Public Opinion: A Vulgar, Impertinent, Anonymous Tyrant

William Ralph Inge? Anonymous?

Social Media

Dear Quote Investigator: Every day brings a new social media uproar. I am reminded of the apothegmatic claim that public opinion is an anonymous tyrant. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The influential British commentator William Ralph Inge was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for more than two decades. He wrote an essay critiquing democracy in August 1919 which included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1919, Outspoken Essays by William Ralph Inge, (Third Impression), Essay 1: Our Present Discontents (August 1919), Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

A more serious danger is that of vexatious and inquisitive tyranny. This is exercised partly through public opinion, a vulgar, impertinent, anonymous tyrant who deliberately makes life unpleasant for anyone who is not content to be the average man.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Dean Inge’s essay continued with the other assertions such as the following about democratic leaders:

Sometimes he has to wink at flagrant injustice and oppression; at other times a fanatical agitation compels him to pass laws which forbid the citizen to indulge perfectly harmless tastes, or tax him to contribute to the pleasures of the majority.

Inge presented two primary fears concerning the longevity of the system:

. . . the two diseases which are likely to be fatal to democracy are anarchy and corruption.

In October 1919 the “Yorkshire Telegraph & Star” in England printed a miscellaneous collection of sayings from Inge which included a slightly altered version of the statement under examination:[ref] 1919 October 25, Yorkshire Telegraph & Star, Today’s Gossip, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

Man remains what he has always been—a splendid fighting animal, self-sacrificing hero, and a bloodthirsty savage.

Patriotism varies from a noble devotion to a moral lunacy.

Public opinion is a vulgar, impertinent, anonymous tyrant who deliberately makes life unpleasant for anyone who is not content to be the average man.

In 1927 Sir James Marchant published a collection of the “Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge” and the quotation appeared again.[ref] 1927, Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge by William Ralph Inge, Selected and arranged by Sir James Marchant, Part 99: Democracy, Quote Page 70 and 71, Reprint 1968 by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

In 1949 editor Burton Stevenson included the quotation in “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” with a citation pointing to “Outspoken Essays” by Inge.[ref] 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Public Opinion, Quote Page 1429, Column 2, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

In 1996 the quotation continued to circulate when it appeared in “The International Thesaurus of Quotations” compiled by Eugene Ehrlich and Marshall DeBruhl.[ref] 1996, The International Thesaurus of Quotations, Compiled by Eugene Ehrlich and Marshall DeBruhl, (Revised and Updated), Topic: Public Opinion, Quote Page 555, Column 2, HarperResource: HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

In conclusion, William Ralph Inge should receive credit for the quotation which appeared in the collection “Outspoken Essays” in 1919.

Image Notes: Illustration depicting social media from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to anonymous non-tyrannical individual whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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