MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Why do we say "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

Well-Known Expressions

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

Meaning:

We can accomplish great things if we look at problems face on rather than being held back by doubt and fear.

Background:

Franklin D. Roosevelt made this expression famous in his 1933 inaugural address:

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.

Most of Roosevelt's speech was written by Columbia University Professor Raymond Moly but it is believed that this part of the speech was not in the original, or at least not in this form. Some say that the writing of Henry David Thoreau inspired Roosevelt to add the "fear itself" line. An anthology of Thoreau's writing was apparently in Roosevelt's hotel room including a journal entry by Thoreau from 1851: “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear."

But Professor Moly himself pointed to Louis Howe as the source of the expression, but doubted that Howe (who favored detective novels) had been reading Thoreau. Instead he believed that Howe had likely seen it in a department store's newspaper ad some months before. It is possible that the ad was for Wanamaker's department store which ran a campaign in the New York Times during that period with each ad footnoted by an inspirational platitude - but no Wanamaker ad using Thoreau's phrase has been found to confirm if this is the case.

Thoreau, in turn, was most likely inspired by earlier writers including French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" (1580); Francis Bacon: "The only thing I am afraid of is fear" (1623); and The Duke of Wellington: "The only thing I am afraid of is fear." (c.1832).

Alphabetical list of expressions

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