What’s Left in Pandora’s Box

We’re all familiar with the story of Pandora’s jar filled with evils, which she releases into the world. But why does one of them remain inside?

Hesiod relates the myth in this way:

Prometheus the crafty deceived him; therefore [Zeus] planned sorrow and mischief against men. He hid fire; but that the noble son of Iapetus stole again for men from Zeus the counsellor in a hollow fennel-stalk, so that Zeus who delights in thunder did not see it. But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him in anger: “Son of Iapetus, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire—a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.” So said the father of men and gods, and laughed aloud.

And he bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face; and Athena to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. […] And he called this woman Pandora, because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread. […]

Ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils, and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them. So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus.

Hesiod, Works and Days, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White

In Hesiod’s very brief summary of the myth, Pandora opens her jar and lets all of the evils, save one, into the world of humankind. The one that’s left, still inside the jar, is elpis, which we might translate either as “hope” or “expectation.” This raises at least two main questions for any interpreter of the myth:

(1) Why is elpis numbered among the evils? Doesn’t hope present itself as a good thing?

(2) In what sense is elpis still contained within the jar, “caught by the rim,” as it were? Don’t we see hope or expectation manifest all around us, and in our own lives?

Some interpreters have been puzzled by this, and simply remained in their puzzlement, while others like M.L. West have declared, with characteristic arrogance and condescension, that “Hesiod has not given his jar a consistent symbolic meaning. He means that hope remains among men as the one antidote to suffering.” Such a dismissive response closes the door for West, and those like him, to accept the invitation posed by the apparent, superficial contradiction: an invitation to look beneath the surface, and to discover some of the wisdom that lies hidden there.

In his commentary on Plato’s Philebus, Damascius observes that:

Expectations are a kind of opinion, confidence and fear are affects of the vital principles; all these are distinguished by evil or good. For instance, we expect that something good will happen or something bad will not, and the result is confidence; again, we expect that something bad will happen or something good will not, and the result is fear…

Damascius, Lectures on the Philebus, §147, trans. L.G. Westerink

He later adds:

False perceptions cause false opinions, false opinions [cause] false expectations, these again [cause] false pleasures; in the same way imaginings, when false, cause false pleasures. As we call an opinion false when it rests on that which is not, so fear and confidence, which are characteristics of expectations, are here said to be false when they rest on external facts that do not justify fear or confidence.

Damascius, Lectures on the Philebus, §§182–183, trans. L.G. Westerink

So, hopes or expectations are future-directed: they have to do with our beliefs about what goods or evils might be coming our way in the future, and our beliefs about when and whether they will do so. True hopes have the potential to be a great good, holding out for us a promise of good things which we can, and will, actually go on to attain. False hopes, however, simply compound our suffering: not only are particular goods unrealized, or particular evils manifest despite our thinking that we could avoid them, but we also have the suffering of disappointment, the painful crash against the hard rocks of the world that hurts all the more because of how high we had first elevated our false expectations. Likewise, if we expect things to be worse than they actually could come to be, we mire ourselves in misery for the present, and foreclose the possibility of acting to bring about future goods: why strive for what we believe to be impossible?

Thus we have an initial account of why hope or expectation might legitimately be numbered among evils. But why does Hesiod tell us that it, unlike all the other ills, remains within the jar?

As Damascius suggests above, our expectations are the result of our opinions or beliefs. Expectations are thus, in a unique way, private property: each one of us generates our own expectations from within; they are not imposed on us from outside, the way that most other evils are. To put the same point the other way around: some evils—both those that the medievals called “natural evils” and “moral evils”—are almost entirely out of my hands: a sudden volcanic eruption, pestilence, crop failure, a random act of violence on the street corner. With others, like illness. while I may have some power to influence things (by exercising, eating healthy food, etc.), it’s still ultimately out of my hands whether I’m struck down by disease. These sorts of evils—the ones already released from the jar—come upon us, as Hesiod says here, “of themselves.”

Hope or expectation is different: it derives entirely from internal factors which are subject to my control, or which can in principle be brought under my control. And so while all the other evils are already “out of the box,” as it were, the evil of false expectation remains inside: each one of us has our own copy of the jar, and has the choice of whether, and in what way, we will release false expectations into our lives. In this way, we can even see hope or expectation as being, more than any of the other contents of the jar, the curse which Zeus promises at the outset: “an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.” That does not, at least for most of us, describe external evils like illness or plague. It describes quite fittingly the evil of false hope.

In closing, we should not that this is emphatically not just a case of “wishing makes it so.” As the first quote from Damascius indicates, the critical factor which distinguishes true expectations from false ones, is how well they correspond with the actual world beyond ourselves. So the way to avoid being harmed by hope is not to close my eyes to reality and simply “hope for the best;” rather, it’s to cultivate my powers of perception and discernment, such that, contrary to the destructive pattern in the second quote, true perceptions and true imaginings can give rise to true opinions, which in turn lead to true hopes, which bring about a genuine confidence: a confidence which motivates appropriate action toward genuinely achievable goods, and a confidence which does not hope in vain.

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