There’s a bit of a paradox in the pursuit of virtue. A major part of the attainment of virtue consists in mastering one’s fear. The more I learn, the more important this aspect seems to me. And yet, at the same time, the pursuit of virtue entails desire for the good and aversion to evil — and what is fear but aversion to evils? It seems, then, that pursuit of virtue is the overcoming of fear through fear?
The difference, I think, is in how we conceive of evil. The fear against which we war is fear of pain, fear of evil as pain. Such an impulse, although it is often valuable and may lead us to some good decisions, is ultimately a lower kind of existence for the human person.
As humans we have the beastly and the divine within us. It is all good and valuable, but what is important is to make sure it is properly ordered. What is most divine, reason and contemplation, ought to rule, and what is beastly in us is in need of guidance. We are disordered if we are instead ruled by hatred of pain and lust for pleasures.
It is a difficult thing to have a well-ordered soul! It is a long path to travel, and even when we are quite far along it and may externally have an appearance of virtuous life, there can be countless smaller fears that still torment and master us.
We want people to treat us in a certain way. We want our day to go a certain way. We are afraid. We are looking to the future, seeing outcomes that end in some sort of pain, and we are cringing from them. If we could conquer fear of this sort, then many of our worst qualities and our worst moments would simply disappear.
If we could listen to someone speaking to us and feel peace, feel calm, rather than worrying and wondering and calculating and controlling, how different would that make us? If we didn’t fear judgement, or some subtle loss of status or respect, provoking anger, disappointment, misunderstanding, gossip, confusion.
The things that are really worth fearing are not things outside us that can hurt us. What should be feared are the interior dispositions that distort the world selfishly and remove us ever further from reality. We should fear the ordering of our souls that places reason under the foot of our lower, beastly impulses.