I have sometimes had difficulty seeing how hope could be regarded as a virtue, as all Christians are obliged to do. We conservatives are always being encouraged to hope rather than to despair, and used this way “hope” seems to mean willfully blinding ourselves to the inevitability of defeat. Such an attitude seems less manly to me than one that resolves to fight on to the death in the face of inevitable defeat propelled only by the grim prompting of duty.
At other times, I have argued to myself that hope actually means something very similar to this resolve to keep fighting in the face of imminent defeat.
Let us follow this idea through. What does it mean to keep fighting? In war, we generally say that someone who hasn’t surrendered and is still swinging his sword is still fighting, but in other, more subtle contests, it can be less obvious whether someone is still fighting or has thrown in the towel. Usually, by “still fighting”, we mean that someone is still sincerely trying to win–whether winning means winning an argument, overcoming temptation, closing a sale, or whatever else. How do we try to win? In general, one must identify some action that one thinks could plausibly lead to victory and then take it. Thus, we say that Republicans aren’t really trying to defend marriage because they refuse to present arguments for our case. They just say “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman” then hold silent, waiting what they think is a respectable amount of time before they can reverse themselves and surrender. We easily identify this as not real fighting, but just going through the motions. Even the Republicans themselves (those who haven’t already surrendered) can’t imagine that anything they’re doing is actually advancing the cause.
Suppose, though, that there is no path to victory? Every action one might take ends necessarily in defeat. How then does one try to win? I don’t mean how does one motivate oneself given the evident futility; I mean how do we even identify a course of action as one that sincerely continues to fight?
For the ordinary soldier facing imminent defeat, this isn’t an issue. The infantryman doesn’t have to initiate a chain of events that leads in his side winning the battle. He just has to worry about trying to kill the guy in front of him. As long as he’s seriously trying to do that, he is definitely still “in the game”. Suppose there’s no way to even kill the guy in front of him? Then the soldier is still fighting if he’s working to slow that guy’s advance. If there’s no way to do that–if it’s beyond his power to even distract enemy soldiers–then perhaps it really would be difficult to think of how one could meaningfully keep fighting. Thus, the imperative to keep fighting depends on an understanding that one’s actions actually do have consequences. Ultimate victory might be unattainable, but at least some minor, temporary victory must be within reach. This is the first part of hope. We must believe that we live in a world where what we do is meaningful.