The Old Believe Everything: The Middle-Aged Suspect Everything: The Young Know Everything

Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde once constructed an epigram about human knowledge and the three stages of life. I recall Wilde’s remarks about two of the stages. The arrogant young know everything, and the credulous old believe anything. Would you please help me to find this epigram?

Quote Investigator: Alfred Douglas asked Oscar Wilde to contribute to a new journal for students at the University of Oxford called “The Chameleon”. Wilde sent a collection of thirty-five witticisms which were published under the title “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” in 1894. Here were four items. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

If one tells the truth one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.

In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.

The old believe everything: the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything.

Only the great masters of style ever succeed in being obscure.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Wilde later began to regret his involvement with “The Chameleon” because it included material considered scandalous by contemporaries. In 1897 while residing in jail he penned a letter to Alfred Douglas: 2

One day you come to me and ask me, as a personal favour to you, to write something for an Oxford undergraduate magazine, about to be started by some friend of yours, whom I had never heard of in all my life, and knew nothing at all about. To please you—what did I not do always to please you?—I sent him a page of paradoxes destined originally for the Saturday Review. A few months later I find myself standing in the dock of the Old Bailey on account of the character of the magazine.

Excerpts from Wilde’s 1897 letter were published under the title “De Profundis” in 1905. But the full unexpurgated letter only appeared in print decades later. The text above is from “The Letters of Oscar Wilde” published in 1962.

In 1905 editor George Henry Sargent assembled a posthumous collection “Epigrams & Aphorisms” by Oscar Wilde. The saying under examination was included. Here were three items: 3

Only the shallow know themselves.

The old believe everything; the middle aged suspect everything; the young know everything.

The condition of perfection is idleness; the aim of perfection is youth.

In 1923 volume ten of “The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde” reprinted Wilde’s statements from “The Chameleon”. 4 The saying about the three stages of life has appeared in many quotation books during subsequent decades.

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde should receive credit for this statement which originally appeared in “The Chameleon” in 1894.

(Thanks to an anonymous person who inquired about the humorous remark “I’m not young enough to know everything”. This statement is often incorrectly attributed to Oscar Wilde although it was really crafted by J. M. Barrie. While conducting research on this topic QI encountered the quotation examined in this article and decided to create this separate article.)

Notes:

  1. 1894, The Chameleon, Volume 1, Number 1, Edited by John Francis Bloxam, Article: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Gay and Bird, London. (British Library website; accessed bl.uk on October 28, 2020) link
  2. 1962, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, From: Oscar Wilde, To: Lord Alfred Douglas, Date: January-March 1897, Location: H. M. Prison, Reading, Start Page 423, Quote Page 441, Published by Rupert Hart-Davis, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1905, Epigrams & Aphorisms by Oscar Wilde, Chapter: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, Quote Page 66 and 67, John W. Luce and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1923, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume 10, Phrases and Philosophies For the Use of the Young (December 1894), Quote Page 214, Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books Full View) link