The History of Fear, Part 1

Long before I was writing or thinking about the right, I was writing and thinking about politics and fear. That project began as a dissertation in the early 1990s and concluded with my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which was published in 2004. When I embarked upon the project, few in the American academy were interested in fear; by the time I finished it, everyone, it seemed, was. What had happened in the intervening years, of course, was 9/11.

Fear is divided into two parts: the first is an intellectual history of fear, examining how theorists from Thomas Hobbes through Judith Shklar have thought about the problem; the second offers my own analysis of fear, drawing on everything from McCarthyism to Stalinism, from the Dirty Wars to the American workplace.

Because the second part of the book—especially its analysis of the workplace—has gotten more attention in the last few years, I wanted to highlight the first part here. In particular, I wanted to give readers a sense of how various our ideas about political fear have been, how innovative (and sometimes misleading) our modern conceptions of fear are, and how interesting Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt (the main protagonists of my history) can be.

So with this post, I’m going to inaugurate a series on this blog, in which I post excerpts from each of my five chapters on the intellectual history of fear. Part 1, today’s post, will look at Hobbes’s account of rational fear; Part 2 will look at Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror; Part 3, at Tocqueville’s account of democratic anxiety; Part 4, at Arendt’s account of total terror; and Part 5, at the theories of fear we’ve seen since the end of Cold War, which I divide into two categories: the liberalism of anxiety (communitarianism) and the liberalism of terror (what is often called political liberalism).

I hope you find some of this of interest.  And that you buy the book.

“No matter how important weapons may be, it is not in them, gentlemen the judges, that great power resides. No! Not the ability of the masses to kill others, but their great readiness themselves to die, this secures in the last instance the victory of the popular uprising.”

Leon Trotsky

It was on April 5, 1588, the eve of the Spanish Armada’s invasion of Britain, that Thomas Hobbes was born. Rumors of war had been circulating throughout the English countryside for months. Learned theologians pored over the book of Revelation, convinced that Spain was the Antichrist and the end of days near. So widespread was the fear of the coming onslaught it may well have sent Hobbes’s mother into premature labor. “My mother was filled with such fear,” Hobbes would write, “that she bore twins, me and together with me fear.” It was a joke Hobbes and his admirers were fond of repeating: Fear and the author of Leviathan and Behemoth—Job-like titles meant to invoke, if not arouse, the terrors of political life—were born twins together.

Thomas Hobbes

It wasn’t exactly true. Though fear may have precipitated Hobbes’s birth, the emotion had long been a subject of enquiry. Everyone from Thucydides to Machiavelli had written about it, and Hobbes’s analysis was not quite as original as he claimed. But neither did he wholly exaggerate. Despite his debts to classical thinkers and to contemporaries like the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius, Hobbes did give fear special pride of place. While Thucydides and Machiavelli had identified fear as a political motivation, only Hobbes was willing to claim that “the original of great and lasting societies consisted not in mutual good will men had toward each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.”

But more than Hobbes’s insistence on fear’s centrality makes his account so pertinent for us, for Hobbes was attuned to a problem we associate with our postmodern age, but which is as old as modernity itself: How can a polity or society survive when its members disagree, often quite radically, about basic moral principles? When they disagree not only about the meaning of good and evil, but also about the ground upon which to make such distinctions? Establishing communion among subscribers to the same political faith is difficult enough; a community of believers, after all, still argues about the meaning of its sacred texts. But what happens when that community no longer reads the same texts, when its members begin from such disparate starting points, pray to such different gods, that they cannot even carry on an argument, much less conclude it?

Hobbes called this condition the “state of nature,” a situation of radical conflict about the meaning of words and morals, producing corrosive distrust and open violence. “In the state of nature,” Hobbes wrote, “every man is his own judge, and differeth from other concerning the names and appellations of things, and from those differences arise quarrels, and breach of peace.” This state of nature was not an extraordinary moment, no sudden storm over an otherwise placid sea. It was endemic to the human condition, constantly threatening a state of war. In fact, wrote Hobbes, it was a state of war.

