‘The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis’
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Simon & Schuster
The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum wants Americans to get in touch with their feelings; not in a fit of self-indulgence but as a righteous act of civic duty. In “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis,” she writes against a (mostly male) tradition of philosophical and political thinking that minimizes emotions as merely a source of irrationality and embarrassment.
With more than two dozen books to her name, Nussbaum has been here before. Her ample body of work casts feelings as not just worthy of study but essential for understanding our political selves.
But the 2016 presidential election made her realize she “hadn’t gone deep enough.” A self-described “liberal social democrat,” she was so shaken by Donald J. Trump’s victory she felt an overwhelming sensation of alarm.
An elegant and precise stylist, Nussbaum writes about gut feelings like envy and disgust with an air of serene lucidity. In “Monarchy of Fear,” she insinuates her postelection alarm felt not just uncomfortable but alien to her.
She’s transparent about her beliefs and her background, describing her cosseted upbringing in Philadelphia as “fairly affluent.” She admits her “highly privileged life” as a celebrated academic affords her the luxury of contemplating at leisure what plenty of people are experiencing as a national emergency.
Which isn’t to say “Monarchy of Fear” is an entirely successful deployment of her privileged perspective. The book starts out strong, as she breaks fear down into first principles in order to show how feelings of insecurity and powerlessness can render an otherwise useful emotion like anger, or a desire for fairness, into something more vengeful and poisonous. She’s a skillful rhetorician, gracefully navigating her way around partisan land mines by talking about babies and ancient Greece. She wants to show how the feeling of fear is primal and therefore universal.
When it comes to seeing the small, scared child in everyone, though, Nussbaum can be illuminating. Drawing from the work of the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who observed that children could only grow out of their infantile fearfulness if the parent provided the right kind of “facilitating environment,” she asks: “What should we be striving for as a nation, if we want children to become capable of concern, reciprocity and also happiness?”
She must have written those words long before Americans learned last month that the government was separating migrant parents from their children at the border, but the idea of the nation valuing “concern, reciprocity and also happiness” for children, even as an ideal that it doesn’t live up to, sounds positively, distressingly quaint. When the vulnerability of children becomes less a reason for protection than an opportunity to do harm, perhaps some fear really is in order.