For immortal beings such as the gods, there is no need of Elpis. No Elpis, either, for creatures like animals who are unaware they are mortal. If man, mortal like the animals, foresaw the whole future as the gods do, if he were entirely Promethean, he would not have the strength to live, lacking the ability to look his own death in the face. But since he knows himself to be mortal without knowing when or how he will die, since he knows Elpis―foresight but blind foresight, a necessary illusion, a good and an evil at the same time―only Elpis can enable him to live this ambiguous, dual existence caused by the Promethean fraud when the first sacrificial meal was instituted. Henceforth everything has its opposite: no more contact with the gods that is not also, through sacrifice, the consecration of an unbridgeable gap between mortals and Immortals; no more happiness without unhappiness; birth without death; plenty without suffering and fatigue; food without hunger, decline, old age, and mortality. There are no more men without women, no Prometheus without Epimetheus. There is no more human existence without the twofold Elpis, this ambiguous expectation both fearful and hopeful about an uncertain future―Elpis in which, as the best wives, “bad throughout life comes to offset the good”.
☛ The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne, tr. by Paula Wissing, University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 85-86.
It is often said that after Pandora opened her jar and released all the calamities in the world, the only thing left at the bottom of the container was hope. The word “hope” nowadays is usually associated with positive values (hence, for example, it’s use during the 2008 Obama presidential campaign). However, in a brillant analysis, Detienne and Vernant showed how the greek word for “hope” ―elpis― is much more ambiguous: elpis is about expecting what is good but also what is bad, without knowing exactly what will come.
Bernard Stiegler developed this point in the first volume of Technics and Time (The Fault of Epimetheus, Volume 1, tr. by George Collins, Stanford University Press, 1998; see especially “Prometheus’s Liver”). In an interview published in 2010, he provided a short summary of his argument, linking elpis with both technic and death:
What I tried to show in Technics and Time 1 was supported in effect by the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant. He himself does not thematize thanatology, but he describes according to me —in particular by commenting about the meaning of the word “elpis,” which signifies in Greek hope and fear simultaneously, that is to say, positive and negative protention— he describes according to me the way in which the tragic Greeks, 2,600 years before Heidegger, already posed the problem that Heidegger called “Sorge” (anxiety).1 And they posed it as a relationship of origins with technics by saying look, our way of life is to be technical beings, and our schema—in the ancient sense of the term “skhema”—is Prometheus, whose liver is eaten by the vulture yet it regenerates every day. This is already for me, in the ancient Greece of Hesiod and Aeschylus, a tragic way of describing what Heidegger meant by “being-toward-death.” But it’s in a language that is poetic, tragic, theatrical, mythological, and the irony for me of this matter is that for the Greeks—because for Heide- gger, as you know very well, it’s always the Greeks who are at the origin of thinking, we have to rediscover them, etcetera—the Greeks say to Heidegger, “thanatology” is technics. And thus technics is not what obscures the rapport with death, but rather that which opens up the rapport with death. (“Bernard Stiegler’s Pharmacy: A Conversation” by Marcel O’Gorman, Configurations, Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2010, p. 460; subscription may be required).
One can find more classical sources about elpis at Theoi.com. Finally, below is the original French version of the quote by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant:
Pour qui est immortel, comme les dieux, nu besoin d’Elpis. Pas d’Elpis non plus pour qui, comme les bêtes, ignore qu’il est mortel. Si l’homme, mortel comme les bêtes, prévoyait comme les dieux tout le futur à l’avance, s’il était tout entier du côté de Prométhée, il n’aurait plus la force de vivre, faute de pouvoir regarder sa propre mort en face. Mais se connaissant mortel sans savoir quand ni comment il mourra, Elpis, prévision, mais prévision aveugle, illusion nécessaire, bien et mal à la fois, Elpis seule permet de vivre cette existence ambigüe, dédoublée, qu’entraîne la fraude prométhéenne quand elle institue le premier repas sacrificiel. Tout désormais à son revers: plus de contact avec les dieux qui ne soit aussi, à travers le sacrifice, consécration d’une infranchissable barrière entre mortels et Immortels, plus de bonheur sans malheur, de naissance sans trépas, d’abondance sans peine ni fatigue, de nourriture sans faim, dépérissement, vieillesse et mortalité, plus de mâle sans femme , de Prométhée sans Épiméthée, , plus d’existence humaine sans la double Elpis, attente ambigüe, crainte et espoir à la fois face à un avenir incertain — Elpis en qui. comme chez la meilleure épouse, «le mal tout au long de la vie vient contrebalancer le bien». (La Cuisine de sacrifice en pays grec in Jean-Pierre Vernant. Oeuvres, tome 1, éd. Seuil, coll. Opus, 2007, pp. 972-973)
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On the topic of hope, see also (in French): Contre l’espoir comme tâche politique by Lawrence Olivier, 2004
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