Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation

by Jonathan Lear

Harvard University Press, 187 pp.

Pubblichiamo A Different Kind of Courage, la recensione di Charles Taylor al libro di Jonathan Lear, apparsa in “The New York Review of Books” , Volume 54, Number 7 · April 26, 2007

Radical Hope is first of all an analysis of what is involved when a culture dies. This has been the fate of many aboriginal peoples in the last couple of centuries. Jonathan Lear takes as the main subject of his study the Crow tribe of the western US, who were more or less pressured to give up their hunting way of life and enter a reservation near the end of the nineteenth century.

The issue is not genocide. Many of the Crow people survive; but their culture is gone. Lear takes as his basic text a statement by the tribe’s great chief, Plenty Coups, describing the transition many years after in the late 1920s, near the end of his life: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

Lear concentrates on those last four words. What can they mean? Of course, they could be an expression of dejection, of depression. But he sets that aside for good reasons. He argues that if we interpret the statement psychologically, we are being “guided by our own sense of what is true” and ignoring the question of “Plenty Coups’s humanity” and the particular cultural circumstances in which he found himself. We have to take this expression more literally. We can grasp it if we try to understand the Crow culture when it was fully functioning, when hunting (mainly of buffalo), and then war, which was necessary to maintain a sufficient territory for hunting, were the crucial activities around which excellence and honor revolved. The concept of a “coup” (reflected in the informant’s name) was of a heroic exploit, but of a very special kind. The sense of the word is more or less the same it has in the English borrowing from the French, as when someone says: “I pulled off a great coup.”

Crow coups involved bravery on the battlefield against other tribes, notably when the warrior in face of the enemy put a special stake in the ground, known as a “coup stick.” This was a sign to the foe of a line that he dare not pass, because it would be defended to the death by the Crow warrior. Having planted the stake the warrior was bound either to prevail in defense of his territory or to die. The highest honor belonged to those who made a large number of coups against the enemy, hence the laudatory name of “Plenty Coups.”

Jonathan Lear gives an interesting explanation of why just this notion of excellence and honor prevailed in the tribe. The planting of the coup stick, he explains, was akin to the definition of boundaries, and this was essential to the survival of the Crow way of life:

The establishment of boundaries will, of course, be important to any cultural group. But it is especially tricky when it comes to a nomadic group whose migration depends heavily on hunting. As the tribe migrates, its defensible boundaries will shift, but it needs to be able to exert a proprietary claim over the animals within its (shifting) domain; and it needs to be able to repulse the proprietary claims of its rivals. Counting coups is the minimal act that forces recognition of boundaries from the other side…. Recognition of the Crow boundary is the second-to-the-last thing the Crow warrior wants from [his enemy]. (The last thing is his scalp, but that will serve as a token that he achieved that recognition.)

This background allows Lear to give a real sense of what is lost when a culture disappears. The warrior could try to defend the line of his stake, and fail. But in the condition to which the Crow were reduced on their reservation, where neither hunting nor war was any longer possible, something more drastic occurred. It was no longer possible even to try to defend one’s coup stick, because nothing one did could have such a meaning. As Lear explains, “Counting coups makes sense only in the context of a world of intertribal warfare; and once that world breaks down, nothing can count as counting coups.” Lear imagines someone going to a restaurant to order a buffalo hamburger. He is told that he can’t have it because the last buffalo has been killed. Very different would be the predicament if we were transported to a future where restaurants no longer existed, and words like “ordering” no longer had any meaning. The first case is one of de facto impossibility; the second shows a radical impossibility.

A culture’s disappearing means that a people’s situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible in that radical sense. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You can’t draw lines or die while trying to defend them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.”

This is the explanation of the lapidary statement of Plenty Coups: “After this nothing happened.” Nothing of significance could happen anymore. This is a terrible reality, and it is one that we have trouble understanding, but it is a fate that we in “advanced,” more “complex” societies have been imposing for many centuries on “indigenous” or “tribal” peoples.

