A Philosophy of Fear—and Society of Scolds


Fear was a natural enough response to the arrival of the coronavirus on America’s shores. The novel virus from Wuhan is highly infectious and had already caused thousands of deaths in China and Italy by the time hotspots of infection began to appear here. What was remarkable, however, was not that Americans were alarmed to the point of panic-hoarding toilet paper, or that officials responded with such sweeping policies as “shelter in place” orders, but that activists on social media reacted with fury toward anyone who failed to be fearful enough—anyone who, for example, questioned the wisdom of shutting down the consumer economy virtually overnight, with predictably dire consequences for the millions of cooks, waiters, drivers, bartenders, retail clerks, hotel workers, and others who do not enjoy the luxury of being able to work from home.

A clash over policies and the trade-offs involved would be one thing, and, given the stakes, such a clash would inevitably involve powerful emotions. But even where there were minimal policy differences, those who were deemed by social media activists to be insufficiently affrighted were subjected to vitriolic hostility—standing accused of callousness or rank stupidity, a deficiency in morals or intelligence or both. Being a good person came to mean not just staying indoors and washing your hands and doing everything necessary to minimize your chances of catching the virus or infecting others, but also following self-appointed opinion leaders up to the right pitch of anxiety. Nothing practical depended on doing so, but something of the highest importance for social psychology did.

The professional opinion media played its role in all of this. An illustrative example was the reception that met R. R. Reno’s essay “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion,” published on March 20 in First Things. Reno, the magazine’s editor, asked whether the concern for minimizing the risk to life at the cost of all else was not a form of “disastrous sentimentalism”: “Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life,” he wrote. And for that he was pilloried by right-thinking persons in the mainstream media and in much of the Christian and conservative press, too. Bare life, and not life in the service of any higher ideal, was the supreme object, and death the greatest evil imaginable.

There was a philosopher once who placed fear and death at the heart of the social order. His name, of course, was Thomas Hobbes. The commentators and activists who police our attitudes toward fear and death today are not his disciples, but they are his children. Their liberalism—including in the case of many who identify as conservatives but identify their conservatism as “classical liberalism”—is conditioned and made possible by his philosophy, rebellious though they may be against the harsh truths of their father. Though liberalism explicitly prizes any number of lovely ideals, from freedom and equality to dignity and self-determination, at root it is an ideology of negation: “freedom from,” whether freedom from political control, from religious authority, or from fear itself. And the sort of character that would disregard death, and is moved by feelings stronger than fear, has to be negated before liberalism becomes possible. Hobbes tried to achieve that negation through a revolutionary philosophical framework, and liberalism today thrives only in his system’s shadow.

War and Peace by Thomas Hobbes

“And hereupon it was my Mother Dear / Did bring forth Twins at once, both me, and Fear.” That was how an anonymous seventeenth-century translator rendered into English a telling line of Thomas Hobbes’s Latin verse autobiography. Hobbes was born on April 5, 1588, at a time when England was apprehensive of an invasion—the fear that Hobbes says was his twin. It was the year of the Spanish Armada, and Hobbes’s whole life (he died in 1679) would be marked by Europe’s and England’s conflicts. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) raged on the Continent during the prime of his life, while the English Civil War (1642–1651) coincided with the peak of his philosophical attainments. Leviathan, his masterwork, was published in the spring of the year (1651) that Oliver Cromwell defeated the last serious royalist military force at the Battle of Worcester in September.

War, as much as fear, was Hobbes’s lifelong companion, and he came to recognize civil war in particular as the antithesis of civil order. His studies no less than the experience of the times in which he lived communicated that lesson. Though his father had been a small-town vicar who “disesteemed learning” (as the biographer John Aubrey noted), Hobbes’s intelligence was striking enough from an early age that an uncle paid for his schooling and later to send him to Oxford. He excelled in classical languages and worked to maintain his facility with Greek and Latin during the years he spent after Oxford as tutor (and later secretary) to William Cavendish, a wealthy young aristocrat who would succeed his father as Earl of Devonshire.

In 1628, Hobbes published the first notable work under his own name, a translation of The History of the Peloponnesian War that he dedicated to the senior Cavendish. Thucydides’s account of the ruin that befell the city-states of Greece as a result of the war between the Athenians and Spartans—itself a civilizational civil war of sorts, which touched off civil wars among classes and among factions with foreign affinities in cities throughout the Hellenic world—was not without parallels to the upheavals of Europe in Hobbes’s time. The ultimate source of Greece’s internecine struggle, “the truest quarrel, though least in speech,” in Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides, was “the growth of the Athenian power, which putting the Lacedaemonians into fear necessitated the war.”

