I Prefer an Injurious Truth To a Useful Error. Truth Heals Any Pain It May Inflict On Us

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Mann? André Gide? Arthur Koestler? Garrett Hardin? Horace Mann? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes a truthful statement can undermine a cherished belief and provide comfort to an adversary. Thus, it is tempting to embrace an untruthful statement that provides temporary solace. Yet, accepting uncomfortable truths leads to personal growth, whereas accepting errors and lies fails terribly over time. Here are three instances from a family of sayings:

  • An injurious truth is better than a useful error.
  • A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
  • A destructive truth is preferable to a constructive error.

These expressions have been attributed to two prominent German literary figures Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1787 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a letter to Charlotte von Stein which included a discussion of this concept. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Es ist nichts groß als das Wahre und das kleinste Wahre ist groß. Ich kam neulich auf einen Gedancken der mich sagen ließ: auch eine schädliche Wahrheit ist nützlich, weil sie nur Augenblicke schädlich seyn kann und alsdann zu andern Wahrheiten führt, die immer nützlich und sehr nützlich werden müßen und umgekehrt ist ein nützlicher Irrthum schädlich weil er es nur augenblicklich seyn kann und in andre Irrthümer verleitet die immer schädlicher werden.

Translator Heinz Norden rendered the above passage into English for the book “Goethe’s World View” in 1963: 2

Nothing is great but truth, and the smallest truth is great. The other day I had a thought, which I put like this: Even a harmful truth is useful, for it can be harmful only for the moment and will lead to other truths, which must always become useful, very much so. Conversely, even a useful error is harmful, for it can be useful only for the moment, enticing us into other errors, which become more and more harmful.

Goethe formulated a more compact version of this idea which was reprinted in “Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung” (“General Literature Newspaper”) in 1801: 3

Schädliche Wahrheit, ich ziehe sie vor dem nützlichen Irrthum;
Wahrheit heilet den Schmerz, den sie vielleicht uns erregt.

Penguin Books published an English translation of the above statements in 1964: 4

I prefer an injurious truth to a useful error.
Truth heals any pain it may inflict on us.

Below are additional selected citations and comments.

Continue reading I Prefer an Injurious Truth To a Useful Error. Truth Heals Any Pain It May Inflict On Us

Notes:

  1. 1902, Title: Goethe-Briefe: Mit Einleitungen und Erläuterungen, (Goethe’s Letters: With Introductions and Explanations), Volume 3: Wiemar und Italien 1784-1792, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Editor: Philipp Stein, (Letter dated June 8, 1787 from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Charlotte von Stein), Start Page: 163, Quote Page: 165, Publisher: von Otto Eisner, Berlin (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1963, Goethe’s World View: Presented in His Reflections and Maxims by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Edited with an Introduction by Frederick Ungar, Translated by Heinz Norden, (Untitled passage), Quote Page 72 and 73, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1801 January, Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (General Literature Newspaper), Number 2, Schöne Künste (Fine Arts): (Review of Göthe’s neue Schriften: 1795-1800 (Göthe’s new writings)), Quote Number 50, Start Column 9, Quote Column 15, Jena, in der Expedition dieser Zeitung. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1986 (1964 Copyright), Goethe Selected Verse, Introduced and Edited by David Luke, Section: Vier Jahreszeiten (The Four Seasons), Quote Page 130, Penguin Classics: Penguin Books, New York. Verified with scans)

What We Have Once Enjoyed We Can Never Lose . . . All That We Love Deeply Becomes a Part of Us

Helen Keller? Anne Sullivan? Sherokee Ilse? Kathy R. Floyd? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The loss of a companion is heartbreaking. The following viewpoint has provided solace to many:

What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.

These words have been attributed to the deaf-blind social activist Helen Keller, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1929 Helen Keller published the book “We Bereaved” for individuals experiencing grief. The passage below contains two sentences that overlap the statement under investigation, and QI conjectures that these sentences were altered over time to yield the modern statement. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. A sunset, a mountain bathed in moonlight, the ocean in calm and in storm—we see these, love their beauty, hold the vision to our hearts. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.

