Category Archives: Charles Alexandre de Calonne

The Difficult We Do Immediately. The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

Charles Alexandre de Calonne? Lady Aberdeen? George Santayana? Fridtjof Nansen? Nicolas Beaujon? Baron de Breteuil? Mrs. William Tilton?

calonne16Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a family of entertaining sayings that cheerfully displays inordinate confidence:

1) If the thing be possible, it is already done; if impossible, it shall be done.

2) If it is simply difficult, it is done. If it is impossible, it shall be done.

3) The difference between the difficult and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer time.

4) The difficult is that which can be done immediately, the impossible that which takes a little longer.

5) The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.

These phrases have been linked to the French statesman Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the American essayist George Santayana, and the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a 1794 collection of tales titled “Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation”. The saying was ascribed to Charles Alexandre de Calonne who was the controversial Finance Minister for King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. Before the excerpt below had been published, the French Revolution had swept the King and Queen from power, and both had died on the guillotine in 1793. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When the queen asked Calonne for money, he more than once made use of this singular expression: If it is possible, madam, the affair is done; if it is impossible, it shall be done! Appropriate language for a French petit-maitre addressing his mistress, but not for a financier in whose hands was reposed the prosperity of an oppressed people!

The expression has been circulating and evolving for more than two hundred years. The popular novelist Anthony Trollope included an instance in his 1874 book “Phineas Redux” ascribing the words to a French Minister. Fridtjof Nansen spoke a version of the saying when he was a delegate to the League of Nations in 1925.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1794, Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation During the Last Thirty Years: Indicative of the French Revolution by Isaac Disraeli, Chapter: The Queen, Start Page 376, Quote Page 404, Printed for C. and G. Kearsley, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link