Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So

Bertrand Russell? Sheldon? John Ruskin? Woods Hutchinson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Cantankerous individuals who believe they are surrounded by an ignorant and unthinking public sometimes proclaim:

  • People would rather die than think.

This statement has been enhanced with a funny addition that reinvigorates the cliché. Here are two versions:

  • Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do.
  • Most people would rather die than think, and many of them do.

The influential British intellectual Bertrand Russell has received credit for this saying. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: Bertrand Russell did include an instance in his 1925 book about physics titled “The ABC of Relativity”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so. But the fact that a spherical universe seems odd to people who have been brought up on Euclidean prejudices is no evidence that it is impossible.

Confusion has occurred because Russell’s book has been reprinted and revised several times over the years. The humorous statement above was omitted from the revised 1958 edition and subsequent editions.

Interestingly, Bertrand Russell did not create this joke. An elaborate version was in circulation by 1913. Below are additional selected citations and further details in chronological order.

The core version of the target statement without the phrase “in fact, they do so” appeared in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” in 1857. The ornate prose in the following passage discussed the inertia that constrains minds and makes thinking new thoughts difficult: 2

There are men who will dare death for glory or for country, who could not dare scorn or contumely for the truth; and people generally would rather die than think. Nothing but that enrapturing sentiment and vivid vision implied in the love of truth—nothing but that transporting thrill which imparadises the soul in the perception of a new thought, can lift a wise and good man above the wholesome prejudices of prudence, custom, country, and common belief, and make him let loose the immortal idea his mind imprisons, and send it forth to war against false systems and tenacious errors, with the firm faith that it will result in eventual good, though at first it seems to trail along with it the pernicious consequences of a lie.

In 1874 “Fraser’s Magazine” printed an instance of the simple statement with an anonymous attribution: 3

Some men, it is said, would rather die than think; and many farmers would rather go to Hades than part with an inch of their land…

In 1901 “The Atlantic Monthly” printed a different instance of the saying: 4

We know how to read, but the majority of us would rather lie down and die than think.

At last, in May 1913 “The Egg Reporter: A Journal for the Egg and Poultry Trade” published a short item containing a complex version of the saying that included the crucial addendum phrase “and they do”. The words were credited to “Sheldon”, but QI has been unable to ascertain the identity of “Sheldon”: 5

Most people would rather fail, sicken and die than think—and they do. —Sheldon

During subsequent months the quotation and ascription above appeared in other periodicals, e.g.,“Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers”. 6 and “The Pacific Commercial Advertiser” in Honolulu, Hawaii. 7

In 1914 the simple statement without the addendum was credited to the prominent art critic John Ruskin during a graduation speech at the “Sloyd Training School” in Boston, Massachusetts: 8

And now let me advise you in all your work, in everything you undertake, to think. John Ruskin said that most people would rather die than think! I wish you all a long and successful life.

In 1922 an elaborate version without the addendum appeared within an article by Woods Hutchinson M.D. in the popular periodical “The Saturday Evening Post”: 9

Some cynic declares that 5 per cent of people think, 10 per cent think they think, while 85 per cent would rather lie down and die than think. And if the man from Mars should come down and gaze with thoughtful and dispassionate eye upon the way men labor, from the rising of the sun until the going down of the same, he would be strongly inclined to agree with the cynic. There are few things we do so stupidly and brainlessly as work.

In 1924 a full instance with the addendum appeared in “The Montgomery Advertiser” in Montgomery, Alabama: 10

Not only do young men not think and strive, but older men and women do not exert themselves to face their difficulties and work them down. Another American of the day has said: “Most men would rather die than think and they do die before they will think.”

In 1925 Bertrand Russell employed the full expression in his book “The ABC of Relativity” as noted at the beginning of this article: 11

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so.

In July 1925 “The Observer” of London, England reprinted Russell’s remark in a section called “Sayings of the Week”: 12

Most people would die sooner than think: in fact, they do so. — Mr. Bertrand Russell.

Also, in July 1925 the “Evening Telegraph” of Dundee, Scotland printed the saying ascribed to Russell, but two words were swapped: “die sooner” became “sooner die”: 13

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact they do so,” says Mr. Bertrand Russell. Yes, but not sooner than they can help.

