Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Origins of Fear

Times of crisis, such as  the present economic and financial crises, cause greater uncertainty and set a very fertile ground for these irrational beliefs of fears and superstitions.   No wonder  there is an increasing number of people who believe in superstitions. Most superstitions have to do with luck.  We all have the need to know what luck will bring us.  What did we do wrong to bring  doom crashing on our heads?  All the world is superstitious in one way or another.  Some don't admit it.  Omens and signs indicate what the future might hold.  "Red sky at night, sailors delight" indicates a fine day weather wise.  "Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning" indicates bad stormy weather.  You may "cross your fingers " for luck,  "avoid stepping under ladders" to avoid bad luck.  These actions of  superstitious persons are intended to protect them from dangers. 
A bird flying into your house or a picture falling from the wall might mean the death of a family member. Instead,  if your palm itches you will soon be receiving money.  You  like this one, don't you?
 How did the belief of a black cat crossing the street bringing bad luck originate?  There are various explanations .  Some say that black cats are associated with the darkness.  Others say that it is due to our ancestors' fear of the night.  Among all the different stories , the most plausible one is the fact that in the past it was very difficult to see a black cat at night as there were no street lights.  Very often horses would get scared on account of the sudden appearance of a black cat, thus causing the carriage , together with the horseman, to overturn (tip over).
Notice the horseshoe in my title is turned up, that's so your luck doesn't run out while visiting my pages.       
Most superstitions have historical origins thus it's possible to give a rational explanation of their popularity (diffusion).  In the 5th century B.C. Thucydides, the greatest Greek historian, wrote that fear was the cause of all aggressions.  Sparta attacked Athens which was about to become one of the most powerful state, thus causing the 30 year Peloponnesian War.
Aristotle said that "Fear is the cause of evil.  We all fear evil like shame, poverty, sickness, death, lack of friends."
Today we too fear diseases like cancer, aids, which are the modern equivalent of the Medieval fears of leprosy, syphilis, plague.
 Some think that fear has given birth to many religions. In fact when Adam found  himself naked, after eating from the tree of knowledge, he was overtaken by fear before shame.  It's fair to say that every epoch has its fears:  Fear of the collapse of the economy in 1929, fear of the spread of communism in the ‘50’s. This was the period of horror films: “Psycho” of A. Hitchcock in 1960, “The Exorcistin 1973, “Jaws” in 1975.  The XXI century brought us H1N1 or swine flu ,the H5N1 known as the bird flu together with the West Nile virus and the Lyme disease are now coming back and scaring many people.                                                                                                                                       
 For Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher, it was the mistrust among men "Homo homini lupus"(man is a wolf toward the other man) that made necessary the creation of social hierarchies such as the state which had to be founded on the fear of death and punishment.
For Machiavelli, the prince  had to be feared more than loved.  Fear protected primitive people from wild animals, weather storms, diseases. 
I couldn't agree more with Bertrand Russell who wrote: "Fear is the first source of superstitions and cruelty."  
Over centuries the effects of these fears have been amplified and used by governments in order to keep social order as well as to promote an attack as a defensive act.  This same strategy was used by the US president, George W. Bush, in order to create a consensus to attack Iraq under the guise of a preventive war after 9/11.
In short, fear has always influenced human decisions.  However, to paraphrase President Roosevelt,"what we have most to fear is fear itself."

PS. I'll be away for the month of September.