We find it hard to grasp the full, devastating impact of this kind of culture death because of the differentiated and loosely articulated way of life that seems normal to us. Imagine that you are a smart, imaginative, and entrepreneurial computer designer, or a champion soccer player, or a virtuoso violinist. And then imagine that the entire world of computer design and manufacture, or the World Cup, or the world of classical music concerts, is removed from our lives by a sort of surgical strike—because of terrorist hackers, computers become too dangerous; or strikes by soccer players close the sport down; or classical music ceases to receive support from both the public and governments. It would now become radically impossible to do what really matters to you. But there would still remain many things you could meaningfully do. You could still be a spouse or lover; you might still be able to earn a lot of money; you could still be active in a movement or a church or a school. And success in all these other activities could be largely unrelated to success in what you did before. You would suffer a hard blow, but you could pick up and start again.

The situation is quite different in a society like that of the Crow. There are no alternative careers waiting for an ex-warrior; he probably has a wife and children, but what does it mean to be a father if you can’t hand on the skills of a warrior? If a relatively limited range of significant actions becomes impossible, how can a person find a meaningful life?

Lear quotes the account of an anthropologist, Robert Lowie, who visited the Crow about a century ago:

War was not a concern of a class nor even of the male sex, but of the whole population, from cradle to grave. Girls as well as boys derived their names from a famous man’s exploit. Women danced wearing scalps, derived honor from their husbands’ deeds, publicly exhibited the men’s shield or weapons; and a woman’s lamentations over a slain son was the most effective goad to a punitive expedition….

Most characteristic was the intertwining of war and religion. The Sun Dance, being a prayer for revenge, was naturally saturated with military episodes…. More significant still, every single military undertaking was theoretically inspired by a relation of a story in dream or vision; and since success in life was so largely a matter of martial glory, war exploits became the chief content of prayer.[1]

Living in a society for which this degree of integration is almost unimaginable, we have great difficulty grasping the full horror of the situation in which the Crow found themselves. That is why we are generally untroubled when we (or “progress,” or “globalization”) impose it on people.

On the contrary, we make a virtue of the kind of “flexibility” that enables people to change jobs, professions, skills. The development of the modern capitalist economy has long been imposing less drastic versions of this kind of culture death on mining villages in Wales and West Virginia, on formerly large and stable workforces of companies that manufacture objects that become obsolete or can be made more cheaply elsewhere, and on many communities in the developing world. The message to younger people today is: don’t become totally invested in one set of skills; you’re bound to have to change your line of work, perhaps many times in the course of your career.[2]

Of course, these changes are much less radical than those the Crow confronted. My point here is that we have not only developed defenses against cultural changes. We have encouraged an identity, a self-definition, of which the core is the ability to “reinvent” ourselves. Someone who can change his or her situation is free, self-reliant, creative, imaginative, resourceful. In the current talk about “globalization,” this identity and its associated virtues are seen as the highest stage of human development. To such people rightly belong the benefits of economic growth, prosperity, increased mobility, ever-new experiences. In the end, we often come to believe that we’re doing the victims of culture death a favor in breaking them out of the stagnant structures of their lives, and opening for them paths of freedom, equality, opportunity.

Some of us don’t buy this upbeat story in its entirety. But it colors our perceptions enough to hide from us the full devastating force of the total obliteration of a way of life. One of the great contributions of Jonathan Lear’s book is to articulate clearly and concisely what it really means:

The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view…. The very physical movements that, at an earlier time, would have constituted a brave act of counting coups are now a somewhat pathetic expression of nostalgia.

But Lear doesn’t stop there, simply describing a state of despair. Many such culture deaths have already happened. Others are yet to come, and it will be difficult, sometimes impossible, to stop them even with much good will. In the absence of effective countermeasures, the consequences of closing down a culture are obvious enough from the plight of many indigenous people, including many North American aboriginals: widespread demoralization, abuse of alcohol and drugs, domestic violence, and children who drop out of school, perpetuating the pattern in the next generation. Many well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) interventions from governments, such as setting up poorly run reservations, seem just to have made the situation worse.