Interestingly, Keller decided to communicate the idea of the enduring presence of the departed via a passage filled with visual imagery.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What We Have Once Enjoyed We Can Never Lose . . . All That We Love Deeply Becomes a Part of Us

Notes:

  1. 1929, We Bereaved by Helen Keller, Quote Page 2, Leslie Fulenwider Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

There Is Nothing in This World That Someone Cannot Make a Little Worse and Sell a Little Cheaper

John Ruskin? J. A. Richards? The Pure Food Store? White Star Company? Percy D. Hagan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to manufacture an item using inferior materials and sell it at a cheaper price than a quality item. The buyer who is foolishly guided by price alone becomes the lawful prey of the seller. The famous English art critic John Ruskin has received credit for eloquently expressing this point. Oddly, I have never seen a proper citation supporting the attribution to Ruskin. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the February 1901 issue of “Profitable Advertising: The Advertiser’s Trade Journal”. A correspondent named J. A. Richards of New York sent a letter of disagreement to the journal editor who had advocated the display of prices within advertisements. Richards believed that a focus on prices was undesirable for the sellers of quality goods. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

While you talk about the quality of your wares, you have your cheaper competitor where he cannot touch you. The breach between you is longer than his arm. When you begin to talk about prices, you are absolutely at his mercy. There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey. This is the doctrine of commercial foreordination, against which it is useless to contend.

Based on current evidence QI tentatively credits J. A. Richards with the saying in the bold text above. Yet, it remains possible that Richards was repeating a formulation that was already in circulation.

John Ruskin died in January 1900.  Numerous researchers have been unable to find this expression in his writings. He received credit by October 1926, but the long delay meant that the linkage was very weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Is Nothing in This World That Someone Cannot Make a Little Worse and Sell a Little Cheaper

Notes:

  1. 1901 February, Profitable Advertising: The Advertiser’s Trade Journal, Volume 10, Number 9, Section: From “P.A’s” Point of View, (Excerpt from a letter to the editor written J. A. Richards of New York), Quote Page 636, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link

A Hero Is No Braver Than an Ordinary Person, But the Hero Is Brave Five Minutes Longer

Marcel Proust? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lord Palmerston? Duke of Wellington? Japanese Proverb? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The difference between demonstrating bravery and cowardice can be surprisingly small. Perseverance under extreme duress can lead to success. Here are three instances from a family of sayings about heroism and tenacity:

  1. A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
  2. Victory is on the side that can hold out a quarter of an hour longer than the other.
  3. The conquering soldier is not braver than the soldiers of other countries, but he is brave ten minutes longer.

This saying has been attributed to the transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British military leader Arthur Wellesley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the May 1878 issue of a London periodical called the “Temple Bar”. An unnamed author penned a statement above bravery which was prefaced with a remark about success in the sport of fencing. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

If you can hit a man two inches farther than he can hit you, you are, in the truthful language of the “Fancy,” his better man physically. ‘Tis the same morally: all men are brave, but if one man is brave two minutes longer than the other he has a decided advantage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Hero Is No Braver Than an Ordinary Person, But the Hero Is Brave Five Minutes Longer

Notes:

  1. 1878 May, Temple Bar: A London Magazine, Volume 53, Sticks, Stocks and Stones: Arma Virumque Cano, Start Page 50, Quote Page 54, Richard Bentley & Son, London.(Google Books Full View) link

You May Humbug the Town for Some Time Longer as a Tragedian; But Comedy Is a Serious Thing

David Garrick? Thomas Campbell? George Colman? John Simon? Wesley Ruggles? W. C. Fields? Carlotta Monti? Penelope Keith? Rex Harrison? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comedy is often lighthearted; hence, it is counter-intuitive to view it as a serious business, yet the creators and participants of humorous works face a harsh and crowded entertainment market; they must energetically support their projects. Here are three versions of a Hollywood adage:

  • Comedy is a serious matter.
  • Comedy is a serious business.
  • Comedy is a serious thing.

An extended version has been employed by thespians:

Any fool can play tragedy; but comedy is a damned serious business.

