This 18th century angel with dice is one of a group of angels playing with the instruments of Christ’s martyrdom – after His resurrection – carved on the choir stools of a small village church in Thaining, Bavaria.
Ulli Stelzer.

George F. Kennan, Princeton ’25, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Yugoslavia, is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton. He is also Permanent Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and was recently appointed Visiting Fellow at Harvard. He is President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a member of the American Philosophical Society. Prize-winning author of many articles and books, he is currently at work on a study of contemporary history. This article was adapted from a sermon delivered in the Princeton University Chapel last February.

“Why do I hope?” is a question which clearly and fairly challenges all of us, and I shall do my best to answer it, even though my answer may reflect bewilderment, philosophic clumsiness, and a poor understanding of the foundations of my own faith.

Why do I hope? It is certainly not that I am able to view with enthusiastic optimism the present state of the world or of our own country. I see when I look around me, as people always have, hopeful elements as well as alarming ones; but the latter seem to be of dimensions far greater than anything of my father’s generation, greater, perhaps, than of any previous generation.

Most of the world is obviously facing today a population problem of appalling dimensions, the effect of which are going to be anything but conducive to the realization of Christian ideals. And there are now at large, and open to cultivation by almost any government that wishes to cultivate them, weapons capable, if used in quantity, not only of causing immeasurable destruction and loss of life in the immediate area where they fall but also of fouling the very habitat for human existence across great regions of the globe, and even of setting civilization back by centuries. It would be an optimistic man who could entertain the hope that weapons so widely cultivated would not at some point be used.

With regard to our own country, I see its sources of strength, and derive great comfort from them. But I also see dangerous conflict growing up between our traditions and habits as people, on the one hand, and the need, on the other hand, for preserving the natural environment in which God has given it to us to live on this magnificent continent. I see that the pursuance of our national life in accordance with these traditions and habits can take place only at the cost of the depletion of our resources, the fouling of our streams and air, the destruction of our wilderness and our wildlife, the creation of a grievous and destructive imbalance between man and nature.

I see, too, the enormous gravity of the problems we have created for ourselves by taking the machine into partnership with us to the extent that we have: the growing and wholly unsolved problems of urban life; the problems of occupation, employment and leisure; the sudden confrontation of the vast majority of common people with the insidious spiritual strains which arise only when physical wants are cared for and when leisure is ample, and which throughout previous ages have been reserved for the small minority that was very powerful and very rich. I see all these things; and while the members of my own family laugh at me, and not without reason, I am sure, for the gloominess of my reactions to the columns of the daily newspapers, I would submit that my American forefathers had more reason to look with confidence to the prospects of their children and grandchildren than I have.

In addition to this, I have to recognize the limitations that rest on the possibilities for any purely personal and individual fulfillment in this life. The passing of the age of 60 finds me very much aware that every man bears within himself in some measure the ingredients of his own tragedy. He bears them in the insoluble conflict between his physical instincts and the higher demands of the spirit. He bears them in the form of the brevity of life, the susceptibility of all men to illness and old age, the complexity and impermanence that govern all human relationships, the fact that the path of true love indeed never does run smooth, the inevitability of jealousies, of unrequited affections, of separations and bereavements. All these things mean, unquestionably, that no one can look for complete personal fulfillment on this earth.

If, then, one’s hope were just the product of one’s efforts to calculate the prospects for a happy future of humanity or of one’s self, one could perhaps shift the emphasis in the voicing of this question so that it would be not “why do I hope? But “why do I hope?”; and if one were very gloomy, one could even give it the form that Goethe’s Faust gave it, as a reproachful question to God: “Why should I hope?”

Yet for me to put it this way, aside from its being blasphemous, would be very silly indeed, for I obviously do hope.


The first reason, I suppose, is simply that I do not know; I cannot know; and I know that I cannot know. The poor observations and conclusions I have offered above about the human predicament are precisely the things on which it would be the greatest of folly to base either one’s hope or one’s despair. How can I trust them? Neither in the social nor in the individual sense can I see all there is to be seen. Not for nothing did St. Paul speak of our seeing as through a glass, darkly.

Nothing is written more clearly into the record of history than the inability of men to take the full measure of their situation either as members of a society or as individuals, to see that situation in all its aspects, to comprehend its dynamics, to forecast its future. The great English historian, Herbert Butterfield, has pointed out the irony that invariably marks the relationship between what statesmen – even the best of them – mean to achieve, when they take their various actions, and the actual consequences those actions ultimately have.

And the same is true of the individual. Repeatedly, in my own life, occurrences which seemed to me at the time to be personal misfortunes, turned out later to have been blessings in disguise. And on those occasions when I have tried to be very clever and far-sighted in my own interests, and to calculate nicely the best approach to the gratification of this or that ambition or desire, a wise and beneficent hand has seemingly intervened in the current of events to frustrate these puny, silly efforts, and to make of me the fool that deserved to be made.

Now this, obviously, does not absolve us from the efforts of foresight, of analysis, of trying to look ahead, and – especially not when there is some degree of elevation in our purposes. But it does stand as an admonition to us to preserve a sense of proportion about our poor power of insight, and not to attach to them a value so absolute as to justify the ultimate in either hope or despair. The inevitable measure of uncertainty, of error, of myopia, of miscalculation, that rests on all human judgments leaves no more room for a total pessimism than for utopian illusions.

