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The Monarchy of Fear by Martha Nussbaum

Chad Trainer explores the politics of fear with Martha Nussbaum.

Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear (2018) presents itself as a look at the United States’ political crisis and the nation’s future efforts toward ‘justice and flourishing’. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. However, Nussbaum doesn’t so much discuss U.S. politics as survey the psychological factors behind it. She chooses examples from classical Greece and Rome to make her points instead of examples from the Trump/Brexit era, since she sees classical anecdotes as a means of transcending ‘partisan defensiveness’.

Nussbaum focuses on fear as a significant factor in the U.S. outlook both generally and in politics in particular: “Fear is monarchical, and democratic reciprocity a hard-won achievement” (p.60), she writes. She frequently invokes the Roman poet Lucretius as one of her favorite authors, hailing him as ‘perhaps the first (Western) theorist of the unconscious mind’. She understands him as believing that “primary fear operates beneath the level of consciousness, tainting everything with its ‘blackness’.” For Nussbaum, fear frequently underlies the moral concerns in current politics to the extent of destabilizing democracy because “democracy requires all of us to limit our narcissism and embrace reciprocity. Right now, fear is running rampant in our nation” (p.62). U.S. citizens fear, for example, deteriorating living standards, unemployment, and inadequate health care. The American Dream of upward mobility for the duly diligent can seem a thing of the past.

According to Nussbaum, insecurity by its very nature scapegoats the vulnerable Other. She also sees insecurity as making citizens indifferent to truth. We can end up preferring “the comfort of an insulating peer group who repeat one another’s falsehoods” which has leaders who are sure to afford them a “womb-like feeling of safety”. Instead of engaging in constructive reflection, people resort to aggressive measures that Nussbaum calls ‘othering strategies’. For instance, anger, disgust, and envy derive from fear. Anger, abetted by feelings of helplessness, causes problems in democratic politics by distracting us from sensible solutions. In contrast, Nussbaum celebrates Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela as inspiring “noble and successful freedom movements conducted in a spirit of non-anger.” We also develop disgust toward the things our imaginations merely happen to associate with what we immediately dread, in order to sufficiently distance ourselves from them. The association of all Muslims with hate crimes is a case in point. Such ‘projective disgust’ jeopardizes equality and mutual respect. As for envy, it has posed threats to democracy ever since democracy’s inception. “It is because of a deep underlying anxiety, a root-level painful insecurity, that people engage in zero-sum competition and hate the people who succeed” Nussbaum concludes (p.143). She portrays the Roman Republic as having collapsed into tyranny due to “the positional game of rivalry, envy, and destruction” [see Cicero’s Brief Life in this issue, Ed]. Nussbaum also cites misogyny as a temporarily satisfying but worthless phenomenon among envious men reluctant to face the questions of “how to reinvent love, care, and the nuclear family in an era of increasing female work and achievement” and traces much of this resentment towards women attaining leadership roles. Nussbaum stops short, however, of claiming that competition requires envy. More generally, “Envy flares up… when a group feels cut out of key good things that other people have.” She writes, “There’s no doubt that white men, particularly in the lower middle classes, are indeed losing out… Mortality has skyrocketed in both sexes, for those with no college degree, but is higher among males.” (p.190)

The Greek and Roman Stoics advised against hope because of its dependence on fortune. On account of the uncertainty and lack of control that hope entails, Nussbaum understands it as the “flip side of fear”, but she calls upon us to appreciate that as related as fear and hope are, hope can be practical and constructive in a way that many fears cannot. She agrees with Immanuel Kant that even when there is a dearth of supporting evidence, we should adopt hope as a ‘practical postulate’, considering the “good action it may enable.” So it can be helpful to work on the premise that people are what we hope they are. The areas of life that can facilitate hope for Nussbaum are: the arts; critical thinking; religious groups (“insofar as they practice love and respect for others”); “solidarity groups focused on securing justice in a nonviolent and dialogical way”; and theories pertaining to justice and citizenship.

Social media and the internet come in for some hard knocks from Nussbaum, who argues that they have increased the volatility of politics, especially when it comes to inaccurate reporting and the way this can cascade: “When a report ‘goes viral’, emotions easily get out of control, in a way that is unlike the effect of newspaper reports, or even TV” (p.49). Attention spans, already challenged by people obsessively checking their phones, feed into the notion that “everything worth saying can be said right away, in a trumpet of self-proclamation.” She feels that social media and the internet are therefore, on balance, more likely to function as destructive rather than constructive forces.

Martha Nussbaum
Image © Venantius J Pinto 2022. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto

Considering the havoc social media can wreak, Nussbaum deems it perverse to choose this as a time for reducing government funding for the arts and humanities. The arts and humanities unite people who are otherwise divided by things social media encourage: “The arts offer bridges to seeing human diversity as joyful, funny, tragic, delightful, not as a horrible fate to be shunned” (p.226). Philosophy may be good for providing ways to respect our opponents; but we need the arts and religion to show us how to be loving to them.

Ideally, Nussbaum would have elaborated more on the extent to which one can play the politics game ethically and self-respectfully. But The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis doesn’t feature the political analysis the subtitle leads one to expect. It reads more like a squishy self-help book. Maybe it should have been subtitled Psychological Accounts of Our Political Crisis.

Although Nussbaum appreciates the merits of Kant’s ‘practical hope’, the hundreds of hours I spent subjecting myself to Kant left me convinced that philosophers should be wary of embracing Kantian hope at the risk of it degenerating into escapism, or whitewashing. I’m in favor of practical hope, provided that it doesn’t exist at the expense of whatever valid pessimism honesty may stipulate. The Italian Antonio Gramsci had it right when he counseled, “We should live by pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” In any event, as one who has been fascinated with classical philosophy for decades, I appreciate The Monarchy of Fear as being at its best when drawing parallels between primal passions in our times and those in the Greco-Roman era.

© Chad Trainer 2022

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of the history of philosophy. He is the author of Reflections on Russell: Musings on a Multidimensional Man.

The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, by Martha C. Nussbaum, Oxford University Press, 2018, 249 pages.

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