Albert Einstein? Alexandre Dumas, fils? Elbert Hubbard? Brooks F. Beebe? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following funny saying is usually attributed to Albert Einstein:
The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
Yet, no one provides any justification for crediting the brilliant scientist with this jest. Is this another fake Einstein quote?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. Indeed, it is listed in a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” within the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1
A 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: 2
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.)
One possible translation into English is the following:
One thing that humbles me deeply is to see that human genius has its limits while human stupidity does not.
The attribution “Alex. Dum.” was probably a reference to Alexandre Dumas, fils, who was a dramatist known for the work “The Lady of the Camellias”, widely referred to as “Camille”. He shared his name with his father, Alexandre Dumas, père, who was the author of the popular novels “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers”.
Another statement written in French appeared in the journal of a scholarly association in 1886. The words were placed between quotation marks to indicate that the joke was already in circulation, and no specific attribution was given. 3
« Le génie humain a des bornes, Mais la sottise n’en a pas. »
One possible translation into English is the following:
“Human genius has its limits, but stupidity does not.”
The earliest evidence in English located by QI was published in a periodical called “The Travelers’ Record” in 1890 which acknowledged a French newspaper. The saying was included in a list titled “Some of Dumas’s Maxims”. Here were three items from the list. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4
Some of Dumas’s Maxims
[L’Echo de Paris, translated in the Transatlantic]
Let all your alms-giving be anonymous. It has the double advantage of suppressing at the same time ingratitude and abuse.
God made fools in order that life might be more tolerable to people of wit.
What distresses me is to see that human genius has limits and human stupidity none.
The saying has been circulating and evolving in English for more than one hundred years. An instance was attributed to Albert Einstein by 1994; however, Einstein died in 1955, so this citation has little probative value.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1891 “The Phrenological Journal” published a set of remarks under the title “Wisdom” which included an instance of the expression credited to “A. Dumas, fils”; hence, the son of Alexandre Dumas, père, was specifically identified: 5
What distresses me is to see that human genius has limitations, and human stupidity has none.—A. Dumas, fils.
In 1899 an instance was printed in “The Bloomfield News” of Indiana without an ascription: 6
We made use of the following item some years ago in the columns of the NEWS: “How despairing it is to see that human genius has limitations, while human stupidity has none.” ‘Tis good philosophy yet.
In 1903 an instance appeared in a magazine called “The School Arts Book”, and a French origin was suggested: 7
Even the best of teachers, I fancy, has to console himself occasionally with the cheerful observation of the French, “While human genius has limits, human stupidity has none.”
In 1906 the writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard placed a version using the word “handicapped” in a periodical he edited called “The Philistine”. The saying was noticed, and it was reprinted in the journal “American Education” in 1907 where it was called an epigram from Elbert Hubbard: 8 9
Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.
In 1907 newspapers in La Crosse, Wisconsin and Attica, Indiana printed an anonymous humorous piece titled “The Difference” which listed more than a dozen examples of different types of differences. 10 Here were three listed items: 11
Between a cow and a milkman is that the cow gives real milk.
Between genius and stupidity is that the former is handicapped.
Between lightning and electricity is that there is a charge for the latter.
In 1909 a doctor recorded in a medical journal “The Lancet-Clinic” in Cincinnati, Ohio employed an instance of the saying: 12
DR. BROOKS F. BEEBE: “Genius has its limitations; stupidity has none.”
In 1939 a Kingston, Jamaica newspaper printed an interview with an anonymous businessman who used the expression: 13
Referring to the behaviour of the nine Elected Members who voted against the Transport Bill, I must say:
“Even genius has its limitations, stupidity is not so handicapped.”
In 1951 a Covina, California newspaper interspersed quotations between short advertisements. An unattributed version of the saying using the word “boundless” was printed: 14
Genius has limitations; stupidity is boundless.
In 1961 a newspaper in Kokomo, Indiana printed a filler item with an instance that was similar to the common modern version given by the questioner. No attribution was provided: 15
The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limitations.
