The Philosophy of Fear

Below, we present different conceptions of fear according to some Western philosophers. Find out about their fascinating positions on the subject.
The Philosophy of Fear

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 03 March, 2023

Fear is an innate physiological response whose main function is to ensure the survival of the species. Therefore, it’s a basic and fundamental emotion in various animals, including humans. However, despite its relative importance, fear has been a topic that has been addressed very little by Western philosophy throughout history.

Its scarce approach can be justified by the preponderance that Western philosophy has given to rationality, which is often considered incompatible with the emotions and “passions” of human beings.

Even so, some philosophers have dared to reflect on this emotion and have formulated interesting positions about it. Let’s take a closer look.

The philosophy of fear

Among the philosophers who have theorized about fear, the following stand out.

Epicurus and the four types of fear

Epicurus (341 B.C. – 271/270 B.C.) was the Ancient Greek philosopher who most dealt with the subject of fear. The purpose of this thinker was to make a philosophy to achieve happiness, in which he highlighted the overcoming of fears as a condition to reach fulfillment.

In this sense, Epicurus differentiated four types of fear in the human being:

  • The fear of the gods: The philosopher recognized that the idea of gods was used to manipulate people and his proposal to overcome this fear was to recognize the gods as wise beings who lived in other realms, since they would never deal with what humans are doing or not doing.
  • Fear of death: Epicurus also defended that we shouldn’t fear death, since it consists in the lack of sensation. Thus, it makes no sense to be frightened by something we will never feel. He also explained that while we exist, death will not be present, and when it is present, we will no longer exist.
  • Fear of pain: On the one hand, this type of fear is part of human nature, since it often appears when we can’t satisfy our natural and necessary desires (hunger, cold, thirst, etc.). However, on the other hand, we can also experience pain when we don’t satisfy unnecessary desires, such as luxuries or whims.
  • Fear of failure in the pursuit of the good: According to this philosopher, good is achieved through happiness, but happiness consists in being more – not in having more. That said, whoever believes that happiness depends on external factors misjudges and submits to things that are beyond his or her control (such as the opinion of others or external rewards).
Miedo como sentimiento.
Fear can take on various forms and manifestations. Some philosophers approached the subject from different perspectives.

“Do not fear the gods, do not fear death, pleasure is easy to obtain, and pain is easy to avoid.” -Philodemus of Gadara (Epicurean philosopher)

The philosophy of fear: Hobbes and fear as the foundation of the State

According to Hobbesian philosophy, fear is framed within the political sphere. For this emotion represents the foundation for the conformation and conservation of the State.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), in his famous book The Leviathan, describes the need for government to regulate the natural state of man, since in his natural condition, the human being is free to do what he or she wants and to look after his or her own interests. Therefore, without any entity to regulate us, it’s very easy to enter into conflict and chaos.

Given this tendency, a social contract is thus proposed in which each individual yields his or her natural rights in exchange for the protection of a sovereign (government). Thus, the security of the collective is guaranteed, in exchange for leaving absolute power in the hands of the sovereign entity.

Now, why would human beings want to be part of a contract and give up part of their freedom?

The reason Hobbes gives is fear. The greatest fear of people is of the fear of death, and if they’re not part of a state, they can easily die. Thus, the first function of government is the protection of those who formed the contract.

For its part, fear also plays a part in the preservation of the State. The contracting parties can violate the covenant at any time. But why don’t the majority do so? Hobbes answers that this is because “fear of this invisible power whom all revere as a god and whom all fear as the avenger of their perfidy.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer: Fear of a lack of rationality

According to Adorno and Horkheimer’s philosophy, fear is a critique of the Enlightenment. In their book Dialectics of the Enlightenment (1947), these authors point out that the fear of departing from reason absorbed this intellectual movement and turned it against itself.

That is, the Enlightenment proposed the scientific method as the only method to combat myths and to cling to reason, but on this path, it lost its meaning, since it turned science itself into a myth, by prohibiting itself from critical thinking.

In this way, the fixation of the Enlightenment against myth made the fears perpetuated through it change. Thus, there was no longer a fear of divinity or punishment, but fear of a lack of objectivity and rationality.

Conocimiento nos libera del miedo.
For several philosophers, knowledge frees us from fear and allows us to handle it with a better attitude.

The philosophy of fear: Heuristics and hermeneutics to manage our fear

According to the philosophical perspective, fear can be managed through the balanced combination of heuristics and hermeneutics. In this case, the hermeneutics of fear would imply reflecting, understanding, and elucidating the different types of fear (fear, anxiety, terror, etc.) and its causes.

On the other hand, the heuristics of fear refer to the reflective and educational process, which allows us to assume this emotion is a necessary element to avoid harm and evil. In this respect, it’s important to take into account that education of this fear and its correct manifestation has advantages.

The writer and philosophy professor Víctor Bermúdez says it very well: In the end, the only way to overcome fear is knowledge.” In other words, knowing the objective causes of our pain will make it easier to master it.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the notion of fear has been explored by many more philosophies apart from the ones we’ve mentioned here. Renowned philosophers such as Aristotle and Robert Castel also approached this emotion from a reflective point of view.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Konstan D. Epicurus [Internet]. California:  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; 2018 [consultado: 20 dic 2021]. Disponible en:
  • Mestres F, Vives-Rego J. Reflexiones sobre el miedo en el siglo XXI: filosofía, política, genética y evolución. Arbor [Internet]. 2014 [consultado: 20 dic 2021]; 190(769). Disponible en:
  • Navarro M. Reflexiones filosóficas sobre el miedo como un elemento fundamental desde un punto de vista social. En: XXVI Congreso de la Asociación Latinoamericana de Sociología. Guadalajara: Asociación Latinoamericana de Sociología; 2007.

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