The popular eighteenth-century English actor David Garrick has received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest semantic match to the full statement located by QI appeared in an 1834 biography of the prominent actress Sarah Siddons titled “Life of Mrs. Siddons” by Thomas Campbell. Siddons knew many fellow actors including David Garrick and John Bannister, and the book recounted a conversation between those two. Bannister had achieved success playing roles in tragedies, and he was contemplating broadening his repertoire to include comic characters. In the following passage the phrase “English Roscius” referred to Garrick who tried to dissuade Bannister. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At another interview, he ventured to tell the English Roscius that he had some thoughts of attempting comedy. “Eh, eh?” said Garrick, “why no, don’t think of that, you may humbug the town for some time longer as a tragedian; but comedy is a serious thing, so don’t try it yet.” Bannister, however, attempted comedy; and his Don Whiskerandos (as he himself says) laughed his tragedy out of fashion.

As indicated above Bannister disregarded Garrick’s advice and achieved additional fame by playing the comical character Don Whiskerandos in the satire “The Critic” by the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

This exchange between Bannister and Garrick was described by Campbell many years after the death of Garrick in 1779; hence, its credibility is reduced.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You May Humbug the Town for Some Time Longer as a Tragedian; But Comedy Is a Serious Thing

Notes:

  1. 1834, Life of Mrs. Siddons by Thomas Campbell, Volume 2, Chapter 4, (Footnote), Quote Page 113, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. (Google Books Full View) link

I Destroy My Enemies When I Make Them My Friends

Abraham Lincoln? Emperor Sigismund? Martin Luther King? Loretta Young? Mark Twain? Cardinal Richelieu? Robert Jones Burdette? John Wooden? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The leader of a victorious group decided to treat the vanquished people with compassion. Critics of the leader were unhappy because they believed that the enemies deserved destruction. Here are three versions of the response:

  • The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.
  • I will slay my enemies by making them my friends.
  • The only safe and sure way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.

This saying has been attributed to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this anecdote located by QI appeared in a Bellows Falls, Vermont newspaper in April 1818. The word “reproaching” should have been “reproached” in the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The Emperor Sigismund was reproaching for rewarding instead destroying his enemies, as by that means he gave them an opportunity to injure him. “What!” said the noble minded monarch, “do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends.”

Sigismund died in 1437, and the long delay before this tale appeared reduces its credibility. A similar anecdote was told by the 1940s about Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865. The delay suggests that this story was also apocryphal.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Destroy My Enemies When I Make Them My Friends

Notes:

  1. 1818 April 6, Vermont Intelligencer, Anecdotes, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Bellows Falls, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)

Nothing Is Certain, Except Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin? Mark Twain? Christopher Bullock? Edward Ward? Daniel Defoe? Joseph Reed? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The due date of U.S. income taxes has been moved from April 2020 to July 2020 because of the pandemic. Thus, the payment of taxes has been delayed, but payment remains inevitable. Here are four versions of a pertinent saying:

  • Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.
  • Nothing stands fixed, but death and taxes.
  • Nothing can be depended on but taxes and death.
  • It’s impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes.

The U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin and the humorist Mark Twain have received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin did employ this saying within a letter dated November 13, 1789 which he wrote to the French physicist Jean Baptiste Le Roy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Many years before Franklin’s usage, the expression appeared in a 1716 farce called “The Cobler of Preston” by Christopher Bullock. The word “cobbler” was spelled “cobler”, and the word “lie” was spelled “lye” within the play. The quip was spoken by a character named Toby Guzzle who was described as “a drunken Cobler”. Here is an excerpt from the fourth edition of the play published in 1723: 2

You lye, you are not sure; for I say, Woman, ’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes—therefore hold your Tongue, or you shall both be soundly whipt . . .

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nothing Is Certain, Except Death and Taxes

Notes:

  1. 1817, The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, Published from the Originals by His Grandson William Temple Franklin, Second Edition, Volume 1 of 2, Letter Title: On the Affairs of France, Letter Date: November 13, 1789, Letter From: Benjamin Franklin, Letter To: Jean Baptiste Le Roy, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Printed for Henry Colburn, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1723, The Cobler of Preston and the Adventures of Half an Hour, As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, Written by Mr. Christopher Bullock, The Fourth Edition, Character Speaking: Toby Guzzle (a drunken Cobler), Quote Page 13, Printed for T. Corbett, and Sold by Mr. Graves, London. (A facsimile published in 1969 by Cornmarket Press from the copy in the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, London) (Verified with scans)

The Smallest Good Deed Is Better Than the Grandest Good Intention

Oscar Wilde? Jacques Joseph Duguet? Claude Joseph Dorat? Henry Ward Beecher? Gaspard Dughet? H. Jackson Brown? John Burroughs? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Hoping and dreaming are not enough; taking action is crucial. Here are two pertinent statements:

  • The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.
  • The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.

