One of the most famous speeches in American history is FDR’s First Inaugural. The most memorable quote from this address occurs early on when he intones, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” It is one of the most oft-quoted bits of political rhetoric. It is also one of the most profoundly silly.
Even if one grants that the line is not to be taken literally, it is wrong. Here is the entire first paragraph of the speech to provide some context.
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.
For a rundown of why this is an absurd sentiment, see this excellent blogpost by Keith Spillet. Keith delves into some of the philosophical problems with this line, and I largely concur with his assessment. Beyond that, I also find the line to be, somewhat ironically considering the subject matter, demagogic. Though it is ostensibly a call for optimism in the midst of dark economic times, it is a fairly cynical attempt to brush back criticisms of his program. It is a rhetorical device that is employed today, and it is one that I find highly insulting.