Buckminster Fuller? Thomas Fuller? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent inventor and author Buckminster Fuller has been linked to an uncharacteristic quotation:
Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.
Would you please determine whether he wrote and said this remark?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Buckminster Fuller employed the words above. Instead, QI believes that the expression evolved from a statement written by Thomas Fuller who was an influential English historian and religious figure of the seventeenth century.
In 1642 Thomas Fuller released “The Profane State”, and it included a section about witches. Fuller stated that some individuals initially engaged in witchcraft defensively; they cast spells and charms to shield themselves against the plots and intrigues of adversaries. However, over time they began to wield power offensively and actively assaulted others. The following excerpt contained “floures” which was an alternative spelling of “flowers”. Boldface has been added: 1
She begins at first with doing tricks rather strange then hurtfull: yea some of them are pretty and pleasing. But it is dangerous to gather floures that grow on the banks of the pit of hell, for fear of falling in; yea they which play with the devils rattles, will be brought by degrees to wield his sword, and from making of sport they come to doing of mischief.
The apostrophe in the possessive phrase “devil’s rattles” was missing in the original text. Also, in the modern quotation the phrase was changed to “devil’s toys”.
During the ensuing years the words above were sometimes reprinted with the short ambiguous ascription: “Fuller”. Someone probably misunderstood this ascription and reassigned the words from Thomas Fuller to Buckminster Fuller.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The 1642 passage was memorable, and many years later in 1902 the reference “Chamber’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature” included a section about Thomas Fuller with the following: 2
Among Fuller’s pithy shorter sayings are these:
It is dangerous to gather flowers that grow on the banks of the pit of hell, for fear of falling in; yea, they which play with the devil’s rattles will be brought by degrees to wield his sword; and from making of sport, they come to doing of mischief.
In 1921 “The Evening World” newspaper of New York printed a miscellaneous set of four quotations under the title “From the Wise”. One of the sayings was simply ascribed to “Fuller”: 3
They who play with the devil’s rattles will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.—Fuller
In 2005 “The Register-Guard” newspaper of Eugene, Oregon printed a letter to the editor from a reader who credited Buckminster Fuller with an instance of the saying with the phrase “devil’s toys”: 4
Was Buckminster Fuller anticipating Kulongoski’s Faustian pact in warning that, “Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword?”
In 2010 a compilation titled “Iron Sharpens Iron: Wisdom of the Ages” contained the following entry. The year 1895 referred to the birthdate of Buckminster: 5
“Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword” (R. Buckminster Fuller, 1895).
In conclusion, Thomas Fuller may be credited with the words he wrote in “The Profane State” in 1642. QI has been unable to find any evidence that Buckminster Fuller restated the remarks of Thomas Fuller and believes that the modern ascription to Buckminster was mistaken.
Image Notes: This illustration of Thomas Fuller was taken from “Six Portraits of Eminent Seventeenth Century Men” from Wellcome Images; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The section of the book cover is from “The Profane State” by Thomas Fuller. Printed by Roger Daniel for John Williams, Cambridge, England; accessed via Google Books.
(Great thanks to Austin Routt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1642, The Profane State by Thomas Fuller, The Fifth Book, Chapter 3: The Witch, Start Page 365, Quote Page 367, Printed by Roger Daniel for John Williams, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902, Chamber’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature, New Edition by David Patrick, Volume 1, Section: Thomas Fuller, Quote Page 601, Column 1, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 June 10, The Evening World, From the Wise, Quote Page 30, Column 6, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2005 April 21, The Register-Guard, Letters in the Editor’s Mailbag, (Letter from Arnold Buchman, Florence), Quote Page 10A, Eugene, Oregon. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2010, Iron Sharpens Iron: Wisdom of the Ages, Compiled by Errick A. Ford, Quote Page 121, Tate Publishing & Enterprises, Mustang, Oklahoma. (Google Books Preview) link ↩