In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle examines the origins of a famous phrase
‘We have nothing to fear except fear itself.’ Those words – and the sentiment they convey – are inextricably bound up with Franklin D. Roosevelt. But what are the origins of the phrase ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’? Did Roosevelt originate it?
Let’s start with FDR. Certainly, at his 1933 Presidential Inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt did express such a sentiment:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
It’s a fine speech, and conveys a sentiment which will find an echo in many a bosom (indeed, has). The context in which Roosevelt made this speech was the Great Depression that the US was plunged into following the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the gist is that a ‘positive mental attitude’, as it were, will help to prevent the worst possible outcomes from materialising. But the idea that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself was hardly new with Roosevelt. Indeed, it’s worth tracing the history of this phrase, because it sheds light on just how popular and widespread both the phrase (albeit with varied wording) and the sentiment were, long before Roosevelt was made President.
In the sixteenth century, the great French writer Michel de Montaigne (pictured right) – the man who pretty much invented a whole new genre, the essay – wrote: ‘the thing of which I have most fear is fear’. Although it depends on which translation you read. In another, the wording is slightly different: ‘The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents.’
Then, in the seventeenth century, the English writer who brought Montaigne’s new invention of the essay form to England and made it his own, Francis Bacon, wrote in his 1623 book De Augmentis Scientiarum: ‘Nil terribile nisi ipse timor’, or ‘Nothing is terrible except fear itself.’
Then, in the nineteenth century and in yet another country, the United States, Henry David Thoreau offered in his journal entry for 7 September 1851: ‘Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.’ The context was an entry about atheism:
Miss Martineau’s last book is not so bad as the timidity which fears its influence. As if the popularity of this or that book would be so fatal – & man would not still be man in the world. Nothing is so much to be feared as fear – Atheism may be popular with God himself.
The book referred to was the British social theorist Harriet Martineau’s 1848 book Eastern Life, which put forward the idea that the world’s religions were evolving to become more and more abstract and that (she implied) the end-goal of society was a form of philosophic atheism.
In short, then, the sentiment of the statement ‘we have nothing to fear except fear itself’ originated with Montaigne in the sixteenth century, was probably picked up from Montaigne by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth, and then became a common proverb or axiom in later writers. The fact that it has become closely associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt has much to do with Roosevelt’s reputation and influence over the world during the 1930s and 1940s; it may have helped that FDR was still ‘the leader of the Free World’ when the Allies went to war against the Axis powers in the Second World War. As war plunged the world into uncertainty, it was worth being reminded that fear itself can be the most powerful weapon our enemies have to disarm us and render us defeated before the fact. This later wartime context may have helped to give Roosevelt’s spin on an old statement a hand in helping it to become, without doubt, the most famous quotation associated with him and his presidency.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.