Chaste Fear

In Josef Pieper’s brilliant little book On Hopethere is a puzzling remark on the Patristic term “chaste fear” (timor castus) for the filial fear of God. He says the term is “no longer wholly comprehensible to us today” (“eine…unserem Verständnis nicht mehr ganz erschließbare Wortverbindung”). This remark is puzzling because the distinction that Pieper goes on to make between servile fear and filial fear as based on the love of concupiscence and the love of benevolence seems to give a perfectly obvious reason for giving filial fear the name “chaste.” It is surely not too difficult to see why one would call the love of benevolence, the love that wishes well to the one loved, “chaste” when one is distinguishing it from the love of concupiscence that desires to enjoy the beloved.  (Although of course, one has to emphasize that the love of concupiscence is not necessarily “unchaste” in the sense of the sin of unchastity; both sorts of love are necessary). And so it makes sense that one would carry the epithet “chaste” from the love to the fear that is founded in it.

Servile fear is the fear of the slave who fears to hear from the master: “I do not know you, depart from me.” It is the fear not only of the punishment of the senses in damnation, but above all of of the essential punishment of damnation: the absolute loneliness of being deprived of the vision of God. The slave once to behold the master whom he loves, and he wants to be known and approved of by the master. He wants the master to give him glory, doxa, recognition: “You good and faithful servant.” And he is afraid of the eternal loss of that glory— eternal shame and bitterness.

Filial fear is the fear of the son who fears that anything be done against the beloved Father. It is the fear above all that he should himself do anything against the Father. It flows from desire for the good of the beloved, not for desire for the son’s own good.

This shows why both forms of fear are necessary as long as we are in via, and have not arrived at our heavenly goal. “Chaste fear” should become ever more dominant, but servile fear ought not to pass away entirely, because we ought to desire our own union with God, and the unspeakable happiness of attaining to the one whom we love.

5 thoughts on “Chaste Fear

  1. Perhaps these fears (and loves) are both abstract types, ideal situations; to fear ‘being deprived of the vision of God’, in whatever form one experiences this fear, requires a highly developed sense (unless one would see and need God as a sort of natural resource). On the other hand, there is nothing servile in desiring his own good; and the one who loves like a son, to keep the symbols proposed, finds in this happiness. So perhaps there is a bit of moralism. ‘Servile fear’ would be founded in ‘the love of concupiscence’; well, if one tries to identify these types in the ordinary behaviors, maybe this love doesn’t deserve its bad name.


  2. These types, abstract if understood as usual descriptions, might make sense as historical types, or symbols of the successive patterns, the rise of the religious sense: but mostly and mainly in the humankind’s ages.
    Also, ‘happiness comes from actions’.


  3. The language of the ‘filial fear’ also implies authority and submission, because ‘the beloved’ is the ‘beloved Father’, which, understood in the symbolic economy of the ancients, implies authority, etc., and it’s significant that the prototype of ‘the beloved’ is ‘the father’, the master, a figure of authority (Jesus uses the language of servitude and friendship, servants and friends, which means a step forward); on the other hand, it’s problematic to hint to ‘adding to the good of the beloved’, when this beloved is understood to be God. When someone desires ‘his own union with God’, it seems difficult to isolate ‘seeking his own good’, as pitted against ‘seeking the beloved’s good’, and it construes happiness in very simplified terms, as if one, at least theoretically, excludes the other, or these two kinds of ‘fear’ are distinct entities, each existing in itself, motivated by its own unilinear principle.


  4. ‘Filial fear’ implies piety, and another level of awareness, yet I doubt that this binomial pair, of the two ‘fears’, is articulated on the opposition of ‘mere selfishness’ and disinterestedness, as if the servant was supposed to feel mainly or only a ‘selfish fear’. The sonship supposes rights. To fear as a son means to fear but being aware of some rights, of dignity, in a highly specified/articulated relationship. It’s not that the servant is supposed to be motivated only by selfishness. But his devotion remains extrinsic, impersonal, a social function irrespective of deeper bonds. So the Christian graduates to another kind of bond, the familial one, and in the ‘chaste fear’ the functions of the servile, ‘base’, ‘selfish fear’ are taken up, I believe, and reshaped. It seems unlikely that the two are supposed to coexist in the unified soul or other than empirical psychological moments (more likely, ages, which should mean that they don’t alternate, let alone coexist, but the worthier one replaces the other).
    They are moral ages, and the symbolic expressions (master, father, servant, son) should be read in the system of meanings of the world that saw their birth.


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