This phrase, “nothing to fear but fear itself”, is a reference to the sensation of fear that is the worst enemy of humankind. It keeps one aback and troubles one’s soul. The worst form of fear is the gloomy thoughts that create an eerie atmosphere inside one’s mind. Through this phrase, the speaker, FDR, refers to this mental framework that should not be encouraged. As it has a disastrous effect on one’s courage and the nation’s progress as a whole. However, the phrase is paraphrased here and FDR included this rhetorically charged phrase in a different manner.
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Source of Nothing to fear but fear itself
The first inauguration ceremony of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was held at the East Portico of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, March 4, 1933. Democrat Roosevelt defeated the Republican Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. During that time, the nation was at its depths of the Great Depression. People eagerly awaited Roosevelt’s inaugural speech that showed the way out for the upcoming days. The newly elected President Roosevelt delivered his 1,833-word, 20-minute-long inaugural speech and that speech included the pointed reference to “fear itself” in the first section. The phrase is emboldened in the following excerpt of the speech.
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 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 vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days. (FDR’s First Inaugural Address)
Meaning of Nothing to fear but fear itself
In the excerpt quoted above, the phrase, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is a little bit tricky to understand while reading this line for the first time. However, after reading it again, one can understand that here the speaker is referring to the sensation of fear. According to Roosevelt, there is nothing to fear in this world. The only thing one has to fear is the dark thoughts lying inside the mind. Those thoughts make one fearful not the object that one thinks is the cause of the trouble. The meaning of this line, in this way, makes sense. Otherwise, it might seem that the speaker is encouraging one to be fearful. But he is saying just the opposite. His motive was to hint at the root cause of fear.
Figurative Language in Nothing to fear but fear itself
In this phrase, “nothing to fear but fear itself”, there are two important rhetorical devices. The first one is litote. In the beginning, the speaker uses a negative word, “nothing” to emphasize the affirmation. However, the negative word used at the beginning also reflects the contemporary scenario that was troubled due to the Great Depression. Thereafter, the usage of the second “fear” as a noun, refers to the sensation of fear. It seems to be a reference to human emotions that make one’s mind foggy and blind. In this way, the second “fear” is a metaphor for emotional turbulence caused by overthinking about the object of fear. Moreover, this phrase also contains an antithesis.
Allusion in Nothing to fear but fear itself
This phrase, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”, contains an allusion to the Great Depression. Here, by referring to “fear”, Roosevelt pointed at the object of fear. During that time when he was delivering his speech, the Great Depression was at its peak. People were also fearful about the upcoming future. Hence, in this phrase, the “fear” is a reference to the fear of the people concerning the economic depression of the country. Apart from that, Henry David Thoreau included this phrase, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear” in his journal entry for September 7, 1851. So, Roosevelt might have alluded to this quote by Thoreau in his speech.
Historical Context of Nothing to fear but fear itself
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s close aide Raymond Moley, an American political economist, was responsible for crafting the first inauguration speech. He wrote many of Roosevelt’s speeches. However, through this speech and most importantly with this phrase, “nothing to fear but fear itself”, the President referred to the economic crisis that the nation was going through. In his speech, he held the bankers and businessmen responsible for the market crash of 1929. Moreover, he touched on daunting issues such as unemployment (which had reached a shocking 25 percent at that time), troublesome foreign relations, and the socio-economic crisis of the United States of America during the 1930s.
Notable Uses of Nothing to fear but fear itself
This phrase appears in several other works and speeches published or made after the 1933 inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The phrase has been used in the following works:
- The title of “Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself), a song by Oingo Boingo on the 1982 album ‘Nothing to Fear’, contains an allusion to the phrase.
- In “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) by Harper Lee, Scout says, “Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear, but fear itself.”
- “Nothing to Fear but Fear itself”, an episode of The Golden Girls television series.
- “Nothing to fear but Fear itself”, an episode of the Canadian television series Class of the Titans’
Here is a list of some popular quotes that are similar to Roosevelt’s rhetorically charged phrase, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees,
The further sky, the greater length,
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.