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Nothing to Fear, but …

ONE DAY, when I was about 10 years old, I showed a group of friends an elaborate diagram of an underground bomb shelter I had drawn the previous night. In great detail, I explained the purposes of the many rooms and various duties for my friends. I had designed it to be large enough for all of us — or, rather, almost all of us. Turning to Steve, the heaviest of our group, I announced: “We can’t include you because we won’t have enough food.”

This 50-year-old episode now reads like a script co-written by William Golding and Herman Kahn. While I lost a friend that day, I never lost the feeling of fear. Its presence has been constant, but this most fungible of emotions has actually fed off a succession of sources. As the fear (if not the possibility) of thermonuclear war slowly receded, successive waves of fear over global pandemics, global warming, and global terrorism have crashed and retreated in my life.

The earliest fear I can recall — that of nuclear war — was based on the fact that no one seemed in control. The Doomsday Machine in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove brilliantly captured this state of affairs. When President Muffley asks Dr. Strangelove — both roles played, of course, by Peter Sellers — if it is possible for the machine to be triggered automatically, never to be “untriggered,” Strangelove replies it is both possible and essential. Deterrence, he explains,

is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand … and completely credible and convincing.

Our nation’s current wave of fear seems just as simple to understand. But it is also profoundly different. My 13-year-old daughter Louisa does not fear that no one is in control. Instead, she fears a particular someone in our country who, for all intents and purposes, is now in control. Not surprisingly, this same someone is the source of Martha C. Nussbaum’s reflections on our nation’s current reign of terror.

With The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, Nussbaum adds to her own fearsome reputation. A professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum is the author of more than two dozen books. To have written just one of these works — The Fragility of Goodness, Upheavals of Thought, The Therapy of Desire, and Creating Capabilities come immediately to mind — would be achievement enough for most mere mortals. Her writing manages to deeply engage the texts she explores — ranging from Aeschylus and Seneca to George Eliot and John Rawls — all the while fully engaging the attention of specialists and non-specialists alike. Like David Hume, who insisted on the need for modern philosophers to serve as “ambassadors [to the] conversable world,” Nussbaum bridges the worlds of the academy and society.

As Nussbaum explains in her preface, she began to write the proposal that became this book less than a day after Donald Trump’s victory. Adding to her fearsomeness, she mentions that she had begun that same day with a “cleansing morning workout” half a world away in Japan, followed by an intricately choreographed ceremony to receive the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy. (By way of contrast, I began that same day in a fetal position in Texas, followed by driving Louisa to school while blasting My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not Okay” over the car stereo.) The book’s goal is both modest and immodest: it urges us to take a deep breath (then exhale, of course) while inviting us to examine fear and how best to confront it.

Nussbaum makes clear that we have nothing to fear but fear undefined. In her effort at definition, she turns to the ancient philosophers — principally Aristotle and Lucretius — but also to modern neuroscientists and psychoanalysts. The painful prospect of something bad and unavoidable that is about to happen, as Aristotle defines it, is an emotion all animals seem to share. It is a feeling, as those of us who have taken Psychology 201 already know, rooted in the amygdala, one of our most primitive organs. With lucidity and learning, Nussbaum traces the many (and frequently unseen) ways in which fear howls and hounds us from infancy through adulthood.

In particular, she notes the intensity of the child’s struggle against the narcissism bred by fear — which is an emotion that suffocates any thought for others — as well as the fear bred by the discovery of death. Digging into her own past, Nussbaum recalls being “transfixed and traumatized” by a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which fed “my budding awareness of my own mortality.” Upon learning Nussbaum was six years old at the time — an age when I was watching Rocky and Bullwinkle — I experienced a different sense of mortality. Inevitably, I envied Nussbaum’s precocity, but also felt anger and disgust with my own lack of achievement. Fortunately, Nussbaum also covers these radioactive emotions that are fear’s close kin.

Anger in particular has been a driver to real and mythical events since the beginnings of recorded history. Whether it is the gods of the ancient Greeks or the god of the ancient Hebrews, anger defined their relationship to human beings. It is the theme — in fact, the very first word — in Homer’s Iliad, just as it fuels the frenzy of the Furies in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy and enflames the minds of Athenians in Thucydides’s account of their betrayal at the hands of their ally Mytilene. These fictional and historical events — not to mention the countless examples that have since followed in life and literature — remind us that anger is the great enemy of political and social life.

