George Bernard Shaw? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Influential intellectuals have experienced cosmic despair while observing the behavior of humankind. Here are some statements I have heard attributed to Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw and others:
- This planet is being used as an insane asylum by other planets.
- Beings from other planets are using the Earth as a lunatic asylum.
- The earth is the lunatic asylum of the Universe.
- Earth is an insane asylum to which other planets deport their lunatics.
Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: This is a complex question; hence, QI will split the response into multiple articles, and this article will center on George Bernard Shaw.
In September 1919 a letter from Judge Henry Neil appeared in several newspapers including “The Weekly Freeman” of Dublin, Ireland, the “The Daily Herald” of London England, 1 and the “New York Tribune” of New York, New York. 2
Neil was an exponent of government supplied pensions for widows with children, and he had communicated with George Bernard Shaw who also supported these pensions. Some U.S. states had passed legislation to implement payments, but some lawmakers resisted. Shaw believed that a willingness to provide pensions to “war widows and not to peace widows” was illogical. Inconsistencies of this type led Shaw to state the following according to Neil. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3
“The longer I live, the more I am inclined to the belief that this earth is used by other planets as a lunatic asylum.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Voltaire who lived between 1694 and 1778 wrote a thematically matching passage in the story “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”). QI will create a separate article about this soon.
In 1848 an article in “The Scottish Temperance Review” described a teacher who encouraged his young students to engage in cock-fighting and whisky drinking. The unnamed author of the piece expressed his disgust via a cosmic analogy: 4
Verily, when we think of such insane doings, it not unfrequently occurs to us that this world is in fact the lunatic asylum of the universe, and that we, and the other reasonable men who are with us, are merely here as the keepers thereof.
In September 1919 Henry Neil ascribed an instance of the saying to George Bernard Shaw as mentioned previously. The London periodical “The Nation” asserted that Neil’s letter appeared in the “Daily News” on Monday, September 1, 1919. QI has not yet accessed this prime citation. Interestingly, the version of Shaw’s remark printed in “The Nation” was slightly different. The word “sphere” occurred instead of “Earth”: 5
“The longer I live the more I am inclined to the belief that this sphere is used by other planets as a lunatic asylum.”
In 1920 the book “America’s Aims and Asia’s Aspirations” by Patrick Gallagher attributed to Shaw a variant using the word “insane” instead of “lunatic”: 6
America is a great nation, the greatest that God has seen fit to permit in what Mr. George Bernard Shaw calls “the insane asylum for all other planets.”
In 1921 “The Commercial Telegraphers’ Journal” credited Shaw with another variant: 7
George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish writer, informs us the Earth on which we live is maintained as an insane asylum by the other planets of the universe.
The linkage to Shaw has continued during subsequent decades. For example, in 1988 he received credit for another instance: 8
George Bernard Shaw wrote that “If the other planets are inhabited, they must be using the earth as an insane asylum”.
In conclusion, QI believes that George Bernard Shaw probably did employ this saying although this claim is based on the veracity of Henry Neil. The most common initial phrasing in September 1919 used “Earth” instead of “sphere”. It’s essential to note that Shaw did not create this vivid multiplanetary framework. Voltaire employed it in the 1700s.
Image Notes: Picture of George Bernard Shaw circa 1914 from the LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of planet Earth from PIRO4D at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy operates a valuable website listing many quotations.)
- 1919 September 11, The Daily Herald, Pensions for Mothers, Quote Page 2, Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1919 September 14, New York Tribune, Section 3: Financial Real Estate News, This Lunatic World, Letter To: Editor of The Tribune, Letter From: Judge Henry Neil, Letter Date: Monday, September 1, 1919, Quote Page 2, Column 6, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1919 September 6, The Weekly Freeman, Shaw’s Reply to Judge Neil, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Dublin, Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1848 February, The Scottish Temperance Review, The Temperance Hero Gallery, James Stirling—The Oldest of the Scottish Fathers, Start Page 60, Quote Page 62, Printed by Samuel Dunn and Thomas Dunn, Published by Robert Rae at the Office of the Scottish Temperance League, Glasgow, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1919 September 6, The Nation, Volume 25, Number 23, Judge Neil’s Law, Start Page 667, Quote Page 668, London, England. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1920, America’s Aims and Asia’s Aspirations by Patrick Gallagher (Correspondent of “The New York Herald” at the Conference of Paris, 1919), Chapter 14: The Keys of the World, Quote Page 114, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 April, The Commercial Telegraphers’ Journal, Volume 19, Number 4, The World Tide by A. R. G., Start Page 192, Quote Page 192, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1988 November 26, News Journal, God Has A Better Plan (Advertisement for Main St. United Methodist Church), Quote Page C1, Column 4, Mansfield, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