How Do You Know That the Earth Isn’t Some Other Planet’s Hell?

Aldous Huxley? George Bernard Shaw? Voltaire? Andy Capp? Reg Smythe? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A dejected literary figure apparently experienced an alarming eschatological revelation:

Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell.

This notion has been credited to English writer Aldous Huxley who penned the classic dystopian novel “Brave New World”. Credit has also been given to playwright George Bernard Shaw. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1928 Aldous Huxley published the novel “Point Counter Point”. Huxley’s disillusioned intellectual character Maurice Spandrell delivered a line about hell while conversing with a barmaid. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

‘But why should two people be unhappy?’ persisted the barmaid. ‘When it isn’t necessary?’

‘Why shouldn’t they be unhappy?’ Spandrell enquired. ‘Perhaps it’s what they’re here for. How do you know that the earth isn’t some other planet’s hell?’

A positivist, the barmaid laughed. ‘What rot!’

The phrasing above differed from the most common modern version of the quotation, but QI believes that this 1928 citation is the origin of the Huxley attribution.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

There is a thematically related notion with a long history: Earth is the lunatic asylum of other worlds. A Quote Investigator article discussing this topic is available here.

Voltaire wrote a story titled “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”) in the late 1740s and published it by 1749. Here is an excerpt from the English translation of 1807: 2

“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds . . .”

In 1919 Judge Henry Neil ascribed an instance of the lunatic asylum remark to George Bernard Shaw: 3

“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 1967 Leonard Feinberg published “Introduction To Satire”, and he credited the remark about hell to Shaw who died in 1950. QI has not found substantive support for this ascription. Perhaps the 1919 attribution above caused confusion: 4

The satirist assumes that the least flattering motivation of men and institutions is probably the true one. He may laugh at catastrophe; but he is not really amused, even when he suggests, as Bernard Shaw did, that our earth may be another planet’s hell.

In 1977 Laurence J. Peter published “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” which credited Huxley with a variant phrasing of the statement: 5

Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell. —Aldous Huxley
(One man’s idea of hell is to be forced to remain in another man’s idea of heaven.)

In 1980 Reg Smythe’s popular comic strip character Andy Capp delivered the line: 6

…’AVE YOU EVER THOUGHT THAT MEBBE THIS WORLD IS ANOTHER PLANET’S HELL..?

In 1987 “The Portable Curmudgeon” compiled by Jon Winokur also credited Huxley with the variant: 7

Maybe this world is another planet’s hell. Aldous Huxley

In 1994 “Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen” also ascribed the variant to Huxley. 8

In 2005 Gary Westfahl published “Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits”. While compiling this reference Westfahl had difficulty finding solid citations for some quotations, and afterwards he posted an article to his website “World of Westfahl” listing some of the difficult to verify statements which included the following item: 9

Maybe this world is some other planet’s hell.
—Aldous Huxley

In conclusion, Aldous Huxley deserves credit for the line he wrote in the 1928 novel “Point Counter Point”. The statement was spoken by a fictional character; therefore, it may not have reflected Huxley’s viewpoint. Also, Huxley may have been influenced by the pre-existing thematically related remark depicting Earth as a lunatic asylum for other planets. A variant phrasing evolved over time as suggested by the 1967 and 1977 citations.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Fred Shapiro who pointed out Gary Westfahl’s interest in tracing this quotation. Special thanks to S. M. Colowick who located the crucial 1928 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1954 (Copyright 1928), Point Counter Point: A Novel by Aldous Huxley, Chapter XVII, Quote Page 306 and 307, Chatto & Windus, London. (Verified with scans)
  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. 1919 September 6, The Weekly Freeman, Shaw’s Reply to Judge Neil, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Dublin, Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1967, Introduction To Satire by Leonard Feinberg, Chapter 3: Image of the World, Quote Page 59, The Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1977, Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Heaven and Hell, Quote Page 243, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1980 July 3, The Daily Register, Andy Capp (Field Newspaper Syndicate), Quote Page 28, Column 1, Shrewsbury, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Quote Page 291, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1996 (1994 Copyright), Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Topic: Hell, Quote Page 219, Plume: Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. Website: World of Westfahl, Article title: Mysterious Words: Unverified Quotations that I Could Not Include in Science Fiction Quotations, Article author: Gary Westfahl, Date on website: (No date specified on website; the book “Science Fiction Quotations” was published in 2005; the Wayback Machine has a snapshot of the webpage dated May 12, 2008), Website description: Material posted by author Gary Westfahl. (Accessed sfsite.com/gary on October 10, 2020) link