Hope’s Hunger On Ascetism and Apophaticism of Hope in T.S. Eliot’s Post-conversion Poetry



Published Nov 3, 2022
Maikki Aakko


In this paper I analyse hope in connection to human desires as a natural passion but also as a virtue that is primarily threatened by two vices: presumption and despair. The central argument of this paper is that ascetic and apophatic practices can help us navigate the difficult terrain of hope in connection to desire: to learn virtuous hope one must engage in ascetic and apophatic practices whereby the desires that motivate hope – and our moral vision which makes visible to us those goods hope attaches itself to – are purified. Ascetic is here understood not as a complete denial of desire – an absence of all desiring – but as a momentary renunciatory suspension of desire that leads to its purification and reorientation towards the good. This asceticism is connected with apophaticism: a welcoming of noetic darkness through which one enters a state of profound and willed ignorance in relation to God and desired future goods.

My claim is that T.S. Eliot’s post-conversion poetry – especially Ash-Wednesday – yields many interesting examples of how such ascetic-apophatic practices can form our future-orientated way of being, directing our hunger towards perceived future goods in a virtuous manner. In Ash-Wednesday we discover an account of the individual convert’s journey towards spiritual renewal and the difficult death hope must experience during that journey. In the Four Quartets asceticism and apophaticism of hope are also present while the focus shifts from the inward world of the individual convert to the individual in the context of the historical communities she is a member of. One of the most interesting features of Eliot’s account of asceticism and hope is that for him the ascetic struggle is not a straight-forward journey from renunciation to simplicity but a constant going back-and-forth between moments of devotion and distraction. Indeed, the ascetic struggle for the purification of the desires that motivate hope takes place through the confusion of the fallen world that also pushes upon us the need to re-evaluate our hopes after disappointments and crises. After an analysis of Eliot’s post-conversion poetry, I will present some preliminary remarks about how this kind of ascetic-apophatic approach towards hope can help remedy some of its accompanying vices on various levels.

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T.S. Eliot, hope, virtues, Thomas Aquinas, asceticism, apophaticism