Category Archives: Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle

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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Notes:

  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)

Ah, Would That I Were Only 80 Years Old!

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Samuel Rogers? Walter Besant? Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Georges Clemenceau?

fontenelle07Dear Quote Investigator: An amusing remark about longevity and libido has been ascribed to septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians. A venerable gentleman was sitting on a park bench with a friend, and he gazed at a beautiful woman who walked by them. He turned to his companion and said one of the following:

1) Oh, to be sixty again!
2) Ah! To be seventy again, with thirty years more to live!
3) Ah! What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!
4) If I could only be eighty once more.

This type of comment has been attributed to the French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, the English poet Samuel Rogers, and the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1813 a collection of letters was published under the title “Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique”. A letter dated February 1, 1757 discussed Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and his place in the exclusive salons of France. Fontenelle had died during the previous month when he was 99 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Sans sa surdité qui l’empêchait de prendre part à la conversation, il eût été aussi agréable dans la société qu’il l’avait été à l’âge de trente ans. Il disait, il n’y a pas longtemps à une jeune femme, pour lui faire sentir l’impression que sa beauté faisait sur lui: Ah! si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans.

Here’s one possible translation into English:

If his deafness hadn’t kept him from participating in conversation, he would have been as pleasant in society as he was at the age of 30. Not long ago he said to a young woman, to show her how impressed he was by her beauty, “Ah, would that I were only 80 years old!”

The remark above was the earliest instance in this family located by QI. During the 1800s, 1900s, and 2000s the expression was often ascribed to Fontenelle though the precise phrasing and circumstances varied. QI conjectures that other members in the family were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Fontenelle.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1813, Title: Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique: Adressée à Un Souverain d’Allemagne, depuis 1753 jusqu’en 1769, Part 1, Volume 2, Letter Date: 1er Février 1757 (February 1, 1757), Letter Location: Paris, Start Page 147, Quote Page 151 and 152, Publisher: Longchamps, F. Buisson, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous There Is But One Step

Napoleon Bonaparte? Thomas Paine? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Thomas Warton? Pierre-Jacques Changeux? James Joyce? Mark Twain?

paine09Dear Quote Investigator: Aesthetic evaluations are sometimes complex and contradictory. A well-known saying reflects this unstable nature. Here are two versions:

1) The sublime is only a step removed from the ridiculous.
2) From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step.

This expression has been linked to the military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, activist and revolutionist Thomas Paine, literary modernist James Joyce, and humorist Mark Twain. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match for this saying located by QI appeared in French in a 1777 collection of philosophical thoughts titled “Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques”. The words were attributed to the prominent author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Du sublime au ridicule, disait Fontenelle, il n’y a qu’un pas: de la raillerie à l’insulte il y en a encore moins.

Here is one possible translation into English:

From the sublime to the ridiculous, said Fontenelle, it is only one step: from raillery to insult there is even less.

Fontenelle died in 1757, two decades before the book’s publication. Hence, this citation did not provide strong evidence of a linkage, but it did show that the expression was in circulation in French by 1777.

Each of the writers mentioned by the questioner has employed this saying and precise citations are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1777, Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques, Statement Number 264 (CCLXIV), Quote Page 75, Published by Marc-Michel Rey, Amsterdam. (Google Books Full View) link