Fear features prominently in the explanation that the Athenian delegation at Sparta gives of their city’s imperialistic behavior in Book I: “we were forced to advance our dominion to what it is . . . chiefly for fear, next for honour, and lastly for profit. . . . It is no fault for men in danger to order their affairs to the best.” “Honour, fear, and profit,” as the Athenians say, are “three of the greatest things” that drive people to act. Also significant for Hobbes’s later philosophy is what the Athenians say about indignity and submission to superior force: “Men, it seems, are more passionate for injustice than for violence. For that, coming from an equal, seemeth rapine, and the other, because from one stronger, but necessity.”

Before Leviathan, Hobbes would explore the relationship between peace, sovereignty, fear, and motives of pride, domination, and cupidity in The Elements of Law (circulated in manuscript circa 1640; first published without Hobbes’s authorization in 1650) and De Cive (1642). These earlier works provide a clarifying background for his later, most famous book.

What every student of political philosophy knows about Leviathan is that Hobbes presents life in the “state of nature,” in which humans live before the creation of the commonwealth, as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” The state of nature is a state of war, and to escape that condition individuals logically contract together to establish a sovereign ruler who will suppress their conflicts with one another and protect them from external threats. The easiest criticism of this picture, a criticism often heard from liberals, is that it is unrealistic: are people really in a state of continual warfare with one another in the absence of an absolute sovereign?

But Hobbes is explicit in Leviathan that the war of all against all does not mean continuous battle—it rather means continual fear that battle might break out, even when there is no ongoing fighting. And while “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” is the most memorable part of Hobbes’s description of the state of nature, equally important are his words leading up to that conclusion: when “men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them,” then “there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; No Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; No Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death.”

Civilization and all its comforts are unobtainable, in Hobbes’s account, as long as the fear of losing everything, at any moment, to violent seizure forestalls the effort to create anything valuable and lasting. The absence of civilization’s benefits, as much or more than the presence of violence itself, is the cause of man’s misery in this telling. Fear is even worse than fighting—as the Athenians and Spartans alike recognized in another context.

But fighting is bad enough, and trying to dispel fear by winning a war is a fool’s quest when the combatants are equally weak or strong, as Hobbes believes human beings (and even groups of human beings) are by nature: that is, no one is so strong as to have nothing to fear from other human beings; therefore, whatever differences exist are trivial. Nevertheless, individuals persist in thinking themselves superior to others, which leads some to think they can win the war, and leads others to resort to violence out of pique when their self-image is not accepted by other people.

In De Cive, the role of vainglory in setting men to war with one another is presented clearly. “Every pleasure of the mind is either glory (or a good opinion of oneself), or ultimately relates to glory; the others [pleasures of the body] are sensual or lead to something sensual, and can all be comprised under the name advantage,” Hobbes writes (in the 1997 English translation by Michael Silverthorne, from Hobbes’s Latin). “No large or lasting society can be based upon the passion for glory. The reason is that glorying, like honour, is nothing if everybody has it, since it consists in comparison and preeminence . . . in the absence of fear, men would be more avidly attracted to domination than to society.”

Fear has a ruinous effect in the state of nature; but once the awareness of fear leads men to respond to it with right reason, it becomes a constructive force, logically compelling men to enter into society so they can be rid of it, or at least so that they can contain fear within the limits of the sovereign’s actions. Fear, properly recognized by individuals, is the antidote to vainglory and the thirst for domination.

An Enlightened Atheist?

A casual student of political philosophy, particularly a liberal one, knows that Hobbes’s ideas did not meet with much open approval in his own time. His materialism, Erastianism, and frequently acerbic remarks about religion seemed to reveal him as an atheist, though he rejected that characterization. His absolutism went out of fashion even before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and his fellow royalists rejected the egalitarian, rationalistic, and contractual grounds upon which Hobbes sought to establish sovereignty. Though legal positivism and foreign policy realism may owe certain early debts to Hobbes, he was in general not as influential as later, more liberal thinkers, such as John Locke. And the United States in particular—federalist in form and dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is as un-Hobbesian as any society can be. Fear, the war of all against all, and absolute sovereignty have nothing to do with our Founding.

Hobbes’s ideas were widely condemned by his contemporaries and by the Enlightened thinkers of the century after his own, who took a benign view of human nature. Yet for all that, there is a great deal of Hobbes assimilated into his opponents, and the bones if not the flesh and face of the modern state, even in the United States, are recognizably his. There are of course the formal resemblances between Hobbes’s work in political philosophy and Locke’s Second Treatise—the shared concern with a state of nature, natural equality, and a social contract, though for Locke all these things have a more benevolent aspect than they do for Hobbes. The Lockean triad of natural rights to life, liberty, and property is not as different from Hobbes’s overriding concern with the freedom from violent death as might seem to be the case, however. The rights of property and liberty flow directly from the right to self-preservation, after all: property is necessary in the first place as a means to support life, and liberty is the negation of slavery, which is the condition of one’s life (and the means to support it) being entirely at the mercy of someone else.

