ReviewThe Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis

Oct 2, 2018
Text by Isaac Mier

Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Law School

Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Law School

Cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.


Fear seems especially poignant in our present political moment. Bob Woodward’s latest work on our current president is titled “Fear," based on Trump’s own definition of “real power.” As the Brett Kavanaugh hearings continue, women are apprehensive and afraid to speak out about sexual misconduct. They fear a backlash. Thanks to the twenty-four hour news media, we hear plenty on the subject of fear. But, how does a philosopher understand fear?

In order to understand where we arrived, we must draw from a multitude of traditions to understand the emotions that sprout from fear, such as ancient Greek & Roman literature and philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, modern literary works, and theater.

University of Chicago professor Martha C. Nussbaum’s new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, takes a look at exactly this. Each chapter of The Monarchy of Fear focuses on an emotion or theme related to fear, including anger, disgust, and envy. Nussbaum also dedicates a chapter to the disentanglement of misogyny and sexism and the underlying fear in those views. She concludes with a chapter on “Hope, Love and Vision,” which is dedicated to helping steer us away from fear-driven emotions.

Each chapter is split into sub-sections which have their own headings and nuance It is in these sub-sections that Nussbaum’s philosophical tool-kit is on full display. Nussbaum provides us with clear examples of what each emotion looks like in action and the ways in which the emotion could either become harmful or helpful to our democracy and society. It is in this sense that The Monarchy of Fear is more explanatory than analytical; this book is not written to argue but, rather, to elucidate.

In a time in which the world seems to be moving at an alarmingly fast speed, Nussbaum wants us to slow down and reflect on the world in which we live, our place in it, and how we inhabit our own skin and our environments. Remaining neutral, she explains the ways in which both sides of the political debates are subject to the whim of fear-driven emotions. Nussbaum reminds us that fear, although intuitive and helpful, is often misinformed and misguided in our postmodern world. Social media, television, and radio augment disagreements and create illusory divisiveness. However, Nussbaum claims people are also capable of achieving the vision of love, hope, faith, charity and reciprocity outlined in the final chapter.

America, Nussbaum says, is “a work in progress, a set of dynamic aspirations put in motion by tough work, cooperation, hope, and solidarity over a long period of time,” and that a “just and inclusive America never was and is not yet a fully achieved reality.” The American project is, in all honesty, an experiment in liberal democracy. We have made strides toward a more perfect system of human equality, but we have not reached that goal yet. Nussbaum continues:

“this present moment may look like a backsliding from our march toward human equality, but it is not the apocalypse, and it is actually a good time when hope and work can accomplish a great deal of good. On both left and right, panic doesn’t just exaggerate our dangers, it also makes our moment much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, more likely to lead to genuine disasters.”

This panic is due largely to fear, which Aristotle defined “as pain at the seeming presence of some impending bad thing, combined with a feeling that you are powerless to ward it off.” Powerlessness is precisely what Nussbaum targets; by changing this feeling and empowering citizens, we may all continue to mold an America that is less fearful and more hopeful, less angry and more loving, less envious and more charitable. Nussbaum is not blinded by emotions—she sees right through them. To continue driving the United States and the rest of the world toward a paradise of human equality, we must be able to do the same.

In this new book, Nussbaum sinks her teeth into fear by writing in a beautifully fluid style that brings high-minded ideas down to earth. By exposing how emotions can make or break a political crisis, she paves the way from fear to hope.

Buy the book here. Learn more about Nussbaum on her website.