Philosophy/Communication: Studies in Hermeneutics, Ethics, and Critical Theory
Ramsey Eric Ramsey and Amit Pinchevski, Editors
This week's In Media Res theme focus is Apocalypse Now: End of the World Media (October 7 - October 11).
Here's the line-up: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/
Monday, October 7, 2013 - Kristine Weglarz & Beth Bonnstetter (University West Florida & Adams State University) present: Apocalypse Always: The Imagination of Terrorism JJ Abrams Star Trek(s)
If a devoted choir of lemmings were to go head-to-head against a squadron of rabid, venom-unleashing command-lambs, which would win? The command-lambs might look at first like the obvious choice, but I can’t help feeling that the mysteriously compelling harmonies of the lemming-choir’s deadly siren song would give the crafty rodents a decisive strategic advantage.
Cornell historian Holly Case has a fascinating piece in The Chronicle Review on Stalin as editor. Reminds me of that George Steiner line that the only people in the 20th century who cared about literature were the KGB.
Here are some excerpts. But read the whole thing.
Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Bolshevik revolutionary. Thereafter, in addition to blowing things up, robbing banks, and organizing strikes, he became an editor, working at two papers in Baku and then as editor of the first Bolshevik daily, Pravda. Lenin admired Djugashvili’s editing; Djugashvili admired Lenin, and rejected 47 articles he submitted to Pravda.
Djugashvili (later Stalin) was a ruthless person, and a serious editor. The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin’s own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched “for traces of those horrible things in the book.” He found none. What he saw instead was “reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.”
Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.
For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials (“against whom is this thesis directed?”) and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings (“Correct!” or “Show all members of the Politburo”).
The Stanford historian Norman Naimark describes the marks left by Stalin’s pencil as “greasy” and “thick and pasty.” He notes that Stalin edited “virtually every internal document of importance,” and the scope of what he considered internal and important was very broad. Editing a biologist’s speech for an international conference in 1948, Stalin used an array of colored pencils—red, green, blue—to strip the talk of references to “Soviet” science and “bourgeois” philosophy. He also crossed out an entire page on how science is “class-oriented by its very nature” and wrote in the margin “Ha-ha-ha And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?”
But Stalin was still not satisfied. In the next round of substantial edits, he used his blue pencil to mute the conspiracy he had previously pushed the authors to amplify (italics indicate an insertion):
The Soviet people unanimously approved the court’s verdict—the verdict of the people annihilation of the Bukharin-Trotsky gang and passed on to next business. The Soviet land was thus purged of a dangerous gang of heinous and insidious enemies of the people, whose monstrous villainies surpassed all of the darkest crimes and most vile treason of all times and all peoples.
MONTAGNE: Right, so given the rise of open-access journals, you decided to do an experiment. That is, send in for publication a fake experiment. And, as you describe it, it is a sting operation.
2014 RSA Career Retreat for Associate Professors
A Special Preconference Retreat held in conjunction with the 2014 Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) Conference in San Antonio
Cheryl Geisler, Simon Fraser University
Gerald Hauser, University of Colorado at Boulder
Carolyn Miller, North Carolina State University
Today, in my third post on the intellectual history of fear, I talk about Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. (For Part 1, Hobbes on fear, go here; for Part 2, Montesquieu on terror, go here.)
I suspect readers will be more familiar with Tocqueville’s argument than they are with Montesquieu’s and even Hobbes’s. His portrait of the anxious conformist has become a fixture of the modern mind. But that familiarity is part of the problem. Tocqueville’s privatized self, the submissive individualist amid the lonely crowd, has come to seem so obvious that we can no longer see how innovative, how strange and novel, it actually was. And how much it departed from the world of assumption that, for all their differences, bound Hobbes to Montesquieu. Part of what I try to do here is to recover that sense of novelty.
For more on all that, buy the book. But in the meantime…
• • • • •
There are many who pretend that cannon are aimed at them when in reality they are the target of opera glasses.
Just fifty years separate Montesquieu’s death in 1755 from Tocqueville’s birth in 1805, but in that intervening half-century, armed revolutionaries marched the transatlantic world into modernity. New World colonials fired the first shot of national liberation at the British Empire, depriving it of its main beachhead in North America. Militants in France lit the torch of equality, and Napoleon carried it throughout the rest of Europe. Black Jacobins in the Caribbean led the first successful slave revolution in the Americas and declared Haiti an independent state. The Age of Democratic Revolution, as it would come to be known, saw borders transformed, colonies liberated, nations created. Warfare took on an ideological fervor not seen in over a century, with men and women staking their lives on the radical promise of the Enlightenment.
But more than any particular advance, it was a new sense of time and space that distinguished this revolutionary world from its predecessor. Montesquieu came of age in the twilight of Louis XIV’s sixty-three-year reign. The uninterrupted length of Louis’ rule left a deep impression on The Spirit of the Laws—of time standing still, of politics moving at a glacial pace. The Age of Democratic Revolution set a new tempo for political life. Jacobins in France announced a new calendar, proclaiming 1792 the Year One. They tossed out laws bearing the traces of time immemorial. They took new names, affected new manners, and voiced new ideas. History books still register this extraordinary compression of time, with dynasties rising and falling within months and years rather than decades or centuries. Even Kant, with his obsessive punctuality, reportedly could not keep up with the pace of events: on the morning in 1789 when he heard of the fall of the Bastille, he stepped out the door for his daily walk later than usual.
Politics not only accelerated; it thickened, as amateurs rushed on stage, demanding recognition as political actors in their own right. Prior to the Age of Democratic Revolution, political life was a graceful but delicate dance between king and court. But suddenly the lower classes were given the opportunity to make, rather than watch, history. According to Thomas Paine, politics would no longer be “the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community.” With plebeian recruits jostling for space, “the soil of common life,” Wordsworth noted, grew “too hot to tread upon.”
