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Fear (from Moral Standpoint)

An unsettlement of soul consequent upon the apprehension of some present or future danger

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Fear (FROM MORAL STANDPOINT), an unsettlement of soul consequent upon the apprehension of some present or future danger. It is here viewed from the moral standpoint, that is, in so far as it is a factor to be reckoned with in pronouncing upon the freedom of human acts, as well as offering an adequate excuse for failing to comply with positive law, particularly if the law be of human origin. Lastly, it is here considered in so far as it impugns or leaves intact, in the court of conscience, and without regard to explicit enactment, the validity of certain deliberate engagements or contracts. The division of fear most commonly in vogue among theologians is that by which they distinguish serious fear (metus gravis), and trifling fear (metus levis). The first is such as grows out of the discernment of some formidable impending peril: if this be really, and without qualification, of large proportions, then the fear is said to be absolutely great; otherwise it is only relatively so, as for instance, when account is taken of the greater susceptibility of certain classes of persons, such as old men, women, and children. Trifling fear is that which arises from being confronted with harm of inconsiderable dimensions, or, at any rate, of whose happening there is only a slender likelihood.

It is customary also to note a fear in which the element of reverence is uppermost (metes reverentialis), which has its source in the desire not to offend one's parents and superiors. In itself this is reputed to be but trifling, although from circumstances it may easily rise to the dignity of a serious dread. A criterion rather uniformly employed by moralists, to determine what really, and apart from subjective conditions is, a serious fear, is that contained in this assertion. It is the feeling which is calculated to influence a solidly balanced man (cadere in virum constantem). Another important classification is that of fear which comes from some source within the person, for example, that which is created by the knowledge that one has contracted a fatal disease; and fear which comes from without, or is produced, namely, by some cause extrinsic to the terror-stricken subject. In the last named instance the cause may be either natural, such as probable volcanic eruptions, or recognizable in the attitude of some free agent. Finally it may be observed that one may have been submitted to the spell of fear either justly or unjustly, according as the one who provokes this passion remains within his rights, or exceeds them, in so doing. Actions done under stress of fear, unless of course it be so intense as to have dethroned reason, are accounted the legitimate progeny of the human will, or are, as the theologians say, simply voluntary, and therefore imputable. The reason is obvious. Such acts lack neither adequate advertence nor sufficient consent, even though the latter be elicited only to avoid a greater evil or one conceived to be greater. Inasmuch, however, as they are accompanied by a more or less vehement repugnance, they are said to be in a limited and partial sense involuntary.

The practical inference from this teaching is that an evil act having otherwise the bad eminence of grievous sin remains such, even though done out of serious fear. This is true when the transgression in question is against the natural law. In the case of obligations emerging from positive precepts, whether Divine or human, a serious and well-founded dread may often operate as an excuse, so that the failure to comply with the law under such circumstances is not regarded as sinful. The lawgiver is not presumed to have it in mind to impose an heroic act. This, however, does not hold good when the catering to such a fear would involve considerable damage to the common weal. Thus, for instance, a parish priest, in a parish visited by a pestilence, is bound by the law of residence to stay at his post, no matter what his apprehensions may be. It ought to be added here that attrition, or sorrow for sin even though it be the fruit of dread inspired by the thought of eternal punishment, is not in any sense involuntary. At least it must not be so, if it is to avail in the Sacrament of Penance for the justification of the sinner. The end aimed at by this imperfect sort of sorrow is precisely a change of will, and the giving up of sinful attachment is an unreservedly good and reasonable thing. Hence there is no room for that concomitant regret, or dislike, with which other things are done through fear.

It is, of course, needless to observe that in what has been said hitherto we have been referring always to what is done as a result of fear, not to what takes place merely in, or with, fear. A vow taken out of fear produced by natural causes, such as a threatened ship-wreck, is valid; but one extorted as the effect of fear unjustly applied by another is invalid; and this last is probably true even when the fear is trifling, if it be the sufficient motive for making the vow. The reason is that it is difficult to conceive such a promise being acceptable to Almighty God. So far as natural law is concerned, fear does not invalidate contracts. Nevertheless, when one of the parties has suffered duress at the hands of the other, the contract is voidable within the choosing of the one so injured. As to marriage, unless the fear prompting its solemnization is so extreme as to take away the use of reason, the common teaching is that such consent, having regard for the moment only to the natural law, would be binding. Its standing in ecclesiastical law is discussed in another article. It is worthy of note that mere insensibility to fear, having its root whether in stolidity, or pride, or want of a proper rating of even temporal things, is not a valuable character asset. On the contrary, it represents a vicious temper of soul, and upon occasion its product may be notably sinful.

JOSEPH F. DELANY


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