Hobbes warmed to the fear of death—not just the affective emotion, but the cognitive apprehension of bodily destruction—because he thought it offered a way out of this state of nature. Whatever people deem to be good, Hobbes argued, they should recognize that self-preservation is the precondition for their pursuit of it. They should realize that peace is the prerequisite of their preservation, and that peace is best guaranteed by their agreeing to submit absolutely—that is, by ceding a great deal of the rights that are by nature theirs—to the state, which he called Leviathan. That state would have complete authority to define the rules of political order, and total power to enforce those rules.

Accepting this principle of self-preservation did not require men to give up their underlying faith, at least not in theory: it only asked them to acknowledge that their pursuit of that faith necessitated their being alive. When we act out of fear, Hobbes suggested, when we submit to government for fear of our own lives, we do not forsake our beliefs. We keep faith with them, ensuring that we remain alive so that we can pursue them. Fear does not betray the individual; it is his completion. It is not the antithesis of civilization but its fulfillment. This is Hobbes’s counterintuitive claim about fear, cutting against the grain of later argument, but nevertheless finding an echo in the actual experience of men and women submitting to political power.

We shall consider here three other elements of Hobbes’s treatment of fear, for they also speak to our political condition. First, Hobbes argued that fear had to be created. Fear was not a primitive passion, waiting to be tapped by a weapons-wielding sovereign. It was a rational, moral emotion, taught by influential men in churches and universities. Though the fear of death could be a powerful motivator, men often resisted it for the sake of honor and glory. To counter this tendency, the doctrine of self-preservation and the fear of death had to be propounded by preachers and teachers, and by laws instructing men in the ground of their civic duty. Fear had to be thought of as the touchstone of a people’s commonality, the essence of their associated life. It had to address their needs and desires, and be perceived as defending the most precious achievements of civilization. Otherwise, it would never create the genuine civitas Hobbes believed it was meant to create.

Second, though Hobbes understood fear to be a reaction to real danger in the world, he also appreciated its theatrical qualities. Political fear depended upon illusion, where danger was magnified, even exaggerated, by the state. Because the dangers of life were many and various, because the subjects of the state did not naturally fear those dangers the state deemed worth fearing, the state had to choose people’s objects of fear. It had to persuade people, through a necessary but subtle distortion, to fear certain objects over others. This gave the state considerable leeway to define, however it saw fit, the objects of fear that would dominate public concern.

Finally, Hobbes marshaled his arguments about fear not only to overcome the impasse of moral conflict, but also to defeat the revolutionary legions contending at the time against the British monarchy. The English Revolution broke out in 1643 between royalist forces allied with Charles I and Puritan armies marching on behalf of Parliament. It concluded in 1660 with the restoration of Charles’s son to the throne. Between those years, Britain witnessed the war-related death of some 180,000 men and women, the beheading of Charles I, and the decade-long rule of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans.

Scholars have long debated whether this bloody struggle was a modern revolution or the last in a long line of religious conflicts unleashed by the Reformation. To be sure, Cromwell’s forces did not seek a great leap forward: they hoped to return England to God’s rule, conceiving themselves as restorative rather than progressive agents. Nevertheless, there was a revolutionary and democratic dimension to their actions, which Hobbes perceived and believed had to be countered. “By their harangues in the Parliament,” he complained of the revolutionary leaders, “and by their discourses and communication with people in the country,” the revolutionaries made ordinary people “in love with democracy.” Hobbes’s arguments about fear were in no small measure directed at the revolutionary ethos of these Puritan warriors. And this lends his account a decidedly repressive, even counterrevolutionary character, the ramifications of which we shall see in the work of later theorists like Tocqueville and contemporary intellectuals writing today, as well as in the actual practice of political fear.