In 1962 a Greensboro, North Carolina newspaper printed an instance while acknowledging a New York newspaper: 16
Genius Has Limits
(Louisville, Ky., Irish-American)
One man says that the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
In 1963 an elaborate instance was published that mentioned Albert Einstein as an exemplar of genius. The saying was not attributed to Einstein, but perhaps some inattentive readers became confused about the ascription: 17
Even genius has its limitations: Einstein could not find the unified field theory he was looking for all his life; but stupidity is infinite: there is no fancy or belief that marks the boundary of human credulity, and some man can always be found who will carry the banner of stupidity across a new frontier.
By 1994 the remark was implausibly being assigned to Albert Einstein, e.g., in the following passage from a Cedar Rapids, Iowa newspaper: 18
Albert Einstein observed that the difference between genius and stupidity is that there are limits to genius.
As an aside, another thematically similar remark has been attributed to Einstein: “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.” A separate QI article about this saying is available here.
In conclusion, QI believes that Alexandre Dumas, fils, can be credited with the expression given in the 1865 citation. Also, Elbert Hubbard can be credited with popularizing the version in the 1906 citation. There is no substantive evidence that Albert Einstein said or wrote any instances of the expression.
Image Notes: Portrait of Alexandre Dumas, fils, from the New York Public Library Archives. Elbert Hubbard image from Project Gutenberg eText of 1916 book “Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great”. Albert Einstein portrait by Ferdinand Schmutzer. Images have been cropped. All three image files obtained via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Lauren Foster whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Benjamin Dreyer for feedback. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
Update History: On January 5, 2019 a crosslink to the saying “Two things are infinite” was added.
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, Page 478, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 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 ↩
- 1886, Bulletin de la Société Libre D’émulation du Commerce et de L’industrie de la Seine-Inférieure, “Dissertation sur la vulgarisation de la langue latine” par M. E. Nicolle, Start Page 85, Quote Page 86, Imprimerie de Espérance Cagniard, Rouen, France. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1890 February, The Travelers’ Record, Volume 25, Some of Dumas’s Maxims, (L’Echo de Paris, translated in the Transatlantic), Quote Page 8, Column 2, (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1891 January, The Phrenological Journal, Wisdom, Quote Page 52, Column 1, Published by Fowler & Wells Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1899 January 6, Bloomfield News, Correspondence!: Park, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Bloomfield, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1903 November, The School Arts Book, Volume 3, Number 3, The Catch-All by Editor, Start Page 125, Quote Page 128, Published by The Davis Press, Worcester, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906 September, The Philistine, Edited by Elbert Hubbard, Volume 23, Number 4, (Epigraph on title page), Quote Page 69, Published by Society of the Philistines, The Roycrofters, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907 March, American Education: From Kindergarten to College, Volume 10, Number 7, The Best to be Found: Choice Paragraphs from Many Sources, Some of Elbert Hubbard’s Epigrams, Quote Page 470, Published by New York Education Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907 August 8, La Crosse Tribune, Quips and Cranks and Wanton Wiles, Quote Page 3, Column 4, La Crosse, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1907 October 2, Attica Daily Ledger, The Difference, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Attica, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1909 August 28, The Lancet-Clinic: A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Surgery, Volume 102, Number 9, Surgery of Harelip and Cleft Palate, (Discussion of article in Charlotte Medical Journal), Start Page 225, Quote Page 231, The Lancet-Clinic Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1939 July 28, The Daily Gleaner (Kingston Gleaner), Government Backed On Transport Stand, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1951 February 16, Covina Argus Citizen, (Unattributed quotation appended to advertisement for a beauty shop; a quotation was added to each advertisement in the section), Quote Page 11, Column 1, Covina, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1961 January 11, Kokomo Tribune, From Other Editors: Lesson in Patriotism, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Kokomo, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1962 September 4, Greensboro Daily News, Genius Has Limits (filler item), Quote Page 8, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1963 February 7, Dunkirk Evening Observer, Strictly Personal: Intolerant Idealists And Tyrants by Sydney J. Harris, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Dunkirk-Fredonia, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1994 August 17, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Guest Column: “Having scorned authority, Boomers relish it” by William C. Jacobsen, Quote Page 4A, Column 4, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