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A Philosophy of Fear

A Philosophy of Fear by Lars Svendsen

Mark Frankel thinks fearfully.

We can philosophise about anything, even fear. Actually, that’s not so surprising, as from earliest times philosophers have thought about fear, anger and the other emotions. This book by a Norwegian professor looks at the classic ethical conflict of the emotions and reason, but it is also a piece of contemporary polemics about the politics of fear.

These polemics are the result of the author’s increasing irritation at the colonisation of our lives by fear. Professor Svendsen aims some crisply expressed criticisms at those politicians who exaggerate the threat of terrorism to erode our human rights, and at the scare-mongering media which corrupt our understanding with sensationalised half-truths. His complaint is a familiar one. In the UK, the US and elsewhere, concerns have been raised about governments’ attempts to unmask and restrain terrorists, from phone-tapping and detention without trial to outright kidnapping and torture. Because opposition to these measures has been vocal, governments in the UK and US rejected some of the more extreme measures adopted by their predecessors. Svendsen argues that while it’s obvious that terrorism must be combated, it is equally obvious that this need is insufficient to justify disregarding basic human rights. There are questions to be asked about what constitutes a basic human right, and moreover, what constitutes disregarding them, but Svendsen claims the authority of Benjamin Franklin, who said “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty or security.”

Svendsen is not just concerned with the reaction to 9/11. Rather, his point is that it is wrong in principle for politicians to exploit fear, and for the media to pander to their unscrupulousness. Yet not all politicians are like this. Franklin D. Roosevelt said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – and he had better reason than most to preach the politics of fear, faced as he was by destitute masses at home and powerful tyrants abroad. And like FDR, Svendsen says we ought to fear fear, because it undermines so much of what is really important in our lives. Politicians who with an eye to history ignore this message, may find that history judges them differently from the way they intended. Once the media finds another issue to sensationalise and the caravan moves on, more sober judgements are possible, common sense reasserts itself, and the public go about their business fearful not of wild-eyed terrorists, but now of unemployment, death by natural causes, or environmental degradation.

The Tyranny Of Fear

Svendsen claims our lives are being increasingly colonised by fear; but George W. Bush and Tony Blair et al hardly compare with other fear-mongerers, particularly that archetypal merchant of fear, Joseph Stalin. What made Stalin so frightening was not that he sought to induce fear in his enemies, and so inadvertently oppressed his friends, but that he sought to terrify loyal supporters. As Solzhenitsyn shows us, the gulags were full of Bolsheviks who believed in kindly Uncle Joe and blamed their suffering on trickery by his counsellors. In fact, though, Stalin waged a war against his own people, partly to guard against the off-chance they might turn against him.

It is tyrannies not democracies which thrive on the politics of fear. If Svendsen had moved beyond contemporary polemics and taken a longer historical perspective, he would also have made more of the scope for religion to play on fear. There is a paradox in mainstream Christianity, for example, which is presented as a religion of love, but which alienates with its dogmas and backs up fears of the temporal world with threats of Hellfire to come. Nowadays we do not hear so much from priests and bishops about the threat of damnation, perhaps because educated opinion is repelled by such blatant manipulation. Progressive religious voices instead usually lend themselves to a polemics of trust.

Svendsen is able to write about fear as he does partly because philosophers like Onora O’Neill have written about its opposite, trust, as the cement of civil society. Certainly, civilisation needs trust, not fear. As a reductio ad absurdum argument [ie, one showing its premises must be false because of its impossible conclusions], in a totalitarian society where fear is universal and everyone were to deceive everyone else, then there could be no trust or reliance on others’ communications, hence nobody could deceive anyone else. This society would cease to function. But this is a mere thought-experiment. In reality, the more likely outcome of totalitarianism is a atmosphere of suspicion and fear in which friends and family members do betray each other and life becomes poisoned. Clearly, trust and openness walk hand in hand down the sunny side of the street, while fear and betrayal skulk together in the shadows.