As late as France’s Revolution of 1848, even the most liberal of aristocrats would feel squeezed by this inrush of new bodies. On the morning of February 24, just after the Parisian insurrections had begun, street demonstrators confronted Alexis de Tocqueville, soon to be minister of foreign affairs, on his stroll to the Chamber of Deputies.
They surrounded me and greedily pressed me for news; I told them that we had obtained all we wanted, that the ministry was changed, that all the abuses complained of were to be reformed, and that the only danger we now ran was lest people should go too far, and that it was for them to prevent it. I soon saw that this view did not appeal to them.
“That’s all very well, sir,” said they, “the Government has got itself into this scrape through its own fault, let it get out of it as best it can.”
“. . . If Paris is delivered into anarchy,” I said, “and all the Kingdom is in confusion, do you think that none but the King will suffer?”
Whether Tocqueville’s “we” was a reference to his interlocutors in the street or colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies, it suggested the populist familiarity that high politics had now acquired, a political immediacy simply unthinkable under the Old Regime.
These changed dimensions of time and space would utterly transform how Tocqueville—indeed, how his entire generation, and generations after them—thought about political fear. It would do so in two ways: first, in his sense that it was the mass, and not the individual, that drove events; second, in his recasting of Hobbes’s fear and Montesquieu’s terror as mass anxiety.
Tocqueville believed that the crashing entrance of so many untrained political actors made it impossible for anyone to undertake, on his own, significant political action. “We live in a time,” he noted, “and in a democratic society where individuals, even the greatest, are very little of anything.” Or, as Michelet, describing the plight of the individual amid the mass, put it: “Poor and alone, surrounded by immense objects, enormous collective forces which drag him along.” For all their differences, Hobbes’s sovereign and Montesquieu’s despot were singular figures of epic proportion, projecting their shadow across an entire landscape. The mass eclipsed such figures, allowing no one, not even a despot, to put his stamp on the world. There simply wasn’t enough room.
For Tocqueville, the mass meant more than political congestion: it threatened to dissolve the very boundaries of the self. Not by crushing the self, as Montesquieu had envisioned, but by merging self and society. Unlike the frontispiece of Leviathan, where the individuals composing the sovereign’s silhouette insisted upon their own form, the canvas of revolutionary democracy depicted a gathered hulk, with no recognizable human feature or discrete part. So complete was each person’s assimilation to the mass, it simply did not make sense to speak anymore of individuals. “By dint of not following their own nature,” John Stuart Mill gloomily concluded, men and women no longer had a “nature to follow.”
The new political tempo of the Age of Democratic Revolution, Tocqueville claimed, also produced a new kind of fear. With everything in the world changing so fast, no one could get his bearings. This confusion and loss of control made for free-floating anxiety, with no specific object. Montesquieu’s victims were terrified of tangible threats: punishment, torture, prison, death; Hobbes’s subjects feared specific dangers: the state of nature and the coercive state. The anxiety of Tocqueville’s citizens, by contrast, was not focused upon any concrete harm. Theirs was a vague foreboding about the pace of change and the liquefying of common referents. Uncertain about the contours of their world, they sought to fuse themselves with the mass, for only in unity could they find some sense of connection. Or they submitted to an all-powerful, repressive state, which restored to them a sense of authority and permanence. Anxiety, then, was aroused not by intimidating power—as fear had been for Hobbes and terror had been for Montesquieu—but by the existential condition of modern men and women. Anxiety was not a response to state repression; it induced it.
With mass anxiety giving rise to political repression, with the experience of those below forcing the actions of those above, Tocqueville completely transformed fear’s political meaning and function, signaling a permanent departure from the worlds of Hobbes and Montesquieu. Redefined as anxiety, fear was no longer thought of as a tool of power; instead, it was a permanent psychic state of the mass. And when the government acted repressively in response to this anxiety, the purpose was not to inhibit potential acts of opposition by keeping people down (Hobbes) or apart (Montesquieu), but to press people together, giving them a feeling of constancy and structure, relieving them, at least temporarily, of their raging anxiety. Thus did Tocqueville take yet one more step away from the political analysis of fear offered by Hobbes, and set the stage for Hannah Arendt, who would complete the journey.
But Tocqueville also departed from assumptions about fear that both Hobbes and Montequieu, despite their considerable differences, had shared. Unlike Hobbes or Montesquieu, Tocqueville saw the lines of anxiety’s genesis, cultivation, and transmission extending upward, from the deepest recesses of the mass psyche to the state. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the state needed to take certain actions to arouse fear or terror, that the initiative came from above. Tocqueville turned that assumption upside down, claiming that anxiety was the automatic condition of lonely men and women, who either forced or facilitated the state’s repressive actions. To the degree that the state acted repressively, it was merely responding to the demands of the mass. Because the mass was leaderless, divested of guiding elites and discrete authorities, state repression was a genuinely popular, democratic affair.
Unlike Montesquieu or Hobbes, Tocqueville suggested that the individual members of the mass who sought to lose themselves in the state’s repressive authority were culturally and psychologically prone to submission. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the individual who was to be afraid or terrified had to be created through the instruments of politics—elites, ideology, and institutions in Hobbes’s case, violence in Montesquieu’s. But in Tocqueville’s eyes, politics did not have to do anything at all. The anxious self was already on hand. No matter how politics and power were configured, the self would be anxious by virtue of his psychology and culture.
