Fear and Contemporary History: A Review Essay

By Stearns, Peter N. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Fear and Contemporary History: A Review Essay


Stearns, Peter N., Journal of Social History


A number of books in recent years, including an important new entry by Joanna Bourke, have pointed to significant changes in American and/or modern fears, in ways that cry out for historical assessment. The very bulk of the work, most of it launched before 9/11 though sometimes finetuned in the aftermath of this massive emotional spur, suggests that something new is going on--that is, that there is a significant shift underway in contemporary emotional history. A number of studies explicitly claim that fear has become the predominant emotion in contemporary life--and that this is a significant change. Yet relatively little of the recent scholarship is explicitly historical, and this essay, while lauding the scholarly trend itself, intends to suggest what a somewhat more rigorous historical approach might yield. (1)

It's worth remembering at the outset that a major historian dealt elaborately with fear a generation ago, and while his work focused on premodern centuries in Western Europe, he did have some suggestions about contemporary contrasts and echoes that might be recalled with profit. In several books, Jean Delumeau powerfully illuminated the role of fear in European Catholic societies from the early days of Christianity, though more particularly from the late Middle Ages, into the 18th century. (2) Fears of death and of damnation were powerful realities, used as disciplinary tools for children and adults alike. They added to other inescapable factors, like periodic famines or military depredations, to create a context of emotional anxiety. Widespread beliefs in witchcraft, alternatively combated and sanctioned by the Church, added to the climate, while also--through white magic or attacks on witches--suggesting some positive means of alleviating insecurity. Delumeau argued that cultural changes in the 17th and 18th century, that replaced religious fearfulness with a more positive vision of earthly progress, dramatically altered the traditional emotional climate. But he goes on to note, without exploring the topic elaborately, that fear would return in the 20th century, based now not on religion but on the realization of the unseen forces of deterioration and death that operated within the human body, now that degenerative disease began to replace contagion as the main source of mortality. Obviously, most current analysts would argue that contemporary fear has exceeded the bounds of new patterns of disease, but Delumeau's insights, and his sense of historical dynamic, remain relevant.

Some subsequent work might be used, for the United States at least, to modify Delumeau's findings in certain respects. A battle against religious fear was waged in the United States in the early 19th century, with the debates over original sin; and while mainstream Protestantism began vigorously to oppose the use of fear in childrearing, an ongoing Evangelical minority thought otherwise, complicating the emotional landscape in later American history. American Catholicism continued to preach fear until the reform era of the 1960s, when it did indeed definitively shift gears. (3) But it is also true that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, growing opposition to fear emerged, indeed a rising optimism that, in a well-ordered society, fear might be banished altogether.

Thus G.T.W. Patrick, in 1913:

  "Fear is the greatest source of human suffering. Until comparatively
  recent times nature has been something unknown and the unknown has
  been a constant source of terror. It is believed to be full of
  supernatural and possibly hostile agencies. Devils and demons and
  indignant deities, an angry and jealous God, possible future and
  retributive punishments, earthquakes and eclipses, all have
  contributed to make the life of man miserable. This burden of woe has
  now been lifted. Another view of nature now prevails. Man has cast off
  fear and finds himself master of nature and perhaps of all her forces,
  while in religion the gospel of love is casting out the dread monster
  of fear. … 

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