My post on The Remedies of Sorrow and Pain taken from Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica has had thirty times more page views than my usual posts. One comment asked if I would look at what Aquinas has to say about fear. I'm no expert but I thought I'd give it a try. I found a copy of a commentary Aquinas' Summa by Edward Gratsch which was very helpful.
The section on fear is not as pithy and practical as the one on sorrow. There is sadly no section on overcoming fear. If I were to recommend something spiritual on overcoming fear (or anything else) it would be Arise from Darkness by Fr Benedict Groeschel (who has had a bit of darkness himself this year).
Aquinas covers fear in the section of the Summa on the passions. Passions are emotions. They are something we have in common with animals so we could call them our animal appetites. They provoke bodily changes e.g. our heart races when we're in love. They form the link between our senses and our mind CCC 1764.
Aquinas calls fear, hope, despair, daring and anger, passions of the irascible (easily-provoked) appetite. These emotions have to do with something we perceive to be good or evil but difficult to obtain. Daring (boldness) is an attempt to overcome some terrible and imminent danger while fear is turning away from the danger because we don't believe we can overcome it.
Aquinas' thoughts on fear appear in Part 1 of Part 2 of the Summa Questions 41-44. Each question is broken down into a number of articles. I've picked out some of the more interesting articles and some of the stronger or more relevant arguments.
Q41 What are the types of fear?
Fear arises when we are confronted with a future evil that we are unable to handle (a lion, a burglar, a contagious disease). Aquinas agrees with St John of Damascus that there are 6 forms of fear including laziness, shamefacedness, shame, amazement, stupor and anxiety. The first three are generated by our own actions, the other three are generated by something external.
Fear generated by our own actions.
Laziness - the fear of being burdened by work.
Shamefacedness - the fear of being disgraced in the eyes of others by an action that has only been imagined.
Shame - the fear of being disgraced in the eyes of others by an action that has been done e.g. adultery.
Fears resulting from something external.Amazement - being overcome by the enormity of an evil the outcome of which the person is unable to gauge e.g. finding a robber in your house.
Stupor - overcome by the unusualness of an evil e.g. a giant sink hole appearing.
Anxiety - overcome by the fear of unforeseen future misfortunes.
Not every instance of amazement or stupor is a type of fear, only when the cause is something terrible. In each case the person wants to retreat from the difficulty.
Q42. What are we afraid of?
Is the object of fear good or evil?
Some might argue that we fear the good. St Augustine said "we fear nothing save to lose what we love and possess, or not to obtain that which we hope for." Further we are commanded to fear God and there can be no evil in God.
Aquinas disagrees. He argues that fear is a bodily appetite (like hunger). The role of bodily appetites (desires) is the pursuit of good and the avoidance of evil. So whatever our appetites cause us to pursue is good and what they cause us to avoid is evil. Fear implies a desire to avoid something. Therefore evil is its object.
However evil doesn't exist in itself it is the absence of something good (like a hole in a scarf doesn't exist separately from the scarf). Evil is shunned because it deprives one of something good (our favourite scarf). This is why Augustine says there is no cause for fear, save the loss of the good we love.
Are we afraid of natural occurrences like death?
Some might argue we are not. How can we be frightened of something that is unforeseen? Furthermore natural occurrences like death are always threatening man. If they were an object of fear we would always be afraid.
Aquinas' contends that we are fearful of acts of nature particularly death. Fear arises from the imagination of future evil. If an evil doesn't appear to be imminent such a thing is considered as though it were not to be. Were are only afraid when something is imminent rather than when it is upon us. Where there is no longer any hope there is no fear. We only fear acts of nature, such as death, if we consider them to be near at hand and we consider there to be some hope of escape.
Are we afraid of the evil of sin?
Some might say the evil of sin is an object of fear. St Augustines says "man fears to be severed from God" and sin severs us from God. Cicero says it is possible to feel sorrow and pain on account of the evil of sin, therefore we will fear the evil of sin. Shame is a kind of fear and shame relates to some kind of disgraceful deed which is an evil of sin.
Aquinas says this is not so. The object of fear is a future evil, arduous and not to be easily avoided. Sin is doing something wrong on purpose. It is entirely subject to our power and will, therefore it is not an object of fear. However as humans are inclined to sin we may fear situations that cause temptation such as the company of wicked men. So men might fear being led astray rather than the sin itself. Shame is not fear of the very act of sin but of the disgrace that arises from it.
Can fear itself can be feared?
Some might argue fear cannot be feared. To fear losing something you must already have it so to be afraid of fear would mean you already have it. Fear is a flight from something feared, but nothing can fly from itself so fear cannot be feared.
