What is the fear?

What is fear, in which men today seem to have fallen to the point of forgetting their own ethical, political and religious convictions? Something familiar, of course - yet, if we try to define it, it stubbornly seems to evade understanding.
Of fear as an emotional tonality, Heidegger gave an exemplary treatment in par. 30 of “Being and time”. It can be understood only if we do not forget that Being (this is the term that designates the existential structure of man) is always already arranged in an emotional tone, which constitutes its original opening to the world. Precisely because in the emotional situation the original discovery of the world is in question, consciousness is always already anticipated by it and therefore cannot dispose of it or believe that it can be mastered at will. Emotional tonality should in no way be confused with a psychological state, but has the ontological meaning of an openness that has always already opened man in his being to the world and from which only experiences, affections and knowledge are possible. “Reflection can encounter experiences only because the emotional tonality has already opened the Being”. It assaults us, but “it comes neither from outside nor from within: it arises in being-in-the-world itself as its modality”. On the other hand, this opening does not imply that what it opens to is recognized as such. On the contrary, it manifests only a naked facticity: "the pure ‘that is’ manifests itself; the from where and the where remain hidden”. For this, Heidegger can say that the emotional situation opens the Being-There in “being-thrown” and “delivered” to his own “us”. The opening that takes place in the emotional tonality has, that is, the form of a being returned to something that cannot be assumed and from which one tries - without success - to escape.
This is evident in the moodiness, boredom or depression, which, like any emotional tonality, open the Being “more originally than any perception of oneself”, but also close it “more firmly than any non-perception”. Thus in depression “The Being becomes blind to itself; the environmental world it takes care of is veiled, the environmental forecast is obscured”; and, however, here too the Being is delivered to an opening from which it cannot in any way free itself.
It is against the background of this ontology of emotional tones that the treatment of fear must be situated. Heidegger begins by examining three aspects of the phenomenon: the “in front of what” (Wovor) of fear, the “being afraid” (Furchten) and the “why” (Worum) of fear. The “in front of what”, the object of fear is always an inner world entity. What frightens us is always - whatever its nature - something that gives itself in the world and which, as such, has the character of threatening and harmfulness. It is more or less known, “but not for this reason reassuring” and, whatever the distance from which it comes, it is situated in a determined proximity. “The harmful and threatening entity is not yet at a controllable distance, but it is approaching. As it approaches, the harmfulness intensifies and thus produces the threat... As it approaches, the harmful becomes threatening, we can be affected by it or not. As it comes closer, this ‘it is possible but perhaps not’ increase... the approach of what is harmful makes us discover the possibility of being spared, of passing on, but this does not suppress or diminish fear, rather it increases it”. (This character, so to speak, of “certain uncertainty” that characterizes fear is also evident in the definition that Spinoza gives of it: an “inconstant sadness”, in which “one doubts the event of something one hates”).
As for the second characteristics of fear, be frightened of (the same “being afraid”), Heidegger specifies that a future evil is not first rationally predicted, which then, later on, is feared: from the beginning, rather, the thing approaching is discovered as fearsome. “Only by being afraid, the fear can, by observing expressly, realize what is frightening. We realize what is frightening, because we are already in the emotional situation of fear. Being afraid, as a latent possibility of emotionally disposed being-in-the-world, being scared, has already discovered the world in such a way that something frightening can approach it”. Scaring, as the original opening of Being-There, always precedes any determinable fear.
Finally, as for the “why”, the “by whom and by what” fear is afraid, in question it is always the entity itself that is afraid, the Being, this determined man. “Only a being for which in its existence, its very existence is at stake, can be frightened. Fear opens this being in its being in danger, in its being abandoned to itself”. The fact that at times one feels fear for one's home, for one's possessions or for others is not an objection to this diagnosis: one can say that one is “afraid” for another, without really being afraid and, if one actually feels fear, it is for ourselves, as we fear that the other will be torn from us.
Fear is, in this sense, a fundamental way of emotional disposition, which opens the human being to being already always exposed and threatened. Of this threat there are naturally various degrees and measures: if something threatening, which stands before us with its “not yet, but nevertheless at any moment” suddenly falls upon this being, fear becomes fright (Erschrecken); if the threatening is not already known, but has the character of the most profound strangeness, fear becomes horror (Grauen). If it combines both of these aspects in itself, then fear becomes terror (Entsetzen). In any case, all the different forms of this emotional tonality show that man, in his very openness to the world, is constitutively “afraid”.
