Charlie Kurth in Aeon:
But just how bad is anxiety, really? Is it just an unpleasant feeling to work through, or something worse? According to a very distinguished tradition, one that stretches all the way back through the Stoics and Aristotle to Plato, it is worse. Much worse. When we’re anxious, we fret and ruminate in ways that don’t just distract us, but consume us. What’s more, because anxiety tends to be so unpleasant, we act impulsively – doing whatever we think will make the feeling go away. For these reasons, the classical consensus has it that such emotions are to be avoided.
Immanuel Kant suggested an even graver problem with anxiety: it is incompatible with virtue. For Kant, the virtuous individual is someone who has brought ‘all his capacities and inclinations under his (reason’s) control’; therefore, he writes in The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), the ‘true strength of virtue is a tranquil mind’. But when we’re anxious, our minds are anything but tranquil. We lack the rational control that’s distinctive of virtue: it is emotion, not reason, that determines our behaviour. That’s bad. This picture of anxiety as a dark and pernicious force certainly has illustrious supporters. Even so, I believe that it is mistaken. It goes against the grain to say this, but anxiety can be a good thing. Indeed, I hope to persuade you that it is central to our ability to successfully navigate moral and social life. I won’t go as far as to say that we need more of it, but we should cultivate it. Worry is important; we should get it right.