In 1929 the “Morecambe Guardian” of Lancashire, England credited “Bernard Russell” instead of Bertrand Russell. Also, the statement was altered to use the phrase “rather die” instead of “die sooner” or “sooner die”: 14

Bernard Russell expresses the same view more caustically when he says: “Most people would rather die than think. In fact, they frequently do.”—From this week’s “Outline.”

In 1944 a columnist in “The Gazette” of Montreal, Canada printed an instance while expressing uncertainty about its provenance: 15

“Who was it that said: ‘Most people would sooner die than think, and often do?'”… I don’t know and say so.

In 1974 the compilation “Instant Quotation Dictionary” printed a variant attributed to Russell without a citation: 16

Most people would rather die than think: many do. Bertrand Russell

In 2007 “The Impossible Takes Longer: The 1000 Wisest Things Ever Said by Nobel Prize Laureates” ” printed another variant attributed to Russell without a citation: 17

Many people would rather die than think. In fact they do.
Bertrand Russell LITERATURE, 1950

In conclusion, Bertrand Russell did popularize the expression “most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so” in his 1925 book. However, Russell did not concoct this joke. A comparable statement: “Most people would rather . . . die than think—and they do” was ascribed to someone named Sheldon in 1913. Also, the core statement “people generally would rather die than think” was circulating by 1857.

Image Notes: Le Penseur (The Thinker) by Auguste Rodin; picture creator: Juanedc from Zaragoza, España; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; accessed via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Phillip L. Ackerman whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Ackerman pointed to “The ABC of Relativity” by Bertrand Russell as a possible source of the saying, but he noted that the words were absent in the modern edition. After communicating with QI he accessed the 1925 edition and verified the presence of the saying. Ackerman also uncovered the excellent 1914 citation. In addition, thanks to researcher Barry Popik for his valuable exploration of the closely related saying that occurred in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1922. Popik located the 1901, 1922, and other citations. Thanks also to discussant Dan Goncharoff.)

Notes:

  1. 1925, The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell, Chapter XI: Is the Universe Finite?, Quote Page 166, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1857 August, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Editor’s Table, Start Page 410, Quote Page 406, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1874 June, Fraser’s Magazine, Volume 9, Sussex Cottages, Start Page 752, Quote Page 762, Column 2, Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1901 July, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 88, The Contributors’ Club, Start Page 139, Quote Page 143, Column 2, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1913 May 20, The Egg Reporter: A Journal for the Egg and Poultry Trade, Volume 19, Number 3, (Filler item), Quote Page 18, Column 2, Waterloo, Iowa. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1913 September 4, Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers, Volume 84, Number 10, (Advertisement encouraging the purchase of newspaper advertisements in the “Standard Union” of Brooklyn), Quote Page 54, Printers’ Ink Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1913 September 24, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (The Honolulu Advertiser), (Advertisement for Fire Insurance from C. Brewer & Co. Now), Quote Page 9, Column 7, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  8. December 1914, Sloyd Record, Number 20, Graduation Address by Henry Turner Bailey (A stenographic report of an address before the graduating class of the Sloyd Training School, June 1914), Start Page 10, Quote Page 20, Published by the Sloyd Training School Alumni Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1922 May 13, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 194, Number 46, Balanced Work by Woods Hutchinson M.D., Start Page 40, Quote Page 40, Column 1, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1924 January 17, The Montgomery Advertiser, The Need for Effort and Energy, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1925, The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell, Chapter XI: Is the Universe Finite?, Quote Page 166, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1925 July 12, The Observer, Sayings of the Week, Quote Page 7, Column 4, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1925 July 17, The Evening Telegraph (Dundee Evening Telegraph), Day by Day, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Angus, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  14. 1929 February 9, Morecambe Guardian, The Dislike of Thought, Quote Page 11, Column 5, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  15. 1944 April 19, The Gazette, Mrs. Dimbleby’s Day: Taxing Your Talk Finds Approval by D.D., Quote Page 4, Column 7, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1974, Instant Quotation Dictionary, Compiled by Donald O. Bolander, Dolores D. Varner, Gary B. Wright, and Stephanie H. Greene, Topic: Death, Quote Page 74, Career Institute, Mundelein, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  17. 2007, The Impossible Takes Longer: The 1000 Wisest Things Ever Said by Nobel Prize Laureates, Compiled by David Pratt, Topic: Thinking and Thought, Quote Page 79, (Advance Reading Copy), Walker Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)