One main reason for the failure of many of these interventions is that they don’t manage to imagine the lives of the supposed beneficiaries themselves or engage with their feelings; and so they can’t break the cycle of apathy, despair, and self-destructive behavior, and this induces further apathy and despair. A program imposed from outside can only help if it can support a project espoused by the group itself. And here is where Lear’s book breaks new ground, in an extremely interesting way.

The very diagnosis of the fate of the Crow seems to leave no room for an initiative on the part of the Crow themselves: “After this nothing happened.” No significant action was possible anymore. At first, this seems to destroy all possibility of practical reasoning, reasoning about what one should do and be, because the goals or ends of the Crow way of life have been made impossible. The result is a kind of confusion, mingled with shame. As one Crow woman said in the aftermath: “I am trying to live a life I do not understand.”

Think of what this means for traditional concepts of virtue. Courage was obviously the central quality for the Crow. But what does it now mean to be courageous? Courage had a very definite sense in the traditional culture, but this is now inapplicable, and so it is no longer clear what courage involves. The same problem arises if one asks the same question not about a virtue but about a position in life: What does it mean to be a chief? A warrior?

Is there a way out of this impasse? Is it possible to find a new meaning for a virtue like courage? It would require not just leaping into a quite different culture’s description of this virtue, say, that of the white man. Rather it would require finding something in one’s own culture or tradition that would enable one to draw new meaning from old definitions that are no longer appropriate.

Plenty Coups was able to help bring about this kind of redefinition for his people. He drew on the established practice of going into the wilderness to seek a revelation through a dream. The dream he reported foretold in thinly veiled terms the end of the Crow way of life, but it also promised a kind of survival for the Crow, provided they could listen “like the Chickadee,” that is, observe others, and find new ways of going on. These were, of course, at that stage wholly unknown, but the dream was the basis for the hope that somehow, beyond just biological survival, the Crow way of life might continue in a yet to be defined new form.

This is what Lear calls “radical hope.” Hope can only exist if you are uncertain about a desired outcome. If it’s really a sure thing, your anticipation of it can’t be hope. But here we have something more extreme than uncertainty: the very shape of this hope remained to be defined. The dream told the Crow that the old standards of courage and shame were going to lose their validity. And yet they would not be left completely adrift in a world without meaning and direction; new standards would emerge if they learned to watch and observe like the Chickadee. Lear writes:

What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.

What can sustain such a hope? Obviously, it can be a faith in something or someone. Perhaps that is part of the answer in Plenty Coups’s case, since the Crow saw themselves as under the protection of God. But the phenomenon that Lear calls “radical hope” is one that doesn’t rely on a clearly identified source of confidence that things will turn out. It is something one can have in the absence of a belief in Providence, or a blind faith that Western civilization knows best, or a doctrine about the inevitable course of history. It wouldn’t be a form of hope if it didn’t include the expectation that something will bring about fulfillment, but this is compatible with great uncertainty about what that can be. About Plenty Coups’s dream, Lear writes:

There may be various forms of ethical criticism that one might be tempted to level at this form of hopefulness: that it was too complacent; that it didn’t face up to the evil that was being inflicted on the Crow tribe. But it is beyond question that the hope was a remarkable human accomplishment —in no small part because it avoided despair.

Lear sees the avoidance of despair as the indispensable condition in which a community can respond creatively to the plight of culture death. And it is only this kind of creative response from within—one that draws on the community’s resources and traditions to come up with a new understanding of the ends of life—that can avoid the spiral of apathy and social decay which is the lot of so many such societies.

The Crow experience, through the life of their chief Plenty Coups, is exemplary for Lear because the central inspiration was his dream evoking the figure of the Chickadee, which “had an established position in traditional Crow life” as a powerful augur of future events. The dream was understood not only as predicting the loss of their way of life but as offering the hope that something new could be found, while leaving the form of this new way of life largely open. The dream, which was in one way an expression of profound anxiety (things will break down, but one can’t say quite how), was also a defense against despair.

