This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Voltaire? Edward Young? George Bernard Shaw? Laird MacKenzie? Elsie McCormick? Bertrand Russell? Kurt Vonnegut? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several thinkers have offered an anguished explanation for the dangerously disordered state of the world. Here are four versions:

  • This world is the lunatic asylum for other planets.
  • Earth is a madhouse for the Universe
  • The other planets use Earth as an insane asylum.
  • Our world is bedlam for other worlds.

This notion has been credited to Mark Twain, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw and others. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: This is a complex topic; hence, QI will split the response into three articles; an article centered on Voltaire’s quotation is available here; an article centered on George Bernard Shaw’s quotation is available here; an overview article is presented below.

A thematic match occurred in a lengthy work by the English poet Edward Young. The poem was called “The Complaint, Or, Night-thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality”, and it was split into a sequence of numbered “Nights”. The expression appeared in “Night Nine” which was serialized in “The Scots Magazine” in 1747. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But what are we? You never heard of Man,
Or Earth; the Bedlam of the universe!
Where Reason, undiseas’d with you, runs mad,
And nurses Folly’s children as her own;

Voltaire wrote a story “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”) in the late 1740s and published it by 1749. The main character Memnon mentions Earth’s place in the universe. Here is an English translation from 1807: 2

“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds, of which your Lordship does me the honour to speak.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1848 an article in “The Scottish Temperance Review” employed an instance of the cosmic analogy: 3

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.

A 1917 a writer in the London journal “The Nation” described a conversation during which the saying was employed: 4

“Well,” I answered; “I remember how you used to talk to me about the possibility of human life in Mars and in some of the other planets or stars. Now as Poynton was talking, it came into my mind to ask you this question, ‘Has it ever occurred to you as possible that this planet may be the lunatic asylum of the Universe?’”

In September 1919 Judge Henry Neil ascribed an instance of the saying to George Bernard Shaw: 5

“The longer I live, the more I am inclined to the belief that this earth is used by other planets as a lunatic asylum.

In 1920 a long-running column in the “Chicago Tribune” referred to a theory of Laird MacKenzie: 6

Marconi alleges that he occasionally gets queer indications on the wireless which may come from beyond the earth. Very likely. If the theory of Laird MacKenzie is true, and it is more than plausible, that the other planets use this one for an insane asylum, one of them may be wig-wagging us that it has a fresh batch of patients it would like to send over.

In 1929 columnist Elsie McCormick writing in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” implausibly attributed the notion to Mark Twain who had died in 1910: 7

. . . it would be quite justifiable to believe Mark Twain’s theory that the earth is used by the other planets for an insane asylum.

In 1931 U.K. politician Alexander Haycock speaking in the House of Commons in London ascribed the saying to Shaw: 8

Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he believed this planet was the lunatic asylum for the other planets . . .

In 1937 U.K. politician John Leslie speaking in the House of Commons dubiously ascribed the saying to U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: 9

It has been said that Jefferson, the third President of the United States, once observed that this world was the lunatic asylum for other planets.

In 2004 the website of the magazine “In These Times” printed a piece by popular author Kurt Vonnegut which consisted of a conversation between Vonnegut and his fictional alter-ego Kilgore Trout: 10

TROUT Did you watch the State of the Union address?

KV Yes, and it certainly helped to remember what the late British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell called this planet.

TROUT Which was?

KV “The lunatic asylum of the Universe.” He said the inmates had taken over and were trashing the joint. And he wasn’t talking about the germs or the elephants. He meant we the people.

In conclusion, Edward Young called Earth “the Bedlam of the universe” in 1747. Voltaire wrote that “our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds” by 1749 in French. The expression has been circulating and evolving for more than 250 years. There is good evidence that George Bernard Shaw used it. The linkages to Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson are not substantive.

Image Notes: Image depicting part of Lobster Nebula from skeeze at Pixabay. Image has been cropped.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy asked about the connection to George Bernard Shaw. He operates a valuable website listing many quotations.)

Notes:

  1. 1747 May, The Scots Magazine, Volume 9, Section: Poetical Essays, The Complaint, Night 9 and Last: The Consolation, (by Edward Young), Continuation of Complaint, Night 9, Start Page 221, Quote Page 225, Printed by W. Sands, A. Murray, and J. Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1807, Classic Tales: Serious and Lively, Volume 2, Voltaire, Story: Memnon the Philosopher; or Human Wisdom, Start Page 181, Quote Page 188 and 189, Printed and Published by and for John Hunt & Carew Reynell, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 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
  4. 1917 November 24, The Nation, Volume 22, Number 8, Section: Life and Letters, War Aims: 1920, Start Page 266, Quote Page 267, Column 2, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1919 September 6, The Weekly Freeman, Shaw’s Reply to Judge Neil, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Dublin, Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1920 January 28, The Chicago Daily Tribune, A Line O’ Type Or Two, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1929 September 18, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Section: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch Daily Magazine, A Piece of Her Mind by Elsie McCormick, Quote Page 44, Column 3, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1931 September 21, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, National Economy [Money], Speaking: Mr. Alexander Haycock (Salford West), HC Debate, Volume 256, cc1412-42. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on October 22, 2018) link
  9. 1937 March 15, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, Sir Philip Sassoon’s Statement, Speaking: Mr. John Leslie (Sedgefield), HC Debate, Volume 321, cc1665-795. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on October 22, 2018) link
  10. Website: In These Times, Article title: State of the Asylum: A conversation between the novelist Kurt Vonnegut and science fiction writer Kilgore Trout on President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address, Article author: Kurt Vonnegut, Date on website: February 5, 2004, Website description: “an independent, nonprofit magazine, is dedicated to advancing democracy and economic justice”. (Accessed inthesetimes.com on October 23, 2018) link