They Which Play with the Devils Rattles, Will Be Brought by Degrees to Wield His Sword

Buckminster Fuller? Thomas Fuller? Anonymous?

fuller09Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent inventor and author Buckminster Fuller has been linked to an uncharacteristic quotation:

Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.

Would you please determine whether he wrote and said this remark?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Buckminster Fuller employed the words above. Instead, QI believes that the expression evolved from a statement written by Thomas Fuller who was an influential English historian and religious figure of the seventeenth century.

In 1642 Thomas Fuller released “The Profane State”, and it included a section about witches. Fuller stated that some individuals initially engaged in witchcraft defensively; they cast spells and charms to shield themselves against the plots and intrigues of adversaries. However, over time they began to wield power offensively and actively assaulted others. The following excerpt contained “floures” which was an alternative spelling of “flowers”. Boldface has been added: 1

She begins at first with doing tricks rather strange then hurtfull: yea some of them are pretty and pleasing. But it is dangerous to gather floures that grow on the banks of the pit of hell, for fear of falling in; yea they which play with the devils rattles, will be brought by degrees to wield his sword, and from making of sport they come to doing of mischief.

The apostrophe in the possessive phrase “devil’s rattles” was missing in the original text. Also, in the modern quotation the phrase was changed to “devil’s toys”.

During the ensuing years the words above were sometimes reprinted with the short ambiguous ascription: “Fuller”. Someone probably misunderstood this ascription and reassigned the words from Thomas Fuller to Buckminster Fuller.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1642, The Profane State by Thomas Fuller, The Fifth Book, Chapter 3: The Witch, Start Page 365, Quote Page 367, Printed by Roger Daniel for John Williams, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link

The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery Is Not Ignorance—It Is the Illusion of Knowledge

Daniel J. Boorstin? Stephen Hawking? Henry Thomas Buckle? Anonymous?

boostin11Dear Quote Investigator: Widely accepted false beliefs can hinder progress and new discoveries. For example, the mistaken belief that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible or impractical deterred requisite financing and investigation. This thought has been expressed as follows:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking and the Librarian of the U.S. Congress Daniel J. Boorstin have both been credited with this statement, but I am having trouble finding good citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying was attributed to Stephen Hawking by 2001, but QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that he actually employed it.

The best-selling author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin was interviewed in “The Washington Post” in January 1984. He modestly referred to himself as an amateur historian because his primary background was the legal profession. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What an amateur is, is a lover of a subject. I’m a lover of facts. The fact is the savior, as long as you don’t jam it into some preconceived pattern. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.

Boorstin employed different versions of the saying over the years, but he did not assert that the underlying idea was his own. Indeed, he once ascribed a similar notion to the well-known historian Edward Gibbon, and on another occasion, he called it an aphorism. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1984 January 29, The Washington Post, The 6 O’Clock Scholar: Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin And His Love Affair With Books by Carol Krucoff, Start Page K1, Quote Page K8, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

There Is Always a Well-Known Solution to Every Human Problem—Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

Mark Twain? H. L. Mencken? Peter Drucker? Anonymous?

wrong09Dear Quote Investigator: A popular saying presents a vivid warning about apparent solutions which are too good to be true. Here are four versions:

  1. There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.
  2. For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.
  3. Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.
  4. There’s always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

These expressions have been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, the witty curmudgeon H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), and the insightful management guru Peter Drucker. Which version is correct and who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The third version above was a close match to a remark written by H. L. Mencken in a 1920 collection of essays called “Prejudices: Second Series”. The third chapter titled “The Divine Afflatus” discussed the mysterious spark of inspiration and creativity in the arts and letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil.

Mencken’s original statement used the phrase “well-known solution”, but modern instances sometimes substitute “easy solution”. Latter-day expressions have been constructed with a variable set of adjectives including: “simple”, “direct”, “clear”, “obvious”, “neat”, “quick”, “plausible”, and “straight-forward”. The stinging final word “wrong” has usually been preserved.

Mencken published an earlier version of the essay “The Divine Afflatus” in “The New York Evening Mail” on November 16, 1917, but quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations” stated that the quotation was absent from this initial work. 2

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  1. 1920, Prejudices: Second Series by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 4: The Divine Afflatus, Start Page 155, Borzoi: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 511, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

Elementary, My Dear Watson

Sherlock Holmes? Arthur Conan Doyle? J. Murray Moore? Franklin P. Adams? P. G. Wodehouse? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

holmes08Dear Quote Investigator: When Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes was explaining to his good friend John A. Watson the nature of his latest deduction he supposedly employed the well-known phrase:

Elementary, my dear Watson.

I was astonished to learn that Holmes never said this phrase in any of the canonical stories and novels. Is that true?

Quote Investigator: Yes, Sherlock Holmes never said the above phrase in any of the classic tales written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the phrase was synthesized by the readers and enthusiasts of the legendary detective and assigned to him. The character was later given the line in a movie script that was not penned by Conan Doyle.

