In Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is chained to a rock, his liver devoured daily by an eagle but it regenerates each night. One of his comforters asks him why he was punished by Zeus. Prometheus explains how he felt sorry for the plight of humans and taught them to make fire so they could keep warm, cook food, and build a civilization. This angered Zeus and Prometheus was now paying the consequences for his good deed. In one of his darkest moments as he reflected on some of the bad outcomes of his gift to man, he said “Vain hopes I gave to man.”
Idealists imagine that the benefits of their voluntary participation or support will be realized. In World War I someone coined the phrase that this was “the war to end all wars.” Among the abolitionists before the Civil War were many ministers who believed that education, preaching, and popular opinion would lead slave owners to voluntarily give up their slaves. We have had a “war on cancer” for some 40 years without that hoped for victory. We have had a war on poverty for 50 years and the gap between the poor and the very rich has increased rather than diminish.
There are some victories along the way. The suffrage movement did lead to a vote for women. The Civil War did end legal slavery. The child labor laws did protect children from hazardous work. Public health laws did provide compulsory immunization against infectious diseases. The Food and Drug Administration does protect consumers from contaminated or toxic foods and medicines. It is not as perfect as idealists wished, but certainly it is far superior than doing nothing.
Pessimists will see the failures and optimists will cite the victories. Those who lived through triumphs and disappointments will realize that our “vain hopes” are still worth cherishing.