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More than any other philosopher, Thomas Hobbes highlighted the claim that fear serves as a foundation for establishing the authority of the sovereign ruler. But fear has served not only the cause of political authority. Fear has always played a central role in the evolution of morality and in the constitution of moral authority. In turn, moral authority has underpinned the web of meaning through which society learns to live with its fears. That is why in recent times, the unraveling of moral authority has profoundly altered the meaning of fear. Society’s reluctance to take moral authority seriously has created an environment where fear exists relatively uncontained by moral guidance and has become a problem in its own right.

Twenty-first-century fear culture has three important dimensions that distinguish it from previous modes of fearing. The disassociation of fear from the grammar of morality is the most fundamental feature of the contemporary culture of fear. Consequently, sentiments such as the one expressed in Proverbs (1:7), “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” make little sense to a culture that regards fear only as a negative emotion. The second important characteristic of today’s fear culture is that in the absence of a moral consensus about what we should value, how we fear becomes fragmented and privatized. Instead of binding a community together, fear often serves as a focus of conflict. The absence of a shared experience of fear exposes and reinforces the relative weakness of common meanings through which society makes sense of the threats it faces. Finally, the decoupling of fear from the language of morality appears to endow fearing with an objective, yet incomprehensible character. In response to this development, society encourages a risk-averse survivalist mode, where safety is regarded as its fundamental value.

Throughout human history, when confronted with threats to their well-being, communities have looked for moral guidance from authoritative individuals and institutions. Moral authorities guide people through uncertainty and offer them frameworks through which they make sense of the threats they face. The effective management of fear is what makes these figures and their moral ideals respected.

That religion has always been interwoven with guidelines about what and what not to fear goes without saying. Even today, secular fear appeals about health, the environment, and diet assume a quasi-moral tone. Thus, warnings about climate change quickly metamorphose into calls for “going green,” “ethical living,” “veganism,” or “carbon rationing,” which stand as alternatives to “green sin.” This mimicking of a moral discourse by policy-oriented advocacy groups speaks to the tribute that vice plays to virtue.

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the wisdom gained through the fear of God is moral knowledge. It is worth noting that the earliest term for religion in biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages is “fear of God.” The emphasis that religion placed on fear was based on the conviction that it was indispensable to the maintenance and reproduction of the moral order. At least until the turn of the twentieth century, the sentiment of fear often conveyed explicit positive moral connotations. It expressed veneration, respect, and reverence. A “God-fearing man” was someone who possessed moral rectitude.

Since modern times, however, the moral authority of religion has been challenged by the guidance of science and other forms of secular thought. Competing ideals of religious and secular authority indicated that the cultural norms that made fear meaningful had turned into subjects of dispute. What we should fear and who is to blame have become subjects of acrimonious debate. We have no consensus over the meaning of misfortune, leaving fear a confusing and even arbitrary condition. It’s as if heretofore-occasional debates over the nature of evil, such as the one that broke out after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (which led to a confrontation between the view that it was an act of God and the view that it was an act of Nature), were now a constant feature of our time.

But there is a difference. In that earlier moment in history, the parties to the debate about the suffering and death that befell Lisbon sought to promote their respective claims to moral authority. Their interpretations of the threat facing humanity represented a clash of competing systems of meaning. That was then. Today the protagonists in similar debates—for example, over global warming—opt for terms of health, political correctness, and science, and avoid the lexicon of evil and God altogether. Experts use the language of medicine rather than morality to tell young teenagers that having sex is not so much “wrong” as bad for their emotional health. Fear has mutated into a condition that is managed by psychologists and health professionals, not interpreted and directed by priests and philosophers.

The estrangement of contemporary Western culture from a grammar of morality means that threats and dangers are unlikely to be conveyed in an explicit moral form. Those seeking guidance on how to manage their fears have nobody to consult regarding their moral meaning. A powerful example of what happens when fear becomes uncoupled from morality was provided by Thucydides in his reflection on the plague that ravaged Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War.

As fear spread, Thucydides records, “anxious citizens disregarded civic authority and violated laws and customs” that were previously dutifully observed. People feared the disease and death, but, Thucydides points out, paradoxically ceased to fear the authority of their old traditions. As many citizens abdicated their customary responsibilities, Athenian society disintegrated. Many Athenians no longer feared God; the death sentence they believed they were under made them think they had little to lose. As the plague spread, “fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” In years to come, this account of the decline of God-fearing citizens in Athens, and the moral devastation done to the city, served as a cautionary tale of what occurs when this emotion is no longer under the sway of moral norms and traditions.

The role of authority preoccupied the Romans, who were the first to develop a concept, auctoritas, which captures its moral dimension. Auctoritas conveyed the idea that authority should not be reduced to the exercise of power. It refers to a “moral attribute,” not just might and will.Emperor Augustus frequently claimed to possess auctoritas. His aim was to impart something more impressive than mere military or political power, namely, his dignified moral authority. His implied distinction between political power and auctoritas spoke to a world that had begun to understand that force alone could not maintain order and cohesion in society. It requires fear of shame, moral judgment, and loss of honor, not just fear of physical harm.

