Losing An Illusion Makes One Wiser Than Finding A Truth

Ludwig Börne? Apocryphal?

ludwigborne03Dear Quote Investigator: Several websites have attributed the following quote to Ludwig Börne, yet I can find no reference to its original source:

Getting rid of a delusion makes one wiser than getting hold of a truth.

If you can shed any light on the source of this quote, it would be greatly appreciated.

Quote Investigator: Ludwig Börne wrote in the German language, and he died in 1837. The earliest evidence QI has located for this saying appeared in 1840 in Volume 6 of Börne’s collected writings. The German title for this set of books was “Gesammelte Schriften von Ludwig Börne”. 1

To provide a fuller context for the expression the end of this article has an appendix displaying an image of the German text together with an extended English translation.

The saying moved into the English literary domain by 1893 when a “Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources” by Reverend James Wood was published. One English version of the saying was listed under the German word “Einen”, and another English version was listed under the word “Parting”. Both instances were credited to Börne: 2

Entry “Einen”: Einen Wahn verlieren macht weiser als eine Wahrheit finden—Getting rid of a delusion makes us wiser than getting hold of a truth. Börne.

Entry “Parting”: Parting with a delusion makes one wiser than falling in with a truth. Börne

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1977 “Practical Wisdom: A Treasury of Aphorisms and Reflections from the German” edited by Frederick Ungar was published, and the following compact English version of the saying was included: 3

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.        Börne

The expression continued to circulate in 1998 as shown by its publication in “The State” newspaper of Columbia, South Carolina: 4

“Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.”
Ludwig Borne

The German website phrasen.com presented the statement in German together with an English translation: 5

Einen Wahn verlieren macht weiser als eine Wahrheit finden
Ludwig Börne

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth
Ludwig Börne

In conclusion, evidence indicates that this expression was first written by Ludwig Börne in German. There are a few different translations into English with similar semantics but different colorations and connotations.

APPENDIX: The following text image is from the 1840 edition of “Gesammelte Schriften von Ludwig Börne”. The commentary and translation into English given below were very kindly provided by Udo Helms: 6

ludwigtext04Commentary by Udo Helms:

Question number 21 concerns a comment by Anselm von Feuerbach (1775-1833) on the reform of the (Bavarian) legal system, which he supervised. Börne studied in Gießen (in 1808), which is where Feuerbach’s ‘Lehrbuch des gemeinen, in Deutschland geltenden peinlichen Rechts’ (reader for the public penal code in Germany) was published in 1801. This contains the legal principle ‘nulla poena sine lege’ = ‘no punishment without law’, which calls for general public information concerning laws, which may be what Börne refers to. It is important to point out that only Anselm von Feuerbach could have been meant, not Ludwig von Feuerbach (1804-1872), his more famous philosopher son, who is mainly remembered as Marx’s object of criticism (‘philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, but what matters is (the will) to change it’). Anselm von Feuerbach is also known for becoming the guardian of the foundling Kaspar Hauser, and his book about him is his most famous text and a precursor of psychoanalysis.

The passage reads as follows (boldface added):

“Feuerbach, in his work about the oral and public nature of jurisdiction, favors both of these aspects, but cannot refrain from attacking those writers who share his opinion. He calls them those “who usually have no more knowledge of the subject as that it implies opening one’s mouth and doors”. While this is a funny observation, the jest does not appear to be in its proper place. In every institution of the state which concerns the well-being of its citizens, the part which can be understood by the general public is always its most important. Real government has no practical tricks. Academic inquisitiveness may as of yet find much to reveal about public and oral trials, and Feuerbach may have justly criticized the French procedure in this context. However, its most important aspect remains that mouth and doors shall be opened. Feuerbach was irritated when he was being accused of changing his opinion, which used to be directed against the public and oral practice (of the law). However, this should not have come as a surprise to him from his countrymen. After all, it is one of the unholiest sophistries to declare changing one’s opinion a weakness and a dishonesty. As if man was ever infallible! That he is not is just what makes him fair, for losing an error makes one wiser than finding a truth.

(Thanks to Kristi Ross whose inquiry on this topic inspired this question and gave impetus to QI to perform this exploration. Great thanks to Udo Helms for providing considerable assistance with a commentary and translation. Also, thanks to Dan Goncharoff for help.)

Notes:

  1. 1840, Gesammelte Schriften von Ludwig Börne, Volume 6: Fragmente und Aphorismen, (In German), (Collected Writings of Ludwig Boerne, Volume 6: Fragments and Aphorisms), Quote Page 11, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, Germany. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1893, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources by Rev. James Wood, Quote Page 79 and 342, Column 1, Frederick Warne and Co., London and New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1977, Practical Wisdom: A Treasury of Aphorisms and Reflections from the German, Edited by Frederick Ungar, (Translations from German to English by Sheema Z. Buehne, Frederick Ungar, and others) Section: Art of Living, Quote Page 87, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1998 December 20, The State, Section: Editorial, Views On The News, Compiled by John Monk, Page D3, Columbia, South Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. Website: phrasen.com, Wörterbuch der Redewendungen Deutsch/Englisch (Dictionary of Idioms English/German), SUMO GmbH, Köln. (Accessed phrasen.com on April 4, 2013) link
  6. 1840, Gesammelte Schriften von Ludwig Börne, Volume 6: Fragmente und Aphorismen, (In German), (Collected Writings of Ludwig Boerne, Volume 6: Fragments and Aphorisms), Quote Page 11, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, Germany. (Google Books full view) link