What Hobbes’s arguments add up to is an acute analysis, never quite seen before or since, of fear’s moral and political dimensions. Though Hobbes owed much to his predecessors, his appreciation of moral pluralism and conflict drove him to a new, and distinctly modern, conception of the relationship between fear and morality. Previous writers like Aristotle and Augustine believed that fear grew out of society’s shared moral ethos, with the objects of a people’s fear reflecting that ethos. Convinced that such an ethos no longer existed, Hobbes argued that it had to be created. Fear would serve as its constituent element, establishing a negative moral foundation upon which men could live together in peace. Thus, where previous writers treated fear as an emanation of a shared morality, Hobbes conceived of it as the catalyst of that morality. And though Hobbes was indebted to his contemporaries’ analysis of self-preservation, he knew that the men of his age—tangled in revolution, indifferent to their own death—were not likely to accept it. This inspired some of his deepest reflections about how the fear of death could be generated and sustained by the sovereign and his allies throughout civil society.

While Hobbes’s analysis of fear owes more to classical and contemporary sources than we might think, his imagined orchestration of fear is more prophecy than reiteration, envisioning how modern elites will wield fear in order to rule, and how modern intellectuals will rely on fear, even as they distance themselves from Hobbes, to create a sense of common purpose.

But Hobbes’s doctrine evokes another side of modern politics—not the inaugural moment of counterinsurgent fear, when the forces of activist reform are defeated, but the succeeding era of quiet complacence and sober regard for family, business, locality, and self. After the demobilization of any popular movement, men and women tend to their own affairs, worrying about the everyday business of survival and success, forgoing larger visions of collective transformation. In her account of Pinochet’s Chile, for example, journalist Tina Rosenberg writes of Jaime Pérez, a socialist student leader during Salvador Allende’s last year in power. After the 1973 military coup, which ended 150 years of Chilean democracy, Pérez fled from public life. He did not protest, he “slept.” He traded his old car for a new one—every year—and bought three color TVs. Explaining his silence, Pérez says, “All I knew was that life was good,” and in certain respects, it was.

The Scream

The United States has also seen such moments—most famously in the wake of the McCarthy-era purges. Once the tumult of repressive politics died down, men and women retreated to the goods of family life and getting ahead. Critics lambasted the social types of the 1950s as conformists, coining phrases like “the man in the gray flannel suit,” “the lonely crowd,” and “status anxiety.” But these were terms of moralistic accusation that evaded or sublimated the reality of McCarthyism. People were frightened during the 1950s, and they were frightened because of political repression. Their fear bore none of fear’s obvious marks; they did not resemble the terrorized face in Edvard Münch’s famous portrait The Scream. They looked instead like Hobbesian man—reasonable, purposive, and careful never to take a step in the wrong direction. Fear didn’t destroy Cold War America: it tamed it. It secured for men and women some measure of what they deemed to be their own good. American citizens didn’t betray their former principles: under the weight of intense coercion, their principles changed. Or they opted to forgo certain principles—political solidarity—for the sake of others—familial obligation, careerism, personal security. However they justified their decisions, their choices reveal the influence of Hobbesian fear. And if it sounds strange to contemporary ears to call it fear, that is only a testament to Hobbes’s success.

In this regard, I can think of no more representative figure linking Hobbes’s vision to the twentieth century than Galileo. According to his most celebrated biographer, Hobbes “extremely venerated and magnified” Galileo, whose influence is evident throughout Hobbes’s work. In the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht revived the story of Galileo as a twentieth-century parable of revolutionary courage and counterrevolutionary fear. Brecht turned Galileo into the improbable hero of a new proletarian science, a revolutionary slayer of medieval dragons. By threatening the church’s authority, Brecht suggested, Galileo’s teachings promised a world where “no altar boy will serve the mass/No servant girl will make the bed.” But when “shown the instruments” of torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted his revolutionary scientific theories.