Would you please examine this family of sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1863 within the French journal “Le Magasin Pittoresque” (“The Picturesque Store”) . A filler item stated the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Ne préférez jamais une grande bonne intention à une petite bonne action. UN AUTEUR ANGLAIS.

Here is one possible translation into English:

Never prefer a great good intention to a small good action.
AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.

The attribution did not specify the name of the English author, and QI would label the source anonymous based on current knowledge.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Smallest Good Deed Is Better Than the Grandest Good Intention

Notes:

  1. 1863, Le Magasin Pittoresque (The Picturesque Store), Volume 31, (Filler item), Quote Page 396, Column 1, Aux Bureaux D’Abonnement et de Vente, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link

The Brain Is Merely a Meat Machine

Marvin Minsky? Joseph Weizenbaum? Pamela McCorduck? Edward Fredkin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Within computer science the discipline of artificial intelligence (AI) is focused on analyzing and constructing entities that display advanced cognitive behaviors. These entities are designed to learn, solve problems, and achieve goals. Critics of the field contend that machines cannot embody genuine intelligence and understanding. An advocate of machine intelligence apparently formulated the following provocative retort:

The brain is merely a meat machine.

Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: In May 1972 M.I.T. computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum published a piece in the journal “Science” titled “On the Impact of the Computer on Society”. Weizenbaum believed that retaining the autonomy, freedom, and dignity of humans was essential to civilization. He also thought that the advent of advanced computer systems need not undermine the perceived worth of human life. Yet, he feared that the elevation of crude and over-simplified computer models of human behavior such as those developed by the 1970s might damage societal values. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The possibility that the computer will, one way or another, demonstrate that, in the inimitable phrase of one of my esteemed colleagues, “the brain is merely a meat machine” is one that engages academicians, industrialists, and journalists in the here and now. How has the computer contributed to bringing about this very sad state of affairs? It must be said right away that the computer alone is not the chief causative agent.

In the passage above from 1972, Weizenbaum did not name the author of the quotation; however, many years later when he was near the end of his life he wrote an article for the journal “IEEE Annals of the History of Computing” in which he ascribed the remark to colleague Marvin Minsky: 2

Perhaps the most (in)famous and illustrious American computer scientist and acknowledged principal pioneer of the discipline now known as artificial intelligence (AI), Professor Marvin Minsky of MIT, once pronounced—a belief he still holds—that “the brain is merely a meat machine.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Brain Is Merely a Meat Machine

Notes:

  1. 1972 May 12, Science, Volume 176, Number 4035, On the Impact of the Computer on Society by Joseph Weizenbaum, Start Page 609, Quote Page 610, Column 3, American Association for the Advancement of Science. (JSTOR) link
  2. 2008 July-September, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 30, Number 3, Social and Political Impact of the Long-term History of Computing by Joseph Weizenbaum, Start Page 40, Quote Page 41, published by IEEE Computer Society, New York. (IEEE Xplore Digital Library)

Freedom Lies In Being Bold

Robert Frost? Anita Brookner? Thucydides? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous poet Robert Frost enjoyed socializing with people who had strong personalities. He highlighted a connection between freedom and boldness. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In December 1952 “The New Yorker” magazine published a piece by Philip Hamburger who presented statements made by Robert Frost during an interview broadcast on the NBC television network. The ellipses below appeared in the original text. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“I don’t care about spending much time with people who haven’t a definite personality. I am that kind of an equalitarian. I like to mix with my equals, people who have as much personality as I have … but the great thing is taut boldness. … People … will tell you that freedom lies in being cautious.” Here he violently shook his head. “Freedom lies in being bold.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Freedom Lies In Being Bold

Notes:

  1. 1952 December 13, The New Yorker, Television: Men of Faith by Philip Hamburger, Start Page 167, Quote Page 169, The New Yorker Magazine Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)