Reading Montaigne 1.18: Of fear

I wonder if Roosevelt had read Montaigne before he famously said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” Because in this brief essay, Montaigne writes “the thing I fear most is fear.” And having earlier dispensed, more or less, with the three things that we we most fear (death, poverty, and pain), Montaigne muses on fear itself, which can persist despite the logical defenses and objections he has put forth:

… I hardly know by what springs fear acts in us; but at all events it is a strange passion, and the doctors say that there is none which carries our judgment away sooner from its proper seat.

Montaigne’s essays often–and understandably–come down to trying to discern some coherence in the constant human balancing act between the emotional and the logical. We have nothing to fear–not even death, poverty, or pain–except fear itself.

Fear “exceeds all other disorders in intensity,” to the point that those in its grip may take to their heels or be frozen in place. People in the grip of fear often refuse help that is extended to them, no small paradox, or find that their fear drives them to succeed at the very thing which inspired their fear, such as the case of the battle in which a group of desperate, fleeing soliders sees no way to run further and so turns on–and defeats–the much-feared enemy.

The worst aspect of fear may be the way it can break a man’s spirit. Beat a man soundly in battle, Montaigne observes, and he will be able to fight the next day, but put fear in a man’s heart and they will be unable to look in the enemy’s eye:

Those who are in pressing fear of losing their property, of being exiled, of being subjugated, live in constant anguish, losing even the capacity to drink, eat, and rest; whereas the poor, the exiles, and the slaves often live as joyfully as other men. And so many people who, unable to endure the pangs of fear, have hanged themselves, drowned themselves, or leaped to their death, have taught us well that fear is even more unwelcome and unbearable than death itself.

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