Locke is not Hobbes, and Locke authorizes rebellion against the sovereign much more readily than does the older philosopher. (Hobbes does allow, however, that even a guilty man who deserves death may reasonably refuse to accept a capital sentence, and many cases that would look like rebellion to another political philosopher would seem, to Hobbes, to be the absence of sovereignty in the first place—if the sovereign can’t protect you, or is trying to kill you, then you are already back in the state of nature.) Nevertheless, Locke’s thought represents an addition to and modification of the Hobbesian framework, rather than its wholesale replacement. And if the Declaration of Independence’s “pursuit of happiness” is a distinctly un-Hobbesian basis for government, the Declaration’s charge that George III “has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us” unquestionably does meet Hobbes’s test for the absence of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is the most Hobbesian feature of the modern state. In the U.S. as elsewhere, it is indivisible and absolute in practice: the divided sovereignty that characterized the relationship between the states and the federal government, at least in the minds of many in the early days of the republic, led to precisely the outcome that Hobbes (who would have denied that divided sovereignty was sovereignty at all) would have expected: civil war. And since the Civil War, the effectively absolute sovereignty of the federal government has been felt in every walk of life. There is even a pronounced Erastianism in the federal government’s treatment of religious liberty under the Barack Obama administration. The federal government does not push the principle as far as its limit—Washington is not yet appointing clergy, and probably never will—but this is in part because the modern state employs its sovereignty in support of a religious strategy rather different from the one Hobbes had in mind: one that constrains religion not by taking it over but by fostering competition among sects.

Horrified by what he had seen in the Europe of his own time, Hobbes saw competition in religion and politics as sources of sedition and incipient civil war. Political parties, and the constellations of ideological factions and interest groups that orbit and inhabit them, have no place in Hobbes’s counsel. Yet whatever baleful consequences Hobbes might have imagined would arise from them, such forms of competition do not undercut the basic logic of his political philosophy. Simply put, a sovereign can exercise tolerance and foster competition while remaining secure and safeguarding the lives of the public. Ironically, the success of Hobbes’s system in neutralizing fear—at least as it existed before the institution of sovereignty—makes possible the indulgence of passions that otherwise would have been dangerous, as long as all those passions are subordinated to the logic of fear.

This does not mean that under sovereignty, in a modern state, people must tremble in fear, afraid that the state itself will hurt or kill them. Though the state does have the power to do that, it risks undermining its own legitimacy if it lets fear loose again, and thereby effectively returns society to the state of nature. The happy subject in a modern Hobbesian state occupies a middle ground: largely freed from fear, with some residual fear of the sovereign but little or no fear of other subjects, yet at the same time also devoid of passions that are greater than the fear of violent death. Fear provides a ceiling for the intensity of passion, and thus for commitments of any kind.

This is what makes competition, even in such emotionally intense areas of life as religion and politics, harmless under effective sovereignty. When passions greater than the fear of violent death attach us to causes or institutions, we are in the state of nature and at war—or at least that is the risk of such death-defying attachments. As long as the fear of violent death remains the highest passion, however, other passions will lead only to relatively weak attachments, which will not threaten the sovereign, or the peace. Even relatively weak passions—weak relative to the fear of violent death, that is—can still make life exciting, and the element of competition can add to the savor, creating a new, less dangerous kind of vainglory concerned with social status rather than with real power and domination. Most people under this system will not feel as if they are missing out on anything by being deprived of passions that are stronger than the fear of a violent death. They can still appreciate and enjoy fictional or historical depictions of such unconstrained passions, up to a point—but beyond that point, such passions will look like self-destructive insanity. Self-sacrifice does not become impossible—even liberals can applaud some degree of martial valor—but it increasingly becomes a thing to pity rather than admire, let alone aspire to.

Teleological forms of philosophy could accommodate the idea of a rational motive: the desire for the good. Outside of a teleological framework, the multitude of human passions might seem ungovernable—people have too many different tastes and different degrees of responsiveness to different emotions for any kind of systematic social organization to be implied by human nature. But the fear of violent death, as Hobbes discovered, is a uniquely rational motive in the absence of teleology: it applies almost universally (nearly everyone fears a violent death), and it produces fairly predictable behavior. The fact that the fear of violent death is not entirely universally felt, and the behavior it produces is not perfectly predictable, does not mean that it cannot serve as the principle for a psychological, political, and social order. What those deficiencies mean is that sometimes measures must be taken—whether by the state or by society, or both—to reinforce the correct attitude toward fear, death, violence, and the combined fear of a violent death.

