hope either. One of the classic Christian definitions comes from Romans 8:25 "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (RSV) Here hope is defined in terms of seen and unseen, not agency.

On first reading, the word "wait" would seem to imply passivity and hence lack of agency. However, if we take the verse in context, we discover that the preceding verses describe the entire creation in travail, i.e., in the throes of labor. Labor is a very active and involved form of suffering and the unseen thing, a baby, will never come to light without some very active involvement of the mother. Once again, it appears that hope is understood as human involvement in the face of uncertainty.

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