The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

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Fear: a Lexical Study in Late Republican Literature

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Most Americans remember these famous words addressed to our nation on 04 March 1933, but most of us do not know that Roosevelt's sentence did not end at "itself." Rather, Roosevelt continued to delimit the fear of which he speaks:

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.

Roosevelt did not censure fear in general, but the specific type of fear that is a "terror which paralyzes." This difference between generic fear and the fear akin to terror implies that fear can mean many different things and that perhaps we do not need to fear all manifestations of this emotion. Roosevelt leaves unsaid that we do not have to fear the named, reasoned, justified fear that emboldens our advance.

Comparison between this passage and the definitions for fear, n.1 and fear, n2 in the Oxford English Dictionary points to a confused semantic range for fear. Psychologists and psychoanalysts including Freud, Lazarus, and Golde express their own frustrations with the loose use of die Angst in German and fear in English. Sometimes, we mean the true emotion: the emotion accompanied by pain at the perception of some future evil. Other times, fear merely indicates our desire to avoid something that might not be frightening at all, for example: "I closed the windows for fear that it would rain." We can transfer our fear from the actual object of fear to some perceived anticipator of that object. If we fear being killed by a car, we might say that we are afraid of crossing the street. Furthermore, fear is our catchall term under which we subordinate words such as terror, fright, dread, anxiety, and sollicitude.

All this leads me to wonder whether Romans encountered the same phenomenon in Latin with their terms for fear. What is the true term Romans used for the emotion accompanied by pain at the perception of some future evil? Is is metus? timor? Or, is it both? I have identified six families of words that indicate fear, listed here by the noun: metus, timor, terror, formido, pavor, and verecundia. Although an in-depth study of all these words is important and necessary, my paper focuses on metus and timor in Late Republican literature (from 88 to 28 BCE).

The influx of new philosophical sects offered a lens through which Romans could view, discuss, and value this emotion. Both Epicureanism and Stoicism negatively frame the discourse around fear and represent it as an emotion to be rejected and avoided. These philosophical systems offer knowledge as the counterbalance to fear. Lucretius allows that men only fear death because they wrongly assume that punishment awaits them in the afterlife (3.983-6), and Cicero provides an anecdote of Perikles quieting the fear of Athenians by explaining the science of eclipses to them (Rep. 1.25). This supports a general argument in Cicero that natural philosophy frees one from fear (Fin. 1.63-64, 4.11; Tusc. 1.48, 2.2, 4.22). Yet, in his political and forensic speeches, Cicero not only employs fear to sway the minds of this audience, but also remarks on the positive, pragmatic importance of fear in maintaining domestic peace. Fear of the laws and fear of the gods compel men to act virtuously. Fear can both keep the military in check and obedient to the commander and cause these same soldiers to throw down their shields and flee. Sallust, too, vacillates between positive and negative fear. Fear of the enemy promoted morality in Rome before the fall of Carthage, but his own life improved when he abandoned politics and was therefore free from fear (Iug. 41.2, Cat. 4.2). These conflicting portraits of fear at work demand a study of fear words in context in order to promote a better understanding not only of the semantics of the words themselves, but also of the Roman attitude towards fear in the Late Republic.
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