Ultimately, it was this vision of the democratic individual amid the lonely crowd that made Tocqueville’s vision of mass anxiety so terrifying. In claiming that anxiety did not have to be crafted, that it was a constitutive feature of the democratic self and its culture, Tocqueville suggested that danger came from within, that the enemy was a psychological fifth column lurking in the heart of every man and woman. As he wrote in a notebook, “This time the barbarians will not come from the frozen North; they will rise in the bosom of our countryside and in the midst of our cities.”
Hobbes had tried to focus people’s fear on a state of nature that lay in the future and in the past and on a real sovereign in the present, Montesquieu on a despotic terror that lay in the future or in the far-off lands of Asia. Both sought to focus people’s fear on objects outside themselves or their countries. Tocqueville turned people’s attention inward, toward the quotidian betrayals of liberty inside their anxious psyches. If there was an object to be feared, it was the self’s penchant for submission. From now on, individuals would have to be on guard against themselves, vigilantly policing the boundaries separating them from the mass. At the height of the Cold War, American intellectuals would revive this line of thought, arguing that the greatest danger to Americans was their own anxious self, ever ready to hand over its freedom to a tyrant. Warning against the “anxieties which drive people in free society to become traitors to freedom,” Arthur Schlesinger concluded that there was, in the United States, a “Stalin in every breast.”
The other object to be feared was the egalitarian culture from which the democratic self arose. Tocqueville did not call for a reversal of democratic gains or a retreat from equality. He was far too much a realist and believer in the revolution’s gains to join the chorus of royalist reaction. Instead, he argued that to preserve the gains of the revolution, to help the democratic individual fulfill his promise as a genuine agent, the self would have to be shored up by creating firm structures of authority, restoring to it a sense of local affiliation, fostering religion and other sources of meaning, situating the self in civic associations whose function was less political than psychological and integrative. To counter mass anxiety, egalitarians and liberals, democrats and republicans, should cease their assault on society’s few remaining hierarchies. They should not participate in the socialist movement to centralize and enhance the power of a redistributive state. Instead, they should actively cultivate localism, institutions, and elite authority; these remnants of the Old Regime were the only bulwark against an anxiety threatening to introduce the worst forms of tyranny seen yet. The task, in other words, was not to continue the assault on the Old Regime but to stop it, to focus attention not on overturning the remains of privilege—local institutions and elites, religion, social hierarchies—but on enhancing them: these were the only social facts standing between democracy and despotism, freedom and anxiety.
One hundred and fifty years later, communitarian intellectuals in North American and Western Europe would offer a similar argument.
I want to introduce you to a new journal
systems. connecting matter, life, culture and technology.
The URL for the journal is www.systems-journal.eu
The journal was started by my friend Wolfgang Hofkirchner and his colleague
Manfred is Editor-in-Chief of the journal and is at the Institute of
Wolfgang is the Supervisory Editor and is at the Bertalanffy Center for the
Please join us for a free online professional development webinar!
Giving Your First Conference Presentation
TUESDAY OCTOBER 8th, 2013 - 7:00 to 8:00pmEST
Hosted by Jill Hurst-Wahl and Maurice Coleman
Kairos Interviews invites submissions for upcoming issues. Kairos has been pleased to feature conversations with Kathleen Welch, Peter Vandenberg, Andrea Lunsford and Michael Leff, James Gee, Scott McCloud, Nancy Kaplan, Bob Stein, Wendy Bishop, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few.
We especially welcome submissions that explore the interface among audio,
Please send your queries to section editors Margaret M. Strain and D.
Last Thursday I went to the launch party for Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (just published by Jonathan Cape) a graphic memoir in which she tells the story of her descent into and recovery from anorexia (and quite a bit besides). It is a big book, 524 pages in all, which somewhat belies its title, yet I read the whole thing in one sitting. I know I’m not alone in having done this: once you start, it is very hard to stop. It is compelling but a hard book to read: I felt the tears welling up several times. It is also a great book. The graphic format works perfectly for the story and Katie – a terrific illustrator – has managed to convey very vividly some little part of what it felt like from the inside. The black cloud of despair, the screaming monsters in the head, the desperate urge to control, control, control and the sense of alienation from those closest to her, the pain she knows she’s inflicting on them but can’t help doing so.
When she spoke at the book launch Katie said that she hadn’t written the book to help anyone. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will help one very large group of people, the people who can’t imagine what it is like for someone in her position, who can’t understand the sense of compulsion, and why the sick person can’t just “pull themselves together”. In giving voice to this inside, Katie has pulled off something comparable to what William Styron did for depression in Darkness Visible. That’s a pretty high standard of comparison, I know, and I’m feeling swayed by the immediate experience of just having read Lighter Than My Shadow, but I don’t think it an unfitting one.
I should disclose a slight interest. I know Katie slightly (she’s a friend of one of my children) and a photo I took is on the cover flap. So I’m not entirely impartial. Still, I think this is, objectively, a very great achievement. And I don’t mean to relativise in a way that suggests that it is great for someone who has gone through her experience to have produced something this good. I mean that it would be great for anyone to have created this, even though her experience is a condition of having done so. Anyway, people out there, this is a book that most of you ought to read. You can get it at Amazon of course, but better to buy from somewhere else. (The Guardian had a feature on the book last week.)
Earlier in the week, I inaugurated a series on the intellectual history of fear with a post on Hobbes’s theory of rational fear. Today, I continue with Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror.
Now before you run away in anticipation of a fit of boredom, let me make the case for reading Montesquieu. If you felt like you were frogmarched as an undergraduate through chapter 6 of Book XI of The Spirit of the Laws, jump ahead to his crazy and kooky discussion of climate. If you were bored stiff by the separation of powers, read his gruesome treatment of despotism. Or, better yet, read his scandalous novel Persian Letters—it’s got sex, race, violence, colonialism, and sex (did I mention it’s got sex?)—which prompted Joseph de Maistre’s famous barb against the Rights of Man and in defense of multiculturalism:
The Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But, as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.
