The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Warren Buffett? Samuel Johnson? Maria Edgeworth? Bertrand Russell? Anonymous?

edgeworth01Dear Quote Investigator: I recall seeing a lecture by the famed investor Warren Buffett during which he cautioned his audience to avoid falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. He used this eloquent analysis:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

While searching for a source I found some other versions of the statement. Here are two that are credited to the brilliant dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson:

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

I was unable to find a precise citation to Dr. Johnson’s works. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: Investor Warren Buffett did use this phrase more than once during speeches, but he did not claim credit for originating the saying. Detailed citations are given further below.

The expression has a long history, and the famous lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson did write a prolix passage that was transformed and simplified in an evolutionary process that ultimately produced the concise modern aphorism used by Buffett.

In 1748 Johnson published an allegorical fable about the path to the Temple of Happiness titled “The Vision of Theodore”. The story warned readers using a symbolic figure named Habit who would bind the unwary in chains. A bound individual would be taken to a grim destination called the caverns of Despair. The following excerpt displayed a conceptual match to the modern saying. In addition, Johnson used the phrase “too strong to be broken” which was retained in some modern instances. Boldface has been added below: 1

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

In the early 1800s an influential Irish writer named Maria Edgeworth crafted a compact version of the sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson. Her book “Moral Tales for Young People” (second edition 1806) included a story called “Forester”, and in one scene the title character picked up a pair of scissors and twirled them on his finger absentmindedly. The character believed that this habit was undesirable: 2

He was rather ashamed to perceive that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.

Maria Edgeworth placed a footnote asterisk after the phrase “chains of habit”, and in the footnote she referenced “Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.” Edgeworth’s concise summary statement was clearly derived from Johnson’s story, but her expression was distinctive and did not appear directly in the fable’s text. Her forthright acknowledgement of Johnson probably facilitated some later confusion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1748 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 18, “The Vision of Theodore, The Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (by Samuel Johnson), Start Page 159, Quote Page 160, Printed by E. Cave, St John’s Gate, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1806, Moral Tales For Young People by Miss Edgeworth (Maria Edgeworth), Volume 1, Second Edition, Forester, Quote Page 86, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link

It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

George Bernard Shaw? Bertrand Russell? Oscar Wilde? John H. Gibbons? Apocryphal? shawstats07

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is used by speakers who are planning to project a series of slides that are filled with statistics. The words are credited to the famous dramatist and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Here are two versions:

The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.

It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.

The second version was printed in the Congressional Record in 2008. I have been unable to identify the original source of this remark, and I think knowing the context is essential. Neither expression sounds like something that Bernard Shaw would say. But perhaps it was employed by a character in one of his plays, and the words were satirical. Could you examine this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the origin of this saying can be traced back to a book authored by another prominent intellectual. In 1926 Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and essayist, published “Education and the Good Life” which included a chapter titled “The Aims of Education”.

Russell listed four characteristics forming the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. Education, he believed, should develop and enhance these qualities. His discussion of sensitiveness included a phrase mentioning statistics. Boldface is used to highlight the phrase in the following: 1 2

The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.

The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.

The phrase about statistics was memorable, and in May 1926 the reviewer of Russell’s book in the New York Times selected the words and reprinted them: 3

Sensitiveness is the capacity for emotional response. Nor is there anything mawkish about it: “The emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate; mere intensity is not what is needed.” Sympathy, yes, but a discriminating sympathy. It should not only be refined, but extended by the intellect—even so far “as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics.”

In June 1926 Glenn Frank published an editorial calling for action against the high rate of illiteracy in the United States. Frank was the President of the University of Wisconsin and the former editor of Century Magazine. His piece mentioned Russell’s remark about statistics: 4

As Bertrand Russell has suggested, the test of the quality of our sympathy comes when we are called upon to aid suffering or need when the needy one is neither an object of special affection nor sensibly present.
Are we great enough to be “moved emotionally by statistics?”
I do not know a statistical figure that is freighted with more human drama than this: 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.

The citations below trace the evolution of the quotation over the decades. For many years, different iterations of the saying were credited to Bertrand Russell, but curiously the expression was reassigned to George Bernard Shaw by 1981. Both men were noteworthy intellectuals residing in England, and they had overlapping life spans. QI believes that the similarity of names “Bernard” and “Bertrand” facilitated the mistaken transition of the attribution to Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1926, Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell, The Aims of Education, Start Page 47, Quote Page 71, Liveright Publishing Group, New York. (Reprint created after 1954 renewal of copyright) (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell: 1903-1959, Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, The Aims of Education, Start Page 413, Quote Page 423, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1926 May 30, New York Times, Bertrand Russell Depicts the Intelligent Radical: He Offers New Lamps for Old in a Scheme for Educating the Post-War Child by Evans Clark (Review of “Education and the Good Life” by Bertrand Russell), Page BR7, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1926 June 3, Washington Post, Let’s Read and Write by 1930 by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

The Universe Is Full of Magical Things Patiently Waiting for Our Wits to Grow Sharper

Bertrand Russell? William Butler Yeats? Eden Phillpotts? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I adore the following quotation which is attributed to the philosopher Bertrand Russell:

The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

But recently I saw a different version in which two words had been changed:

The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

This saying was credited to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Now my confidence that either of these prominent intellectuals fashioned this quote has been diminished. Can you clear up the confusion?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Russell or Yeats created this saying. QI believes that the original statement was crafted by an English author and playwright named Eden Phillpotts who used the word “universe” instead of “world” [SPEP]:

The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

The best-known works by Phillpotts were part of a series set in Dartmoor, England. He was praised for writing convincing West Country dialect, sympathetic rural characters, and accurate descriptions of topography. He also wrote a popular and long-running play called “The Farmer’s Wife” [OXEP].

The quote appeared in a 1919 book titled “A Shadow Passes” that contained a collection of vignettes depicting scenes in nature. Phillpotts noted that a magnifying lens could heighten visual acuity such that the perceived beauty of some plants would be enhanced. The passage that included the saying was about the plant species Menyanthes trifoliate which is commonly known as buckbean [SPEP]:

In the marshes the buckbean has lifted its feathery mist of flower spikes above the bed of trefoil leaves. The fimbriated flowers are a miracle of workmanship and every blossom exhibits an exquisite disorder of ragged petals finer than lace. But one needs a lens to judge of their beauty: it lies hidden from the power of our eyes, and menyanthes must have bloomed and passed a million times before there came any to perceive and salute her loveliness. The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

The phrase “wits to grow sharper” referred to the development of sufficient knowledge by mankind to create and use a magnifying lens to reveal the splendor of the buckbean. Phillpotts was suggesting that there are many other “magical things” that will be revealed in the future as our knowledge and capabilities grow.

This post continues with the conclusion, acknowledgment, and bibliographical notes.

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Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable [WJBR]:

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum” [OHNY]:

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879 [OHMT]:

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Now We’re Just Haggling Over the Price

George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Groucho Marx? Max Aitken? Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Bertrand Russell?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous story about sex and money that I have heard in myriad variations. A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?

He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

This joke is retold with different famous individuals filling the roles. Often Bernard Shaw is mentioned. Did anything like this ever happen? Who was involved?

Quote Investigator: The role of the character initiating the proposal in this anecdote has been assigned to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson and others. However, the earliest example of this basic story found by QI did not spotlight any of the persons just listed. In addition, the punch line was phrased differently.

In January 1937 the syndicated newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre printed a version of the anecdote that he says was sent to him as a newspaper clipping. This tale featured a powerful Canadian-British media magnate and politician named Max Aitken who was also referred to as Lord Beaverbrook [MJLB]:

Someone sends me a clipping from Columnist Lyons with this honey:

“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ She said she would. ‘And if be paid you five pounds?’ The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”

Note that this newspaper version does not use the blunt phrase “sleep with”. Instead, a more oblique expression, “live with”, is employed to conform to the conventions of the period.

Top-researcher Barry Popik has performed very valuable work tracing this tale, and we have incorporated some of his discoveries in this article. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

John Lennon? Bertrand Russell? Laurence J. Peter? Marthe Troly-Curtin?

russelllennon06Dear Quote Investigator: I like to enjoy life and sometimes I am criticized for spending too much time on amusements and diversions. My favorite response is attributed to the legendary free-spirit John Lennon:

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

An acquaintance told me recently that the saying is actually from the brilliant philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. It is clear that you enjoy tracing quotations, so could you please look into this one? I am certain you will not be wasting your time.

Quote Investigator: In addition to John Lennon and Bertrand Russell, the saying has been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Soren Kierkegaard, Laurence J. Peter, and others. The attribution to Russell was a mistake that was caused by the misreading of an entry in a quotation book compiled by Peter. The details of this error are given further below in this post.

The first instance of the phrase located by QI was published in 1912, a year that occurred before Laurence J. Peter and John Lennon were born. The expression appeared in the book “Phrynette Married” by Marthe Troly-Curtin. This novel was part of a series by Troly-Curtin that began with “Phrynette” in 1911. The image to the left is the frontispiece of this earlier novel. 1 An advertisement in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine grandly proclaimed that “Phrynette” was “The Most Talked-About Book in London Today” in July 1911. 2

In the following excerpt from “Phrynette Married” a character is reproved for wasting the time and energy of others: 3 4

“… Your father, for instance, don’t you think he would have done three times as much work if it had not been for your—what shall I say—’bringing up’?”
“He liked it—time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
“Oh, but it was in his case—wasted for him and for many lovers of art.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1911, Phrynette‎ by Marthe Troly-Curtin, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. July 1911, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Section: Lippincott’s Magazine Advertiser: [Advertisement for Phrynette by Marthe Troly-Curtin], Page not numbered, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. (HathiTrust) link  link
  3. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Grant Richards Ltd, London; Riverside Press, Edinburgh. (Google Books snippet view) (Thanks to Eric at the Stanford University Information Center for verification of the text on paper) link
  4. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, Canada. (Note that a flaw is present in the digital image of the microfilm image of page 256; some words are repeated)(Internet Archive archive.org; digitized from University of Alberta Libraries Microfilm; accessed December 3, 2013) link