Elbert Hubbard? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? William J. Crawford? Walt Kelly? Pogo? Pierre Daninos? Alphonse Allais? Julien Green?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a trenchant family of fatalistic sayings concerning the solemnity of life. Here are four examples:
- Don’t take life too seriously; you’ll never get out of it alive.
- You mustn’t take life too seriously; no one makes it out alive.
- Don’t take life so seriously, you’ll never get out alive.
- Why take life so seriously? It’s not permanent.
This notion has been attributed to U.S. aphorist Elbert Hubbard and French essayist and scholar Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore the provenance of this set of expressions?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the December 1900 issue of “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” within an essay by Elbert Hubbard who was the editor of the publication. The text began with a reference to the spiritual dimension of life. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Dear Playmate in the Kindergarten of God: Please do not take life quite so seriously—you surely will never get out of it alive. And as for your buying and selling, your churches and banks, your newspapers and books, they are really at the last of no more importance than the child’s paper houses, red and blue wafers, and funny scissors things.
Why you grown-ups! all your possessions are only just to keep you out of mischief, until Death, the good old nurse, comes and rocks you to sleep. Am I not right?
Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle died in 1757, and he received credit for this saying by the 1970s which is rather late. QI has not yet found substantive support for this attribution.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1890 a precursor appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper which acknowledged another paper in the state: 2
The Great Barrington News is credited with this sage bit of advice: “It is well to make the best of this world, for you’ll never get out of it alive.”
In December 1900 the saying appeared in “The Philistine” as mentioned previously. In the same month, a few sentences from the beginning of Hubbard’s article were reprinted in the journal “Love’s Medical Mirror”. Thus, the remark achieved further distribution: 3
Dear Playmate in the Kindergarten of God: Please do not take life quite so seriously—you surely will never get out of it alive . . .
In 1911 the artisan community founded by Hubbard, the Roycrofters, published “A Thousand & One Epigrams: Selected from the Writings of Elbert Hubbard”. The volume printed a shorter version of the saying. Below are four items from the compilation. 4
- Our greatest deeds we do unknowingly.
- Make use of your friends by being of use to them,
- Do not take life too seriously—you will never get out of it alive.
- You are what you think, and not what you think you are.
In April 1911 Hubbard’s 1900 essay from “The Philistine” was reprinted in “The Fra: Exponent of American Philosophy” another periodical from the Roycrofters. 5
Tragically, Hubbard was aboard the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 when it was torpedoed, and he died at age 58. The posthumous 1916 book “The Philosophy of Elbert Hubbard” contained a section of epigrams which included the saying: 6
Do not take life too seriously—you will never get out of it alive.
In 1932 columnist William J. Crawford of “The News-Herald” in Franklin, Pennsylvania printed this instance: 7
What’s the use of taking life so seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive, anyhow!
In 1950 the cartoon strip “Pogo” by Walt Kelly printed an instance spoken by the porcupine character named Porky Pine. The ellipsis was in the original cartoon text: 8
DON’T TAKE LIFE SO SERIOUS, SON … IT AIN’T NOHOW PERMANENT.
A separate QI article about the expression above is available here.
In 1966 the French author Pierre Daninos published the book “Le 36ème dessous”, and he included an instance attributed to Hubbard. Below is an excerpt in French followed by an English translation: 9
… elle n’est pas de moi, mais d’Elbert Hubbard : « De toute façon, ne prenez pas la vie trop au sérieux : vous n’en sortirez pas vivant. »
… it is not from me, but from Elbert Hubbard: “Anyway, don’t take life too seriously: you won’t make it out alive.”
In 1978 this topic was examined within a French reference work called “Vrai ou Faux?: Encyclopédie des Idées Reçues” (“True or False ?: Encyclopedia of Received Ideas”). The authors mentioned that Alphonse Allais and Hubbard had received credit for the saying; however, they concluded that the true creator was Fontenelle. Unfortunately, no citation was provided, and QI has been unable to locate this expression in the works of Fontenelle. Here is an excerpt in French followed by a translation: 10
« Ne prenez pas la vie au sérieux. De toute façon vous n’en sortirez pas vivant », citation d’Alphonse Allais. — Cette formule pleine de sagesse est souvent attribuée au merveilleux humoriste, compatriote d’Henri Jeanson, qu’était Alphonse Allais. Il fallut une enquête sérieuse pour cerner de près la vérité.
En effet Pierre Daninos en fit remonter la paternité à Helbert Hubbard. A tort d’ailleurs, car Julien Green remit les choses au point dans son ouvrage « Ce qui reste de jour » en rendant cette citation à son véritable auteur : Fontenelle.
“Don’t take life seriously. Either way, you won’t make it out alive,” quote from Alphonse Allais. — This formula full of wisdom is often attributed to the wonderful humorist, Henri Jeanson’s compatriot, Alphonse Allais. It took a serious investigation to pinpoint the truth.
Indeed, Pierre Daninos traced the paternity of it to Helbert Hubbard. Wrongly, because Julien Green put things right in his book “What remains of the day” by returning this quote to its real author: Fontenelle.
In conclusion, QI believes that Elbert Hubbard deserves credit for this saying based on the December 1900 citation. Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle was born during the 17th century, and researchers have not yet found a citation before 1900; hence, the attribution to him is currently unsupported.
Image Notes: Illustration of person meditating from Activedia at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Michael De Clercq whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. De Clercq saw the QI article about the instance in “Pogo”, and he helpfully contacted QI to mention the attribution to Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. Also, thanks to the “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro which pointed to Elbert Hubbard and provided a valuable 1911 citation in “A Thousand & One Epigrams”.)
- 1900 December, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Volume 12, Number 1, Editor Elbert Hubbard, Heart to Heart Talks with Philistines by the Pastor of His Flock, Dear Playmate in the Kindergarten of God, Start Page 24, Quote Page 24, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1890 August 2, Fall River Evening News, (Untitled brief item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Fall River, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1900 December, Love’s Medical Mirror, Volume 11, Number 12, Editor and Owner I. N. Love M.D., (Passage attributed to “Hubbard”), Quote Page 1 (Cover Page of Advertising Section), (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1911 Copyright, A Thousand & One Epigrams, Selected from the Writings of Elbert Hubbard, Quote Page 67, 74, and 77, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1911 April, The Fra: Exponent of American Philosophy, Volume 7, Number 1, The Outdoor Number, Start Page xxxiv, Quote Page xxxiv, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1916, The Philosophy of Elbert Hubbard by The Roycrofters, Chapter: Epigrams, Quote Page 173, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1932 April 4, The News-Herald, Looking at the News of Today by William J. Crawford, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Franklin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1950 June 24, Long Beach Independent, Comic Strip: Pogo by Walt Kelly, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Long Beach, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1966, Le 36ème dessous (The 36th above) par Pierre Daninos, Chapter: Le Boa Constrictor, Quote Page 28, Hachette, Paris. (BNF Gallica) link ↩
- 1978 Copyright, Vrai ou Faux?: Encyclopédie des Idées Reçues (True or False ?: Encyclopedia of Received Ideas), par Claude Valette, et Tom Burnam, Quote Page 176, France Loisirs, Paris, France. (Verified with scans) ↩