But more likely you probably haven’t read Montesquieu at all. Which is a shame.
Montesquieu used to be a theorist of commanding interest and the subject of some excellent (if at times eccentric) left-wing commentary. My favorites include Franz Neumann’s chapter in The Democratic and Authoritarian State; Althusser’s brilliant essay from the 1950s; and Marshall Berman’s discussion of the Persian Letters in his first book The Politics of Authenticity. Also check out Judith Shklar’s short book on him, from Oxford’s now discontinued Past Masters series; it’s terrific.
But lately he’s become a bit of a boutique-y item in the canon. Folks who read and write about him tend to belong to the antiquarian set. They’re slightly fussy, vaguely conservative, scholars who like talk about things like moderation and who inevitably find in his works a mirror of their own beliefs. Montesquieu becomes, in their hands, the genteel guardian of an anodyne tradition of political moderation (though there is a burgeoning theoretical literature on the passions that sometimes breaks through this encrusted shell).
What gets lost in these treatments is the real Montesquieu, a man of fascinating if contradictory commitments, whose arguments and anticipations will find their fulfillment in some of the most blood-curdling visions of the 20th century.
I’ve tried to recapture some of that Montesquieu here (check out my discussion of Montesquieu, Freud, the death instinct, and WWI). But again, if you want to read more, buy the book.
• • • • •
Fear always remains. A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt, but as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.
Hobbes wrote about fear in the midst of political collapse, when the centripetal forces of civil war could no longer be contained by established norms of religion or history. So unnerving was this experience of political entropy that he sought to have it permanently imprinted on the European mind, there being “nothing more instructive towards loyalty and justice than . . . the memory, while it lasts, of that war.”
Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu—a French aristocrat born in 1689, a full decade after Hobbes’s death—took up the question of fear just as that memory began to fade. Montesquieu’s was a world suffering not from the confusion of disorder but from the clarity of established rule. By the time of Montesquieu’s birth, Louis XIV had turned a country that only narrowly escaped the revolution that wrecked Britain into the most orderly state in Europe.
Convinced that “a little harshness was the greatest kindness I could do my subjects,” Louis concentrated political power in his own hands, subduing nobles and commoners alike. He seized control of France’s armies, turning semiprivate militias into soldiers of the crown. He banished the aristocracy from royal councils of power, relying instead on three trusted advisors and an efficient corps of officials in the countryside. He snatched veto power from local grandees accustomed to striking down royal edicts in regional parlements. He bankrupted the nobility through obscure methods of taxation; others he corrupted with frivolous titles, assigning them to positions of responsibility over his kitchen and stables. A class that had shared power with the royal family for generations was reduced to competing for such privileges as helping the king get dressed in the morning and perching on a footstool near the queen. Louis, the French historian Ernest Lavisse aptly noted, ruled with “the pride of a Pharaoh” and possessed, according to a character in Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters, “a high degree of talent for making himself obeyed.”
Montesquieu had a visceral awareness of this aristocratic displacement. As a participant in the Bordeaux parlement and a substantial landowner involved in the wine trade, he chafed at royal interference in local matters, especially restrictions on the production and sale of wine. Everything about the reign of Louis XIV—the eclipse of the nobility, the drive toward centralized power, the loss of local institutions—he identified with despotism, and any limitation on royal power earned his support as the mark of reform. Combining a rearguard defense of noble privilege with a visionary critique of centralized power, he took positions sometimes traditional, sometimes reformist, but always opposed to the absolutism favored by Hobbes.
This was the world and the politics that prompted Montesquieu to launch his reconsideration of Hobbesian fear, a revision so profound and complete it would shape intellectual perception for centuries to come.
Political fear was no longer to be thought of as a passion bearing an elective affinity to reason; from now on, political fear was to be understood as despotic terror. Unlike Hobbesian fear, despotic terror was devoid of rationality and unsusceptible to education. It was an involuntary, almost physiological response to unmitigated violence. The terrorized possessed none of the inner life that Hobbes attributed to the fearful. They were incapable of thought and moral reflection; they could not deliberate or even flee. They cowered and crouched, hoping only to fend off the blows of their tormentor.
Montesquieu also reconceived the politics of fear. Where Hobbesian fear was a tool of political order, serving ruler and ruled alike, Montesquieu believed that terror satisfied only the depraved needs of a savage despot. Brutal and sadistic, the despot cared little for the polity. He had no political agenda; he sought only to quench his thirst for blood. The Hobbesian sovereign was aided by influential elites and learned men, scattered throughout civil society, who saw it in their interest to collaborate with him. The despot decimated elites and obliterated institutions, subduing any social organization not entirely his. While the Hobbesian sovereign generated fear through the rule of law and moral obligation, the despot dispensed with both.
Why this shift from fear to terror? Part of it was due to context. Creating political order in the wake of Louis XIV simply did not pose the same challenge to the Frenchman that it had to the Englishman. When Montesquieu tried to imagine a state of nature, as he did in the opening pages of The Spirit of the Laws, he could barely muster eight short paragraphs on the topic. The sheer brevity of his account—not to mention its benign descriptions—suggests how unfazed the political imagination of his day was by the specter of civil war.
But part of this shift was due to a change in political sensibility. Unlike Hobbes, who yearned for absolute government, Montesquieu sought to limit government power. Where Hobbes believed sovereigns should guard all political power as their own, Montesquieu argued for a government of “mediating” institutions. In his ideal polity, individuals and groups, housed in separate institutions, would share and compete for power. Forced to negotiate and compromise with each other, they would produce political moderation, the touchstone of personal freedom. Montesquieu argued for social pluralism and toleration—also checks, he believed, on the one-size-fits-all regime Louis XIV seemed bent on creating. With his vision of limited government, tolerance, political moderation, and personal freedom, Montesquieu was to become one of liberalism’s chief spokespersons, about as similar to Hobbes as a butterfly is to a wasp.
