Review | Do you worry that you worry too much? Don’t, you’re just human.


Long before anxiety became a clinical issue, it was an existential problem. The ailment, a disease that needs treatment, emerged in the 19th century; philosophical orientation has probably been around for as long as we have and cannot (nor should it) be eradicated. Unfortunately, in recent years, an army of gurus and pathologically positive thinkers have colonized the concept. Along the way, they have forgotten what philosophers have known for centuries: that to be human is to care, and, consequently, to excel is to care well. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said: “He who has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the most.”

Philosopher and philosophical advisor Samir Chopra invokes the long and distinguished lineage of anxiety in his wise, if sometimes circumlocutive, new book, “Anxiety: a philosophical guide.” “My anxiety made me who I am,” he writes in the introduction, “and I couldn’t get rid of my anxieties while still being myself.”

Although it includes several moving accounts of his own traumas and disturbances, his slim volume is mostly dedicated to organizing a whirlwind tour through the intellectual history of an unfairly vilified emotion. Of course, “Anxiety” is not a comprehensive study. Chopra focuses on four schools of thought that illuminate his subject matter with particular acuity: Buddhism, existentialism, psychoanalytic theory, and critical theory. All of these traditions are tome subjects in their own right, and Chopra’s summaries can sometimes seem rushed. It is difficult to do justice to such thorny and disparate thinkers as the vehemently anti-Christian iconoclast Friedrich Nietzsche and the Christian existentialist Paul Tillich in a book of this modest size.

Still, “Anxiety” is a useful introduction to the work of thinkers who confront, rather than retreat from, our most fruitfully unpleasant feeling. Perhaps most importantly, in an age seeking easy painkillers, Chopra’s book represents an urgent attempt to reclaim anxiety from those who threaten to medicate it or advise it to eliminate its existence. He leads by example, providing a rewarding and challenging alternative to the easy self-help that he implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) criticizes.

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In fact, “Anxiety” begins with a nod to the conventions of the self-help genre it half imitates and half mocks. “Every book on anxiety must, perforce, begin with a list of extensive sociological observations and statistics, each of which shows how common the suffering of anxiety is in contemporary society,” Chopra writes. Worse, he continues, every book on anxiety must insist that the epidemic it diagnoses is unprecedented. A recent book by Jonathan Haidt declares Generation Z the “anxious generation,” but a little historical awareness is enough to show that many previous generations have considered themselves the same. Why is our anxiety so persistent, so difficult to remedy? Perhaps, Chopra proposes, because it is a “universal and perennial human condition,” or at least his philosophical version is.

What distinguishes this elevated type of anxiety from its smaller cousin? Clinical anxiety is paradigmatically irrational, but many of the traditions Chopra investigates consider existential anxiety as a lucid response to our lot. Which Some aspects of the human condition provoke existential anxiety, however, it depends on who you ask.

Buddhists, for example, believe that our suffering is tied to “a true and unshakeable understanding of the nature of the world and the place of human existence in it,” Chopra writes. In other words, we despair not because we fear ghosts but “because we realize that we are limited and mortal in life, ability, and achievement.” Sigmund Freud and his followers echo Buddhist concerns and suggest that anxiety is, broadly speaking, a response to a world plagued by “painful and terrifying losses.” Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Kierkegaard take a different tack, arguing that anxiety is concomitant with freedom: once we accept that we are not tied to a single path, we are left to worry about which path(s) to take. And left-wing critics like Karl Marx consider anxiety a social evil, a product of inhabiting “a world constructed on someone else’s terms.”

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These accounts are not exactly contradictory: we might be existentially anxious because we are mortal, because we are free. and because we exercise little control over the circumstances of our lives, but they are not perfectly congruent either. If we are anxious that we are forced to live in a world designed by the rich, then perhaps we are not as burdensomely free as existentialists propose. Furthermore, it is not clear that what Marx called “alienation” (the sense of estrangement that workers suffer when they are forced to accept the dictates of their bosses) is really equivalent to anxiety. Chopra has no space to defend this dubious identification, nor to reconcile the different emphases of his characters, which may point in divergent directions.

After all, whether existential anxiety is to some extent curable depends on what it is. The cure for Marxist alienation would seem to be social and political reform; The cure for the kind of anxiety that Buddhists describe is, in their eyes, the recognition that “there is no lasting entity” that is the self, no being whose finitude can disturb us. However, Chopra clearly sympathizes with those who believe that anxiety is (and should be) chronic. “Even if all material gains were assured,” he reflects in his chapter on Marxist explanations of alienation, “we would not be free from existential anxiety.”

Still, certain strategies can alleviate anxiety without eliminating it or making it cheaper. Chopra himself stopped worrying so much when he discovered existentialism, which assured him that there is no one way to be, no one standard to live up to. And philosophy, like psychoanalysis, can reshape our fears. After philosophizing, Chopra writes, “what appears to be a problem is no longer one because, in the process of reinterpreting it, we have changed its identity and nature.”

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Its goal is to show that, even if we are destined for anxiety by our very nature, we don’t have to be anxious for the sake of being anxious. Against those who would abolish all forms of friction or frustration, he insists that anxiety is a way of honoring who and what we are. It is, in his words, “a fundamental human response to our finitude, mortality, and epistemic limitation.” Who knows what kind of truncated beings we would become without it?

As we contemplate the prospect of a life without anxiety, we fortunately find yet another horror to worry about.

Becca Rothfeld is a nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post.

Princeton. 185 pages $27.95



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