But beyond this there is the fact that I cannot profess to stand wholly outside of my own predicament or that of the society in which I live, as though on some Archimedean platform, and to judge it as though I were not a part of it, as though I had no means of influencing it, as though, in truth, I could avoid influencing it. I am an actor on this scene, as well as a spectator. My own judgment, and particularly the voicing of that judgment, is a responsible act. It affects the very situation I am attempting to judge. It is one of the determinants of that situation, both socially and individually. Of course, it is not a decisive determinant, or a very great one. It is, in fact, only a tiny determinant – and I hope I never forget it.

But what do I expect? I am only a tiny part of the whole. And so long as things depend, even in this tiny measure, on me and on what I do, and so long as I have not exhausted my possibilities for affecting the situation in ways that would make it more hopeful and promising, what right have I to despair? When it comes to the good fight, it is simply impermissible to let one’s effort depend on one’s calculations as to the prospects for failure or success. In the great issues, it’s the struggle itself that counts, not whether one is likely to win. Winston Churchill taught us that, in 1940. I hope because it is impermissible not to.

A third reason why I hope is simply that life is good: its very texture, the esthetic sense and the feeling of being alive, is a blessing – a blessing of such an order that every further day that we can look forward to, every further time we can expect to see the sun go up, is in itself a prospect of hope. There is, after all, this marvelous earth around us, for anyone who wants to see it and to sense it: the sky, the clouds, the sunshine, the wilderness; growing things and wildlife; the sea. And there is the mysterious enrichment that is to be had from being near all these things, from being near to Nature and alone with her, from feeling one’s self a small part of her, from participating – whether as a gardener or a camper or a sailor or what you will – in the rhythm of her vast processes as they have existed and still exist wherever man’s interference has not corrupted them.

“Christ Before Pilate” by Hieronymous Bosch is perhaps the best known painting in the collection of The Art Museum, Princeton University. Painted by the Flemish artist in the early 16th century, it is renowned for its representation of character in the faces of its subjects: the meek and humble Christ surrounded by grotesque soldiers and attendants, as the intelligent, unctuous-looking Pilate in dark hood prepares to – literally – wash his hands of the situation. This masterpiece was given to the Museum in the 1920’s by its first Director, Allan Marquand.
Princeton University Art Museum.
I realize that not all people can enjoy these things, though I think most of us can, if we care to make the effort. I know that, sustaining as these things are, they are not always enough to make a life. There are sorrows no communion with Nature can overcome, separations it can never put an end to, injuries of the spirit it can never entirely heal. But it can often help. Many a people, cowed and disheartened by the reverses of life, has found in his garden, in the fields, in the woods, or on the sea, the strength to surmount his discouragements and to shoulder his burden again. So this sense of identification with a Nature larger than ourselves, and infinitely wonderful, while it cannot, admittedly, fully replace what we need in the way of identification with other human beings, has in it more in the way of sustenance than most of us have take the trouble to look for; and I, for one, find in it a more than negligible source of strength, of solace; and of hope.

This brings me to the last, and without question the deepest, of the reasons why I cannot do otherwise than to hope. It is simply the fact that there is, in this human existence, the phenomenon of love: love in the family, love for friends, love – in the sense of genuine personal affection – for person of the opposite sex, for people with whom we are associated as neighbors or in our work; and finally, for those who are strong enough and great enough for it, love for mankind at large.

I see in this factor of love both a negative and a positive relationship to hope.

It is, in the first place, impermissible not to hope when we are the objects of love; because by indulging in despair, or even an inordinate discouragement, we frustrate and render meaningless the love that is offered to us, and bring to those who offer it the deepest disappointment and sense of failure that people are capable of experiencing. But despair is also impermissible when we are the dispensers of love; because it injures those to whom our affections are directed, and contradicts the very feelings we hold.

To love is to put one’s self in the position of another person, and to do this sympathetically, with a concern for him more acute than what one feels for one’s self. Where such relationships prevail, man is no longer alone; he bears part of the weight of other lives; his hopes and his fears are no longer his alone; they brush off, in one way or another, on those who are close to him. And hope then becomes an imperative; because to draw someone you love into your despair is to deprive him by that much of the vital strength of life, to add to a burden you were meant to relieve, and to make yourself a party, in that degree, to his ultimate failure and death.

On the positive side, on the other hand, you have the greater strength that comes, I think, to all of us when we have the feeling of serving rather than of being served. I wonder whether there is any professional person who is not struck, as I am time and again, with the greater strength he feels in the exercise of his profession than in the moments of his solitude and his preoccupation with himself. We are all of us, I suspect, more to our students, to our patients, to our clients or parishioners, than we ever can be to ourselves. Professional dedication lifts us repeatedly, like some gigantic spiritual ski-lift, across the abysses of our true loneliness and helplessness, moves us up a hill we would never otherwise be able to scale, and gives to our lives a meaning they could otherwise never attain. And how much more true this is in the world of genuine intimacy, when needs even more vital than those of students or clients are at stake.

But this is not all. There is in the world of our spirit a logic greater than that of 2 x 2 = 4, and not necessarily in conflict with it. And from the standpoint of this logic there is nothing that appeals to me with greater persuasiveness, nothing that commands deeper conviction on my part, than the ultimate value and validity of all that is done sincerely in the name of love. I believe, as a matter of faith and profound inner conviction, that there is no act of true generosity – no act of tenderness, of sympathy, of understanding, that is ever lost, that will not ultimately be given its true value in the settlement of the affairs of the human spirit – in ways, perhaps, that defy our powers of imagination, but fully and in such a way as to make it a thousand times worthwhile.

This was originally published in the June 7, 1966 issue of PAW.