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.

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Survival Mentality

“The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping place ever proposed by one man to another.”

William James

It has become a commonplace to remark about the preoccupation with self that defines our current culture. We know all about the “me generation” and have come to learn that Gen-X, in whom we placed so much hope for the future, is even more preoccupied with themselves than their parents. Christopher Lasch, whom I have referenced in previous blogs, is one of the few thinkers to attempt to understand why this has come about. And he is one of the best minds I have encountered to think with about our cultural condition. He likens our present outlook on our world to that of a POW, especially the inmates of Auschwitz, during the Second World War. As Lasch notes regarding our current malaise, in his remarkable book The Minimal Self:

“People have lost confidence in the future. Faced with an escalating arms race, an increase in crime and terrorism, environmental deterioration, and the prospect of long-term economic decline, they have begun to prepare for the worst, sometimes by building fallout shelters and laying in provisions, more commonly by executing a kind of emotional retreat from the long-term commitments that presuppose a stable, secure, and orderly world. . . . Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live only one day at a time — these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in a  more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a far-flung system of total control.”

According to Lasch, this has given rise to a siege mentality as we embrace a survival ethic — not unlike those in the camps such as Auschwitz who struggled to remain human while they gradually retreated within themselves.

“In fact, the siege mentality is much stronger in those who know Auschwitz only at second-hand than in those who lived through it. It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow-victims — they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. [In contrast, we exhibit]  a diminished capacity to imagine a moral order transcending [our own experience], which alone can give meaning [to our lives].”

This is heavy stuff, indeed. As the quote from William James at the top of this page suggests, mere survival for its own sake is hardly a lofty human ideal. What truly matters is what survives — what sort of person or culture. It’s about character and moral fiber, not about breathing in and out for as long as possible. We don’t talk much about character any more, and at present it is certainly the case that the moral high ground seems to have flattened after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr leaving the landscape rather barren, which is something to be deeply regretted. And there are many signs around us that point to our ignorance of the past and loss of hope in the future in our preoccupation with our own present experience. As the ads tell us, “Do It Now!”  This attests to the very malaise Lasch describes; his analysis seems to me to be quite plausible.

But he does not despair. He does not see the various movements to save the planet, stop the nuclear arms race, show concern about our shared world, together with the “growing criticism of consumerism and high technology, criticism of the ‘masculine’ psychology of conquest and competition” as complete answers, but they do “hold out the best hope for the future.” Though Lasch would not have us abandon hope for radical changes in the political landscape, at present politics does not seem to provide a way out, given the stranglehold those “profoundly undemocratic” corporations have on the political process. None the less, there are things each one of us can do within the limits of our own capacities to mitigate corporate greed and the destruction of the planet, while we seek to restore the moral high ground, reaching out to others and turning our attention toward a world filled with beauty and finding joy in the things and people that surround us — and certainly not abandoning hope in the future altogether. This would allow us to avoid the “survival mentality” of which Lasch speaks and which threatens to suffocate the human spirit.