And yet beneath their considerable differences lay a deep vein of agreement. Like Hobbes, Montesquieu turned to fear as a foundation for politics. Montesquieu was never explicit about this; Hobbesian candor was not his style. But in the same way that the fear of the state of nature was supposed to authorize Leviathan, the fear of despotism was meant to authorize Montesquieu’s liberal state. Just as Hobbes depicted fear in the state of nature as a crippling emotion, Montesquieu depicted despotic terror as an all-consuming passion, reducing the individual to the raw apprehension of physical destruction. In both cases, the fear of a more radical, more debilitating form of fear was meant to inspire the individual to submit to a more civilized, protective state.
Why would a liberal opposed to the Hobbesian vision of absolute power resort to such a Hobbesian style of argument? Because Montesquieu, like Hobbes, lacked a positive conception of human ends, true for all people, to ground his political vision. Montesquieu’s liberalism was not the egalitarian liberalism of the century to come, nor was it the conscience-stricken protoliberalism of the century it had left behind. Unlike Locke, whose argument for toleration was powered by a vision of religious truth, and unlike later figures such as Rousseau or Mill, whose arguments for freedom were driven by secular visions of human flourishing, Montesquieu pursued no beckoning light. He wrote in that limbo period separating two ages of revolution, when weariness with dogma and wariness of absolutism made positive commitments difficult to come by and even more difficult to sustain. His was a skeptical liberalism: ironic, worldly, elegant—and desperately in need of justification.
Despotic terror supplied that justification, lending his vision of limited government moral immediacy, pumping blood into what might otherwise have seemed a bloodless politics. Montesquieu did not know—and did not care to enquire—whether we were free and equal, but he did know that terror was awful and had to be resisted. Thus was liberalism born in opposition to terror—and at the same time yoked to its menacing shadow.
But hitching liberalism to terror came at a price: It obscured the realities of political fear. Montesquieu painted an almost cartoonish picture of terror, complete with a brutish despot straight out of central casting, and brutalized subjects, so crazed by terror they couldn’t think of or for themselves. So did he overlook the possibility that the very contrivances he recommended as antidotes to terror—toleration, mediating institutions, and social pluralism—could be mobilized on its behalf. An expression of the despot’s deranged psyche, Montesquieu’s terror was an entirely nonpolitical or antipolitical affair, circumventing political institutions and sidestepping the political concerns of men. The polemical impulse behind his account was clear: If Montesquieu could show that despotic terror destroyed everything men held dear, and if he could show that terror possessed none of the attributes of a liberal polity, terror could serve as the negative foundation of liberal government. The more malignant the regime, the more promising its liberal alternative.
Built into Montesquieu’s argument, then, was a necessary exaggeration of the evil against which it was arrayed. Though repressive, the rule of Louis XIV did not entirely warrant Montesquieu’s overheated depictions, prompting Voltaire to complain that Montesquieu “satirizes more than he judges” and that he “makes us wish that so noble a mind had tried to instruct rather than shock.” Montesquieu was not unaware of the flaws in his account. In a youthful work, The Persian Letters, he offered plentiful evidence to suggest that his mature conception of despotic terror, stated in The Spirit of the Laws, was as much political pornography as it was social vision. In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu described a form of fear quite similar to that depicted by Hobbes. Rational and moral, fear relied upon education; it aided rather than subdued the self; it depended upon a powerful ruler working in concert with elites; it required the collaboration of all sectors of society. But in his later years, Montesquieu could no longer abide this youthful gloss. So he rejected the earlier vision, as have subsequent writers, who would ignore or misinterpret The Persian Letters, resulting in the distorted vision of terror we possess to this day. Montesquieu’s, then, is a cautionary tale, revealing the pitfalls of a liberalism that relies on terror and thereby misconstrues it, making the Frenchman a creature of not only his own time, but also our own.
But what exactly was this fear, this despotic terror? Curiously, The Spirit of the Laws never defines it. Part of Montesquieu’s unwillingness to define it was due no doubt to his intellectual temperament. He was repelled by the austere architecture of Hobbesian thought, in which unadorned definitions gave rise to severe edifices of theoretical conclusion, a style of deductive reasoning he believed mirrored the harsh simplicity of despotic rule.
But Montesquieu’s refusal to define terror registered an even deeper conviction. Terror, he had come to believe, was a great nullifying force, so oriented toward destruction and negation it could not sustain anything suggesting presence or concreteness. “Everything around” despotism, he observed, was “empty.” Terror’s most telling sign was silence, the desolation of verbal space signaling both the dissolution of men capable of speech and the disappearance of a world capable of description. No words, no definitions, could withstand terror’s decimating energies.
Hobbesian fear—and the fear Montesquieu described in the harem—traveled in a world of things, among men with ends to pursue and goods to be sought. Absence and loss were certainly fear’s companions: there was, after all, no more categorical loss than death. But the fear of death was a powerful emotion for Hobbes precisely because it conveyed to its sufferer the prospect of losing the goods he valued in life. The fact that the generation of Hobbesian fear required the cooperation of elites and institutions only added to this sense that fear flourished in a world of things. The denser the world, the more opportunities for depriving men of the objects that mattered to them, the greater the possibilities for arousing fear. In an empty space where human affections were thin and the objects of human attachment few, fear would find an inhospitable terrain.
