If Fifty Million People Say a Foolish Thing, It Is Still a Foolish Thing

Anatole France? Bertrand Russell? W. Somerset Maugham? Oliver Goldsmith? J. A. Schmit? Laurence J. Peter? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Fifty million people may parrot a false or foolish statement, but that will not metamorphose it into a true or sensible remark. Here are two instances in this family of statements:

  • If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
  • If forty million people say a foolish thing, it does not become a wise one

This saying has been attributed to French Nobel Prize-Winning author Anatole France, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A semantically similar remark was penned by novelist Oliver Goldsmith in “The Vicar of Wakefield” in 1766. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . the united voice of myriads cannot lend the smallest foundation to falsehood.

A separate QI article about the expression above is available here.

In 1874 another semantic match appeared in an article by J. A. Schmit published in the “Revue Catholique” of Louvain, Belgium. Here is the original statement in French followed by one possible translation into English: 2

. . . la vérité est qu’une sottise, même après avoir passé par un million de bouches, n’en reste pas moins une sottise.

. . . the truth is that a stupidity, even after having passed through a million mouths, does not become less foolish.

In 1890 an article in a journal of the Theosophical Publishing Company in London contained a related observation: 3

. . . the fact remains that if a million people believe a thing, it neither makes it true nor false. What right, then, have we to found anything on an assumption?

In 1900 Anatole France printed a germane remark about foolishness within a piece in “Le Figaro” newspaper of Paris. 4 The piece was part of his novel titled “Monsieur Bergeret à Paris” which was published during the following year: 5 The crucial remark was spoken by a character named Henri Léon who was unhappy with the prevalence of foolishness, but he seemed resigned to its presence. Here is the original French followed by a translation:

Et si nous ne sommes pas bêtes, il faut faire comme si nous l’étions. C’est encore la bêtise qui réussit le mieux en ce monde. Les hommes d’esprit sont des sots. Ils n’arrivent à rien.

And if we are not stupid, we must act as if we are. It is still foolishness that succeeds the best in this world. Intelligent men are fools. They are not getting anywhere.

In 1901 W. Somerset Maugham penned a close match to the saying under examination in one of his personal notebooks: 6

If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.

The phrase “to give them the lie” here means “to show them that the foolish thing is inaccurate or untrue”. Maugham’s 1901 remark was published in 1949 many years after it was written.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1913 “L’Impartial”, a newspaper of Algeria, printed an instance. Here is the remark in French followed by English: 7

Pour être journellement répétée par des milliers d’individus, une sottise n’en reste pas moins une sottise . . .

To be repeated daily by thousands of individuals, a foolishness is nonetheless a foolishness . . .

In 1921 a bilingual edition of “The Herald of Christian Science” printed another instance using “believe” instead of “say”. The periodical was paired with a German edition. Here are the English and German statements: 8

Even if a million people believe a lie, it still remains a lie.

Selbst wenn eine Million Menschen eine Lüge glaubt, bleibt es doch eine Lüge.

In 1937 an article by George Catlin in “The Fortnightly” attributed the quotation to Anatole France. Unfortunately, the luminary had died in 1924, so this citation has limited evidentiary value: 9

As Anatole France sagely remarked, if fifty million people say a foolish thing it is still a foolish thing.

In 1938 the “Los Angeles Times” printed the saying with an anonymous ascription: 10

Some wise man said: “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing”.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken published his famous compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations”, and he included Oliver Goldsmith’s remark; however, Mencken made a small error. He replaced “myriads” with “millions”: 11

The united voice of millions cannot lend the smallest foundation to falsehood.
OLIVER GOLDSMITH: The Vicar of Wakefield, viii, 1766

In 1944 the remark attributed to Anatole France continued to circulate in the “Ladies’ Home Journal” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 12

If 50,000,000 people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
—ANATOLE FRANCE

In 1957 Maugham’s statement was recalled within the pages of “The Book of Unusual Quotations”: 13

If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.
W. Somerset Maugham

In 1972 quotation collector Laurence J. Peter ascribed the remark to Bertrand Russell in “The Peter Prescription”: 14

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
—B. Russell

In 1977 Laurence J. Peter reassigned the statement to Anatole France: 15

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
—Anatole France

In 1992 the compilation “And I Quote” included the following variant: 16

When forty million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea.
—Ad run by United Technologies Corporation

In conclusion, Oliver Goldsmith deserves credit for the statement he published in 1766. J. A. Schmit deserves credit for what he published in 1874. QI would tentatively credit W. Somerset Maugham with the statement he wrote in his notebook in 1901. He may have been recording a remark that was already in circulation. Currently, the evidence linking Anatole France to the quotation is weak. Perhaps future researchers will discover additional compelling evidence.

Image Notes: Illustration depicting a crowd from Gerd Altmann at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Luther Mckinnon whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mckinnon pointed to the information available via Wikiquote which included a 1954 attribution to Anatole France together with some later citations. Thanks to discussants T. F. Mills and Donna Halper. Mills identified the citation in “Monsieur Bergeret à Paris”. Special thanks to Jerilyn Marshall who accessed “The Fortnightly” at the Rod Library at the University of Northern Iowa.)

Notes:

  1. 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, Part 2 of 2, Chapter 8, Quote Page 121, Printed by B. Collins for F. Newbery, London. (Eighteenth Century Collections Online ECCO) link
  2. 1874, Revue Catholique, Volume 37, La Dogmatique Révolutionnaire by J. A. Schmit, Start Page 513, Quote Page 525, Aux Bureaux De La Revue, Louvain, Belgium. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1890 February 15, Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine, Volume 5, Number 30, Edited H. P. Blavatsky & Annie Besant, Metaphor by Charles E. Benham, Start Page 505, Quote Page 508, The Theosophical Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1900 July 11, Le Figaro, Histoire Contemporaine: Chez la Baronne by Anatole France, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  5. 1901, Histoire contemporaine: Monsieur Bergeret à Paris by Anatole France, Quote Page 366, Calmann Levy, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  6. 1949, A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham, Year: 1901, Quote Page 76, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1913 July 19, L’Impartial: Organe Républicain des Intérêts de Djidjelli & de la Région, Sur Un Geste, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Djidjelli, Algeria. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  8. 1921 October, The Herald of Christian Science / Der Herold der Christian Science, Volume 19, Number 10, What People Say / Was die Leute sagen by Gustavus S. Paine, Start Page 341, Quote Page 344, The Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1937 July, The Fortnightly, Volume 148, The Technique of Social Health by George Catlin, Start Page 412, Quote Page 415, End Page 424, Chapman and Hall, Fortnightly Review Offices, London. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1938 March 22, Los Angeles Times, On the Side with E. V. Durling, Quote Page A1, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Falsehood, Quote Page 381, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  12. 1944 October, Ladies’ Home Journal, Volume 61, Issue 10, Pearls, Quote Page 101, Column 2, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)
  13. 1957, The Book of Unusual Quotations, Compiled by Rudolf Flesch, Topic: Foolish, Quote Page 93, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1972, The Peter Prescription: How To Make Things Go Right by Laurence J. Peter, Chapter 4: The Mediocracy or The Rise and Fall, Quote Page 57, William Morrow & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Fools Folly, Quote Page 202, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1992, And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker by Ashton Applewhite, William R. Evans III, and Andrew Frothingham, Topic: Ideas, Quote Page 153, A Thomas Dunne Book: St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)