On Dec. 15, 2023, a user on X with the handle @DesireeAmerica4 shared a quote meme that claimed former U.S. President Donald Trump once said, "Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to act effectively, in spite of fear." We found other postings of the same quote online that also attributed the words to Trump.
The caption above the post repeated Republican political talking points to the effect that the Democratic Party had organized a "witch hunt" against Trump, as well as a "J6 hoax," an apparent reference to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, which Trump himself pooh-poohed as a "hoax."
None of the posts we saw that attributed the quote to Trump cited a date, place or source that could aid in authenticating it. It's something he could have said, but we found no evidence he did. In any case, we can say with confidence that the saying didn't originate with Trump; others expressed the same thought in similar words before he did.
In 2004, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona penned the following in his book, "Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life."
McCain wrote, "We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears."
In 2002, the Chicago Tribune published that a similar quote had been attributed to a writer named Ambrose Redmoon, whose real name was reported as being James Neil Hollingworth. In this case, the quote read, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one's fear."
According to the January 1995 issue of Ebony magazine, which contained excerpts from Nelson Mandela's 1994 book, "Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela," Mandela had written the following:
It is from these comrades in the struggle that I learned the meaning of courage. Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea. I have seen men stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resiliency that defies the imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times that I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
In November 1992, the Hartford Courtant newspaper reported that former New York Knicks head coach Pat Riley was quoted as having said of former NBA player Magic Johnson's retirement, which came amid his previous announcement that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus, "Magic [Johnson] had a great career. He showed great courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but simply moving on with dignity despite that fear."
The Dalai Lama
In December 1990, The Associated Press published an interview with the Dalai Lama, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The Dalai Lama mentioned the word "peace" in conjunction with an absence of fear:
What that means depends very much on your definition of the word, says the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. On one level, peace may be simply the absence of violence. On another, he says after considerable reflection, it is the absence of fear.
"Since the second world war, during the Cold War, there has been some kind of peace," says the maroon- and saffron-robed monk, warming to his subject. "But that peace was not a genuine peace. That peace was something like the mere absence of war. Basically, that kind of peace comes from fear."
"Now, today, I think peace is a genuine peace without fear, genuine in the sense of cooperation, or the sense of some kind of security, and working together. That's not the mere absence of war. That's much more positive, much more conceptive."
On May 15, 1840, 150 years before the Dalai Lama's quote, Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle delivered remarks in a lecture that was labeled as "Lectures on Heroes" and "The Hero as Priest," as documented in the book, "The Works of Thomas Carlyle.–II: On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History."
One passage mentioned both "courage" and the "absence of fear," as follows:
At the same time, they err greatly who imagine that this man's [Luther's] courage was ferocity, mere coarse disobedient obstinacy and savagery, as many do. Far from that. There may be an absence of fear which arises from the absence of thought or affection, from the presence of hatred and stupid fury. We do not value the courage of the tiger highly!