The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis
by Martha Nussbaum.
Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Hardcover, 249 pages, $17.

Reviewed by Anthony M. Barr

In the preface to her recent book The Monarchy of Fear, philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes that “academics can be too detached from human realities to do good work about the texture of human life.” She then notes that her own commitments and efforts have led her to “want to restore to philosophy the wide set of concerns that it had in the days of the Greeks and Romans; concerns with the emotions and the struggle for flourishing lives in troubled times; with love and friendship; with the human lifespan; with the hope for a just world.” Even if Nussbaum’s book were lifeless or banal, this effort at restoration would still be commendable. Fortunately, as might be expected given Nussbaum’s illustrious career, her latest book is as erudite, compassionate, and invigorating to read as her various earlier works, including my personal favorite The Fragility of Goodness. But while Nussbaum is not afraid to speak to the particulars of our political moment—a rather memorable example being when she categorizes Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments under the labels “blood, weight, bathroom, breastfeeding, and attractiveness”—she rather prudently spends most of her time grounding her insights in close readings of stories, both ancient and contemporary, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots.

In one of the early chapters Nussbaum takes stock of our current political climate and notes the pervasive anger. She writes: “America is an angry country … Men blame women, women blame working-class men. On the right we find hysterical blame of Muslims, on the left furious blame of those who denounce Muslims. Immigrants blame the new political regime for the instability of their lives. Dominant groups blame immigrants for the instability of ‘all our’ lives.” While there are many causes of anger, such as legitimate grievances based on injustices, Nussbaum is especially interested in the link between anger and fear. She explains that “fear is not only a necessary precondition for anger, it is also a poison to anger,” and notes that “when we are afraid, we jump to conclusions, lashing out before we have thought carefully about the who and the how.”

Nussbaum connects this visceral experience of fear and anger to the experience of infancy. She reminds us that as infants, “we come into a world that we are not ready to cope with. (And in a crucial sense we never really are.) Terribly soft and vulnerable, we lie there helpless, waiting for others to provide what we need—food, comfort, and reassurance.” In Nussbaum’s view, while we “usually survive this condition. We do not survive it without being formed, and deformed, by it.” And more specifically, “fear, genetically first among the emotions, persists beneath all and infects them all, nibbling around the edges of love and reciprocity.” This line of argumentation leads Nussbaum to make the bold claim that “politics begins where we begin,” rooted in those same affects: fear of vulnerability and anger at our own dependency.

The monarchy of fear is the condition of perpetual infancy. It is the primal dictatorship of the unregulated passions, as memorably discussed in Plato’s Republic. What is needed, according to Nussbaum, is democratic selves, formed through self-knowledge and responsible engagement with the emotions. She sees two ancient Greek texts as providing vivid depictions of what that engagement looks like, on both the personal and societal level. Regarding the personal, she writes: “The first word of Homer’s Iliad is anger—the anger of Achilles that ‘brought thousandfold pains upon the Achaeans.’ And the Iliad’s hopeful ending requires Achilles to give up his anger and to be reconciled with his enemy Priam, as both acknowledge the frailty of human life.”

In this story, as in the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. (of whom Nussbaum also writes at length), the Greeks teach us that “great leaders understand that we need to retain and fortify the spirit of determined protest against wrongdoing, without comforting ourselves with retributive thinking.” What is true on the individual level is also true for society more broadly, and to make this point, Nussbaum turns to The Eumenides. She writes: “Aeschylus shows that a democratic legal order can’t just put a cage around retribution; it must fundamentally transform it from something hardly human, obsessive, bloodthirsty, to something human, accepting of reasons, something that protects life rather than threatening it.” In both texts, Nussbaum asks us to see that “anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse when fueled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness.”

Nussbaum’s analysis of the various emotions (fear, anger, disgust, envy) is riveting but of equal benefit is her prescription for our ailing democracy, namely the construction of “a politics of hope.” Nussbaum spends the last part of her book describing in detail what this hopeful politics can look like, explaining that it is characterized by “loving, imaginative vision (through poetry, music, and the other arts), and a spirit of deliberation and rational critique, embodied in philosophy, but also in good political discourse everywhere.” Crucially, this approach to politics is not devoid of emotion. Nussbaum writes: “I’ve already rejected the Stoic position that we should insulate ourselves from painful shocks by not caring greatly about anything outside ourselves. The Stoic view removes too much, leaving no love of family or country, nothing really to make life worth living.” Instead, Nussbaum asks us to stay committed to love, but she warns that to do so means we are “stuck with fears and hopes—and at times with profound grief.” Nevertheless, through an engagement with the chief virtues of faith (for Nussbaum, faith is simply seeing the potential for human goodness), hope (a radical rejection of cynicism and despair), and love, “seeing the other person as fully human, and capable at some level of good and of change.”

In keeping with her own observation that “if we ought to be pursuing valuable social goals, then we ought to motivate ourselves to pursue them—and this means embracing hope,” and further that “hope involves a vision of the good world that might ensue, and, often at least, actions related to getting there,” Nussbaum ends her book with broad suggestions for cultural domains that can help cultivate the virtues necessary for good citizenship.

The arts: In particular, Nussbaum praises the poets who “see whatever they see as full, real, and infinitely complex, and as separate from the ego.” The poets can teach us that “love in this sense is anti-narcissistic, determined to cede an area of mystery and infinite complexity to each ‘other,’ and determined to let each speak, act, and be.”

Socratic examination: Nussbaum reminds us that “socratic reasoning is a practice of hope because it creates a world of listening, of quiet voices, and of mutual respect for reason.”

Religion: While her treatment of religion might seem instrumental (and this is a concern with Tocqueville too), it is genuine. She notes that “hope and committed action are difficult in solitude, and religious groups are a primary way in which people find a hope-building and hope-sustaining community.”

Protest movements: Nussbaum notes that local politics is of particular importance in sustaining a democracy. She writes that “grassroots organizing is perhaps one of our nation’s greatest and perennial resources in combating fear and despair, and feeding love.”

Accounts of justice: Nussbaum welcomes debate about justice in the public square. Rather than asking us to adopt a Rawlsian neutrality, she urges us to embrace and share a concrete, particular conception of the just society. She writes: “if hope focuses on a reasonably concrete picture of the just society, which one is prepared to defend with good arguments against alternative pictures, it is easier to advocate wisely for measures calculated to bring that goal about. And it is easier to see when compromises with the opposition are reasonable and when they jeopardize something intrinsic to justice itself.”

Nussbaum emphasizes each of these domains because she believes that “we need to treat that other person as a person, having depth and an inner life, a point of view on the world, and emotions similar to our own.” By cultivating our own interior life through these domains, we can develop the awareness needed to see and respect the interior lives of others. Her argument boils down to “this sort of faith, crucial in personal love and friendship,” a faith that “we also need in political life.” Nussbaum implores us to “think of our opponents as having capacities for reasoning and a range of human emotions, whether badly developed and used or not.” If we can heed that call, leaving behind the monarchy of fear and entering into the democracy of love and responsiveness, we can begin to heal the wounds that mar our nation.  

Anthony M. Barr is a student in the Templeton Honors College where he studies history, literature, and Orthodox thought and culture. He frequently writes for Ethika Politika and Circe Institute and has done research on political theory, education policy, and civic and moral virtue for various nonprofits, businesses, and independent publishing companies.