Truth Passes Through Three Stages: First, It Is Ridiculed. Second, It Is Violently Opposed. Third, It Is Accepted As Self-Evident

Arthur Schopenhauer? Charles Lyell? Louis Agassiz? J. Marion Sims? Apocryphal?

schopenhauer08Dear Quote Investigator: True statements and ideas are often not recognized initially; instead, the process of acceptance is long and circuitous. One popular adage highlights three stages for the recognition of truth:

  1. Ridicule
  2. Violent opposition
  3. Acceptance as self-evident

The prominent German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is usually credited with an apothegm of this type, but I have been unable to find good supporting evidence. Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have been unable to find a matching adage in Arthur Schopenhauer’s writings. Yet, he did craft a different statement about truth that mentioned three stages. His humorous and melancholy remark appeared in the 1819 book “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (“The World as Will and Representation”). Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Der Wahrheit zu Theil ward, der nur ein kurzes Siegesfest beschieden ist, zwischen den beiden langen Zeiträumen, wo sie als paradox verdammt und als trivial geringgeschätzt wird.

Here is one possible translation into English: 2

To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.

In the statement above, acceptance occurred during stage two instead of stage three. Also, the other two stages diverged from the adage under examination. Indeed, the earliest citation found by QI ascribing the popular adage to Schopenhauer appeared in 1913. Yet, the famous philosopher died in 1860; hence, the linkage was very weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The following longer passage in English from “The World as Will and Representation” revealed that Schopenhauer was fatalistic about the reception of his own book. Yet, his continuing fame has belied his pessimism: 3

. . . I part with the book with deep seriousness, in the sure hope that sooner or later it will reach those to whom alone it can be addressed; and for the rest, patiently resigned that the same fate should, in full measure, befall it, that in all ages has, to some extent, befallen all knowledge, and especially the weightiest knowledge of the truth, to which only a brief triumph is allotted between the two long periods in which it is condemned as paradoxical or disparaged as trivial. The former fate is also wont to befall its author.

How did the three-fold saying that is now commonly ascribed to Schopenhauer arise? QI conjectures that its construction was influenced by other three-fold and four-fold sayings that were circulating by the 1860s. For example, in 1863 the distinguished geologist Sir Charles Lyell published “The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man”. He included an intriguing remark that he credited Louis Agassiz who was another well-known scientist of the period: 4

I may conclude this chapter by quoting a saying of Professor Agassiz, “that whenever a new and startling fact is brought to light in science, people first say, ‘it is not true,’ then that ‘it is contrary to religion,’ and lastly, ‘that everybody knew it before.'”

The above remark is discussed further in a separate website entry located here. This expression partially overlapped Schopenhauer’s statement and the later adage.

In 1868 doctor J. Marion Sims read a paper at a Medical Society meeting in New York that included an entertaining four-fold comment about the reception of truth: 5

Is it surprising that positive knowledge of this sort should meet with opposition among honest, earnest cultivators of medicine? Not at all. For it is ever so with any great truth. It must first be opposed, then ridiculed, after a while accepted, and then comes the time to prove that it is not new, and that the credit of it belongs to some one else.

Two remarks of Schopenhauer’s were selected and reprinted together in English in an 1878 book titled “A Vocabulary of the Philosophical Sciences” by Charles P. Krauth: 6

Schopenhauer: “Truth is no harlot, ready to throw herself on the neck of careless passers-by, but a maiden so coy that he who sacrifices all to win her favor is not sure to win it.” “Truth enjoys but a short time of triumph between two long eras — in the first of them it is condemned as paradoxical, in the last is despised as trivial.”

In 1913 the book “Allgemeine Verkehrsgeographie” credited Schopenhauer with a German expression that matched the popular modern misattribution: 7

„Ein jedes Problem durchläuft bis zu seiner Anerkennung drei Stufen: In der ersten erscheint es lächerlich, in der zweiten wird es bekämpft, und in der dritten gilt es als selbstverständlich.” Schopenhauer.

Here is one possible translation into English:

Every problem passes through three stages on the way to acceptance: First, it appears laughable; second, it is fought against; third, it is considered self-evident.

Finally, by 1937 the expression was circulating in English with an ascription to Schopenhauer. A financial book titled “Slump Ahead In Bonds” by L. L. B. Angas employed the following as a chapter epigraph: 8

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first stage it is ridiculed, in the second stage it is opposed, in the third stage it is regarded as self-evident.”—Schopenhauer

In conclusion, Arthur Schopenhauer may properly be credited with the statement about truth presented in “The World as Will and Representation”; however, the expression under examination was not spoken or written by Schopenhauer. QI hypothesizes that the misattributed statement evolved from the multi-fold sayings about the acceptance of truth that were circulating by the 1860s. A vague recollection of the 1819 remark led someone to incorrectly credit Schopenhauer with the divergent statement that predominates today.

Image Notes: Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer circa 1817 by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl; via Wikimedia Commons. Arrow designs from SavanasDesign at Pixabay. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Zweig who inquired about quotations that outlined multiple stages in the acceptance of a new idea. Additional thanks to Richard Dooling who pointed out the Schopenhauer misattribution via a tweet. Special thanks to Amy West and Rebecca Garber for their German translation expertise. Any errors are the responsibility of QI. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors at Wikiquote who identified “The Richmond and Louisville Medical Journal” citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1819, Title: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung; 4 Bücher, nebst einem Anhange, der die Kritik der Kantischen Philosophie enthält, Author: Arthur Schopenhauer, Quote Page xvi, Publisher: Brockhaus, Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2012, The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer, Translation from German to English by E. F. J. Payne, Volume 1 of 2, Section: Preface to the first edition, Quote Page xvii, Dover Publications, Inc., New York. (Translation originally published in 1958 by The Falcon’s Wing Press, Indian Hills, Colorado)(Google Books Preview; accessed Nov 18, 2016)
  3. 1888, The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer, Volume 1, Translated from the German by Richard Burdon Haldane and John Kemp, Third Edition, Series: The English and Foreign Philosophical Library: Volume XXII, Preface to the First Edition written at Dresden in August 1818, Quote Page xv, Published by Ticknor and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1863, The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man: With Remarks on Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation by Sir Charles Lyell, Chapter 6, Quote Page 105, George W. Childs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1869 March, The Richmond and Louisville Medical Journal, Volume 7, Number 3, On the Microscope, as an Aid in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sterility by J. Marion Sims, M.D., New York. (Read at the meeting of the Medical Society of the County of New York, December 7, 1868), Start Page 288, Quote Page 290, Published by E.S. Gaillard, Louisville, Kentucky. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1878, A Vocabulary of the Philosophical Sciences by Charles P. Krauth (Charles Porterfield Krauth), Quote Page 898, Sheldon & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1913, Title: Allgemeine Verkehrsgeographie, Author: Kurt Hassert (Professor der Geographie an der Handels-Hochschule Köln), Quote Page 121, Publisher: G. J. Göschen, Berlin und Leipzig. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  8. 1937, Slump Ahead In Bonds by L. L. B. Angas (Lawrence Lee Bazley Angas), (Epigram of Part 1), Quote Page 5, Somerset Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link