Charles Laughton as Galileo

At the end of Brecht’s play, Galileo confesses to shame and remorse over his capitulation. “Even the Church will teach you that to be weak is not human,” he spits out. “It is just evil.” Though he managed after his recantation to pursue a clandestine science, the very solitariness of the pursuit—its separation from a larger project of collective, radical transformation—betrayed the scientific enterprise, which demands publicity, solidarity, and above all, courage. “Even a man who sells wool, however good he is at buying wool cheap and selling it dear, must be concerned with the standing of the wool trade. The practice of science would seem to call for valor.” Most damning of all, Galileo realizes that he never was in as much danger from the Inquisition as he believed. Like the subjects of Leviathan, whose fear turns a mere spitfrog into a terrifying giant, Galileo magnified his own weakness and the strength of his opponents. “At that particular time, had one man put up a fight, it could have had wide repercussions. I have come to believe that I was never in real danger; for some years I was as strong as the authorities,” he says. “I sold out,” he wanly concludes.

Whether Galileo is a coward or a realist (and in good Brechtian fashion, the playwright suggests there might not be much difference between the two), one thing is clear: Galileo’s fear of death is connected to the goods he valued in life. As much as he speaks on behalf of a larger political vision of science, so does he subscribe to a more domestic conception of himself and his ends. Brecht’s Galileo is a bon vivant, a lover of the finer things—good food, good wine, leisure. His science, he believes, depends upon his stomach. “I don’t think well unless I eat well. Can I help it if I get my best ideas over a good meal and a bottle of wine?” He adds, “I have no patience with a man who doesn’t use his brains to fill his belly.” He hopes to use the proceeds from his science to secure a good dowry for his daughter, to buy books, to acquire the necessary free time to pursue pure research. Thus, when he chooses to abide by the dictates of the Inquisition and pursue his research on the sly, he acts in accordance with a principle that has been his all along: science depends first and foremost on personal comfort.

In choosing silence over solidarity, comfort over comradeship, Galileo swaps one truth for another. It is not that fear silences his true self, that self-interest gets the better of his moral code. It is that the only way he can imagine fulfilling his ends is to capitulate to fear. That is how fear works in a repressive state. The state changes the calculus of individual action, making fear seem the better instrument of selfhood. The emblematic gesture of the fearful is thus not flight but exchange, its metaphorical backdrop not the rack but the market. “Blessed be our bargaining, whitewashing, death-fearing community,” Galileo howls. And in the distance, one can see Hobbes nodding in silent agreement, without the slightest hint of irony.


  1. mdcas September 27, 2013 at 4:42 pm | #

    Even if Hobbes was locally counter-revolutionary, his idea that the Commonwealth derives its legitimacy from nothing but the consent of the governed was, I would say, more deeply revolutionary than anything the Puritans had in mind. And Hobbes knew this.

  2. Jonny Butter September 28, 2013 at 8:20 am | #

    I’m enjoying the book so far. After reading only the introduction chapter and this one, I would note, with regret, that the insistence on ‘depoliticizing’ *everything* – not just fear – seems to be one thing – or even *the* one thing – which putatively unites us as Americans. This might seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but I’m not so sure it is.

  3. Roquentin September 28, 2013 at 10:40 am | #

    This was the first I’d heard of your other book. I’ll definitely have to check it out. When reading this essay about Hobbes, just like reading Hobbes himself, I have this strange mix of admiration and repulsion. I do agree with him on coercion and repression being the most basic constituent of the state. Even though it wouldn’t seem like it at a glance, he anticipates Althusser, structural Marxism, Ideological State Apparatuses, etc. Even Nietzsche in the “Genealogy of Morals” has a bit of that to it, which is why it all started running together for Foucault. In spite of all of the above, he was all too willing to prop up a dying regime and an antiquated form of government at all costs. It’s been several years since I read Leviathan, but if my memory serves me correctly he seemed surprisingly indifferent to whether it was a democracy, aristocracy, or monarch which took the reigns of the Leviathan. He treated it almost like a footnote.