The canonical Holmes did use the word “elementary” when speaking with Watson. For example, Conan Doyle’s 1893 story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” published in “The Strand Magazine” contained a scene in which Holmes carefully examined Watson’s appearance and concluded that he had recently been busy with several visits to medical patients. Holmes explained his reasoning to Watson, and the doctor was impressed. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Excellent!” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.

In September 1893 the journal “English Mechanic and World of Science” printed a letter to the editor that contained a bit of word play that seemed to be based on the phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow”. The jest may have been referring to a prototypical interaction of Holmes and Watson, but the connection was uncertain: 2

He has also forgotten to deduct the calories that have to be supplied to the “coal” to raise it to the temperature at which it combines with oxygen. All this is quite elementary, my dear “Fellow of the Chemical Society.”

In 1901 the serialization of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” began in “The Strand Magazine”. Holmes examined a walking stick using a convex lens and concluded that the owner of the stick had a dog which was “larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff”. He spoke the word “elementary” while presenting his conclusions to Watson: 3

“Interesting, though elementary,” said he, as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. “There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions.”

In November 1901 “The Northampton Mercury” of Northamptonshire, England printed a short parody featuring the characters Shylock Combs and Potson. The brilliant ratiocinator Combs was able to determine the direction of the wind outside by observing the displacement of Potson’s mustache: 4

He noticed my amazement and smiled that wonderful smile of his.

“Elementary, my dear Potson,” he said; “I observed the left-hand side of your moustache inclined about 47 5/8 degrees towards the west, and coming as I did from Butcher-street I at once deduced from which quarter the wind was blowing.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1893 July, The Strand Magazine, Volume 6, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: XX – The Adventure of the Crooked Man by A. Conan Doyle, Start Page 22, Quote Page 23, George Newnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1893 September 22, English Mechanic and World of Science, Volume 58, Section: Letters to the Editor, The Natural Forces by Luis, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Column 3, Published for the Strand Newspaper Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1901 September, The Strand Magazine, Volume 22, Number 128, The Hound of the Baskervilles: Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, Chapter 1, Start Page 123, Quote Page 124, George Newnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1901 November 15, The Northampton Mercury, Sherlock Holmes’s Latest!, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Northamptonshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

An Archaeologist Is the Best Husband a Woman Can Have

Agatha Christie? Alec de Montmorency? Sam Farver? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

agatha08Dear Quote Investigator: Agatha Christie remains one of the most popular writers in history. She constructed engagingly clever and innovative mysteries as a novelist and playwright. Would you please research a humorous remark that has often been attributed to her? She was married to an archaeologist from 1930 until her death in 1976, and the jest nicely conformed to this biographical detail. Here were two versions:

  1. An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.
  2. One of the joys of being married to an archaeologist is that the older you get the more interest he takes in you.

What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in multiple U.S. newspapers in January 1952. The story was reprinted from the “Gothenburg Trade and Shipping Journal” of Gothenburg, Sweden. Agatha Christie was visiting London from Baghdad where she lived with her husband who was pursuing archaeological excavations. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

At a party, a curiosity bitten guest inquired if it were right for such an imaginative person to be married to a student of antiquities.

“An archeologist,” Agatha Christie said with conviction, “is the best husband any woman can get. Just consider: The older she gets, the more he is interested in her.”

Interestingly, a biographical work about Christie published in 1967 asserted that the famous author denied making the quip, and she believed the episode was invented by some pundit. A detailed citation is given further below.

QI has found this topic confusing. The additional selected citations in chronological order below provide a snapshot of current research.

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  1. 1952 January 10, The Milwaukee Journal, Lighter Side of the News From the World Press, Quote Page 24, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  2. 1952 January 14, The Decatur Herald, Archeologist Husband, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)

Even Paranoiacs Have Real Enemies

Henry Kissinger? Delmore Schwartz? Sigmund Freud? Virginia McManus? Mark Harris? Buck Henry? Joseph Heller? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: A family of sayings with a humorous edge was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Here were two versions:

1) Even a paranoid can have enemies.
2) Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

This adage has been attributed to Delmore Schwartz who wrote short stories and poetry and who also suffered from mental illness. In addition, the saying has been ascribed to the political scientist and negotiator Henry Kissinger. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in an article published in July 1967 about the rebellious young generation. The words were printed as a slogan on a button, and no ascription was provided. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When it comes to expressing their views on life, they say by button: “I Want to Be What I Was When I Wanted To Be What I Now Am,” or “Neuroses Are Red, Melancholy Is Blue, I’m Schizophrenic, What Are You?,” or “End Poverty, Give Me $10.” They further advise: “Reality Is Good Sometimes for Kicks But Don’t Let It Get You Down,” and “Even Paranoids Have Real Enemies.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1967 July 21, Christianity Today, Dear Slogan-Lovers by Etychus III, Page 20, Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)

Self-Education Is the Only Kind of Education There Is

Robert Frost? Isaac Asimov? Kathleen Norris? Charles Swain Thomas? Robert Shafer? George Gallup?

educ08Dear Quote Investigator: The renowned poet laureate Robert Frost emphasized the importance of self-education. Also, the preternaturally productive science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov extolled self-education. Here are two quotations on this topic:

1) The only education worth anything is self-education.
2) Self-education is the only kind of education there is.

