Voltaire? Niccolò Machiavelli? Wilson Mizner? Dying Irishman? Canny Scot? Aging Rock Star? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: While reading speeches given by Nobel Prize recipients I came across an entertaining anecdote about Voltaire from the eminent economist Robert E. Lucas: 1
When Voltaire was dying, in his eighties, a priest in attendance called upon him to renounce the devil. Voltaire considered his advice, but decided not to follow it. “This is no time,” he said, “to be making new enemies”. In this same spirit, I offer my thanks and good wishes to the Bank of Sweden, to the Nobel Committee, and to everyone involved in this wonderful occasion.
Reports of deathbed pronouncements are notoriously inaccurate, and the speaker was probably knowingly presenting a lighthearted fanciful tale. I have heard the same story told about the famous political schemer Niccolò Machiavelli. Could you explore this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke known to QI was published in April 1856, and the person lying on the deathbed was not famous. The jocular tale was told in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper and featured a generic Irishman: 2
You remind me of a dying Irishman, who was asked by his confessor if he was ready to renounce the devil and his works ‘Oh, your honor,’ said Pat, ‘don’t ask me that; I’m going into a strange country, and I don’t want to make myself enemies!’
This popular account was printed in multiple newspapers and periodicals in the following years, e.g., The Nebraskian of Omaha, Nebraska in August 1856; 3 the Boston Investigator of Boston, Massachusetts in August 1856; 4 the Chicago Daily Tribune of Chicago, Illinois in July 1857; 5 and the Saturday Evening Post of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in March 1860. 6
Over the decades the identity of the main character has shifted between: an Irishman, a Scotsman, Wilson Mizner, Voltaire, Niccolò Machiavelli, an aging rock luminary, and others.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1870 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published a version in which the response of the Irishman was phrased slightly differently: 7
A dying Irishman was asked by his confessor if he was ready to renounce the devil and all his works. “Oh, your honor,” said Pat, “don’t ask me that; I am going to a strange country, and I don’t intend to make myself enemies.”
In 1888 a newspaper in Shanghai, China presented a version of the jape using dialectical spelling: 8
A dying man was recommended by the priest to “renounce the devil, and all his works,” to which he made the suggestive reply, “I’m going to a strange country, and I don’t want to make meself any inimies!”
In 1900 a newsletter based in Washington, D.C. printed a variant of the anecdote in which the Irishman was replaced by a Scotsman: 9
Its logical sequence was illustrated in the case of a “Canny Scot” who, being on his death bed, was adjured by his pastor to “renounce the devil and all his works,” and mindful of his future state answered, “No, I can ne’er do that, I am about to die, and I dinno ken into whose hands I may fall in the next world, and I don’t want to make any enemy there.”
In 1911 an elaborate version of the story was told by James Humphrey Hoyt who was a popular after-dinner speaker and a notable lawyer in Ohio: 10
And the priest came to administer supreme unction to him. “Pat,” said the priest, “you are going to die.” “No,” he said, “am I?” “Yes, you are, Pat,” he said. “The doctor said you have only a few hours to live, and I have come to absolve you and to save your guilty soul, if I can. In the first place, Patrick, do you denounce the devil and all his works and declare from the bottom of your heart that you utterly hate and detest him?” And he said, “Must I say that, Father?” “You must if you want to be saved.”
“If I say it, will I be saved, Father?” “Well, I hope so, Pat; but nobody can tell what God Almighty will do to you when he gets hold of you, after the life you have led.” Pat said, “Father, you put me in a hell of a position. Between you and me, as I am about to die, this is no time for me to make enemies.” [Laughter.]
In 1912 the story was told at a Fisheries Convention, and in this version the priest made three requests before obtaining a response: 11
An Irishman upon one occasion, on his death bed, called in his faithful priest for the purpose of giving him extreme unction. “Pat, you say that you renounce the Devil?” but no word came from Pat. Again the priest said, “Pat, say after me: I renounce the Devil.” Still Pat remained silent. The third time the priest said, “Say after me: I renounce the Devil.” Pat with his last breath said, “Father, I am in such condition now that I do not care to antagonize anybody.”
In 1925 Life magazine ran a cartoon depicting two men standing and conversing. The caption recorded the words of the man wearing religious garb followed by the reply of the other man. This variant of the joke did not use the setting of a deathbed: 12
“SEE HERE, BILKINS, WHY DON’T YOU RENOUNCE THE DEVIL?”
“DON’T WANT TO GET HIM AGAINST ME—MAY HAVE TO SPEND A LOT OF TIME WITH HIM SOME DAY!’
In 1952 the New York Times published another variant featuring the noted wit Wilson Mizner: 13
Wilson Mizner, who enjoyed being the friend of politicians who knew their way around, heard that one of his wardheeler pals was dying. Mizner rushed to his bedside, where the fellow’s wife was pleading with her husband to confess his sins before it was too late. He mumbled a few things and when she said, “Now, will you denounce the devil?” Mizner cut in with: “This is no time for him to antagonize anybody.”
By the 1970s the jibe had been reassigned to Voltaire. For example, in 1974 an interview with the English actor Sir Ralph David Richardson was printed in a Kingston, Jamaica newspaper, and he shared the following: 14
“What a man.” he said, “When Voltaire was on his deathbed a clever priest came asking him to renounce the devil and all his works. Voltaire told him, ‘I don’t think at this time of life I should start making enemies.'”