The great multiplicity of human passions and of objects for those passions becomes a strength, rather than a distraction, once the fear of a violent death has laid the foundations for a political and social order. Hobbes was not exactly a liberal, but liberalism adds to the singularly fearful nature of Hobbesian politics a degree of gratification for diverse pleasures, and the diversity of those pleasures helps to ensure that none of them becomes too strong—strong enough, that is, to challenge the fear of a violent death as the arch stone of the system. Tolerance and liberalism divide human feeling so that fear can continue to rule.

Who’s Afraid of COVID-19?

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can be deadly, but it is not the kind of thing Hobbes, or anyone else, means by a violent death. The moral outrage directed against people who do not exhibit the requisite degree of worry about it arises from the other direction: such people seem to value something else too much, something positive, and therefore something necessarily irrational. Only the fear of a violent death is truly rational, and the proper response to that fear is what makes our comfortable lives possible. Anyone who acts in such a way as to imply the existence of a more compelling motive is a dangerous deviant, someone whose example could set a catastrophic precedent. So denouncing such a person as forcefully as clergy once denounced Thomas Hobbes and his atheism is necessary for the moral health and safety of society. An inadequate respect for fear and death, implying as it does an excessively strong commitment to something else, is a sign of incipient illiberalism, and of the worst kind, too: not merely an intellectual heresy, but a defect of the heart, the inability to feel the way a good, rational person ought to feel.

Conservatives of the not-classical-liberal kind might be inclined to dismiss Hobbes and his fear-derived political psychology. But the challenge that this great English philosopher mounts to alternatives to his system is a serious one. Did teleological philosophy ever have quite the same bearing on the politics of the classical polis or of medieval Christendom that Hobbes has on the politics of today? If a broadly Hobbesian political system has taken root because it connects to something true in human nature, what can those who wish to escape from the iron logic of singular fear and weak, diversified passions do? The difficulty in building a political order on affections, rather than on a unifying aversion, is readily apparent. But the dissatisfactions of the Hobbesian order are not resolved by the liberal answer, either: in which society, with all its pleasing distractions, is meant to substitute for the lack of a greater purpose than not being killed.

This is not merely a philosophical problem in psychology. The deaths from despair that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over recent years—through suicides and foreseeable drug overdoses—are a real-world symptom of the pathological inadequacy of this all-too-rational Hobbesian system. Liberals have warned over the past half decade of the rise of an irrational populism, which they fear will lead to authoritarian politics or social violence. Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, Identity, diagnoses those who are not content with life after the end of history as suffering from megalothymia, an excess of spiritedness and desire for respect—a condition Hobbes would have recognized as the malady of vainglory. Yet the opposite condition, a depletion of passionate spirit, is in truth the one from which more people suffer and perish today: not an inadequate fear of death, but a deficiency of reasons to live.

The genius of Hobbes was to supply a basis for sovereignty that was more conducive to peace than were the sectarian formulations and claims of divinely ordained kingly superiority over the rest of mankind that had made so much of the seventeenth century a bloodbath. Hobbes’s solution was not just “scientific” and mechanical, but psychological: this materialist philosopher understood the human heart surprisingly well. But to make his system work, he had to oversimplify. What he produced only holds up as long as human beings behave as fearfully as required. Social pressure and government power can help to ensure that they behave this way. But that comes at a cost to man’s nobler nature, which must be cut down to safe size. The psychological ramifications of that pruning can be deadly, not just for individuals but also for nations. None of the cherished myths of liberalism—the heroic individual who is nonetheless just like everybody else, or progress unto infinite prosperity, to name two—helps to treat this disease. Only reassertions of man’s higher, less fearful nature, contemptuous of death and even of violent death, hold any promise.

That there should be noticeable overlap between those who are unafraid of the coronavirus and those who in politics are Christian conservatives, populists, or other so-called “illiberals” is no surprise. Yet the liberal scolds are wrong, even by their own lights, to denounce these opponents of theirs as ignorant or reckless for having the wrong attitude toward the pandemic. These people may represent a psychological threat to the foundations on which liberalism rests—which is why they are so readily pilloried as “deplorables” or worse—but they also provide a service that liberals cannot provide for themselves: restoring spirit and vitality to a society otherwise more afraid of death than in love with life. ♦

Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age.

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