The Paris attacks continue to provoke a wide range of reactions and analyses of how to make sense of that unfathomable evening. What is the mindset of terrorists? How should we respond to such brutal violence? Who is to blame? Despite the fact that there is a myriad of, often conflicting, answers to these questions, most people seem to agree that there is one thing we must not do: being afraid. The communis opinio is that nothing ever good comes from fear, and that this is exactly what terrorists want: they want us to be afraid. If we are afraid, the terrorists win. It is interesting to wonder whether we should be afraid of being afraid.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks the hashtag #NoFear became trending on Twitter. On social media people were eager to share Gandhi’s famous quote: ‘The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.’ We were repeatedly reminded of the wise words Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed in his inaugural address in 1933: ‘The only thing we have to fear… is fear itself.’ In the New York Times Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed about the importance of fearing fear itself.
The Costs of Fear
It cannot be denied that fear has an overtly negative connotation. When you ask a person whether or not he likes to be afraid, the answer is most likely that being afraid is a rather unpleasant condition. Being afraid is often a heavy psychological burden. It is no coincidence that our vocabulary to insult people bursts with words referring to the alleged fear of the person who is the object of the insult: coward, chicken, cissy, pudding heart, faint-heart, scaredy cat, fraidy-cat, wimp, weakling, wuss,… We could go on for quite a while.
The Philosophers’ Fear
Given the unpleasantness of being afraid, it is hardly a surprise that many of the great philosophers who wrote about fear described it as a most terrible thing. Seneca maintained that fear bewilders the mind. Montaigne called fear a contagious passion. Spinoza and Kant argued that it is impossible to be a reasonable and good person as long as your acts are motivated by fears. Sartre believed that there was an intrinsic link between fear and bad faith: a fearful person tries to denounce and renounce his own personal responsibility and freedom. Fear keeps people from being reasonable and good. Evil thrives on lily livers and yellow bellies.
Fear and Fascism
You don’t need to read the works of philosophers to know that fears can entail horrible things. The darkest pages in history were written when excessive fears consumed the masses. Fear can paralyze people, but it can also inspire rage and madness. In The Anatomy of Fascism Robert Paxton convincingly argues that fear and a profound pessimism about the present state and future of the world were some of the most important ‘activating passions’ of Nazism and fascism. Fears undermine the foundations of democracy.
Something similar was observed by the Polish philosopher Barbara Skarga, who stated that fear is the most important utensil of evil. A society that lives under the yoke of fear is likely to invest its hopes in the false promise of totalitarian security. Skarga knew what she was talking about. During the war she had witnessed many of the horrors of Nazism and after the war she spent ten years in a Russian labor camp – Stalin had quite a dislike of the Polish intelligentsia, which he feared would be an obstacle to the communist take-over of the country. Totalitarian evil is driven by many fears.
However, we should avoid a one-sided evaluation of fear as a psychological, biological, moral and social phenomenon. Fear is more than merely psychological malaise, emotional weakness or moral shortcoming. Fear also has many benefits. If you see a dangerous snake in front of you, you are biologically wired to experience fear, and that is a good thing. This fear will motivate you to run away from the snake, rather than inciting an urge to cuddle it. Being afraid of a massive storm is often a good thing, as it would be unwise to sail out when the sea is raging. Fear is not always unreasonable; sometimes fear is a precondition of reasonable behavior.
Hence, maybe we should not always be afraid of being afraid. Very often, our fears are not the main problem but how we react to those fears. Fear can turn into a phobia. Fear about the present and the future can transform pessimism into defeatism. Fear of what we do not know can give way to an aversion of what we don’t know. Quite a lot of misery is born from fear indeed.
But fear can also inspire people to fight what is worth fighting for. Without fear, there can’t be courage. A brave person is not a person who has no fears, but who overcomes them. Fear can fuel change and improvement. Being afraid of economic decline can motivate a person to work harder and be wiser with money. Being afraid of losing the love of your life, can inspire you to be better, kinder and more loving to that person.
Spur upon the soul
That we should not always be afraid of our fears, was nicely captured by the American 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. ‘I lived on dread’ is the opening line of one of her most famous poems. In the poem fear and danger appear to be important stimuli of human behavior – also of good behavior. Fears wake people up from their existential slumber, they are the beginning of our triumph over our indifference and inertia. ‘As ’t were a spur upon the soul/A fear will urge it where/To go without the Sceptre’s aid/Were challenging despair.’
Dizzy of freedom
Dickinson poetically expresses ideas that were central to the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. Fear is one of the central topics of the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher. Existential fear is inherent to man. Animals can experience certain dangers that motivate them to either run or fight. But existential fear and despair are nowhere to be found in nature, except in the minds and hearts of human beings. This fear is a result of our freedom. There are so many roads that we can take in life, that we can easily lose our way. Fear is our dizziness of freedom. When you are dizzy, you can fall. In such an instance you will take a road in life that is not worth to be taken, a road that leads to a superficial and empty life.
But when you are dizzy of freedom, so Kierkegaard argued, you can also begin to see things more clearly. We can transform our fears and dizziness into positive acts, we can come to a better understanding of what truly matters in life and how we can fulfill ourselves. Fears are signposts of the soul – some will lead us in the wrong direction, but others will show us the right way.
Out of hand It is always bad to be terrified, but sometimes it is good to be afraid. Like all emotions, fear can be reasonably justified but also ridiculous and way out of proportion. And like all fears, the fear of being afraid too can be unreasonable and get out of hand. All in all, I think it is good to be afraid of the fact that there are people who detest Western societies and the values upon which they are built to such an extent that it motivates them to kill innocent people. I think we can use this fear as a reminder that nothing in life, in our private lives and in the polis, are to be taken for granted, especially not the things that matter most.