You Can Avoid Reality, But You Cannot Avoid the Consequences of Avoiding Reality

Ayn Rand? Henry F. Cope? Josiah Stamp? Apocryphal?

atlas08Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an expression attributed to the influential and controversial novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand:

You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.

A student would like to use Rand’s words as a quotation for the high school yearbook, but the editors have asked for a proper source. This request for exact citations has been made to all the students as part of a longstanding yearbook tradition extolling accuracy. The saying has remained elusive despite the careful examination of multiple books and essays by Rand. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: In 1961 Ayn Rand spoke at a symposium titled “Ethics in Our Time” held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The paper Rand delivered contained a passage that partially matched the saying under examination. The semantics were similar, but the wording was distinct. For example, the phrase “evade reality” was employed instead of “avoiding reality”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see. Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.” Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction.

Perhaps the modern saying attributed to Rand was based on a paraphrase or summary of the text above. Alternatively, future researchers might someday locate a superior match.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1908 “The Oregon Sunday Journal” of Portland, Oregon published a column titled “Sentence Sermons” by Henry F. Cope. One of the compact didactic expressions displayed some points of similarity with the words attributed to Rand, but the topic in 1908 was dodging courts and not avoiding reality. In both cases, the projected consequences were going to be dire: 2

You may dodge the courts, but you cannot dodge the law of consequences.

In 1924 a filler item was printed in “The La Plata Republican” of La Plata, Missouri that warned about dodging responsibilities: 3

You can dodge responsibilities; but you cannot dodge the results of your dodging.

In 1928 “The Kingston Daily Freeman” of Kingston, New York published a column titled “Gems of Thought”, and an aphorism similar to the anonymous 1924 saying was credited to the industrialist and banker Josiah Stamp. The statement qualified as a weak precursor to the target quotation with a similar syntactic template: 4

It is easy to dodge responsibility, but you cannot dodge the consequences of dodging responsibility.
—Sir Josiah Stamp.

The adage above with an ascription to Stamp was widely disseminated during the ensuing decades, and it has continued to circulate in modern times.

In 1961 Ayn Rand delivered a paper at a Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin as noted at the beginning of this article. In 1964 Rand published a collection of essays titled “The Virtue of Selfishness”, and the first chapter was called “The Objectivist Ethics”. The passage below from this chapter was the same as the text in the 1961 paper: 5

He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see. Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.” Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction.

In 1968 “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life” printed an instance of the remark ascribed to Stamp: 6

It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.
— Sir Josiah Stamp

Ayn Rand died in 1982. In 2001 a book titled “The Right Course Vs. What’s Left” attributed the quotation being traced to Rand: 7

As stated by novelist Ayn Rand; “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” The final result has been a developing mob of streetfighters, of crudeness, crassness and cheapness.

In 2008 a periodical called “The Freeman” published an article about the Second Continental Congress in the United States. The author included the statement linked to Rand: 8

As author Ayn Rand would advise in another context nearly two centuries later, “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.”

In conclusion, the target quotation has not been located in the works of Ayn Rand. She did make remarks that were thematically similar by the 1960s. Weak precursors were circulating several decades before the 1960s. In an ideal world, a quotation ascribed to an author would be taken directly from an interview or from a work created by the author.

Image Notes: Photo of Atlas sculpture in New York City by sculptor Lee Lawrie. Photo by Michael Greene licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Reduced-size low-resolution image of book cover for “The Virtue of Selfishness”.

(Great thanks to Nina Gilbert whose inquiry on the Wombats mailing list led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Suzanne Watkins who located the 1961 paper on the aynrand.org website. All yearbook editors who request citations deserve praise for their dedication to accuracy.)

Notes:

  1. Website: Ayn Rand Lexicon, Article title: The Objectivist Ethics, Article author: Ayn Rand, Article description: “Paper delivered by Ayn Rand at the University of Wisconsin Symposium on ‘Ethics in Our Time’ in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 9, 1961”, Website description: Compilation of key statements from Ayn Rand (and from a few other authorized Objectivist texts). (Accessed aynrandlexicon.com on April 29, 2015) link
  2. 1908 May 31, The Oregon Sunday Journal (The Oregon Daily Journal), Sentence Sermons by Henry F. Cope, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Portland, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1924 October 23, La Plata Republican, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 6, La Plata, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1928 January 3, The Kingston Daily Freeman, Gems of Thought, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Kingston, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1964, The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, Chapter 1: The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand (1961), Start Page 13, Quote Page 24, Published by Signet: An Imprint of New American Library, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  6. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 217, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2001, The Right Course Vs. What’s Left by Richard Hewitt, Quote Page 157, Writers Club Press: An imprint of iUniverse.com, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Google Books Preview)
  8. Website: Foundation for Economic Education, Periodical: The Freeman, Date on website: March 01, 2008, Article: The Times that Tried Men’s Economic Souls, Article Subtitle: The Second Continental Congress Nearly Ruined a Fledgling Nation, Article Author: Lawrence W. Reed, Website Self-description: “FEE’s mission is to inspire, educate and connect future leaders with the economic, ethical and legal principles of a free society.” (Accessed fee.org/the_freeman on April 30, 2015) link