Review | Are you worried that you worry too much? No, you’re only human.

Long before anxiety became a clinical issue, it was an existential problem. The medical condition, a disease in the absence of treatment, arose in the 19th century; the philosophical orientation has probably existed for as long as we have, and it cannot (and should not) be eradicated. Unfortunately, in recent years, an army of gurus and pathologically positive thinkers have colonized the concept. Along the way, they’ve forgotten what philosophers have known for centuries: that to be human is to worry, and therefore to excel is to worry 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 counselor Samir Chopra invokes anxiety’s long and distinguished lineage in his wise, if sometimes circumlocutionary, new book, Anxiety: A Philosophical Guide. My anxiety made me who I am, he writes in the introduction, and I could not get rid of my anxiety without ceasing to be myself.

Although he includes several poignant accounts of his own traumas and disturbances, his slender volume is devoted, for the most part, to a dizzying tour of the intellectual history of an unjustly reviled emotion. Of course, anxiety is not an exhaustive study. Chopra focuses on four schools of thought that illuminate his subject with particular sharpness: Buddhism, existentialism, psychoanalytic theory, and critical theory. All these traditions are the subjects of tomes in their own right, and the Chopras’ 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 fruitful and unpleasant feeling. Perhaps more importantly, in an age that strives for easy painkillers, Chopras book represents an urgent attempt to reclaim anxiety from those who threaten to medicate it or counsel it out of existence. It leads by example, providing a rewarding and challenging alternative to the facile self-help it implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) criticizes.

In fact, Anxiety opens with a nod to the conventions of the self-help genre that half apes and half mocks. Every book on anxiety must begin, by force, with a list of extensive sociological observations and statistics, each showing how common anxiety suffering is in contemporary society, Chopra writes. Even worse, he continues, every book on anxiety must insist that the epidemic it diagnoses is unprecedented. A recent book by Jonathan Haidt declares Gen Z to be the anxious generation, but a little historical awareness is enough to show that any number of previous generations have considered themselves the same. Why is our anxiety so persistent, so impervious to remedy? Perhaps, Chopra suggests, because it is a universal and perennial human condition, or at least the philosophical version of it.

What distinguishes this high-anxiety brand from its lesser cousin? Clinical anxiety is paradigmatically irrational, but many of the traditions Chopra investigates consider existential anxiety as a clear response to our lot. Which one aspects of the human condition cause existential anxiety, however, depends on who you ask.

Buddhists, for example, believe that our suffering is tied to a true and unblinking understanding of the nature of the world and human existence, Chopra writes. In other words, we despair not because we are afraid of ghosts, but because we realize that we are limited and mortal, in life, in ability, in success. Sigmund Freud and his followers echo Buddhist concerns, suggesting that anxiety is roughly a response to a world filled with painful and terrifying loss. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Kierkegaard take a different strategy, arguing that anxiety is concomitant with freedom: once we accept that we are not bound to a single path, we must worry about which path(s) to take. . And left-wing critics like Karl Marx see anxiety as a social evil, a product of inhabiting a world constructed in someone’s terms.

These accounts are not exactly conflicting, we might be existentially anxious because we are mortal, because we are free i because we exercise little control over the circumstances of our lives, but neither are they perfectly congruent. If we are uneasy because we are forced to live in a world designed by the rich, perhaps we are not as free as the existentialists suggest. Moreover, it is not clear that what Marx called alienation, the feeling of estrangement that workers experience when they are forced to accept the dictates of their bosses, really amounts to distress. Chopra does not have the space to make a full case of this dubious identification, nor does she reconcile the different emphases of her characters, who may point in divergent directions.

After all, whether existential anxiety is somewhat curable depends on what it is. The cure for Marxist alienation would seem to be social and political reform; The cure for the brand of anxiety that Buddhists describe is, in their eyes, the recognition that there is no enduring entity other than the self, no being whose finitude can trouble us. The Chopras’ sympathies, however, are clearly with those who believe that anxiety is and should be chronic. Even if all the material gains were achieved, he reflects in his chapter on Marxist accounts of alienation, we would not be free of existential angst.

Still, certain strategies can ease anxiety without eliminating or cheapening it. Chopra himself stopped worrying so painfully when he discovered existentialism, which reassured him that there is no single way to be, no single 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 because in the process of reinterpretation, we have changed its identity and nature.

His 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 it. 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?

Contemplating the prospect of life without anxiety, we fortunately find another horror to worry about.

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

Princeton. 185 pages. $27.95

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