Is this kind of radical hope really possible? Certainly, if one means a hope that we shall survive, or come through, or “overcome,” even though one can’t say in advance exactly what this will amount to. All religious hope, as well as much of our basic confidence in life, is of this form. But can this be sustained without some kind of formulated faith in something, whether religious or secular—faith in God, or in History, or in our own resources, or in human resilience? Of this I am less certain. But even backed by such faith, it remains radical enough in its lack of definition, and “a remarkable achievement” indeed.

On the strength of his dream, which he shared with the tribe, Plenty Coups led the Crow in abandoning their nomadic, hunting way of life and settling down as farmers. The key to his achievement was that he could present this project not as a surrender but as an attempt to maintain the collective life of the Crow through the changes which the adaptive wisdom of the “Chickadee” dictated.

We can thus see Plenty Coups as a central and necessary figure, because he had this kind of radical hope. “He is,” Lear writes, “an exemplary human being living through an extraordinary time.” But what makes his reason an example of hope, and not just a Pollyannaish averting of one’s eyes from a terrible situation? What differentiates his dream from wishful thinking? Perhaps the policy that Plenty Coups convinced the Crow to follow, that of cooperation with the US authorities, can be seen as a craven giving in to the oppressor, as “collaboration,” with all the negative overtones that this acquired in Nazi-occupied Europe. Indeed, when one looks at the shameful record of the American and Canadian governments in repeatedly breaking the agreements with American Indians they had made earlier, the case against “collaboration” can look very strong indeed.

Plenty Coups was challenged by Sitting Bull, the last great chief of the Sioux nation who famously led his people to victory over General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Sitting Bull considered it dishonorable to cooperate with the government. Who was right? Lear writes that he doesn’t want to decide this issue himself, and he insists that both men deserve our respect. But he wants to show what it would mean to see Plenty Coups’s position as legitimate, as justified hope rather than just wishful optimism.

He wants moreover to show that we can see Plenty Coups as exhibiting courage—not courage in the traditional Crow sense, the military virtue of facing clearly identified danger steadfastly and without irresponsible rashness. To develop a more general concept of courage, Lear draws on Aristotle’s discussion in the Ethics.

Aristotle also saw the battlefield as the primary site for acts of courage. If we are to regard Plenty Coups as having acted courageously in accepting American dominance and ultimately therefore the pacification of the frontier, we have to change our definition of courage. Or rather, Plenty Coups himself has to come to a new understanding of this virtue. He has to develop what one might call a “thinner” concept of courage, by which one is no longer tied to the very particular notions of the battlefield, the very detailed (and hence “thick”) notions, for example, of placing one’s stake in the ground and refusing to retreat from the line.

To give the concept of courage a new sense, Lear suggests his own picture of the human condition. It is, he believes, in our very nature as finite, erotic beings (this last used in Plato’s sense of desiring what “we take to be valuable, beautiful, and good”) that we long for things that we do not yet fully understand. This takes courage, and it is a crucial human virtue because we are forced to seek the good without a full understanding of what it involves. Moreover, Lear argues, we seek our good in a world full of risks, including those of badly misidentifying what that good consists in or requires. To go forward in this situation, and to act vigilantly but under uncertainty—instead of, say, simply cleaving to accepted formulae or acting impulsively and brashly—takes a kind of steadfast courage. We have here a definition that is unconnected to any particular, culturally defined setting, such as public debate or the battlefield, and it is in that sense “thin.”

Part of what someone in Plenty Coups’s situation has to do in order to think freely about the dire predicament in which the Crow found themselves is identify and acquire this kind of courage, a courage, one might say, of lucid action, rather than indulging various kinds of consoling illusion or succumbing to blind but powerful emotional responses. We can see that in all this, Lear retains the structure of the Aristotelian notion of a virtue as a mean between extremes: courage here being a mean between cowardice (being afraid to look) and rashness (emotionally satisfying outbursts).

