The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis

Martha C. Nussbaum

Book cover

I always like reading Martha Nussbaum, but I wasn’t very satisfied with the message of this book. The idea of the book is fairly clear: take Nussbaum’s analytical framework for thinking about the emotions, which she developed in “Upheavals of Thought” and subsequent books, and apply it to our current political situation. She tries to walk a fine line in the book, making clear how the ideas are relevant to, for example, Donald Trump’s misogynist statements, without making it a “Trump book” or seeming “too political.” Perhaps it’s my own political leanings coming through, but I felt Nussbaum went too far in trying to appear “evenhanded.” She takes pains to talk about shortcomings on both the right and the left, talking for example about demonization of immigrants and demonization of bankers. I just think this is a false equivalence. There’s a clear moral distinction, in my mind, between “punching down” and “punching up.”

I also was disappointed that Nussbaum didn’t talk much about fear, anger, envy, and disgust in the context of organizations trying to influence elections via Facebook and other social media. These are basically a laboratory for weaponizing predictable human emotional responses, and would seem like a very relevant subject for philosophical analysis.

Most of the content was fairly familiar to me from “Anger and Forgiveness,” but there was one analytical perspective in particular that seemed new and that I appreciated. In biology there is a dictum that says “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny;” that is, the development of an embryonic creature resembles the evolution of its species. Nussbaum makes a similar connection between the emotional development of individual humans and the political development of societies. Her title draws a connection between the tyrannical infant and authoritarian societies. Both, she says, are driven to be domineering by a combination of fear of deprivation and a lack of understanding others as autonomously valuable individuals. The development of a mature adult, who understands the need to balance her desires with those of others around her, resembles the development of a democratic government, which recognizes that all people have autonomous dignity and should have a say in the circumstances of their own lives. I really like this analogy and have thought about it a lot since finishing the book.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars