Category Archives: Sydney Smith

Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

smith10Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

You Cannot Reason People Out of Something They Were Not Reasoned Into

Jonathan Swift? Fisher Ames? Lyman Beecher? Jonathan Farr? Samuel Hanson Cox? Sydney Smith? Sidney Smith? Ben Goldacre?

maze09Dear Quote Investigator: Jonathan Swift was a prominent literary figure who authored “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”. He has been credited with an elegant thought about the limitations of persuasion via logical argument:

You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.

I have not found a convincing citation for the words above, and similar expressions have been ascribed to Sydney Smith, Fisher Ames, and many others. For example, a recent book titled “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre presented this version: 1

You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1721 a slim volume titled “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality” was published. The author was Jonathan Swift, and the following salient phrase was included: 2

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired

QI conjectures that Swift’s words initiated an efflorescence of related expressions with varying ascriptions such as:

1786: Men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into. (Fisher Ames)

1795: Reasoning will never make a man correct an opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1804: As they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. (Fisher Ames)

1823: How little ground there can be to hope that men may be reasoned out of their errours, when in fact they were never reasoned into them. (Lyman Beecher)

1831: What is not reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Jonathan Farr)

1833: He cannot be reasoned out of error, if he was not at first reasoned into it! (Samuel Hanson Cox)

1838: What men are not reasoned into they will not be reasoned out of.

1852: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never was reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1852: We may never reason a man out of an opinion which he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1865: You cannot reason a man out of what he never reasoned himself into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1869: What has not been reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Attributed to Sydney Smith)

1881: Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was never reasoned into him and it never can be reasoned out of him. (Attributed to Sidney Smith)

1885: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of anything he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

The evolution of the expression has continued up to modern times. QI believes that most of the statements ascribed to Jonathan Swift over the decades have been inaccurate. The correct version appeared in the key 1721 citation which was identified by top researcher Stephen Goranson.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 2010, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre, Section: Preface, Quote Page xii, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1721, A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality (Jonathan Swift), Second Edition, (Letter Dated January 9, 1720), Quote Page 27, Printed for J. Roberts at the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link