Chapter 72: The Right Fear
“When we don’t fear what we should fear
we are in fearful danger.
We ought not to live in narrow houses,
we ought not to do stupid work.
If we don’t accept stupidity
we won’t act stupidly.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Aristotle famously defined virtue as a mean between two extremes, and courage as the mean between cowardice and recklessness. The courageous are not fearless. They feel fear toward the right objects, at the right time, in the right amount, in the right way.
The Obama doctrine on foreign policy was striking in its simplicity—it could have fit on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt—and, for a politician typically regarded as a liberal, ironically conservative:
“Don’t do stupid shit.”
The doctrine was the product of three things: Obama’s predisposition toward caution, a general national fatigue over the “forever wars” of the Bush years, and his accurate, succinct characterization of the Iraq War in particular—“dumb.” After ascending to unipolar status after the Cold War, the “liberal interventionism” of the 90s gave way, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, to the “neoconservatism” of the 2000s—what George Will deemed a “spectacularly misnamed radicalism”—the stuff of democracy promotion and nation building. In the eyes of the world, America went from revered “Top Gun” to resented “Team America: World Police” by falling prey to classic imperial hubris.
Many people nowadays regard “the fear of God” as a stupid superstition, but might I suggest this itself is a stupid position. What the fear of God really means is fearing that your natural desire to become like God—to outfox Fate, to mock mortality—will overpower you. This was after all the original sin in Genesis, and it is central political teaching of the Old Testament: the bad king thinks he is God (Pharoah), while the good king knows he is a servant of God. When King David disregards the counsel of his prophet, the representative of the divine will, everything goes sideways. He manages to break half the commandments in a stroke: he covets and steals another man’s wife, commits adultery, (indirectly) kills her husband, and, most importantly, forgets the Lord. From here, everything goes sideways. David is a symbol for Israel, and Israel is a symbol for humanity. Forgetting or fudging our limits is an occupational hazard of being human.
But there is a different danger, a different kind of stupidity, a different kind of proper fear. Call it the “fear of dog.” Precisely because others will forget their humanity and fail to feel the fear of God, they will begin to behave like beasts. Aristotle also said that the person outside the polis—the political community—is either a beast or a god. He who plays the god will act the beast. When others are doing stupid shit, the stupidest thing is to accept it, retreat into our narrow house. The fear of being stupid breeds stupidity.
The right fear cannot be known in advance, because right is relative to the moment. But that does not make it arbitrary: the set of the proper objects of fear is bounded. When at peace, the fear of God. When at war, the fear of dog. Thus are psyches and a polities preserved.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”