Twenty-first-century society struggles to give expression and meaning to auctoritas. Questions such as “Whom can you trust?” and “Who is in authority?” and “Who can speak with ­authority?” serve as testimony to its absence. Every controversy surrounding an act of misfortune—a flu epidemic, a natural disaster, an accident, a financial ­crisis—creates a demand for authoritative solutions. Yet this aspiration for authoritative answers ­coincides with a cultural sensibility that is ­profoundly suspicious of the exercise of authority. In the absence of authoritative guidance, fear takes on an irrational and atomized character. Fear that is ­unrestrained by communal norms has a corrosive and ­disorienting impact on community life. As one study of this process notes, an “epidemic of fear is also an epidemic of suspicion.” Such suspicion tends to undermine social capital and solidarity, and fear acquires an atomized, meaningless quality that people experience by themselves, in isolation.

Unmasking authority is certainly a more fashionable enterprise than is upholding authority. Those who hold positions of responsibility and of power—politicians, parents, teachers, priests, doctors, nursery workers—are continually “exposed” for abusing their authority. That the term “authority” is associated so readily with the act of abuse is symptomatic of Western society’s disenchantment with the so-called authority figure. Even those who are formally in authority hesitate to exercise their influence openly. In numerous businesses and public institutions, they routinely outsource authority to consultants and experts.

The dilemma of contemporary so­ciety is that we cannot live without some form of authority. Those who reject one authority as illegitimate usually embrace others as acceptable. Hence, critics of teachers’ authority in the classroom invite them to serve instead as “mentors,” “facilitators,” or “role models” to children. In a world where the clergy is denounced for its authoritarian and abusive behavior, the victim is endowed with sacred status. People who recognize only the authority of the self depend on the ­advice of the therapist and the self-help author.

Hannah Arendt once observed, “If authority is to be defined at all, then, it must be in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through argument.” From this perspective, authority is not reducible to a relation of power. When governments force an issue through the exercise of power, they draw attention to their inability to act authoritatively. Nor can authority rely on persuasion alone to gain public endorsement for a specific objective. Persuasion through debate presupposes a relation of parity between competing but more or less equal parties.

Arendt suggests that the use of coercion and of persuasion is symptomatic of non-authoritative behavior. A “father can lose his authority either by beating his child or by starting to argue with him, that is, either by behaving to him like a tyrant or by treating him as an equal.” So when authority relies on coercion or persuasion, it must concede that it has lost the trust of those that it seeks to influence.

Historically, authority depends on the capacity of certain people to gain the voluntary obedience of people to their commands and beliefs. Of course, authority always projects power, but not through a one-dimensional exercise of force. The exercise of authority is, rather, a moral accomplishment that gives meaning to human experience. That’s what the historian Leonard Krieger means when he states that authority has the ability to place “pressure upon men to conform in ways” in which “they could not be ordered or compelled by the possessor of power.”

Modern society’s estrangement from authority is more than mere distancing from the sphere of the moral. The language of morality is frequently framed in outright negative terms. In particular in Western Europe, arguments and statements that are communicated through self-consciously moral language are rarely taken seriously in their own terms. This trend is particularly evident in communications within academic circles and among cultural elites. Morally framed arguments tend to be treated with scorn, often by being recast as ideological formation or pathological fear, as in the application of the term moral panic to people who objected to same-sex marriage.

Policymakers and politicians find it difficult to justify their work and outlook in the vocabulary of morality. Officials promote policies on the grounds that they are “evidence-based” rather than because they are right or good. Even religious voices feel compelled to hide behind the rhetoric of “Research shows . . .” in order to overcome the resistance to moral discourse.

This approach would have been unthinkable to most pre-twentieth-­century minds. As one study on the history of fear points out, “whether religious or secular, pre-modern thinkers argued that fear had to be deliberately cultivated and sustained by a moral understanding of who men and women are and how they should conduct themselves as ethical beings.” Theologians perceived the cultivation of fear not as a negative or destructive activity, but as integral to moral conduct. Many Christian theologians went so far as to assert that fear has its source in love. Thomas Aquinas systematically advanced this argument in the Summa Theologiae, stating that “all fear arises from love; since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves.”

Present-day adherents to a Thomist view of fear continue to believe that the Christian approach toward the cultivation of fear provides an indispensable prerequisite for conducting a good life. In an interesting essay titled “Thomas Aquinas and the Culture of Fear,” Scott Bader-Saye takes the view that “excessive” fear fosters a climate of suspicion and mistrust and that therefore it can have negative consequences, such as undermining “Christian virtues such as hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity.” He adds, however, that set in the context of a coherent moral universe, fear can become constructive. In the past, when religion had a greater influence over Western society, “fear was understood in the context of an ordered world and a provident God from which certain assumptions about politics, morality, and identity flowed.”

The loss of a morally ordered world governed by authorities, divine or not, is why fear appears in the current era to be such a volatile and directionless activity. It seems as if one threat begets another, only to be contradicted by yet another newly discovered target of fear. Without the clarity offered by moral guidance, fear has become a problem in its own right. Detached from a system of meaning, fear signals the absence of safety and security—that is all. Safety has assumed the status of a moral good that trumps all others. The fear of death remains, and there is no moral meaning that comes from above and helps someone through it, such as a life of service to country or the sight of upright children who prospered because of a parent’s devotion. Without the guidance offered by moral authority, anxiety and insecurity turn the search for safety into a futile quest. We need the domain of the moral and its ­authoritative claim to avoid being mastered by our fears. 

Frank Furedi is author of How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century.