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Presumption and Despair


Hope is seen as a theological virtue because its immediate object is God; it is infused into our souls by God alone, and it is directed to him. We come to know and understand hope through the divine revelation in the scriptures and we are enjoined to fully embrace hope in its entirety. There are two forms of denying hope: despair and presumption. Presumption is the antinatural anticipation of plenitude. Despair is also anticipation: the antinatural anticipation of non-plenitude. To despair is to descend to hell. By calling both anticipations, we manifest the fact that they destroy the becoming, the not-yet of man, in a new interpretation: no or already.


Presumption is here considered as a vice opposed to the theological virtue of hope. It may also be regarded as a product of pride. It may be defined as the condition of a soul which, because of a badly regulated reliance on God's mercy and power, hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon of his sins without repenting of them. Presumption is said to offend against hope by excess, as despair by defect.

Presumption, the first abuse of God’s mercy, is a sort of “perverted security,” as St. Augustine called it. It takes the promise of salvation and makes it a “sure” thing. The root-malice of presumption is that it denies the supernatural order, as in the first instance, or travesties the conception of the Divine attributes

The sin of presumption perverts the virtue of hope and turns it into exploitation of God’s mercy. It also takes two forms. One form of presumption is spiritual sloth. It assumes that no spiritual effort is necessary to get to Heaven. God will send us all to Heaven anyway, so why bother putting forth any effort? This error assumes first of all that the only goal of spiritual growth is to slide into Heaven. It misses the fact that God wants us to grow in the natural virtues and the theological virtues, and to grow in our relationship with him.

There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

Presumption rejects the arduousness of achieving what we hope for by claiming to already “have” what is offered. In this way, presumption sins against hope. Once one has what one hopes for, hope ceases.



In the act of despair, the essence of sin, which is a contradiction of reality, is especially manifested. Despair means in fact to deny the road to plenitude, the way to eternal life. Objectively speaking, it is not the most serious sin, but the most dangerous of all, as it closes the gate of forgiveness. It makes up in fact the very structure of the damned. The despair of man, as a wayfarer, is like an anticipation of damnation. It threatens therefore man's moral life because the realization of the human person is bound to hope.

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According to Heidegger, man is a being threatened by destruction. He is without support in the past because he has been thrown into existence from nothingness. Neither in the present nor in the future because he runs towards the abyss of death. He (Man) lives in order to die and lives in the world by dying, because to be is to die. This is why Gabriel Marcel criticizes traditional philosophy as having failed to include in its definition of man his capacity to despair. Despair is linked to the consciousness of a metaphysical destiny left unfulfilled. Without immortality, every human existence contemplated as such must end in despair, for death is, visibly speaking, the last word"

Another form of despair is an unconscious one: the escapism of the false hope. However, this defense mechanism is a two edged sword, for the very protection it affords makes it nearly impossible for the person in question to liberate himself and take the leap to a higher sphere of existence. It should also be clear that this type of metaphysical hide and seek is a most pitiable state, whose tragedy lies in the very betrayal of man's innermost possibility: his being made for God. As St. Augustine beautifully put it: For Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.

Origin and Root of Despair and Presumption

Despair does not happen all of a sudden. The origin and root of despair is sloth, laziness. It is what theologians called acedia. The notion that has become popular turns around the expression: sloth is the mother of all vices. According to this view, it is the opposite of diligence or laboriousness, almost synonymous with lack of care or application. This idea, however, is not only a trivialization of the primary idea of the sin of acedia, but entails its true destruction.

Traditional Theology considers acedia as a kind of sadness, more concretely a kind of sadness vis a vis the divine goodness of man. This sadness paralyzes, disheartens. What is opposed to acedia is not diligence or hard work but greatness of soul and joy, the fruit of supernatural love. The sadness of the world that, according to St. Paul, leads to death is a lack of magnanimity, the greatness of soul: man does not want to undertake the great enterprise proper of Christian calling. It is like a kind of anguished vertigo that gets hold of man when he realizes the heights where God is leading him.

The man affected by it does not have either the will or the courage to be as great as he really is. As a perverted humility, it does not want to accept the supernatural goods because they imply great demands for the one who receives them. It becomes then a conscious aversion, an authentic flight from God. Finally, it leads to the monstrous conviction and express wish that God should not have elevated him, but left him alone. Most of us, as C. S. Lewis recalls, have at times felt a secret sympathy with the dying farmer who replied to the Vicar's dissertation on repentance by asking: What harm have I ever done Him? There is the real rub. The worst we have done to God is to leave Him alone - why can't He return the compliment?

Sloth, as a capital sin, is the sad and angry, stupidly egoist, renunciation of man to the nobility (noblesse oblige) of being a son of God. Since this is an irrevocable fact that affects the very core of his essence, it means in the last instance that man does not want to be what God wants him to be, that he does not want to be what he really is. Acedia, the despair of weakness, before authentic despair, consists in the desperate man not wanting to be himself.


The root and beginning of despair is the apathetic sadness of acedia. Its perfection is accompanied by pride. The connection between pride and despair has often been pointed out. The man who at first despairs out of weakness, eventually realizes why he does not want to be himself. Then, obstinacy appears. Pride is the hidden channel that links the two opposed forms of lack of hope: despair and presumption. At the very summit of despair, the self-destructive and unnatural denial of plenitude borders with the most extreme realization of the illusion, equally destructive, of presumption, which consists in affirming non-plenitude as if it was truly plenitude.

On the contrary, supernatural hope, by implanting in man the new future of a not-yet absolutely inexhaustible, opens a new youth that can only be destroyed by the destruction of hope. The youth of the man who hopes can be equally annihilated by the two forms of lack of hope, but in a different manner by despair as senility, by presumption as infantilism.

Despairing of salvation and the presumption of salvation are the two main sins against the virtue of hope. Lust, gluttony and greed lead to despair; vainglory and pride lead us to believe that we can be forgiven without repentance.

Both of these sins arise from the infertile ground of an isolated ego. Though they appear to be very different, they both have their origins in the sin of pride.

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