The only other emotional tonality that Heidegger examines in “Being and Time” is anguish and it is to anguish - and not to fear - that the rank of fundamental emotional tonality is attributed. And, however, it is precisely in relation to fear that Heidegger can define its nature, distinguishing first of all “that in front of which anguish is anguish from that in front of which fear is fear”. While fear always has to do with something, the " ‘in front of what’ of anguish is never an worldly entity”. Not only does the threat produced here do not have the character of possible damage by a threatening thing, but “the ‘in front of what’ of anguish is completely indeterminate. This indeterminacy not only leaves completely undecided from which worldly entity the threat comes, but it means that, in general, the worldly entity is ‘irrelevant’”. The “in front of” of anguish is not an entity, but the world as such. Anguish is, that is, the original opening of the world as a world and “only because anguish always latently determines man's being-in-the-world, he ... can feel fear. Fear is an anguish that has fallen into the world, inauthentic and hidden from itself”.
It has not been without reason observed that the primacy of anguish over fear that Heidegger claims can easily be reversed: instead of defining fear as a diminished and fallen anxiety into an object, one can just as legitimately define anguish as a fear deprived of its object. If the object of fear is taken away, it becomes anguish. In this sense, fear would be the fundamental emotional tone, in which man is already always at risk of falling. Hence, its essential political meaning, which constitutes it as that in which power, at least starting with Hobbes, has sought its foundation and justification.
Let's try to carry out and continue Heidegger's analysis. In the perspective that interests us here, it is significant that fear always refers to a “thing”, to an worldly entity (in the present case, to the smallest of entities, a virus). Worldly means that it has lost any relationship with the opening of the world and exists factitiously and inexorably, without any possible transcendence. If the structure of being-in-the-world implies for Heidegger a transcendence and an openness, it is precisely this very transcendence that delivers Being to the sphere of thingness. Being-in-the-world in fact means being cooriginally referred to the things that the opening of the world reveals and makes appear. While the animal, devoid of world, cannot perceive an object as an object, man, as he opens himself to a world, can be assigned without escape to a thing as a thing.
Hence the original possibility of fear: it is the emotional tonality that opens up when man, losing the connection between the world and things, finds himself irremediably consigned to worldly entities and cannot overcome his relationship with a “thing”, which now becomes threatening. Once its relationship to the world is lost, the “thing” is itself terrifying. Fear is the dimension into which humanity falls when it finds itself delivered, as happens in modernity, to a thing without escape. The frightening being, the “thing” that assaults and threatens men in horror movies, is in this sense only an incarnation of this unavoidable thingness.
Hence also the feeling of helplessness that defines fear. Those who feel fear try to protect themselves in every way and with every possible precaution from the thing that threatens them - for example by wearing a mask or locking themselves up at home - but this does not reassure them in any way, on the contrary, it makes even more evident and constant their impotence to face the “thing”. In this sense, fear can be defined as the inverse of the will to power: the essential character of fear is a will to impotence, the will-to-be-powerless in the face of the thing that causes fear. Similarly, to reassure oneself one can rely on someone who has some authority on the matter - for example a medical doctor or civil protection officials - but this in no way abolishes the feeling of insecurity that accompanies fear, which is constitutively a will of insecurity, a will-to-be-insecure. And this is so true that the same subjects that should reassure instead entertain insecurity and are never tired of remembering, in the interest of the frightened, that what is frightening cannot be overcome and eliminated once and for all.
How to get to grips with this fundamental emotional tone, into which man always seems to be constitutively in the act of falling? Since fear precedes and anticipates knowledge and reflection, it is useless to try to convince the frightened with rational evidence and arguments: fear is first of all the impossibility of accessing reasoning that is not suggested by fear itself. As Heidegger writes, fear “paralyzes and makes you lose your head”. Thus in the face of the epidemic it was seen that the publication of reliable data and opinions from authoritative sources was systematically ignored and dropped in the name of other data and opinions that did not even try to be scientifically reliable.
Given the original character of fear, you could only be dealt with if you were possible to access an equally original dimension. Such a dimension exists and it is the same opening to the world, in which only things can appear and threaten us. Things become frightening because we forget their co-belonging to the world that transcends them and, at the same time, makes them present. The only possibility of cutting the “thing” from the fear from which it seems inseparable is to remember the opening in which it is already always exposed and revealed. Not reasoning, but memory - remembering ourselves and our being in the world - can give us back access to a thing free from fear. The “thing” that terrifies me, however invisible to the eye, is, like all other worldly entities - like this tree, this stream, this man - open in its pure existence. Just because I am in the world, things can appear to me and possibly scare me. They are part of my being in the world, and this - and not an abstractly separate thingness unduly erected as sovereign - dictates the ethical and political rules of my behavior. 
Of course, the tree can break and fall on me, the stream overflows and floods the country and this man suddenly hit me: if this possibility suddenly becomes real, a right fear suggests the appropriate cautions without falling into panic and without losing the head, leaving that others found their power on my fear and, by transforming the emergency into a stable norm, decide at their will what I can or cannot do and cancel the rules that guaranteed my freedom.
Original column by philosopher Giorgio Agamben (July 13, 2020):
Translation by Costantino Ceoldo