Life Is a Shipwreck, But We Must Not Forget To Sing in the Lifeboats

Voltaire? Peter Gay? William F. Bottiglia? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many dubious quotations have been ascribed to the preeminent French satirist and philosopher Voltaire. One popular saying depicts life as a metaphorical shipwreck. The survivors are exhorted to sing while sitting in the lifeboats. Is this saccharine guidance really from the acrid pen of Voltaire?

I have also seen the words credited to a fictional character named Bottiglia. Does that ascription make sense?

Quote Investigator: Voltaire did employ the shipwreck metaphor in his letters; for example, in 1760 he wrote: 1

Comptez que le monde est un grand naufrage, et que la devise des hommes est, sauve qui peut.

Here is one possible translation: 2

The world, my friend, is one great shipwreck: and man’s motto, “Save yourself if you can.”

Voltaire’s remark did not mention lifeboats or singing; thus, his tone was quite different.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in 1963 within the introductory section of “Voltaire’s Candide: A Bilingual Edition”. Professor of History Peter Gay performed the translation of “Candide” from French to English, and he also wrote the introduction which contained the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

Indeed, Voltaire preached—by example rather than by precept—that the recognition of the truth that this world is filled with evils leads to a certain good humor. If this life is a desert, it is our duty to make an oasis in it; if this life is a shipwreck, we must rescue as many as we can, and not forget to sing in the lifeboats. This, I think, is the message of Candide; its continuing popularity rests not only on its wit, its pace, its color, but also on its enduring relevance.

In 1966 Peter Gay restated his analysis of “Candide” within his book “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism”. Gay reprinted the final line of Voltaire’s satirical tale: “That’s well said, but we must cultivate our garden”, and he added the following commentary: 4

Here, in that concluding sentence of the tale, Voltaire has fused the lessons of ancient philosophy into a prescription: Men are thrown into the world to suffer and to dominate their suffering. Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats; life is a desert, but we can transform our corner into a garden.

Thus, the quotation under examination was crafted by Peter Gay who was presenting his interpretation of the central thesis of Voltaire’s story “Candide”. The misattribution illustrates a known error mechanism. Person A summarizes, condenses, or restates the opinion of person B. At a later time the restatement is directly ascribed to person B.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The juxtaposition of singing and lifeboats occurred before Gay was born. In 1867 a newspaper in England printed several lines from a poem by Albert John Ismay which was a companion to a work called “Shipwreck”. The singing was designed to commemorate the tale of the shipwreck survivors: 5

Describe—while billows rose and tempests blew—
How human skill and courage saved the crew;
And, while my heart’s with grateful feelings warm,
Sing how the Life-Boat triumphed o’er the storm.

In 1963 and 1966 Peter Gay wrote about singing in lifeboats as noted previously. In 1972 a columnist of the “Chicago Tribune” credited the statement directly to Voltaire: 6

It was Voltaire who wrote, “Men are thrown into the world to suffer and to dominate their suffering. Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats; life is a desert, but we can transform our corner into a garden.” Possibly Voltaire overstated the ills of life, but he was right in insisting that even in the midst of shipwreck, we “must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

In the 1980s “Barron’s Booknotes” printed a booklet for students about “Candide”. The website Pink Monkey posted the booklet online. The first page contained excerpts from several commentaries about the “Candide” including text from Peter Gay’s “The Enlightenment”. Acknowledgements appeared below each passage. Unfortunately, one or more readers misunderstood this format and assumed that acknowledgements appeared above each passage. Professor of Italian and French literature William F. Bottiglia wrote the text that was located above the text by Gay. Inattentive readers reassigned the words of Gay to Bottiglia: 7

William F. Bottiglia, “Candide’s Garden,” in Voltaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1968

Here, in that concluding sentence of the tale, Voltaire has fused the lessons of ancient philosophy into a prescription: Men are thrown into the world to suffer and to dominate their suffering. Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats; life is a desert, but we can transform our corner into a garden.

