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  • Writer's pictureCarsten Sprotte


When all hope has failed

Les Roses d'Espérance, by Carsten Sprotte

Let us enter into this momentous and fearful new year with great espérance

The English language glibly gobbled up the French word liberté, even though freedom would have been sufficient. It did not seek to assimilate the French words espérance or espoir, even though hope is hardly sufficient. Curiously, it did leave a place for despair, which originates from an Old French word that morphed into the modern French word déséspoir. What a pity, because our world needs more hope than despair, and more espérance than hope. 

What now, would it require, for us to enter into this momentous and fearful new year with great espérance? And why espérance instead of espoir, since both are hopeful words?

Most importantly, how will words help get us through the immense challenges that await?

The verb espérer (to hope) is the root of both espérance and espoir. The verb itself already presents us with some subtle differences, lost in translation. The difference is not so much in use but in the formal definition. 

To hope, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is to want something to happen or to be true, and usually to have good reason to think it might. Espérer, according to Larousse, is to consider that a desired event or act can be realized and to expect its realization. We see here that the French word seems a tad more confident. So it is that if you were to say j’espère la paix dans ce monde, it would be slightly more engaging than the English equivalent:  I hope for peace in this world. Maybe the difference is less real than imagined. What is certain is that we need to do more than hope in our current global predicament. 

Nous devons éviter le pire. 

L’espérance takes us from what we believe to be possible to what we believe to be probable, and also what we hold to be ultimately true. As such, it is more affirmative than hope. A more fitting translation might be "confident expectations". Charles Dicken’s novel Great Expectations is accordingly translated as De Grandes Espérances, whereas the Cap de Bonne-Espérance is less convincingly translated as Cape of Good Hope. An 18th-century French explorer and admiral Bruni d'Entrecasteaux sailed a ship named L’Espérance, and thereby gave that name to a bay he discovered in southwestern Australia. The Aussies left it that way: Esperance Bay.

L’espoir is the equivalent of hope. It lacks the potency and perseverance of espérance. When all that’s left is hope, it means there’s nothing left for you to do. So it is for l’espoir: it won’t get us an inch closer to our desired end state, and hopes are easily disappointed. In English, some say 'I hope and pray". You won't hear this in French.  

Still, l’espoir remains far better than le désespoir. We must not, at any point, succumb to despair. It is better to die than to despair because despair is a negation of all potency. 

As wrote Christiane Singer in her final manuscript entitled Derniers fragments d’un long voyage:

“Il n'y a qu'un crime, c'est de désespérer du monde. Nous sommes appelés à pleins poumons à faire neuf ce qui était vieux, à croire à la montée de la sève dans le vieux tronc de l'arbre de vie. Nous sommes appelés à renaître, à congédier en nous le vieillard amer !”

It is a crime to despair of the world. We have received a clarion call to renew the old, to trust that the sap will rise again in that old tree trunk called life. We are called upon to rise, born anew, and banish that bitter old man or woman within us. (my own translation)

I trust, rather than hope, that you are now able to distinguish l’espoir from l’espérance, and hope that your life is geared more to the latter. What can be hoped or expected for the collective future of humanity? Is it not troubling that our individual life expectancy (espérance de vie)  is greater than ever before, while at the same time our collective life expectancy–as determined by the Doomsday clock–is shorter than ever before? 

I refer to this troubling observation as the "Pinker paradox." Steven Pinker, author of the much-reputed book “The Better Angels of our Nature”,  makes the case that humankind is better off than ever before in its history, thanks to scientific progress and the reign of reason. Pinker ignores that such progress has also produced our looming existential threats, and seems to believe that the same course of action that brought us to our current predicament will also deliver us from it. That, at least, is his espérance.

But is it realistic to harbor l’espérance in the face of a doomsday trajectory? Such a question is beyond the scope of “finer French”, but I’ll attempt an answer because the start of a new year demands one. 

Into the Unknown, by Carsten Sprotte

First of all, to have rock-solid espérance, you have to accept that whatever may happen, beyond our control, fits into a greater cosmic purpose. As we are told in the comedy/romance The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “If the end isn’t happy, well then it’s not the end.” I would also suggest that even though so much is beyond our control, nothing is entirely beyond our influence. In other words, everything counts. 

Your espérance is only worthy to the extent that it embraces the truth about our human predicament. Ignorance is no substitute for espérance. Once you see the situation as clearly as possible, then you can courageously choose l’espérance over le désespoir. This choice, however unrealistic it may seem, acknowledges three reasonable hypotheses:

  • the worst is never certain, and as danger increases, so does also the power to save (Hölderlin)

  • a seemingly insignificant act may produce disproportionately significant effects.

  • The “bad” serves the “good”, or perhaps more accurately, the speck is a part of the whole, and the whole is always beyond our scope of vision and even comprehension. 

Head into the new year fortified by espérance, but don’t stop there. Do the one thing you need to do that will better your life, and hence the lives of those around you. Imagine the whole world has been waiting on you, rather than you waiting on it.  


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