Fear Matters Most

“To show any sign of love, or fear of another, is to honor; for both to love, and to fear, is to value.” 

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

I daresay almost every man wishes he mattered more.  What does this mean?  It means that almost every man wishes his opinion was more often taken into account, and that his opinion was in every case given more weight.  It means that almost every man wishes others would fall silent when he parts his lips, plan and provide for his happiness, crave and curry his favor, and (to cut to the heart of the matter) quake with fear at the thought of his wrath. 

In other words, almost every man dreams of being a tyrant, a despot and a thug.

A man who matters is honored and valued, and Hobbes tells us that a man is honored and valued either because he is loved or because he is feared.  Of these two sources of honor and value, it is generally recognized that fear matters most.  Machiavelli explains why.

“One ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.”*

Fear matters most because the bonds of love are weak and the bonds of fear are strong.  As Machiavelli goes on to explain:

“Men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

What Machiavelli means is that we can betray those we love but we cannot betray those we fear.  We give our love, and are therefore free to withdraw love when it suits us; fear on the other hand is thrust upon us whether we like it or not.  This is why fear endures.  This is why the bonds of love are weak, the bonds of fear are strong–and why mattering is a terrible power.

*) The Prince (1532)

8 thoughts on “Fear Matters Most

  1. Thank you for the meditation. There is a lot here to digest.

    Yes, I agree, but only if the object of one’s existence is the pursuit of the power to compel mankind to heel to one’s will, as was that of Cesare Borgia, who presumably is Machiavelli’s referent here and the object of his praise.

    But the point of love is the enabling of individual decision-making, untrammeled by compulsion but rather guided by a wise hand, rather than its disabling, which is the point of fear-mongering: to reduce one’s theoretical enemy to a sniveling mass of human jelly and have ones way.

    The idea that love and fear are oppositional and exclusive, the latter being the stronger, the more lasting, troubles me somehow and I’m not yet sure why. Isn’t fear to be oppositional to courage, rather? And how many courageous individuals do we see today taking the proverbial bull by the horns in spite of the fear of doing so?

    • I think love is better than fear, but that better does not in this case mean stronger or more effective. Love is a means to transcend the world, not to manipulate and control it. Your point about courage is important, but I think the world oppose is being used in two senses. When someone uses fear to make himself matter to me, I can oppose that fear with courage. When I wish to make myself matter to someone else, I can use love “as opposed to” fear. Love is the “opposite” of fear, but this does not mean you can “oppose” fear with love.

      • …but this does not mean you can “oppose” fear with love.

        Sure you can. Haven’t you read that “love conquers all”? *wink, wink

  2. A very timely thought, that I find true from my experience.
    A child’s father matters most precisely when they are young and when their fear of punishment is greatest. As he ages, for most the fear ebbs away and so also does the importance of the father, to some limit, hopefully, for we are always commanded to honor father, and mother. But the Father we are commanded always to love and fear, and so perfect love and wholesome fear are not incompatible, supernaturally.
    The one who is in authority cannot completely avoid frightening those whom he has authority over, and the ruler who bears the sword in vain will usually end up under that sword. And while perfect charity casts out fear, how many of us are saints and are not in truth deserving of punishment, at some times and in some ways?
    The earthly fear is more efficient, effective, longer lasting and stronger, but it will pass at the end of our lives, if not before, and the end of time. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

    • If the father inspires fear in the boy, there is a good chance he inspires fear in others, and this makes the boy feel secure. I would emphasize a difference between what might be called conditional and unconditional fear. Conditional fear is a anticipation of harm for well-defined infractions that the boy can easily avoid, and this is a good sort of fear. Unconditional fear is anticipation of harm from an unpredictable and violent man, and this sort of fear is very bad.

      • A good distinction, the fear of the law’s just punishment being conditional and the fear of a beast being rather more unconditional, though the model for unconditional fear in our age is certainly the terrorist and the mass shooter.

      • Unconditional fear is really fear of evil, evil being defined as undeserved harm. In the system of Thomas Hobbes, we escape from fear of evil (unconditional fear) by submitting to authority (conditional fear).

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