In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu conceived an altogether different relationship between terror, self, and world. Terror preyed upon a person stripped of selfhood—of reason, moral aspiration, the capacity for agency, and a fondness for things in the world. The more self a person possessed, the more capable he was of resisting terror. The more connected he was to the world and its objects, the more resources he would have to challenge the despot. Deprived of self and world, he was the perfect victim of despotic terror. The ideal environment for terror was a society in which social classes and complicating hierarchies had been eviscerated and the individual was forced to stand alone—not unlike the world, Montesquieu believed, of Louis XIV. Liberated from the thick constitution of medieval ranks and orders, the despot would be free to wield his sword with unequivocal force. The most fertile climate for despotic terror, then, was not a dense atmosphere of desiring selves, collaborating elites, and robust institutions, but a vast expanse of nothingness, from which liberalism derived its somethingness.
Hobbes thought that a person’s fear of death was an expression of that person’s most intimate desires and wishes. All fearless people were alike— brash, foolish, enthralled by death—but a fearful person was fearful in his own distinctive way. For Montesquieu, it was the reverse. Because the terrified were incapable of reason, agency, and formulating their own ends, they possessed none of the irregularities distinguishing one person from the next. Terror fed on the dull sameness of animals motivated by nothing but the biological imperative of staying alive. The victim’s “portion, like beasts,’” was “instinct, obedience, and chastisement.” The fear of death could not be linked to the goods of a particular life, for it flourished only in the absence of those goods: “In despotic countries one is so unhappy that one fears death more than one cherishes life.” In free societies, obedience was “naturally subject to eccentricities.” Free subjects thought too highly of themselves to slavishly obey; they forced their rulers to accommodate their demands. Not so in despotism. A de-individualizing experience, despotic terror made no room for pluralism, difference, and individuality.
In recent years, intellectuals of varying stripes have taken the liberal tradition to task for its celebration of the independent, autonomous self. A figure of titanic but chilly remoteness, the liberal self is supposed to be Kant’s bleak gift to modern morals. According to Michael Sandel, the liberal a self is “an active, willing agent,” who chooses her beliefs rather than embrace or discover those she has inherited from parents, teachers, and friends. She is not bound by her “interests and ends.” She “possesses” such ends but is not “possessed” by them. She lurks, like a spider, behind all the strands connecting her to the objects of the world—content in her remove, autonomous at the center of her austere web.
The original vision of a self detached from its ends and the world, however, was born not in triumph but in grief. Long before Kant, long before the liberal subject of communitarian complaint, there was Montesquieu’s victim, a fragile being severed from its basic goods and the world’s objects. Dispossessed of contingent aims, ends, and desires, the victim was divested of every unique relationship and circumstance that made him who he was. For only after shaving off these distinctive layers of self could the despot act upon a creature of pure physicality.
Despite these differences between the proverbial liberal self, and Montesquieu’s brittle victim of terror, the two figures did share an elusive affinity. Kant’s self may not have been the victim Montesquieu envisioned, but Kant could only think of the self as he did because Montesquieu had redefined terror to be an entirely physical phenomenon. By stripping terror of the emblems of selfhood and by conceiving those emblems as checks against terror, Montesquieu made it possible for subsequent theorists to think of fear, redefined as terror, as an experience unhinged from the life of the mind. If a person were rational or moral, Montesquieu suggested, he was not likely to be found among the terrorized.
Kant picked up on this contrast between terror, on the one hand, and selfhood, on the other, only he turned it in an entirely different direction. Like the despot, Kant sought to strip the self of its contingent features—its particular ends, its attachment to immediate circumstances, its objects of desire. But where the despot uncovered a creature ripe for terror, Kant discovered an agent of moral freedom, a pure good will, attuned solely to the dictates of reason, who could act upon the requirements of duty without the “admixture of sensuous things.” Such a person, Kant believed, would be incapable of fear, precisely because he had been liberated from the things of this world, including his physical self. But where Montesquieu’s stripped-down self was prepared for a descent into hell, Kant’s rose gloriously to the kingdom of ends. Thus was the liberal self conceived in the shadow of terror.
While Sigmund Freud is associated with the twentieth century’s assault on the sunny rationalism that Montesquieu and the Enlightenment supposedly inaugurated, we see here how closely Freud’s worldview paralleled Montesquieu’s, how much Montesquieu anticipated the sensibilities of our own time. (“There is hardly an event of any importance in our recent history,” Hannah Arendt would later write, “that would not fit into the scheme of Montesquieu’s apprehensions.”) Writing after World War I, Freud claimed that the fundamental conflict within men and women was between the instincts of life and death. The life instinct propelled the self out into the world for the sake of sexual and emotional congress, political and social union. The death instinct sought to return the self to a condition of utter stillness and separation, before birth, where the tensions and conflicts associated with life had ceased. What made the death instinct so powerful was the dim memory of the inorganic state that preceded all life. “It must be an old state of things,” Freud wrote, “an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return,” an idea that explained why “the goal of all life is death.” That memory of a prior inorganic state lay behind the human drive toward self-destruction, as evidenced by the World War I: it was why men and women not only traveled toward death, but also sought to advance the pace of the journey.
Montesquieu’s despotic terror was like the death instinct, an adjutant of decomposition, restoring self and society to a primal stillness. Liberal politics, by contrast, was like the life instinct: It sought to put things together, to build up rather than break down. It worked against the coercive impulse to ease oneself back into a lifeless past, and for that reason, was difficult and counterintuitive. Taking something apart is always easier than putting it together, for disassembly returns things to their simplest forms. A liberal polity demanded that its leaders “combine powers, regulate them, temper them, make them act.” It required “a masterpiece of legislation that chance rarely produces.” Despotism, by contrast, “leaps to view.” Where moderate polities required “enlightened” leaders and officials “infinitely more skillful and experienced in public affairs than they are in the despotic state,” despotism settled for the “most brutal passions.”
