Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity

Albert Einstein? Frederick S. Perls? Anonymous? A Great Astronomer?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained three quotations that are usually attributed to Einstein. Are these quotes accurate? I am particularly interested in the second quotation:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about th’universe!

Did Einstein really say that?

Quote Investigator: Probably not, but there is some evidence, and QI can tell you why the quote is attributed to Einstein. The story begins in the 1940s when the influential Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls wrote a book titled “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.”

This book contains the earliest version of the quotation that QI has located. It occurs in a chapter called “Hunger Instinct”:[ref] 1947, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method by Frederick S. Perls, Page 111, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. (Verified on paper in 1947 London edition. An earlier edition was published in 1942 in Durban, South Africa; QI has not checked the 1942 edition.) link[/ref]

Furthermore, this impatient, greedy attitude is responsible more than anything else for the excessive stupidity we find in the world. Just as such people have no patience to chew up real food, so they do not take sufficient time to “chew up” mental food.

As modern times promote hasty eating to a large extent, it is not surprising to learn that a great astronomer said: “Two things are infinite, as far as we know – the universe and human stupidity.” To-day we know that this statement is not quite correct. Einstein has proved that the universe is limited.

The quote is attributed to “a great astronomer.” The theories of Einstein did have important astronomical implications, but it is odd to label him an astronomer. Also, the subsequent comment by Perls depicts Einstein’s results disagreeing with the quotation. However, it is conceivable that Perls is referring to Einstein. On page 86 of the book Perls discusses astronomy and credits Einstein with advances in the field:[ref] 1947, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method by Frederick S. Perls, Page 111, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. (Verified on paper in 1947 London edition. An earlier edition was published in 1942 in Durban, South Africa; QI has not checked the 1942 edition.) link[/ref]

Freud has shifted the orientation of our personal existence from the periphery of consciousness to the Unconscious, just as Galileo dethroned the Earth from the centre of the Universe. And just as astronomy—having to acknowledge ever more “fixed points”  and systems as merely relatively “absolute”—had previously taken  its  stand  on  the  conception  of  the  ether,  so  Freud  created his  libido-theory.  …

An observation of Leverrier gave Einstein the basis for exploding the phantasy of the ether.

The first citation is arguably ambiguous or misleading. However, in later books Perls unambiguously attributes the saying to Einstein. Two books were published by Perls in 1969, and the following excerpt is from “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”. Note that  Perls has simplified the original quote by deleting the phrase “as far as we know”:[ref] 1969, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim by Frederick S. Perls, Page 33, Real People Press, Lafayette, California. (Verified on paper in 1969 edition) link[/ref]

As Albert Einstein once said to me: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.” But what is much more widespread than the actual stupidity is the playing stupid, turning off your ear, not listening, not seeing.

Also in 1969 Perls published “In and Out the Garbage Pail” which is labeled a “novel autobiography” in an advertising blurb in “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”. The quotation presented in this work is a new extended version. The tagline included at the end brings this statement closer to the one that cartoonist Bill Griffith uses in the Zippy comic:[ref] 1969, In and Out the Garbage Pail by Frederick S. Perls, Page 52 (Pages are not numbered in this 1969 edition. The number 52 was obtained manually counting), Real People Press, Lafayette, California. (Verified on paper in 1969 edition)[/ref]

I spent one afternoon with Albert Einstein: unpretentiousness, warmth, some false political predictions. I soon lost my self-consciousness, a rare treat for me at that time. I still love to quote a statement of his: “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.”

As an aside, the notion that human stupidity is unlimited has a long history. An entertaining precursor statement written in French appeared in volume 2 of the “Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle” (Great Universal Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century) within an entry for “Bêtise” (Stupidity). This volume was published circa 1865, and the quotation was credited to Alexandre Dumas:[ref] Circa 1865, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle: Français, Historique, Géographique, Mythologique, Bibliographique, etcetera, Volume 2, Entry: Bêtise, Quote Page 650, Column 1, Published by Pierre Larousse, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Une chose qui m’humilie profondément est de voir que le génie humain a des limites, quand la bêtise humaine n’en a pas. (Alex. Dum.)

Here is one possible translation into English:

One thing that humbles me deeply is to see that human genius has its limits while human stupidity does not.

A separate QI article tracing the Dumas attributed statement is available here.

In conclusion, this quotation has evolved over time in the books of Frederick S. Perls. A sub-phrase was deleted and a sub-phrase was added. Also, the initial attribution in 1947 is not very clear. The accuracy of the saying apparently depends on the mutable memory of Perls.

(This question was inspired by a posting on the ADS list from linguist Arnold Zwicky. Thanks to Jesse M. and Garry Apgar who highlighted the connection to other jokes asserting that human stupidity has no limits which led QI to add the 1865 citation for a quip attributed to Dumas together with a crosslink to an existing QI article.)

Update History: On January 5, 2019 the 1865 citation was added together with a link to the separate QI article on the topic. In addition, the bibliographic notes were changed to a numeric style.

7 replies on “Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity”

  1. Pingback: Infinite Regression(?) « The New Print
  2. I have a doubt about this Einstein quote, I don’t know if its true or not, I hope you can help me with this:

    “As a young man, my fondest dream was to become an Geographer However while working in the field, I thought deeply about the matter and concluded that it was far too difficult a subject. With some reluctance I then turned to Physics as a substitute” – Albert Einstein

  3. Great article, Ken! Thank you for locating it and sharing it with fellow readers of this blog.
    Kuddos: The link above should answer your inquiry.

  4. Nice job, I was just doing my own research on this on google books for Einstein’s wikiquote page, came across two of the quotes from Perls and then found this article which is very helpful. I also discovered that a very similar quote was attributed to the French philosopher Ernest Renan at earlier dates…this book from 1915 says “He quotes the saying of Renan: it isn’t the stars that give him an idea of infinity; it is man’s stupidity.” Various books claim the original French version is “La bêtise humaine est la seule chose qui donne une idée de l’infini” (which doesn’t mention the stars), though this one from 1904 and this one from 1903 give it as “Ce n’est pas l’immensité de la vôute étoilée qui peut donner le plus complétement l’ideé de l’infini, mais bien la bêtise humaine!” which translates roughly to “it is not the starry sky that can give the most complete idea of the infinite, but human stupidity!” But none of the sources that attribute it to Renan say where it can be found in his writings, so I would guess this is just an earlier false attribution! Even earlier then these I found the book “Des vers” by Guy de Maupassant, which says on p. 9 that it’s from 1880, which also has a quote from a letter by Gustav Flaubert on p. 21, “Cependant, qui sait? La terre a des limites, mais la bêtise humaine est infinie!” which translates to “But who knows? The earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is infinite!” It may just be an old cliché rather than something Flaubert invented, this page which is also dated 1880 but is from a different author says something similar (“Aujourd’hui je sais qu’il n’y a pas de limites à la bêtise humaine, qu’elle est infinie” or “today I know that there is no limit to human stupidity, it is infinite”).

  5. Jesse M.:Thank you very much for visiting the blog and sharing those valuable citations.

  6. I agree with the Investigator: the “Two Things Are Infinite” quote is probably NOT coming from Einstein.

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