“What’s Your Opinion of Civilization?” “It’s a Good Idea. Somebody Ought To Start It”

George Bernard Shaw? Albert Schweitzer? Life Magazine? Mohandas Gandhi? Ferdinand Pecora? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some thinkers believe that humanity has not yet achieved an advanced society worthy of the name “civilization”. This notion has been expressed with the following dialog:

“What’s your idea of civilization?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

This acerbic reply has been attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, Yet, I have been unable to find any solid citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared as a filler item in the humor magazine “Life” in March 1923. The creator was unidentified. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

“What’s your opinion of civilization?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

The quip has been ascribed to a series of individuals over the decades including: lawyer Ferdinand Pecora in 1933, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) in 1934, George Bernard Shaw in 1977, and Albert Schweitzer in 1988. In addition, a variant was attributed to Mohandas Gandhi in 1967. Yet, these citations occurred long after the joke was circulating; hence, the value of this evidence is low.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On the same day in 1923 that the joke appeared in “Life” magazine it also appeared in “The Courier-Journal” of Louisville, Kentucky together with an acknowledgement to “Life”: 2

“What is your opinion of civilization?” asks Life.
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

In April 1923 the “Harrisburg Telegraph” of Pennsylvania printed the joke while acknowledging “The Courier-Journal”: 3

“What is your opinion of civilization?” asks Life. It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it. —Louisville Courier-Journal.

In 1924 a newspaper in Orlando, Florida printed a version with fictional characters “Wicks” and “Hicks” while acknowledging a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania paper: 4

READY FOR IT
(From the Philadelphia Bulletin.)
Wicks—What’s your opinion of civilization?
Hicks—I think it’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.

In 1932 a Kansas newspaper published the dialog with two new characters: 5

Maxine McAllister: “What your opinion of civilization?”
Rex Smith: “I think it’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

In 1933 prominent U.S. lawyer Ferdinand Pecora received credit for the sharp response in the pages of “The Boston Globe”: 6

Ferdinand Pecora, the noted lawyer is also a reformer. An interviewer said to him one day:
“What is your opinion of civilization, Mr. Pecora?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.” —Philadelphia Bulletin

In 1934 the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) received credit for the remark in the “Los Angeles Times” of California. The question was slightly altered; the word “opinion” became “idea”: 7

Which suggests that we might take to heart a retort of the Prince of Wales. When asked, “What is your Idea of civilization?” he replied, “It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

In 1967 a television documentary contained a variant dialog, and Mohandas Gandhi received credit for the reply: 8

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”.

A separate QI article about the quotation attributed to Gandhi is located here.

In 1977 George Bernard Shaw received credit in “After-Dinner Laughter: Favorite Stories of the Famous & Not-So-Famous” edited by Sylvia L. Boehm: 9

“What’s your idea of civilization?” Bernard Shaw was asked one day.
“It’s a good idea,” replied Shaw. “Somebody ought to start it.”

In 1988 the “Northwest Herald” of Woodstock, Illinois ascribed the remark to Albert Schweitzer: 10

“Civilization? It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.” Albert Schweitzer

In conclusion, this dialog appeared in the humor magazine “Life” in 1923. The creator was anonymous. The acute reply has implausibly been attributed to several different people during the ensuing decades. Yet, anyone who employed the reply after 1923 was simply repeating an existing quip.

Image Notes: Picture of hands cupping a growing plant from Pexels at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1923 March 29, Life, Volume 81, Issue 2108, (Filler item), Quote Page 33, Column 1, Life Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1923 March 29, The Courier-Journal, Wild Waves, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1923 April 4, Harrisburg Telegraph, Cream of the Nation’s Humor, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1924 January 24, The Orlando Sentinel, The Town Slouch, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1932 February 15, The Olathean, Just for Jest, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Olathe, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1933 July 4, The Boston Globe, (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1934 February 19, The Los Angeles Times, “Civilization”, Section 2, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1967 January 23, Seattle Times, “Ad Paid Off For Swedish Beauty” by C. J. Skreen, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1977, After-Dinner Laughter: Favorite Stories of the Famous & Not-So-Famous, Edited by Sylvia L. Boehm, Entry Number: 4, Entry Title: An investment banker likes these two, Quote Page 8, Sterling Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1988 January 9, Northwest Herald, (Epigraph for Opinion Page), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Woodstock, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)