Would you please help me find citations for these expressions?

Quote Investigator: In 1958 Robert Frost spoke the first statement according to his friend Louis Untermeyer. In addition, Isaac Asimov wrote a sentence that closely matched the second sentence in 1974. Full citations are given further below.

Before Frost or Asimov shared their opinions, a high school teacher named Charles Swain Thomas made a similar remark as reported in “The Indianapolis Star” in 1913. Thomas who later became a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education addressed the Marion County Teachers’ Institute in Indiana. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The only kind of education worth while is self-education, Mr. Thomas said in his morning lecture, “The good work for all education is interest. Until there is interest there is no response.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1913 August 29, The Indianapolis Star, Asserts ‘Soul Ardor’ Is Need of Teacher, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

history10Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added: 1 2

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

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  1. 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)

Who Wait Until Circumstances Completely Favor His Undertaking Will Never Accomplish Anything

Martin Luther? J. J. Van Oosterzee? Johann Eduard Huther? Saint Timothy? Jesse Lyman Hurlbut? Confucius?

luther07Dear Quote Investigator: The famous religious reformer Martin Luther who died in 1546 has been credited with a comment about the need to take action and avoid perpetual delays:

For truth and duty it is ever the fitting time; who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything.

I have been unable to locate a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the ascription to Martin Luther was flawed. Instead, the quotation evolved from a remark written by a German theologian named Johann Eduard Huther who was a Pastor at Wittenförden Bei Schwerin in the 1800s. The mistake was probably caused by confusion between the names “Huther” and “Luther”.

The earliest match in English located by QI appeared in 1868 in volume 8 of “A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures” edited by John Peter Lange. The Second Epistle to Timothy was analyzed by a theologian named J. J. Van Oosterzee. The translation from German to English was performed by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood. Oosterzee presented a quotation with an attribution to “Huther”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Timothy should fulfil his calling, not indeed when the time was so inopportune that they could receive no benefit, but when to himself it might be inconvenient. “For the truth, it is ever the fitting time; who wait until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything, but will remain in inactivity;” Huther.

Huther was referred to many times in the volume when excerpts from his commentaries were reprinted. Oddly, QI was unable to find the full name for Huther listed within the book. Nevertheless, QI believes that Johann Eduard Huther who was born in 1807 crafted the quotation in German. Indeed, an alternative translation of the statement into English appeared in a book of biblical exegesis published in 1881. The section of the book containing the quotation was about the Second Epistle to Timothy, and it was written by Johann Eduard Huther: 2

For the truth, the occasion is always seasonable. He who desires to wait until the occasion seem completely favorable for his work, will never find it. This is particularly true of the exercise of the evangelic office.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1868, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical by John Peter Lange, Translated from the German and edited by Philip Schaff, Volume 8, First and Second Epistles to Timothy by J. J. Van Oosterzee, Translated from the German by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood, Exegetical and Critical Analysis of the Second Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 4, Verse 2, Quote Page 112, Column 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1881, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament by Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Volume 11, The Pastoral Epistles by J. E. Huther (Johann Eduard Huther), (Fourth Edition Author’s Preface Dated November 1875), Section: The Second Epistle to Timothy), Quote Page 314, T & T. Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link

The Trouble with Socialism Is Socialism; the Trouble with Capitalism is Capitalists

William F. Buckley Jr.? William Schlamm? Winston Churchill? Herbert Hoover?


Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard a humorous saying that compares two major economic systems:

The problem with socialism is socialism. The problem with capitalism is capitalists.

These words have been attributed to conservative commentator William F Buckley Jr. and British statesman Winston Churchill. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a profile of William F Buckley Jr. published in “Esquire” magazine in 1961. Buckley believed that socialism was a flawed economic system, but he also found fault with individual capitalists. He felt that the magazine he founded called “National Review” deserved greater financial support from business people, and he blamed “just plain stinginess”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Mr. Buckley paused a moment, then quoted an adage someone had told him that he felt summed up the problem: “The trouble with socialism is socialism; the trouble with capitalism is capitalists.”

This instance used the word “trouble” instead of “problem”. The context indicated that Buckley was not claiming credit for the expression. During the following decades he employed it multiple times, and in 1978 he ascribed the words to William Schlamm (Willi Schlamm), a European journalist who had worked with Buckley in the early years of the “National Review”.

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  1. 1961 January 1, Esquire: The Magazine for Men, Volume 55, Number 1, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Portrait of a Complainer by Dan Wakefield, Start Page 49, Quote Page 50, Column 1, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)