Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.


7 thoughts on “Fear Itself

  1. It is interesting to note that a major “benefit” for believers of various religions is the relief of fear about death and anxiety regarding about the after-life. This benefit usually comes as a leap of faith, but gives the recipient an advantage by allowing focus in periods others find stressful.

    • Indeed. William James talks about the “mind-cure” movement at the end of the 19th century that helped people deal with fear and achieve a more optimistic outlook — with remarkable results in the cure of sickness Western medicine had given up on! As Hamlet says, “there are more things in heaven and earth….” James advocates a broader outlook that includes science as well as the more intuitive, Eastern perspective.

  2. Good post. I think people calm their fears in various ways as you note – through faith, trust, reason and/ or action. We just moved my mother to an assisted living facility due to her dementia after a hospital and rehab stay. The best advice we received was move her while she can still cope with the change. With dementia comes paranoia, which plays upon this fear. She will need to overcome her fears by trusting the new caregivers as she did with the Rehab caregivers. My mother is very faithful, very rational and prone to action – but dementia has stomped on those, so trust is her major ally to combat fear.

  3. hi amigo
    manhy times i load pages to read offline, and i enjoyed this one last night. it made me look inward, and i remain grateful for the mix of genes that make me ‘me,’ and that i am able to keep my head when all around me are losing theirs and blaming it on me. there are few times when i’ve been scared, and when i am around people who are high strung and easily frightened of their shadow, i say a quiet ‘thanks’ …. i have also spent time w/people who are easily angeredd over the silliest things, and again i wonder, ‘what on earth could have factored into the story that made them chose to be so angry?’

    anyway, i am so glad to have a few minutes to visit with you, though again it’s for a short moment before dashing ‘home.’ jim is now in the usa w/one of the cats and drove from colorado to nebraska where julie is in the hospital. i have the other three cats and hope to be sending two of them on sunday.. but wait.. there’s a protest going on near quito, and cotopaxi volcano is blowing steam.. seems the world is angry, and here i am, hopefully the one who remains calm.

    it’s raining rain and ash, so i had best head back to the farm (3o minutes 4wd.)

    enjoy your weekend!

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