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   Chapter 5 THE USE OF FEAR

Where No Fear Was By Arthur Christopher Benson Characters: 8872

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The advantages of the fearful temperament, if it is not a mere unmanning and desolating dread, are not to be overlooked. Fear is the shadow of the imaginative, the resourceful, the inventive temperament, but it multiplies resource and invention a hundredfold. Everyone knows the superstition which is deeply rooted in humanity, that a time of exaltation and excitement and unusual success is held to be often the prelude to some disaster, just as the sense of excitement and buoyant health, when it is very consciously perceived, is thought to herald the approach of illness. "I felt so happy," people say, "that I was sure that some misfortune was going to befall me-it is not lucky to feel so secure as that!" This represented itself to the Greeks as part of the divine government of the world; they thought that the heedless and self-confident man was beguiled by success into what they called ubris, the insolence of prosperity; and that then atae, that is, disaster, followed. They believed that the over-prosperous man incurred the envy and jealousy of the gods. We see this in the old legend of Polycrates of Samos, whose schemes all succeeded, and whose ventures all turned out well. He consulted a soothsayer about his alarming prosperity, who advised him to inflict some deliberate loss or sacrifice upon himself; so Polycrates drew from his finger and flung into the sea a signet-ring which he possessed, with a jewel of great rarity and beauty in it. Soon afterwards a fish was caught by the royal fisherman, and was served up at the king's table-there, inside the body of the fish, was the ring; and when Polycrates saw that, he felt that the gods had restored him his gift, and that his destruction was determined upon; which came true, for he was caught by pirates at sea, and crucified upon a rocky headland.

No nation, and least of all the Greeks, would have arrived at this theory of life and fate, if they had not felt that it was supported by actual instances. It was of the nature of an inference from the facts of life; and the explanation undoubtedly is that men do get betrayed, by a constant experience of good fortune, into rashness and heedlessness, because they trust to their luck and depend upon their fortunate star.

But the man who is of an energetic and active type, if he is haunted by anxiety, if his imagination paints the possibilities of disaster, takes every means in his power to foresee contingencies, and to deal cautiously and thoroughly with the situation which causes him anxiety. If he is a man of keen sensibilities, the pressure of such care is so insupportable that he takes prompt and effective measures to remove it; and his fear thus becomes an element in his success, because it urges him to action, and at the same time teaches him the need of due precaution. As Horace wrote:

"Sperat infestis, metuit secundis

Alteram sortem."

"He hopes for a change of fortune when things are menacing, he fears a reverse when things are prosperous." And if we look at the facts of life, we see that it is not by any means the confident and optimistic people who succeed best in their designs. It is rather the man of eager and ambitious temperament, who dreads a repulse and anticipates it, and takes all possible measures beforehand to avoid it.

We see the same principle underlying the scientific doctrine of evolution. People often think loosely that the idea of evolution, in the case, let us say, of a bird like a heron, with his immobility, his long legs, his pointed beak, his muscular neck, is that such characteristics have been evolved through long ages by birds that have had to get their food in swamps and shallow lakes, and were thus gradually equipped for food-getting through long ages of practice. But of course no particular bird is thus modified by circumstances. A pigeon transferred to a fen would not develop the characteristics of the heron; it would simply die for lack of food. It is rather that certain minute variations take place, for unknown reasons, in every species; and the bird which happened to be hatched out in a fenland with a rather sharper beak or rather longer legs than his fellows, would have his power of obtaining food slightly increased, and would thus be more likely to perpetuate in his offspring that particular advantage of form. This principle working through endless centuries would tend slowly to develop the stock that was be

tter equipped for life under such circumstances, and to eliminate those less suited to the locality; and thus the fittest would tend to survive. But it does not indicate any design on the part of the birds themselves, nor any deliberate attempt to develop those characteristics; it is rather that such characteristics, once started by natural variation, tend to emphasize themselves in the lapse of time.

No doubt fear has played an enormous part in the progress of the human race itself. The savage whose imagination was stronger than that of other savages, and who could forecast the possibilities of disaster, would wander through the forest with more precaution against wild beasts, and would make his dwelling more secure against assault; so that the more timid and imaginative type would tend to survive longest and to multiply their stock. Man in his physical characteristics is a very weak, frail, and helpless animal, exposed to all kinds of dangers; his infancy is protracted and singularly defenceless; his pace is slow, his strength is insignificant; it is his imagination that has put him at the top of creation, and has enabled him both to evade dangers and to use natural forces for his greater security. Though he is the youngest of all created forms, and by no means the best equipped for life, he has been able to go ahead in a way denied to all other animals; his inventiveness has been largely developed by his terrors; and the result has been that whereas all other animals still preserve, as a condition of life, their ceaseless attitude of suspicion and fear, man has been enabled by organisation to establish communities in which fear of disaster plays but little part. If one watches a bird feeding on a lawn, it is strange to observe its ceaseless vigilance. It takes a hurried mouthful, and then looks round in an agitated manner to see that it is in no danger of attack. Yet it is clear that the terror in which all wild animals seem to live, and without which self-preservation would be impossible, does not in the least militate against their physical welfare. A man who had to live his life under the same sort of risks that a bird in a garden has to endure from cats and other foes, would lose his senses from the awful pressure of terror; he would lie under the constant shadow of assassination.

But the singular thing in Nature is that she preserves characteristics long after they have ceased to be needed; and so, though a man in a civilised community has very little to dread, he is still haunted by an irrational sense of insecurity and precariousness. And thus many of our fears arise from old inheritance, and represent nothing rational or real at all, but only an old and savage need of vigilance and wariness.

One can see this exemplified in a curious way in level tracts of country. Everyone who has traversed places like the plain of Worcestershire must remember the irritating way in which the roads keep ascending little eminences, instead of going round at the foot. Now these old country roads no doubt represent very ancient tracks indeed, dating from times when much of the land was uncultivated. They get stereotyped, partly because they were tracks, and partly because for convenience the first enclosures and tillages were made along the roads for purposes of communication. But the perpetual tendency to ascend little eminences no doubt dates from a time when it was safer to go up, in order to look round and to see ahead, partly in order to be sure of one's direction, and partly to beware of the manifold dangers of the road.

And thus many of the fears by which one is haunted are these old survivals, these inherited anxieties. Who does not know the frame of mind when perhaps for a day, perhaps for days together, the mind is oppressed and uneasy, scenting danger in the air, forecasting calamity, recounting all the possible directions in which fate or malice may have power to wound and hurt us? It is a melancholy inheritance, but it cannot be combated by any reason. It is of no use then to imitate Robinson Crusoe, and to make a list of one's blessings on a piece of paper; that only increases our fear, because it is just the chance of forfeiting such blessings of which we are in dread! We must simply remind ourselves that we are surrounded by old phantoms, and that we derive our weakness from ages far back, in which risks were many and security was rare.

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