    It’s a longstanding gripe of mine with many on the left who are either completely unwilling to acknowledge how essential the police, prisons, force and violent coercion are toward our current way of life. It is most frustrating of all with a set of liberals who only want more and more laws regulating human behavior, protecting people whom they see as victims. I’m not saying this is wrong, to the contrary, I agree wholeheartedly. We should use the repressive apparatus of the state to protect citizens who need it. What infuriates me is that they never seem to include a plan for enforcement with any of their schemes. They hate the police, in any form…corrupt or virtuous, and yet haven’t the slightest clue as to what they would be replaced with. Such grand plans for how to reshape society, but not even a mention of what will happen when someone doesn’t want to go along with those plans. There are two choices: either you put your grand plan for society on the trash heap, or you resort to some kind of (mostly violent) coercion to make them do so. It can be no other way.

    I’d even say this is why revolutionary regimes often have the most vicious, bloodthirsty police forces of all. The Checka/NKVD is as good an example of that as you’ll ever find. These institutions, the state apparatuses arose to meet real needs within the population and they can’t be wished away simply out a desire for utopia.

  4. Jonny Butter September 28, 2013 at 11:20 am | #

    if my memory serves me correctly [Hobbes] seemed surprisingly indifferent to whether it was a democracy, aristocracy, or monarch which took the reigns of the Leviathan.


    I don’t think he was indifferent. Monarch, clearly.

    And the rest of your comment seems awfully vague. Are ‘liberals’ and ‘the left’ the same thing? Not as evidenced by your own comment about the Checka/NKVD. Who is scared of coercion? Not saying whoever it is doesn’t exist, but just don’t know who you’re so infuriated at.

    [Liberals] hate the police, in any form…corrupt or virtuous..

    No. At least not in the US. I don’t know where you are though. Or who you are talking about. Are you talking about anarchists? Liberals certainly aren’t averse to coercion of the state.

    • Roquentin September 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm | #

      I was referring primarily to Chapter XIX or part 2, “Of Commonwealth” where he discusses the three forms of how a Commonwealth can be operated I listed above: democracy, monarch, and aristocracy. At the very least, he believes that the Leviathan can function under any of the three. While he would ultimately argue that the best option is one sovereign with a power greater than all the others to settle arguments and hold people to their covenants, I’d consider that a much more nuanced perspective than the standard royalist label he gets. I’d also argue that this is how every modern functioning republic operates, with a president or prime minister who is the ultimate sovereign, even if he or she is held to the standard of a popular (in the US, not even a true popular vote) election.

      And I apologize for conflating liberals and the left. It was indeed vague. They are not the same thing. Most of that criticism was directed at the anarchist faction of the left. Socialists typically do not have the same sort of open hostility towards the legal system. I would also say that part of the reason I jumbled far too many disparate factions into one group is that on the American left, many of these groups do find themselves put into the same basket. I should have stayed more calm and just limited those who, regardless of which political camp they claim to belong to, hate law enforcement yet, love high moral standards and laws, but are unable to see that these are merely two sides to the same coin. Even more to the point, things in the US currently couldn’t function for a day without the prison system and that we have only been able to get where we are right now by becoming the worlds leading jailer.

      • Jonny Butter September 28, 2013 at 3:59 pm | #

        Even more to the point, things in the US currently couldn’t function for a day without the prison system and that we have only been able to get where we are right now by becoming the worlds leading jailer.

        Interesting. Where are we right now? Not a rhetorical question – am really wondering how you would characterize it.

      • Roquentin September 28, 2013 at 8:37 pm | #

        I’m not sure how I’d characterize it either, now that I think about it. Late capitalism? A liberal capitalist representative democracy characterized by ever increasing levels of militarism and social/economic stratification? Something along those lines I guess.

Leave a Reply