Truth Management

Philosophers can be classified according to whether they have an optimistic or a pessimistic political philosophy. For the optimists civil society is engendered by trust, reason and respect for the individual, and by shared interests. The pessimists think we hang on to nurse for fear of so much worse. Fearful philosophers include Machiavelli and Hobbes, who are pessimists as regards all states of society, while the romantics Rousseau and Marx posit an unobtainable utopia, which amounts to pessimism about the present. Aristotle, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant and Rawls are also optimists, although curiously Spinoza and Kant had a poor opinion of the moral integrity of their fellow citizens, and Aristotle had no notion of the rights of the individual. Adorno and Horkheimer recognised this dualism in the Western tradition when they wrote of “those sombre writers of the bourgeois dawn – Machiavelli, Hobbes, Mandeville and so on – who decrying the egotism of the self, acknowledged in so doing that society was the destructive principle, denouncing harmony before it was elevated as the official doctrine by the serene and classical authors” (Dialectics of Enlightenment).

Svendsen is amongst the serene and classical, despite his barbs against our leaders. He thinks fear can be controlled. Fear may be irrational in the sense that it makes us prey to manipulation, but can be rationally appraised and managed. Thus the enemy of fear-mongering politicians and Hellfire preachers is informed and alert public opinion – that is, a body of opinion-makers who understand that the threats for which fear may be the immediate reaction are measurable, and can be controlled. There is already an evidence-based risk-assessing policy-making industry which, Svendsen reassures us, can put our minds at ease in the face of media-induced frenzies about terrorism, credit crunches, epidemics, alien abductions, and the collapsing moral fibre of the nation. But the complementary industries of risk-management and think-tank policy generation are strangely unaccountable. Who measures the risks this poses? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The credit rating agencies got the banking crisis wrong; and that crisis was induced by risk-mitigating financial instruments designed to turn bad debts into good ones. In manufacturing and industry the worry is that risk management and value-engineering is only about reducing environmental standards while maximising profit. Capitalism is always trying to keep one step ahead of the regulator, and the risk-management industry is no exception. The informed and studied control of risk may alleviate fears, but should not allow complacency about genuine dangers.

Emotional Responses

In addition to contemporary polemics, Svendsen deals with classic philosophical issues concerning the emotions. Western wisdom about the control of our emotions goes back at least as far as the Stoics. Their basic ideas had been independently discovered by the Buddha, who developed a philosophy also based on understanding dissatisfaction and controlling the emotions. But there has been a counter-trend against the ancient recognition of ourselves as creatures prone to natural feelings and impulses. John MacMurray, a sage of the 1930s, but now largely forgotten, wrote “Reason is the capacity to behave consciously in terms of the nature of what is not ourselves” (Reason and Emotion p.19).

The stark distinction between emotion and reason, influenced by Freudianism, contrasts with the evergreen view of Aristotle that reason is itself as much a product of our biology as fear, anger, lust and the allegedly irrational emotions. The corresponding neo-Aristotelian, anti-Freudian essentially humanist view, recognises that we flourish when we conform with what is natural, since what is truly natural is best.

Svendsen points out the difficulty of distinguishing between the biological, physiological and social aspects of emotions, as all emotions have a biological basis but are shaped by individual experiences as well as by social norms. Fear has a stronger biochemical component than some other emotions, and there is little to be done by reason if really strong fear takes hold. If one is truly afraid, one cannot simply choose to have a more comfortable emotion. Nevertheless, generally speaking, we can bring our reason to bear on our emotions. For example, we can avoid placing ourselves in situations where we know we are likely to be afraid, such as high places. We also possess a limited ability to control our emotions, and to improve our ability to do so by practice, such as controlling a tendency to panic from fear. We may not be able to completely master our emotions, but we can understand them and be alert to how they may be both exploited and moderated. Such is the message of the ancient ethicists, brought up to date by this wide-ranging and thought-provoking book – a companion to the author’s A Philosophy of Boredom.

Svendsen’s message is that we ought to go beyond fear. That message is good. My only criticism of A Philosophy of Fear is a pedantic one, that some of the references are not fully translated from the original Norwegian. The English reader will puzzle to identify, for example, the title of the essay by Montaigne, which is referenced as Om drukkenskap.

The study of fear and the other emotions is not the preserve of psychotherapists or professors of philosophy. Rather it is done by any thoughtful person who meditates upon his or her own feelings, thoughts and actions.

© Mark Frankel 2011

Mark Frankel is a professional financier and amateur philosopher from Kingston-upon-Thames.

A Philosophy of Fear by Lars Svendsen; Reaktion Press, 2010, 192 pps, £14.95 pb, ISBN:978-1861894045.

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