“Fear of Death” by Gary Herbert

Gary Herbert, Hobbes Studies, 7, no. 1 (1994): 56-68


Of all the passions of self-interest, fear, Hobbes believed, was the most irresistible, most reliable, and most able to enlighten man regarding the truth of his situation. Unlike desire or appetite, fear is not limited by ignorance. While one can have no desire for what he does not know, one can quite easily fear it. Hobbes writes, “of things wee know not at all, or believe not to be, we can have no further Desire, than to taste and try. But Aversion wee have for things, not onely which we know have hurt us; but also that we do not know whether they will hurt us, or not.” Any object whatsoever, known or unknown, visible or invisible, is an imaginable threat to one’s well-being and, hence, a conceivable object of fear. To the extent that there is nothing, literally, that cannot be a conceivable cause of one’s harm, Hobbesian fear exposes simultaneously the limitless hostility of nature and one’s own frightening insecurity. It is the founding insight of Hobbes’s political philosophy that, to the extent that they are open to such fear, men are governable and peace is possible.