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine contains a snapshot of an essay from 2004 titled “Happiness in Voltaire’s Eyes”. The author cited the “Pink Monkey” website while incorrectly crediting the quotation to Voltaire: 8

Voltaire understands that getting rid of all philosophies liberates one’s mind, opens it to the real meaning of life. He encourages people to make the best use of what is available right now. His famous words “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats” (Bottiglia, 82) perfectly illustrate his attitude to life. No matter how little one has, one should be grateful, and use it wisely.

In 2010 a question about the quotation was submitted to the “Yahoo! Answers” website. The response cited the essay above while incorrectly crediting Bottiglia who was described as a character in “Candide”: 9

What work is the Voltaire quote, “Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats,” from? This quote is attributed to Voltaire, but I have not been able to find the original French text or the source.

Best Answer: His famous words “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats” (Bottiglia, 82) perfectly illustrate his attitude to life. No matter how little one has, one should be grateful, and use it wisely.

Quoting the character Bottiglia, in Candide

In conclusion, Peter Gay crafted this quotation. He was presenting his viewpoint about the message of Voltaire’s story “Candide”. Neither Voltaire nor William F. Bottiglia should receive credit for this quotation.

(Great thanks to top editor Benjamin Dreyer who told QI about the quotation attributed to Voltaire via a series of tweets back in November 2013. Dreyer had traced the statement to Peter Gay. He also noted the incorrect ascription to Bottiglia. In addition, thanks to Nigel Rees who explored the topic in his “Quote Unquote Newsletter” of January 2016. A correspondent traced the statement to Peter Gay’s “The Enlightenment”. Rees also mentioned Voltaire’s use of the shipwreck metaphor in a letter dated May 20, 1757. QI decided to use the instance in a letter dated September 20, 1760.)

Notes:

  1. 1785, Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire, Tome Cinquante-Sixième, Letter CLXXXVIII, From: Voltaire, To: M. Le Chevalier de R___X, à Toulouse, Date: 1760, 20 de Septembre, Start Page 376, Quote Page 377, De L’Imprimerie de la Société Littéraire-Typographique. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1773, Letters from M. de Voltaire to Several of His Friends, Translated from the French by The Reverend Dr. Franklin, (Thomas Francklin, D.D., Rector of Brasted), Second Edition, Letter XXXI, From: Voltaire, To: Mr. the Chevalier de R___X, at Toulouse, Date: Sept. 20, 1760, Start Page 183, Quote Page 184, Printed for T. Davies, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1963, Voltaire’s Candide: A Bilingual Edition by Voltaire, Translated and Edited by Peter Gay, Introduction by Peter Gay, Start Page v, Quote Page xxvi, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Seventh Printing 1981) (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1966, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay, Book One: The Appeal to Antiquity, Chapter Three: The Climate of Criticism, Quote Page 201, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1867 June 14, Newcastle Weekly (The Newcastle Weekly Courant), Literary Notices; The Life Boat: A Poem, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1972 March 3, Chicago Tribune, Section 1A, Living Faith by Harold Blake Walker, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. Website: Pink Monkey, Section title: Barron’s Booknotes for Candide’s Voltaire, Article creator: Barron’s Educational Series with Copyright 1985, Date on website: Undated, Website description: resource for students from junior high to college; library of free online Literature Summaries. (Accessed pinkmonkey.com on April 22, 2018) link
  8. Website: Internet Archive Wayback Machine, Organization: Western New Mexico University, Section: Writing Across the Curriculum – Writing Examples Intro, Article title: Happiness in Voltaire’s Eyes, Article author: Kataizyna Bogdan, Date of snapshot: December 16, 2004, Website description: Snapshots of content on the web stored at the internet archive; this snapshot is from the website of the educational organization listed above. (Accessed web.archive.org on April 22, 2018) link
  9. Website: Yahoo! Answers, Question: What work is the Voltaire quote . . ., Author of answer: Larry G., Date of answer on website: October 21, 2010, Website description: Crowdsourced questions and answers. (Accessed answers.yahoo.com on April 22, 2018) link