Aquinas argues instead that a man can grieve his own sorrow, therefore a man can fear his own fear. Fear of an imminent danger is different from the fear, of the fear, of an imminent danger e.g. someone with claustrophobia might avoid using a lift because they fear a panic attack rather than fearing they'll be crushed.
Are sudden things especially feared?
Some might argue they are not. There is no time to think about things that happen suddenly, yet the more we think about something the more we fear it. Gentle cunning people should be feared more than quick-tempered fiery people because they lull us into a false sense of security.
Aquinas disagrees. The object of fear is imminent evil. We are afraid we might be overcome by the evil and try to avoid it either because of it's greatness or our weakness. Suddenness adds to both of these because we haven't had time to asses the danger or prepare ourselves. The man of cunning may not act as suddenly as the quick-tempered man, but when he does he takes us by surprise!
Are things feared more for which there is no remedy?
Some might say they are not, because we only fear something when we have some hope of avoiding it, but an evil (bad thing) with no hope of remedy leaves no hope of escape. There is no remedy for death yet death is not the most feared of all things.
Aquinas argues that we fear the things that once done cannot be put right. The longer we have to suffer something bad the more we fear it. Aquinas makes clear that by 'no remedy' he means an evil that doesn't go away (like losing your arm) and has to be suffered forever rather than death for which there is no remedy but it only happens once.
Q43 What are the causes of fear?
Is love the cause of fear?
Some might argue love is not the cause of fear for that which leads to something is its cause and love does not lead to fear. If we suspect someone may cause us harm we're more likely to hate them than to love them.
Aquinas argues that all fear is caused by our loving something therefore love is the cause of fear. We fear that which can inflict evil (e.g. a man with a gun) but we only fear a man with a gun if we think he's about to shoot something we love. If we expect someone will harm us we do at first hate them, but once we begin to hope that good will come from them rather than evil, we begin to love them.
Can a lack of influence and resources (being poor) be the cause of fear?
Some might argue this is not the case. Hardened criminals often lack resources but they seem to have less fear than others.
Aquinas argues wealth, strength, a multitude of friends, and power drive fear away. Therefore fear is caused by a lack of these. We are frightened when we don't have things we need (like food) and by people we think might cause us harm.
Q44 What are the effects of fear?
Does fear cause us to withdraw into ourselves (contraction)?
Some might say it doesn't. When we're afraid our hearts pound and we may yell out or blush which is not an indication of contraction.
Aquinas says the physical effects of fear are not the point. It's the soul rather than the body that tries to retreat. Fear arises in the imagination. When we're frightened we withdraw from our own imagination (we don't want to deal with what's happening). People who are dying start to narrow their immediate circle, when we're under attack we group together. This is where people who are angry differ from those who are afraid. Angry people are quick to attack. People who are afraid are more inclined to run away. Shame also causes us to withdraw.
Does a person who is afraid make good decision?
Some might argue they don't. We don't sleep well when we're afraid and a good night's sleep helps decision making. Decisions require reason and thinking about the future but certain fears drive away all thought and dislocate the mind therefore hindering good decision making.
Aquinas argues that a man who is afraid is willing to take advice and explore every option (people often won't go to marriage counselling until their spouse has walked out.) However, when it comes to giving good advice, a man who is afraid is not the best person to ask. Passions distort our worldview so whatever it is that frightens us the most will be the option we'll avoid. Likewise parents are not usually the best judge of whether their child is well behaved or not!
Does fear make us tremble?
Some might argue trembling is not an effect of fear because it is occasioned by cold, thus we observe a cold person trembles! Further 'faecal evacuation' is occasioned by heat, but this is often caused by fear, so fear apparently causes heat and not trembling!!
Aquinas argues that when fear occurs there is a contraction from the outer to the inner body, the result being the outer parts become cold. Which is why we tremble.
Does fear hinder action?
Some might say it does because it hinders reason (we can't think straight when we're frightened). Anyone who becomes frightened when they're doing something is more likely to fail e.g. a man walking across a plank is more likely to fall if the plank is 20m up in the air (and therefore he's frightened) than if it's only 10cm off the ground. Further, laziness is a type of fear and that hinders action.
Aquinas disagrees. The Bible says "With fear and trembling work out your salvation" (Phil 2:12). It wouldn't say that if fear were a hindrance to good action. If people are put under moderate fear (stress) they tend to perform better. However if fear increases too much then reason will be disturbed, so this is not the fear the Bible speaks of. Aquinas agrees that in the case of laziness, a fear of work will hinder work but fear of other things inclines the person to take action to prevent the fear being realised.
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