Hobbes is often considered a more pessimistic theorist of politics than Montesquieu, but it was the Frenchman who truly possessed the more terrifying vision. No matter how absolutist or repressive his Leviathan, Hobbes believed in the indissoluble presence of men and women, of discrete agents whose participation was necessary for the creation of any political world, no matter how frightening. They were confused, vain, and obnoxious, but their recklessness spoke to a more capacious truth—that dissolution was not the way of the world. Montesquieu spoke on behalf of a darker dispensation. For all the evil the despot was supposed to unleash, he was in the end a mere catalyst, setting in motion forces of nature that were far beyond his control and that would ultimately engulf him as well. If there was any genuine actor in Montesquieu’s story of this descent into hell, it was not human beings but the impersonal drive toward nothingness, which forced its way through the most civilized facades and corresponded to the elemental processes of life itself.
Montesquieu’s politics thus bore a peculiar relationship to terror. On the one hand, terror had to be fought, consuming, if necessary, Europe’s entire fund of political energy. On the other hand, terror seemed more real, more in sync with the deep movements of nature, than liberal ideals of moderation and freedom.
But if ought entails can, how could liberalism take up a struggle against such an indefatigable foe? The solution was, first, to localize terror, and, second, to externalize it. Even though terror threatened all polities, particularly monarchies, Montesquieu thought it could be enclosed within one type of regime, despotism, and that a liberal or moderate regime could keep it at bay. For someone who believed that terror was the universal tendency of all political movement, this was an ironic conclusion, overturning centuries of teaching about how fear ought to be managed. Fear had previously been as a problem for all moral beings. Its challenges were universal, its boundaries ethical. Even Montaigne, usually invoked as Montesquieu’s predecessor, believed that though fear was a great “fit,” it could be overcome by recalling one’s “sense of duty and honor.” Montesquieu envisioned the domain of fear along radically different lines. He suggested that terror was a passion with a specific locale, that it could be contained by the concrete borders of a moderate regime. Thus, when Hegel later ended his discussion of African despotism by writing, “We shall therefore leave Africa at this point, and it need not be mentioned again,” he was invoking more than a literary turn of phrase. He was voicing Europe’s new conviction that fear tracked the lines of territorial rather than moral geography.
Hegel’s comment pointed to a second element of Montesquieu’s strategy: his externalization of terror. Though Montesquieu believed much of Europe was heading toward despotism, he depicted terror as lying primarily outside of Europe, particularly in Asia. Montesquieu may not have invented the concept of Oriental despotism, but he gave it a new lease on life, portraying an entire region and people languishing in primitivism and barbarism. Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, one of Montesquieu’s early critics, decried his use of dehumanizing stereotypes, claiming that Montesquieu had so distorted the East, he inadvertently offered a justification for colonialism from the West. A theory designed to denounce despotic terror at home unintentionally provided an excuse for practicing it abroad.
But there was more than crypto-colonialism going on here, for Montesquieu seemed to believe that by situating terror abroad, Europe could escape its effects at home. This may not have been the first time that a writer turned upon the rest of the world for relief from his own, projecting crude stereotypes he secretly feared were true of his native land; it certainly would not be the last.
An easy way to annoy an academic, if you’re so inclined, is to ask her what she did for her summer break. Few academics have much of a break over the summer, but they are not very good at communicating this to the public.. or even their students, including those who are on the academic career track. To address this, I decided to write up the various tasks that can keep academics busy during non-teaching months (recognizing that some people also teach in the summer). I was mainly drawing on my own experiences, which had the added benefit of reminding me that even during a summer that didn’t seem particularly productive, I had actually gotten a ton done. And to be clear, the reflection is not meant as a complaint about my job, there are many things about it that I love (I won’t pretend that I love it all, of course). But I do think that academics do themselves and also their students a disservice by not being more forthcoming about how they spend their time outside of the classroom. I will be following up with another piece on what obligations are added to our list once the academic year kicks in so I welcome items that are not on this list either because I forgot that they occur over the summer or because they mainly concern term time.
APPEL À COMMUNICATIONS
“He had come here as a refugee, done his duty to his adopted country by serving in our Royal Navy during the war, become a great academic and raised a good family.
“I saw him week after week and it beggars belief that the Daily Mail can accuse him of lacking patriotism. I never heard him ever say one word which was negative about Britain – our country.
“The Daily Mail is telling lies about a good man who I knew. The people of this country are good and decent too. They do not want the Daily Mail attacking the dead relatives of politicians to make political points.”
Apparently, there is some question now about whether Paul Dacre’s father served during WWII. Unlike Ed Miliband’s father.
Funding your dissertation on Kickstarter:
Democrats keep talking about our refusal to compromise. They don’t realize our compromise is defunding Obamacare. We actually want to repeal it.
I guess the next stage is to seek compromise on what ‘compromise’ means. Conservatives want ‘compromise’ to mean: we get almost everything. You get nothing. Erickson’s planning to threaten the dictionary people, maybe? (‘Dat’s a nice language you got ‘der. Be a shame if somethin’ wuz teh happin to it.’)
A kidnapper who asks for $1 million or he shoots the kid is seeking compromise, so long as he would prefer $10 million?
UPDATE: Here’s another use of the new word from Grover Norquist:
The administration asking us to raise taxes is not an offer; that’s not a compromise. That’s just losing. I’m in favor of compromise. When we did the $2.5 trillion spending restraint in the BCA, we wanted $6 trillion. I considered myself very compromised. Overly reasonable.
‘Compromise’ means conservatives getting a lot for nothing, just not absolutely everything you might ever want, for nothing. But bottom line: if you have to give to get, that’s just losing, not compromise.
