To Die for an Idea Is To Place a Very High Price Upon Conjecture

Anatole France? François Rabelais? Michel de Montaigne? Lewis Piaget Shanks? Will Durant? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The French Nobel laureate Anatole France was skeptical of martyrdom. Here are three versions of a statement attributed to him:

  • To die for an idea is to set a pretty high value on conjectures.
  • To die for an idea is to put a very high value on one’s opinions.
  • To die for an idea is to set a rather high price upon guesswork.

Would you please help me to find the original statement in French?

Quote Investigator: In April 1889 Anatole France published a piece in “Le Temps” (“The Times”) newspaper of Paris in which he discussed a book about François Rabelais. France’s essay praised the controversial 16th century satirical writer for maintaining integrity while avoiding execution. The following is a statement from the essay together with one possible translation into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . mourir pour une idée, c’est mettre à bien haut prix des conjectures.

. . . to die for an idea is to place a very high price on conjectures.

Below are additional selected citations.

Supplementary context is supplied by this longer excerpt from Anatole France’s essay in “Le Temps”. 2 The text is followed by a 1922 English translation by D. B. Stewart. The initial pronoun of the passage corresponds to Rabelais: 3

Il maintint ses opinions, jusqu’au feu exclusivement, estimant par avance, avec Montaigne, que mourir pour une idée, c’est mettre à bien haut prix des conjectures. Loin de l’en blâmer, je l’en louerai plutôt. Il faut laisser le martyre à ceux qui, ne sachant point douter, ont dans leur simplicité même l’excuse de leur entêtement. Il y a quelque impertinence à se faire brûler pour une opinion.

He maintained his opinions, but not up to the burning point, reckoning in advance of and with Montaigne, that to die for an idea is to put a very high value on one’s opinions. Far from blaming him, I praise him. Martyrdom must be left to those who, not knowing how to doubt, have in their very simplicity the excuse for their pig headedness. It seems presumptuous to get burnt for an opinion.

Interestingly, Anatole France was not claiming credit for the viewpoint expressed in the quotation; instead, he was ascribing the thought to François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne. QI has not yet found a close match for the quotation in the works of Rabelais or Montaigne.

A 1911 biography of Michel de Montaigne by Edith Sichel concurred with France’s belief that Montaigne repudiated martyrdom: 4

And here we come to his strange limitation. Montaigne was ignorant of the power of an idea, ignorant of its very existence. To live for an idea was a possibility outside his consciousness. To die for an idea seemed to him a mere offence against reason, a madness, an act of nervous derangement. ‘Excess of virtue,’ he tells us, appeared in his eyes worse than ‘excess of vice’.

France’s thoughts about the importance of free expression were complex. In 1919 Lewis Piaget Shanks released a biography of France containing the following: 5

Here, Anatole France vehemently defends the right of the thinker to a free expression of his thought, regardless of any practical or moral consequences. “It is thought which rules the world,” he avers, “yesterday’s ideas make the morals of to-morrow.” And if he still loves his skeptical poise, still believes with Montaigne that “to die for an idea is to set a pretty high value on conjectures,” none the less he does virtually deny his old quietism in this statement: “Whoever thinks he possesses the truth must declare it.”

In 1931 the popular historian Will Durant published “Adventures in Genius”. He printed an instance of the quotation while referencing Shanks in the accompanying footnote: 6

Anatole believes with Montaigne that “to die for an idea is to set a pretty high value on conjectures.”

In 1968 the diligent quotation compiler Evan Esar printed an instance in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 7

To die for an idea is to set a rather high price upon guesswork.
–Anatole France

In 1969 “The Home Book of Humorous Quotations,” edited by A. K. Adams included an entry for the quotation: 8

To die for an idea is to place a pretty high price upon conjecture.
Anatole France, The Revolt of the Angels.

The supporting citation listed above pointed to the 1914 novel “Les revoltes des Anges” (“The Revolt of the Angels”) by Anatole France. Several other quotation compilations have also cited “The Revolt of the Angels”. QI examined the 1922 edition of this work which was translated into English by Wilfrid Jackson and was unable to find the quotation.

In 1987 “The Portable Curmudgeon” compiled by Jon Winokur presented another instance: 9

To die for an idea is to set a rather high price on conjecture. Anatole France

In conclusion, Anatole France deserves credit for the statement he wrote in 1889. France’s formulation reflected the viewpoint he ascribed to François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne. The statement can be translated from French to English in several different ways; thus, variant English phrasings continue to circulate.

(Great thanks to J.C. Duval whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Duval told QI about the claim that the quotation was present in “La révolte des anges”. Duval also remarked that the quotation seemed to be absent from the book.)

Notes:

  1. 1889 Avril (April) 21, Le Temps (The Times), La Vie Littéraire: Rabelais by Anatole France, (Discussion of Paul Stapfer’s book “Rabelais, sa personne, son génie, son oeuvre”), Quote Page 2 (Not paginated), Column 3, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica)
  2. 1889 Avril (April) 21, Le Temps (The Times), La Vie Littéraire: Rabelais by Anatole France, (Discussion of Paul Stapfer’s book “Rabelais, sa personne, son génie, son oeuvre”), Quote Page 2 (Not paginated), Column 3, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica)
  3. 1922, The Works of Anatole France in an English Translation, Edited by J. Lewis May and Bernard Miall, On Life & Letters by Anatole France, Translation by D. B. Stewart, Third Series, Chapter: Rabelais, Start Page 29, Quote Page 32, John Lane The Bodley Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1911, Michel de Montaigne by Edith Sichel (Edith Helen Sichel), Chapter: Montaigne the Philosopher, Quote Page 164, E. P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1919, Anatole France by Lewis Piaget Shanks, Chapter 5: The Monk of Letters: Criticism and the Reaction to Life (1887-92), Quote Page 95 and 96, The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1931, Adventures in Genius by Will Durant, Part 3, Chapter 2: Anatole France, Subsection 5: The Sceptic, Quote Page 275, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Martyr, Quote Page 507, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1969 Copyright, The Home Book of Humorous Quotations, Edited by A. K. Adams, Topic: Ideas, Quote Page 179, Column 1, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Topic: Ideas, Quote Page 153, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)