Inviting us to bow down before the god of fortune

Today’s deification of fear encourages us to succumb to fate. But we should learn from the Romans and seek to subdue Fortuna.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Frank Furedi spoke on fear, fate and freedom at the Philosophy Festival in Modena, Italy, on 18 September 2010. An edited version of his speech is published below.

Who decides our individual fates? How much of our future is influenced by our exercise of free will? Humanity’s destiny has been the subject of controversy since the beginning of history.

Back in ancient times, different gods were endowed with the ability to thwart our ambitions or to bless us with good fortune. The Romans worshipped the goddess Fortuna, giving her great power over human affairs. Nevertheless, they still believed that her influence could be contained and even overcome by men of true virtue. As the saying goes: ‘Fortune favours the brave.’ This belief that the power of fortune could be limited through human effort and will is one of the most important legacies of humanism.

The belief in people’s capacity to exercise their will and shape their future flourished during the Renaissance, creating a world in which people could dream about struggling against the tide of fortune. A new refusal to defer to fate was expressed through affirming the human potential. Later, during the period of Enlightenment, this sensibility developed further, giving rise to a belief that, in certain circumstances, mankind could gain the freedom necessary to influence its future.

In the twenty-first century, however, the optimistic belief in humanity’s ability to subdue the unknown and become the master of its fate has given way to a belief that we are powerless to deal with the perils that confront us. Today, the problems associated with risk and uncertainty are constantly being amplified and, courtesy of our own imaginations, are turned into existential threats. Consequently, it is rare for unexpected natural events to be treated as just that; rather, they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into a threat to human survival.

The clearest expression of this tendency can be found in the dramatisation of weather forecasting. Once upon a time, TV weather forecasts were just those boring moments when you got up to make a snack. But with the invention of concepts like ‘extreme weather’, routine events such as storms, smog or unexpected snowfall have been turned into compelling entertainment. Also these days, a relatively ordinary technical IT problem, such as the so-called Millennium Bug, can be interpreted as a threat of apocalyptic proportions; and officialdom’s reaction to a flu epidemic can look like it was taken from the plotline of a Hollywood disaster movie. Recently, when the World Health Organisation warned that the human species was threatened by swine flu, it became clear that cultural prejudice rather than sober risk assessment influences much of current official thinking.

In recent times, European culture has become confused about the meaning of uncertainty and risk. As a result, it finds it difficult to live with the notion of Fortuna. Contemporary Western cultural attitudes towards uncertainty, chance and risk are far more pessimistic and confused than they were during most of the modern era. Only rarely is uncertainty about something looked upon as an opportunity to take responsibility for our destiny. Invariably, uncertainty is presented as a marker for danger, and change is often regarded with dread.

Frequently, worst-case thinking displaces any genuine risk-assessment process. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as precautionary thinking – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and demands that we take action on that basis. For example, earlier this year, the fear that particles in the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption in Iceland could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into the conclusion that they would. It was the fantasy of the worst case, rather than risk assessment, which led to the panicky official ban on air travel.

Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, advocates of worst-case thinking argue that society should stop looking at risk in terms of a balance of probabilities. These critics of probabilistic thinking are calling for a radical break with past practices, on the grounds that today we simply lack the information to calculate probabilities effectively. Their rejection of the practice of calculating probabilities is motivated by a belief that the dangers we face are so overwhelming and catastrophic – the Millennium Bug, international terrorism, swine flu, climate change – that we cannot wait until we have all the information before we calculate their destructive effects. ‘Shut it down!’ is the default response. One of the many regrettable consequences of this outlook is that policies designed to deal with threats are increasingly based on feelings and intuition rather than on evidence or facts.

Worst-case thinking encourages the adoption of fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, and its government and institutions, should organise their lives. It institutionalises insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. By popularising the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenceless and vulnerable in the face of a wide range of threats. In all but name, it is an invitation for us to defer to Fortuna.

Crisis of causality

The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear, and always to anticipate destructive outcomes, can be understood as a crisis of causality. Increasingly, policymakers are demanding precaution in relation to various different problems. When events appear to have little meaning, and when society finds it difficult to account for the origins and the possible future trajectory of those events, then it is tempting to rely on caution rather than on reasoning. Human beings have always exercised caution when dealing with uncertainty. Today, however, caution has become politicised and has been turned into a dominant cultural norm.

The clearest manifestation of this is the rise of the idea of sustainability. The doctrine of sustainability demands that we don’t take any risks with our future. Taking decisive action to promote progress is seen as far more dangerous than simply staying still. That is why, these days, the ideals of development, progress and economic growth enjoy little cultural valuation. In contrast, just to ‘sustain’ a future of more of the same is represented as a worthwhile objective.

