T. H. White? Robert Heinlein? W. H. Auden? Murray Gell-Mann? Friedrich Schiller? Weare Holbrook? Ronald Storrs? Harry Lindsay? Gordon Daniel Conant? Gerhart H. Seger? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following societal principle has been called totalitarian, authoritarian, fascist, and dictatorial. Here are two versions:
Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.
Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.
This saying has been attributed to fantasy author T. H. White, science fiction author Robert Heinlein, poet W. H. Auden, and physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this principle was derived from an older principle articulated by the German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller in “Wallensteins Lager” (“Wallenstein’s Camp”) in 1798. Here is the German statement followed by an English translation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Was nicht verboten ist, ist erlaubt
Whatever is not forbidden is permitted
Changing the word “permitted” to “compulsory” changes the meaning dramatically. Here is a dated sampling of pertinent statements located by QI. The phrasing varies, and these assertions are not all logically equivalent:
1932 Sep 11: Everything was either “absolutely compulsory” or “strictly forbidden under pain of expulsion”
1938 Aug 06: Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory
1938 Sep 29: Everything not forbidden is compulsory
1939 Jan 03: Everything is either compulsory or forbidden
1939 May 24: Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden
1940 Jan 08: Everything is either forbidden or compulsory
1940 July: Anything not compulsory was forbidden
The earliest match found by QI occurred in a 1932 article about college campuses titled “The Way of All Freshmen” by Weare Holbrook. The author discussed the tight discipline enforced on undergraduates who experienced nine o’clock curfews and two-hour mandatory chapel services. Course selection was rigid until an elective system was adapted: 2
Government by graybeards presented many shining targets for the young idea to shoot at. Everything was either “absolutely compulsory” or “strictly forbidden under pain of expulsion.” The elective system was in its infancy. There was no middle ground on which a student could stroll around and exercise his option.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In August 1938 “The Manchester Guardian” of England reported on a speech given by Ronald Storrs, former Military Governor of Palestine: 3
Sir Ronald said he had recently had some other countries described to him as “countries in which everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.” Happily in England people could say what they liked, and he would try to give an impartial presentation of the difficulties in Palestine.
In September 1938 Harry Lindsay, director of the Imperial Institute of London addressed a group in Victoria, British Columbia: 4
It was the British genius to recognize that whatever social or economic progress was to be made, the individual, because of the diversity of nature, was the foundation with which to deal.
This, he said, was in contradiction to these states where “everything that was not forbidden was compulsory.”
Also, in September 1938 the following filler item appeared in a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper: 5
A London economist quotes the perfect definition of the dictator State: It is “one where everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.”
Also, in September 1938 Harry Lindsay addressed the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Quebec, and he employed a more concise version of the saying: 6
“There are states where everything not forbidden is compulsory.”
In January 1939 a disjunctive version of the saying was applied to Germany by Gordon Daniel Conant, Attorney General of Ontario, as described in “The Ottawa Evening Citizen” of Canada: 7
True enough, liberty has been suppressed so that in Germany everything is either compulsory or forbidden.
In May 1939 “The Bangor Daily News” of Maine reported the following 8
Speaking on present-day Germany, Gerhart H. Seger, former member of the Reichstag defined Fascism as a state of society in which everything which is not compulsory is forbidden, at a lecture given here recently.
In December 1939 “The Saturday Evening Post” published a story about Italy by John T. Whitaker: 9
Coffee is forbidden, the use of motorcars banned and meat proscribed twice a week, until one says of Fascism, “Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.” Yet the very men who grumble about liberty, taxes, Germans, coffee and revolution are proud that Mussolini has gained prestige for Italy.
In January 1940 a newspaper in Morristown, Tennessee printed a filler item with a simple disjunction: 10
It is easy to know what to do under a dictator. Everything is either forbidden or compulsory.
In July 1940 “Astounding Science Fiction” published the short story “Coventry” by the prominent science fiction author Robert Heinlein which included a version of the saying using the word “anything”: 11
The State was thought of as a single organism with a single head, a single brain, and a single purpose. Anything not compulsory was forbidden.
In October 1940 a California newspaper presented an epigram about totalitarianism circulating in Paris, France: 12
Among the epigrams going the rounds in Paris at present …
“Definition of the totalitarian regime: Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.”