In 1977 an article in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association also attached the words to Voltaire: 15
It is said that on his deathbed, Voltaire, when asked to return to the faith of his fathers and renounce the devil, responded with, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”
In 1979 the British writer and media figure Gyles Brandreth published The Last Word which presented the last earthly words of a variety of individuals. When he examined this anecdote he found a half-dozen candidates lying on deathbeds: 16
And when I have come across more than one claimant for a particular set of last words, I’ve tended to drop the last words altogether. For example, at least six people are reputed to have said to the clergyman who was at their deathbed and asked them to renounce the devil and all his works, “This is no time for making enemies!”
In 1981 a paper delivered at the National Conference on Social Welfare by Robert Lekachman, a Professor of Economics, included a version of the tale featuring Niccolò Machiavelli: 17
I recall the ancient Machiavelli story. On his deathbed, a friendly cardinal arrived to speed him into eternity. Three times the cardinal asked at higher decibel levels, “Do you confess your sins and renounce the devil?” No response. Screaming the question still a fourth time, the cardinal got this feeble answer from his sinking client, “Now is not the time to make new enemies.”
In 1990 a commentator in the Manila Standard newspaper of the Philippines told the Machiavelli story, but he introduced it as apocryphal: 18
It is said that a Cardinal, ministering Last Rites to Machiavelli, exhorted him to “accept God and renounce the Devil.” Whereupon Machiavelli is said to have replied that he did accept God, but added: “But your Eminence, don’t you think this is no time to be making enemies?”
In 1995 Robert E. Lucas employed the Voltaire tale in his banquet speech for the Nobel Prize in Economics. The details were given at the beginning of this article.
In 1997 The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Joke Book presented an instance with a dissolute and decaying rock star being visited by his brother: 19
Very few people had come to visit him during his final illness, because he had treated so many so shabbily and with such great arrogance over the years. But his brother, the preacher, did come to attend to him in his final crisis.
“Steven, you must repent,” his brother insisted. “You must renounce the devil and all his works. You must accept Christ, and with the life you’ve led, you must reject Satan!” “I’m sorry,” said his brother, “but I just can’t do that. Where I’m headed, it’s best not to make those kinds of enemies.”
In conclusion, QI believes that this humorous anecdote is fictional. In the earliest examples in the 1850s, the punch line was spoken by a stock character Irishman. The attachment to Voltaire occurred by the 1970s, and the ascription to Machiavelli was in circulation by the 1980s.
(Great thanks to top researchers Stephen Goranson and Victor Steinbok who located several citations.)
- 1995 December 10, Speech at Banquet for the Nobel Prize Award by Robert E. Lucas, Jr., [Lucas won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel], From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor Tore Frangsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm. (Accessed at nobelprize.org on August 13, 2013) link ↩
- 1856 April 30, Springfield Republican, Political Miscellanies, Page 2, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1856 August 06, The Nebraskian, (Freestanding short filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Issue 28, Omaha, Nebraska. (19th Century Newspapers) ↩
- 1856 August 27, Boston Investigator, Wit, Humor, and Sentiment, Page 1, Column 5, Issue 18, Boston, Massachusetts, (19th Century Newspapers) ↩
- 1857 July 25, Chicago Daily Tribune, [Freestanding article], Page 0_3, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1860 March 10, Saturday Evening Post, [Freestanding article], Page 6, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1870 October 08, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper Fun for the Family, Page 62, Column 2, Issue 784, New York, New York. (19th Century Newspapers) ↩
- 1888 August 10, North China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, Chinese Characteristics, Start Page 169, Quote Page 170, Column 2, [NewsArch Page 18], Volume XLI, Shanghai, China. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1900 August, Washington News Letter, Christian Science: Its Origins and Aims by Oliver C. Sabin, Start Page 643, Quote Page 649, Column 2, Number 11, Washington D.C. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1911, Congressional Hearings, United States House of Representatives, Hearings Before the Committee on Investigation of United States Steel Corporation, Remarks Made at Dinner Given at Waldorf-Astoria on January 11, 1911, Start Page 1775, Speech by James H. Hoyt (James Humphrey Hoyt), Start Page 1787, Quote Page 1788, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1912, North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey: Economic Paper Number 29, [Report of the Fisheries Convention Held at New Bern, North Carolina, December 13, 1911, Compiled by Joseph Hyde Pratt], Morning Session, Address by Hon. W. McDonald Lee, Page 14, State Printers and Binders, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1925 July 9, Life, Illustration depicting two men conversing, Page 26, Issue 2227, Life Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest Periodicals) ↩
- 1952 September 21, New York Times, The Ad Lib — Quip That Stings by Harry Hershfield, Start Page SM17, Quote Page SM58, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1974 September 21, The Gleaner, A lunch as good as a matinee by Jeremy Campbell, Page 8, Column 5, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1977 February, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Volume 25, Number 1, “The Mourning Process and Creative Organizational Change” by George H. Pollock, Start Page 3, Quote Page 9, International Universities Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1979, The Last Word by Gyles Brandreth, Prefatory section: First Words, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, Sterling Publishing Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1982, The Social Welfare Forum, 1981: Official Proceedings of the 108th Annual Forum, National Conference on Social Welfare, Held in San Francisco, California from June 7 to 10, 1981, “President Reagan and the Human Services” by Robert Lekachman, Start Page 36, Quote Page 43 and 44, Published for the Conference on Social Welfare by Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1990 February 14, Manila Standard, Straight from the shoulder: Not a time for making enemies by Luis D. Beltran, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Manila, Philippines. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1997, The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Joke Book by Dave Marsh and Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Quote Page 86 and 87, St Martin’s Press, New York. (Amazon Look Inside) ↩