But anger comes in several flavors, and Nussbaum focuses on two: “retributive” and “Transition-Anger.” The former seeks punishment and payback from the individual or group held responsible for one’s real or perceived harm. The latter recognizes the legitimacy of anger, but not the demand for retribution. Instead, as Nussbaum writes, “it expresses a protest, but faces forward: it gets to work finding solutions rather than dwelling on the infliction of retrospective pain.” This is the same kind of anger famously defended by Stéphane Hessel, the French resistance fighter and diplomat who, toward the end of his long life, became a political activist and author of the best-selling pamphlet Indignez-vous!, or Time for Outrage! (Worried that the usage of “indignation” is sporadic, Nussbaum prefers her own coinage.) Hessel’s sequel, Engagez-vous! (Get Involved!), reflects Nussbaum’s point that anger serves us only to the degree that it helps repair the damage, and not seek (or merely seek) repayment from those we believe caused it. This means that we ought to protest wrongdoing when it occurs, but also “look to the future with hope, choosing strategies designed to make things better rather than to inflict the maximum pain.”

Nussbaum’s accounts of envy and disgust, as well as sexism and misogyny, are similarly subtle and sound. These qualities are praiseworthy and pivotal to the life of civil discourse. Still, as a historian, I regret the absence of historical perspective and occasional glossing in her book. For example, she ignores important aspects in her account of an Athenian political crisis, when its citizens weighed the fate of Mytilene. While she tells us that Mytilene had become “rebellious” during the long war between Athens and Sparta, she neglects to mention that Athenian rule over its allies had grown increasingly onerous. Moreover, Athenian fear and anger were spurred by a fleet of Spartan ships sailing through Athenian waters in order to support a rebellion with one of Athens’s oldest allies. Just imagine how Americans, who were fearful enough during the Cuban Missile Crisis, would have responded if Puerto Rico had rebelled and invited a Soviet fleet to its shores.

Nussbaum also mischaracterizes Athens’s subsequent invasion of Sicily. She suggests that it was the result of Athens’s fear of powerlessness and vulnerability. Yet as Thucydides makes crystal clear, the Athenians were not undermined by doubt, but instead overcome by eros, or love. They were enthused by the prospect of the goods and glory to be won in Sicily, not that of eliminating a potential threat. Perhaps these are mere details, yet there is a larger matter that historians would also raise — namely, that Nussbaum’s treatment of fear is largely ahistorical. More than 10 years ago, Peter Stearns called upon scholars to take the historical measure of fear. Starting with La peur en Occident (Fear in the West), the seminal work of the late Jean Delumeau, which explored the critical role of religious-based fear in pre-modern Europe, Stearns wondered if fear had changed over the centuries. Has it itself increased, or had there merely been an increase in our willingness to discuss it? Have the performance and product of fear entrepreneurs — a term coined by the sociologist Frank Furedi — changed over time?

More to the point, I am uncertain what Nussbaum qua philosopher brings that is truly noteworthy to this look at our political crisis. While she refers to Lucretius and Aristotle, Rousseau and Kant, Nussbaum attends at greater length to contemporary sociologists, psychologists, and even Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. Her diagnosis strikes me as commonsensical and unremarkable, while her prescriptions for a cure are equally commonsensical and, I fear, unrealizable. For example, her argument for compulsory national service to instill the sense of civic responsibility into the United States’s youth is laudable, but also lethal to any politician who embraces it. (If she has doubts on this score, she should ask Emmanuel Macron, now struggling to get his own national service plan off the ground in France — a program, to boot, that lasts just six weeks and not the three years envisioned by Nussbaum.)

More broadly, the book often slides into what we could call the Steve Martin dilemma. Take, once again, Nussbaum’s call for a national youth service. While she acknowledges the unpopularity of such a program, she believes that a “suitable entrepreneur” can sell it to the country. Who would this be? How would she or he seal the deal? What effect would this have on the national debt? Or on the electoral prospects of those who support it? Nussbaum’s reply seems to be: Don’t sweat the details. This reminds me of Martin’s answer to how you can be a millionaire and never pay taxes. “First,” he tells us, “get a million dollars.” In a similar fashion, Nussbaum tells us how to get a national youth service and always remain virtuous: “First, get a national youth service program.”

In the end, not only is history in the details, but so too is the devil. Still, Nussbaum’s message is worth hearing. It may not be as philosophical as one might expect, but it is important and powerful. No less important, Nussbaum displays an admirable sense of balance, and is just as critical of the left as of the right in its penchant for extremism and practice of demonizing its political opponents. In this respect, she finds herself in the privileged company of political mavericks like George Orwell and Albert Camus, Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt. Now, if only Steve Martin could tell us how the rest of us could get to be more like Nussbaum.

¤

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the LARB history editor. His new book, Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment, will be published next spring by Harvard University Press. 

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