In 1941 English fantasy author T. H. White completed the manuscript of “The Book of Merlyn” and submitted it for publication. The work was intended to be the concluding book of a five-book opus called “The Once and Future King”, but the publication plan was derailed. The 1941 manuscript included a section in which the magician Merlyn transformed the character Arthur into an ant, and the tiny Arthur saw the saying printed on a sign above a tunnel: 13
The fortress was entered by tunnels, and, over the entrance to each tunnel, there was a notice which said:
EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY BY NEW ORDER
He read the notice with a feeling of dislike, though he did not appreciate its meaning, and he thought to himself: I will take a turn round, before going in. For some reason the notice gave him a reluctance to go, making the rough tunnel look sinister.
The publication history of T. H. White’s instance of the saying was somewhat complicated. The saying did appear in the 1958 edition of “The Once and Future King” 14 and the 1977 edition of “The Book of Merlyn”. However, the saying did not appear in the 1939 edition of “The Sword in the Stone”. 15
In 1948 “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases” included an entry for the saying with a citation pointing to the “The Saturday Evening Post” piece mentioned previously in this article: 16
Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.
John T. Whitaker, Italy’s Seven Secrets. Saturday Evening Post, 23 Dec., 1939, p. 53. Quoting a definition of Fascism.
In 1956 physicist Murray Gell-Mann published a journal article with a footnote containing the saying: 17
We have made liberal and tacit use of this assumption, which is related to the state of affairs that is said to prevail in a perfect totalitarian state. Anything that is not compulsory is forbidden.
In 1972 poet W. H. Auden published the collection “Epistle To a Godson” containing the poem “Talking To Myself” which included these two lines: 18
the deathless minerals looked pleased with their regime,
where what is not forbidden is compulsory.
In conclusion, the earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1932 article by Weare Holbrook about the treatment of students at colleges. Holbrook called it “government by graybeards”, and QI tentatively credits him with crafting the expression. The phrasing has evolved over time, and the expression has been applied to a variety of real and fictional states. T. H. White, Robert Heinlein, W. H. Auden, and Murray Gell-Mann all employed instances of the saying after it was already in circulation.
(Great thanks to Eccles, Fake History Hunter, and RivoalN whose tweets about a family of related sayings led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors at Wikipedia and Wikiquote for their efforts.)
- 1800, Wallenstein ein dramatisches Gedicht von Schiller (Wallenstein a dramatic poem by Friedrich Schiller), Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), Erster Jäger (First Yager), Quote Page 29, J.G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, Tübingen, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1932 September 11, The Charleston Daily Mail, Section: The Charleston Daily Mail Magazine, The Way of All Freshmen by Weare Holbrook, Quote Page 16, Column 1,Charleston, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938 August 6, The Manchester Guardian, Sir Ronald Storrs On Palestine From Our London Staff, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938 September 16, Victoria Daily Times, Crown Seen as Empire’s Pivot, Quote Page 13, Column 5, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938 September 25, The Montgomery Advertiser, Definition, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938 September 29, The Gazette, Empire Ideal Praised By Sir Harry Lindsay (Special to The Gazette), Quote Page 18, Column 2, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 January 03, The Ottawa Evening Citizen, Are Unemployed Citiz… by Dillon O’Leary, (Article title is only partially readable), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 May 24, The Bangor Daily News, Talk on Present Day Germany At University, Quote Page 22, Column 6, Bangor, Maine. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 December 23, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 212, Issue 26, Italy’s Seven Secrets by John T. Whitaker, Start Page 25, Quote Page 53, Column 3, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier) ↩
- 1940 January 8, Morristown Gazette and Mail, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Morristown, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1940 July, Astounding Science Fiction, Edited by John W. Campbell Jr., Volume 25, Number 5, Coventry by Robert Heinlein, Start Page 56, Quote Page 69, Column 1, Street & Smith Publications, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) ↩
- 1940 October 31, Ventura County Star-Free Press, Two Epigrams, Quote Page 18, Column 8, Ventura, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1977, The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King by T. H. White, Chapter 7, Quote Page 48 and 49, University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1958, The Once and Future King by T. H. White (Terence Hanbury White), Section: The Sword in the Stone, Chapter 13, Quote Page 121, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1963 (1939 Copyright), The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White (Terence Hanbury White), (Quotation “Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory” is absent from this book), Laurel-Leaf Library: Dell Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: Prohibition, Quote Page 1894, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1956 April, Il Nuovo Cimento, Volume 4, Number 2, Supplemento, Serie X, The Interpretation of the New Particles as Displaced Charge Multiplets by M. Gell-Mann (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey), Start Page 848, Quote Page 859, Archive at link.springer.com Springer Nature. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1972, Epistle To a Godson, and Other Poems by W. H. Auden, Poem: Talking To Myself, Start Page 74, Quote Page 74, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