The Best Lack All Conviction While the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity

William Butler Yeats? Bertrand Russell? Charles Bukowski?

doubt11Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever been absolutely certain about a fact and later determined that you were completely wrong? If you learn from that experience you become less arrogant and more empathetic. I wish more people would achieve this form of personal growth. Here are three versions of a relevant saying:

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.

This thought has been linked to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet W. B. Yeats, the prominent British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the notable American writer Charles Bukowski. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The three individuals you mentioned each expressed different versions of this idea, and detailed citations are given below.

In 1920 W. B. Yeats published the poem “The Second Coming”, and the final two lines of the first section presented an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1933 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled “The Triumph of Stupidity” that lamented the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany. Russell employed a version of the saying: 2

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.

In 1935 Russell’s statement was disseminated via the Canadian newspaper “The Lethbridge Herald” of Lethbridge, Alberta. The phrasing was slightly altered by the movement of the phrase “is that”. The quotation was credited to Russell and was used as a filler item: 3

“The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”—Bertrand Russell.

In September 1936 the syndicated column “The Office Cat” printed a simplified shortened version of Russell’s expression, but no credit was given to Russell or anyone else: 4

A LOT OF TROUBLE TODAY IS THAT THE STUPID ARE COCKSURE AND THE INTELLIGENT ARE FULL OF DOUBTS.

In October 1936 a column called “Scoop’s Colyum” in a Danville, Virginia newspaper reprinted the expression given in “The Office Cat” without an acknowledgement to Russell or “The Office Cat”. 5

In 1949 the quotation collector Evan Esar included the saying in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. The altered streamlined expression was ascribed to Russell: 6

RUSSELL, Bertrand, born 1872, English philosopher, mathematician, and writer.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.

In 1989 the poet Charles Bukowski was interviewed in a literary journal called “Arete”. The following excerpt begins with a question posed by the interviewer. Bukowski’s reply included an instance of the saying particularized to the domain of literature: 7

Your poem ‘friendly advice to a lot of young men” says that one is better off living in a barrel than he is writing poetry. Would you give this same advice today?

I guess what I meant is that you are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime.

In 2001 the trade publication “InfoWorld” printed an instance with an ascription to Bertrand Russell and an acknowledgement to “A Word a Day”. This version included the phrase “fools and fanatics”, and it differed from Russell’s 1933 statement. Its provenance is uncertain: 8

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” — Bertrand Russell, quoted in the book A Word a Day

In conclusion, the three quotations from W. B. Yeats, Bertrand Russell, and Charles Bukowski can be grouped together semantically. But the expressions are individually distinctive and interesting.

Image Notes: Portrait of Bertrand Russell via Wikimedia Commons. Shrug of doubt image extracted from image by geralt on Pixabay. William Butler Yeats by John Singer Sargent circa 1908 via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to J. Raúl Vargas whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Vargas helpfully pointed to versions of the expressions attributed to Russell and Bukowski.)

Notes:

  1. Date: 1920 November, Periodical: The Dial, Article Title: Ten Poems, Poem: The Second Coming, Author: William Butler Yeats, Quote Page: 466, Publisher: The Dial Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2009, Mortals and Others by Bertrand Russell, Essay Title: The Triumph of Stupidity, Essay Date: May 10, 1933, Start Page 203, Quote Page 204, Published by Taylor & Francis e-Library. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1935 March 15, The Lethbridge Herald, Lights and Shadows by C. F. S., With the Sages, Quote Page 9, Column 5, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1936 September 18, The Humboldt Republican, The Office Cat, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Humboldt, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1936 October 1, The Bee, Scoop’s Colyum, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Bertrand Russell, Quote Page 174, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  7. 2003, Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters: 1963-1993 by Charles Bukowski, Edited by David Stephen Calonne, Charles Bukowski Interview by Alden Mills, (Originally published: “Charles Bukowski”, Alden Mills, Arete, July/August 1989, Pages 66-69, 73, 76-77), Start Page 240, Quote Page 244, Published by Sun Dog Press, Northville, Michigan. (Verified on paper)
  8. 2001 January 22, InfoWorld, Volume 23, Number 4, IS Survival Guide by Bob Lewis, (Epigraph of article), Quote Page 42, Column 1, Published by InfoWorld Media Group. (Google Books Full View) link

One thought on “The Best Lack All Conviction While the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity

  1. Garson O'Toole Post author

    On twitter @szescstopni and @EdDarrell both noted a connection between the topic of this entry and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Previously, Ed Darrell had written a relevant entry on his website:

    [Begin tweet excerpt from @EdDarrell]
    Dunning Kruger Effect. Many observed it, including Darwin, and Will Rogers, in addition to Russell: https://timpanogos.wordpress.com/dunning-kruger-effect/
    [End tweet from @EdDarrell]

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