The Question Is Not Where Civilization Began, But When Will It

Mohandas Gandhi? Dorothy Uris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Archaeologists and historians have expended enormous efforts in tracing the origins of civilization. A trenchant humorist has said that scholars should not be trying to ascertain where civilization began; instead, they should be trying to guess when it will begin. Did Mahatma Gandhi say something like this? Would you please explore this quip?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland in 1925. A column titled “Sunbeams” contained five miscellaneous statements, and this was the first. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The question is not where civilization began, but when will it.

The article had no byline, so the ascription of the statements was anonymous. Many years later a thematically related saying was attributed to Mahatma Gandhi without solid evidence.

Below are additional selected citations and commentary.

In 1926 “The School of Education Record of the University of North Dakota” reprinted the saying in a section called “Flashes” while acknowledging the Baltimore newspaper: 2

The question is not, where civilization began, but when will it.—Baltimore Sun.

In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” included an entry for the word “civilization”: 3

civilization.
1. What the human race will eventually die from.
2. The question is not where civilization began, but when will it.

Mohandas Gandhi died in 1948, and years later in 1967 he was linked to an analogous quip. The Seattle Times newspaper printed an exchange that was mentioned in a television documentary on a major U.S. network: 4

Quote of the week from the superb C.B.S. documentary, “The Italians”: Mahatma Gandhi, on being asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?,” was reported to have answered, “I think it would be a good idea”.

The late date of this citation means that the evidence it provides is weak. The QI article located here presents more information about the quotation immediately above.

In 1979 “Say It Again: Personal Collection of Quotes, Comment & Anecdotes” by Dorothy Uris contained the following: 5

The question is not where civilization began, but when will it.
—ANON.

In conclusion, the quotation under examination was circulating by 1925 with an anonymous attribution. The creator of the saying remains unknown. Perhaps future researchers will discover illuminating citations.

Image Notes: Picture of the ruin of an ancient temple in Greece from ulleo at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1925 December 14, The Baltimore Sun, Sunbeams, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1926 May, The School of Education Record of the University of North Dakota, Volume 11, Number 8, Flashes, Quote Page 65, Column 2, Published by The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota. (Google Books Full View)
  3. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary, Compiled by Evan Esar, Entry: Civilization, Quote Page 50, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1967 January 23, Seattle Times, “Ad Paid Off For Swedish Beauty” by C. J. Skreen, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1979, Say It Again: Personal Collection of Quotes, Comment & Anecdotes by Dorothy Uris, Chapter: Ethics Philosophy, Quote Page 78, A Sunrise Book: E.P. Dutton, New York. (Verified with scans)