Sunday, 18 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 17: Of Fear


Montaigne discusses the emotion called fear: what can it do to us and why, and how many different kinds of fear exist? 


'Sometimes fear adds wings to the heels. Sometimes it nails them to the ground'

‘I was amazed, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck in my throat’ Virgil, Aeneid.

I can’t say what it is that causes fear to have the impact on us that it does. It is a strange passion; the physicians say there is no other that makes our judgment falter so much. I myself have seen many become frantic from fear, and even in those that are very calm normally, it causes a terrible confusion and shock. I’m not talking just about the ‘vulgar sort’, to whom fear means their departed rising up from the grave, or werewolves, or nightmares or phantoms, but also of soldiers, over whom fear should have the least power. Fear can convert armed squadrons into flocks of sheep, make their spears and swords into reeds and blades of grass, their friends into their enemies, and the French flag into the Spanish!

When Rome was seized by Mr. Bourbon, a man guarding the city was seized with such fear that he ran directly into the enemy, thinking he was retreating into the city. Bourbon’s army thought he was advancing to attack, and drew their weapons. When the man at last realized his mistake, he retreated blindly, at full speed; and ended up in the middle of an open field. He was unharmed, but another guard who reacted in a similar way was not so lucky, and was killed. Another gentleman, in the same battle, was so seized by fear that he sank to the floor, stone-dead, without being wounded or hurt at all.

Sometimes fear adds wings to the heels. Sometimes it nails them to the ground. The Emperor Theophilius, upon losing a battle in Spain, was so astonished that he could not move, and one of his commanders had to go up to him and tell him, ‘Sir, if you do not follow me, I will kill you; for it is better you should lose your life than, by being taken, lose your empire’. But that’s what fear can do; it can deprive us of all sense of duty or honour.

The thing in this world that I am most afraid of is fear, that feeling along, more than any other accident. Fear can drive out all intelligence from the mind. Take the story of Pompey’s friends: they had witnessed his horrible murder on their ship, but when they saw enemy Egyptian ships coming towards them, they were possessed with such great alarm that they could think of nothing but fleeing. Only when they had reached safety did they grieve for their captain. The more potent passion had, till then, suspended their tears.

Those that have been injured in a skirmish, even if they are wounded and bloody, may be asked the next day to attack once more, but those who have become truly afraid of their enemy can never again be made to do so much as look him in the face.

Those that are in immediate fear of losing their property, of banishment, or of slavery, live in perpetual anguish and lose all appetite and all calm, whereas those that are actually poor, slaves, or exiles often live their lives as happily as the next man. And then those who, tired of being perpetually in fear, have hanged or drowned or shot themselves lead us to believe that fear can be more persistently intrusive, more unbearable, than death itself.

The Greeks acknowledged another kind of fear, different from those we have so far discussed: the fear that surprises us without any visible cause. Whole nations and armies can be struck from it, like an impulse from heaven.  Diodorus Siculus, the Greek historian, calls this fear a ‘panic terror’ and relates the story of Carthage (ancient North-African city near present-day Tunis), where this type of fear took root. Nothing was heard in Carthage when this struck except for frightened voices and crying, and residents ran out of their houses in alarm, and attacked, wounded, and killed one another, as if they had been enemies that had come to attack the city. Everything was in disorder and fury until, with prayers and sacrifices, they appeased their gods.

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