But in the end, real courage requires lucidity. Before we say someone has courage, we have to establish that the person in question was really responding to the situation, and not just projecting wishes. And so in spite of Lear’s reluctance to declare a winner in the debate between Plenty Coups and Sitting Bull, it seems to me that he shows Plenty Coups to have been more rooted in reality. He proposed a policy of cooperation, but of wary and vigilant cooperation. He advocated a strategic alliance with the US in wars against rival tribes, but his reasoning was self-protective, without sympathy or admiration for the US. Lear quotes Plenty Coups’s account of his choice:

Our decision was reached, not because we loved the white man who was already crowding other tribes into our country, or because we hated the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe, but because we plainly saw that this course was the only one which might save our beautiful country for us.

He knew that the government could never be wholly trusted. Moreover, following the example of the finely observant Chickadee meant acquiring as much as possible the science and learning of the surrounding society, so that the Crow could effectively defend themselves against continuing efforts at encroachment. He encouraged young tribe members to attend universities, saying, “With what the white man knows he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, he can never oppress us again.” Plenty Coups led several delegations of tribal attorneys to Washington, D.C., in the beginning of the twentieth century, and they successfully lobbied to retain control over large territories. For Lear, the outcome showed that Plenty Coups’s hope was an example of courage, that it would have been a mistake for the Crow to give in to despair on one hand, or simply to have “gone down fighting” on the other.

What do I take away from this short, illuminating book? My own version of radical hope, applied to very different circumstances. Like the version Lear attributes to the Crow, this starts with a devastating realization: that the emergence of a world civilization, highly unified economically, politically, and in communications, has exacted, and will go on exacting, a tremendous human cost in the death or near death of cultures. And this will be made worse because those who dominate modern civilization have trouble grasping what the costs involve.

The hope comes from Lear’s account of Crow society: that human beings can find the resources to come back from a virtual dead end, and invent a new way of life in some creative continuity with the one that has been condemned, as the Crow did in embracing settled agriculture.

The hope is “radical,” because it is virtually impossible to say beforehand what the shape of this new kind of life will be. This has to emerge in specific new forms, drawing on the particular cultural resources of each society. There is no general formula, except utterly empty, formal ones, like: “find a novel solution from within your own traditions.” The notion that there could be a how-to manual for this kind of creative initiative is close to absurd.

In spite of that, a powerful stream of thought and policy in our society persists in thinking in such hortatory ways. There is, for example, the notion that so-called experts can be dispatched to teach societies that have been living for centuries under authoritarian rule how to become democracies. Some even think that it’s obvious how to do this—just hold elections. All people, we are told, desire “freedom”; we just have to remove the bad guys who are stopping them from having it. The naive, destructive rhetoric of the Bush administration is an extreme case, but many less crude versions of the same idea underpin Western policies of development.

It should be clear that transitions to democracy only succeed (and even then often slowly) when they draw on the creative developments of already existing cultural resources. Indian democracy is a case in point. On one hand, India has a vibrant, pluralistic democracy, with a growing rate of participation in elections (while the participation rates in the Atlantic countries are declining). On the other hand, the actual political process is very different from the ones we are used to in Western societies. Some of the major parties, for example, represent traditional religious faiths. These two facts are not unrelated.

But the fact that there are no general rules for these transitions, just as there are no rules for coming back from cultural near-death, doesn’t mean that we have nothing to gain from such careful studies of particular societies as Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope. On the contrary, the wider the range of cases we are familiar with, the more likely we are to find features that may be relevant to a new case and suggest new lines of thought.

This is what makes Lear’s well-written and philosophically sophisticated book so valuable. As a story of courage and moral imagination, it is very powerful and moving. But it also offers the kind of insights that would-be builders of “new world order” desperately need.


[1] Robert H. Lowie, The Crow Indians (University of Nebraska Press, 1983), p. 215; quoted in Radical Hope, p. 12.

[2] The effects of this on the self-understanding of new generations, even on their understanding of character, have been traced by Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character (Norton, 1998).

Charles Taylor was recently awarded the 2007 Templeton Prize. He is Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill. His books include Hegel and The Ethics of Authenticity.