Living in hope? No thanks?

Francis Bacon’s Stoicism in “Of Earthly Hopes”

Castalian Stream
9 min readMay 28


Pandora’s box: be careful! wikimedia: by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Shouldn’t we live in hope? Doesn’t hope that things will get better console us in hard times — it’s just a matter of waiting a little longer? Hold on, as REM sang? In the ancient world, the Stoics nevertheless warned against hope as a life strategy, or seeming virtue. Likewise, some versions of the ancient Pandora’s Box story suggest that hope was one of the evils of human life.

In the renaissance, British philosopher Francis Bacon tackled the subject in his meditation “On Earthly Hopes”. Without mentioning Stoic sources, and with his usual acuity, Bacon puts the philosophical case against living in hope — as against trying to actively do what you can to make the world better — as well as any other source we’re aware of.

Faith, charity and … imagination?

Hope is a theological virtue in the Christian tradition. Bacon therefore did well to specify that his criticism of the psychological or wider value of hope was a criticism only of “earthly hopes”: that is, dreams of more wealth, power, fame, an easier life, etc..

“On Earthly Hopes” takes as its object the biblical verse, from Ecclesiastes 6: 9:

Better is the sight of the eye, than the apprehension of the mind.

As Bacon (involved in the King James bible) would have known, this wisdom saying is more standardly rendered as “better is the sight of the eye, than the wanderings of desire”. And this translation would have served Bacon just as well. Because what follows concerns the ways that we suffer more in imagination, than we might need to, in a cooler reckoning of things.

Hope, or at least earthly hope — hope for better times, better things — for Bacon is a child of imagination. Like the ancient Western philosophers, however, Bacon is cautious about the boons of this capacity we have, to imagine more and other than what is, was, or will be the case.

“Imaginations disturb everything, they multiply fears, they corrupt pleasures”, he wrote in the infamous 1597 Promus which contains so many phrases also in the Shakespearian plays as to have aroused some debate.

Staying grounded



Castalian Stream

Articles on philosophy, psychology & classical thought (notably Stoic), aimed at renewing, spreading, and applying these ideas today.