To distract attention from having fired one fifth of the army, the Conservative defence secretary Phil Hammond needed something positive, whizzy and modern to tell his party members (average age: 68) at their conference last weekend. What better than to announce how go-ahead Britain is in all things cyber and defence? Well, he went one better, and announced that the UK will soon have the power that dare not speak its name; cyber strike capability.
You see, just as ‘everyone knew’ that the NSA was eavesdropping on all manner of phone and Internet traffic, including that of the US’s supposed allies, everyone also knows that the US, Russia, China, Israel, Iran– and probably North Korea if they can string together some cast-off Lenovo servers with galvanised wire – everyone is developing and has in some manner already deployed the ability to attack other countries’ critical networked infrastructure. It’s just that no one wants to admit to it.
The reason for this false modesty being, only Bad Guys launch cyber attacks. So everyone is allowing everyone else to pretend they are only developing defence capability, and would never do anything so hostile as to prepare an attack. It’s a bit like the Cold War, except with missile defence but no missiles. (Which is just as well, as parading across Red Square behind a couple of Dell servers is not very stirring.)
Why so coy? Partly because cyber attacks focus not just on military targets but on infrastructure such as energy or financial centres. Attacking purely civilian targets is verboten, and this international agreement has recently been stretched to cover networked assets, not just physical ones. And partly because if another country admits to committing an act of war against you, it puts you in the rather awkward position of having to retaliate. Plausible deniability works both ways.
So Hammond’s entirely willful statement that the UK is developing “full spectrum military cyber capability, including a strike capability” must have come as an unwelcome surprise to the Foreign Office and security services. Truth be told, Hammond’s intended audience was wider than Sunday’s blue rinses. Just as in the US, cyber-defence was the cue for a massive bun-fight on turf and cash between intelligence agencies and the military, Hammond is getting his lumps in first. He simultaneously announced the creation of a rather unfeasible sounding cyber-defence reserve.
Hammond’s astonishing faux pas is probably not bad domestic and intramural politics for him, but it creates a bigger problem for the UK. Do (publicly)-as-you-would-be-done-by has been till recently a pretty good approach to all things cyber and international. But Snowden blew a lot of that useful hypocrisy away. Much of Britain’s laudable public positioning on the open Internet, freedom and security is now hollow.
Consider this speech by Foreign Secretary William Hague a year ago on why the UK and other states need to beef up their security;
“In another case, a large international manufacturer was targeted during a period of negotiation with a foreign government. We do not know how the company’s networks were initially penetrated. But the company later identified that the hackers had accessed the accounts of the company’s entire leadership team during the negotiations. Their significant commercial interests were clearly threatened by this loss of confidentiality.
Attacks of such scale and severity continue to compromise many millions of pounds of investment in research and development, damaging a company’s ability to defend its Intellectual Property Rights and wiping away years of sensitive negotiations and commercial positioning. If these attacks are left unchecked they could have a devastating impact on the future earning potential of many major companies and the economic wellbeing of countries.”
All very reasonable as a cause of concern until you roll forward twelve months and think; Petrobras, Brazil, Roussef. Pot. Kettle. Black.
So when it comes to intentionally blowing away the useful hypocrisies* that kept the world of cyber diplomacy spinning round, Phillip Hammond has a lot in common with Edward Snowden.
The problem now is that the Russians and Chinese gained endless rhetorical cover both to retaliate against us and further develop their own bowdlerised Internets as technologies of political control. Rhetoric has real-life consequences, and the long game they are playing at the UN to win allies and exert intergovernmental control over the global Internet has been given a massive boost.
On one hand, Hammond’s punchy and self-serving revelation undercuts the ability of the UK to pursue with a straight face its current line on Internet openness and security. That hurts all of us working for a global, end to end network where permission to innovate – technologically and politically – is baked in to the protocols.
On the other hand, maybe it’s time to end the phoney war and bring into the relative open the process to spell out and agree how nation states will conduct themselves offensively and defensively in cyber space.
ought to be cut down to size.
And whoever edits it could do with the same treatment.
If, contrary to the truth, Ralph Miliband had had any sympathy with Britain’s enemies during WWII, of course, the Daily Mail would no doubt have offered him a column!
With this post, I’d like to kick off a five-part series on the intellectual history of fear.
Long before I was writing or thinking about conservatism and the right, I was writing and thinking about politics and fear. I began working on this topic with a dissertation in the early 1990s. I concluded that work with my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which was published in 2004.
When I embarked upon the project, not many people in the academy were interested in fear. By the time I concluded it, everyone, it seemed, was. What had happened in the intervening years, of course, was 9/11.
To some degree, I think 9/11 has short-circuited our thinking about fear. Not in the obvious ways—frightened people are not in much of a position to think about anything, or so the argument goes—but in a more subtle way.
Where the canonical texts offered a great many ways of thinking about politics and fear, and located fear in a number of different political forms, 9/11 seemed (I stress that “seemed”) to conform to an all-too-typical scenario: A calm and peaceful nation is suddenly jolted out of its everydayness by crazed fanatics from afar; it overreacts, responding hysterically to its enemies because that’s what fear does, that’s how it works (the amygdala and all that); the result is a dramatic shutdown of liberty.
Fear tries to offer a different way of thinking about political fear (for a more immediate application of some of its theses to the post-9/11 era, see this piece I did for Jacobin.) But more important, by showing us that there is a history to fear, and that that history is in part a history of ideas, it tries to dis-enthrall us from the present and its ways of thinking about the problem.
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, particularly on this blog, 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, as I said, I’m going to inaugurate a series on this blog, in which I post excerpts from each of the five chapters of my 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, um, you know, ahem, cough cough, feel free to 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.”
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.
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 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.
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.