Today’s precautionary culture answers the age-old question about where fate ends and free will begins by insisting that our fate is to sustain. In Roman times, and during the Renaissance, it was argued that virtus could overcome the power of Fortuna. The ideals of virtue upheld courage, prudence, intelligence, a dedication to the public good, and a willingness to take risks. Petrarch’s remarkable The Remedies of Both Kinds of Fortune (1366) proposed the very modern and radical idea that mankind had the potential to control his destiny. In the context of the Renaissance, the conviction that people had the power to transform the physical world began to gain ground. In the current climate, however, when Western culture is so apprehensive about dealing with uncertainty, our aspiration to transform, develop and progress has been overwhelmed by the ethos of caution and sustainability.

The crisis of causality expresses a profound sense of unease towards people’s capacity to know. This has a significant influence on the way that communities interpret the world around them. Once the authority of knowledge is undermined, people lose confidence in their ability to interpret new events. Without the guidance of knowledge, world events can appear as random and arbitrary acts that are beyond comprehension. This crisis of causality does not simply deprive society of an ability to grasp the chain of events that led to a particular outcome; it also diminishes the ability to find meaning in what sometimes appears as a series of arbitrary events.

Frequently, the dangers faced by humans are represented as problems that we can’t really understand. In contrast to the Enlightenment’s conviction that knowledge could eventually solve all problems, the intellectual temper today tends to focus on the impossibility of knowing. This pessimistic view of our capacity to understand has important implications for how society views its future. If the impact of our actions on the future is not knowable, then our anxieties towards change become amplified. The scepticism about our ability to anticipate outcomes is often based on the idea that we simply don’t have the time to catch up with the fast and far-reaching consequences of modern technological development. Many experts claim that since technological innovations have such rapid consequences, there is simply no time to understand their likely effects.

In a roundabout way, the devaluation of knowledge expresses a diminishing of belief in the power and influence of human subjectivity. That is why it is now commonplace to hear the Enlightenment project described as naive, or to see scientists castigated for ‘playing God’. The idea of diminished subjectivity, as communicated through the precautionary culture, inexorably leads to a reconciliation with – if not a deference to – fate.

One of the most important ways in which today’s sense of diminished subjectivity is experienced is through the feeling that individuals are being manipulated and influenced by hidden powerful forces. Not just spindoctors, subliminal advertising and the media, but also powers that have no name. That is why we frequently attribute unexplained physical and psychological symptoms to unspecific forces, such as the food we eat, the water we drink, an extending variety of pollutants and substances transmitted by new technologies and other invisible processes.

The American academic, Timothy Melley, has characterised this response as agency panic. ‘Agency panic is intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been “constructed” by powerful, external agents’, writes Melley. The perception that one’s behaviour and action are controlled by external agents is symptomatic of a heightened sense of fatalism, which springs from today’s sense of diminished subjectivity. The feeling of being subject to manipulation and external control – the very stuff of conspiracy theory – is consistent with the perception of being vulnerable or ‘at risk’. As Melley observes, this reaction ‘stems largely from a sense of diminished human agency, a feeling that individuals cannot effect meaningful social action and, in extreme cases, may not be able to control their own behaviour’.

The re-emergence of pre-modern anxieties about hidden forces is testimony to the weakening of the humanist sensibility that emerged as part of the Enlightenment. The loss of a sense of human agency has not only undermined the public’s engagement with politics – it has also altered the way in which people make sense of the world around them. The crisis of causality means that the most important events are now seen as being shaped and determined by a hidden agenda. We seem to be living in a shadowy world akin to The Matrix movies, where the issue at stake is the reality that we inhabit and who is being manipulated by whom.

In previous times, that kind of attitude was mainly held by right-wing populist movements, which saw the hand of a Jewish or a Masonic or a Communist conspiracy behind all major world events. Today, conspiracy theory has gone mainstream, and many of its most vociferous promoters can be found in radical protest movements and amongst the cultural left. Increasingly, important events are viewed as the products of a cover-up, as the search for the ‘hidden hand’ manipulating a particular story comes to dominate public life. Conspiracy theory constructs worlds where everything important is manipulated behind our backs and where we simply do not know who is responsible for our predicament. In such circumstances, we have no choice but to defer to our fate.

It is through conspiracy theories that Fortuna reappears – but it does so in a form that is far more degraded than in Roman times. To their credit, the Romans were able to counterpose virtus to Fortuna. In a precautionary culture, however, fortune favours the risk-averse, not the brave. The current deification of fear instructs us to bow to fate. In such circumstances, there is not much room left for freedom or the exercise of free will. Yet if we have to defer to fate, how can we be held to account? In the absence of the freedom to influence the future, how can there be human responsibility? One of the principal accomplishments of the precautionary culture has been to normalise irresponsibility. We should reject this perspective, in favour of a mighty dose of humanist courage.

The above is a speech given at the Philosophy Festival in Modena, Italy, on 18 September 2010. An edited version was published in the Australian on 9 October 2010.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

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Topics Politics


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