Mark Twain? George Carlin? Yul Brynner? Jean Cocteau? Bob Gray? Dilbert? Scott Adams? Anonymous?
Question for Quote Investigator: Logic and careful reasoning are the ingredients of a constructive argument. Acrimony and irrationality are the elements of a fruitless argument. The celebrated humorist Mark Twain supposedly formulated the following cautionary remark. Here are two versions:
(1) Never argue with idiots. They drag you down to their level and beat you with experience!
(2) Never argue with stupid people because they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.
Comedian George Carlin has also received credit. I am skeptical of both of these attributions, and I have never seen solid citations. Would you please examine this saying?
Reply from Quote Investigator: The full version of this article with additional detailed information is available on the Medium website which is available by clicking here. The abbreviated article appears below.
QI has been unable to find substantive evidence crediting this remark to Mark Twain or George Carlin. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger.
Scholar Matt Seybold of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies examined this saying and concluded that “Mark Twain never said these words, nor anything resembling them”. George Carlin received credit many years after the quip was circulating.
QI conjectures that the quotation evolved over time. The Bible contains a thematically related passage in Proverbs 26:4. Here is the rendering from the New International Version. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.
In 1878 April “The Daily Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana printed an adage depicting the underlying idea without attribution:
To argue with a fool is to make him your equal.
In May 1878 “The Rochester Evening Express” of Rochester, New York printed another precursor while acknowledging an Ohio source:
Don’t argue with a fool, or the listener will say there is a pair of you.—Cincinnati Breakfast Table.
QI has a separate article about a family of sayings incorrectly linked to Mark Twain which is available here: Never Argue With a Fool, Onlookers May Not Be Able To Tell the Difference.
In 1956 an Associated Press columnist spoke with the popular actor Yul Brynner who attributed a partially matching statement to prominent French artist Jean Cocteau:
Yul said the greatest advice he ever received in life was given by the French writer Jean Cocteau, who told him:
“Never associate with idiots on their own level, because, being an intelligent man, you’ll try to deal with them on their level—and on their level they’ll beat you every time.”
The above statement used the word “associate” instead of “argue”, but within a few years the remark evolved toward the modern expression. In 1958 a columnist in “The Daily Tar Heel” of Chapel Hill, North Carolina used the word “argue”. The columnist also omitted Brynner’s name and attributed the words directly to Cocteau:
As Jean Cocteau once said, “Never argue with an idiot, because being an intelligent man, you will argue with them on their level, and, on their level, they’ll beat you every time.”
In 1993 an instance using the phrase “win with experience” appeared in the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.cbm. The ellipsis occurred in the original text. The word “never” or “don’t” was omitted. No attribution was specified:
… Argue with idiots, they drag you to their level & win with experience.
In 1999 a version of the quip was attributed to Scott Adams’s Dilbert comic strip character. In 2009 Mark Twain received credit for a partially matching expression. In 2013 George Carlin received credit for a version of the quip.
The full version of this article with additional detailed information is available on the Medium website which is available by clicking here.
Image Notes: Illustration of a jester’s hat from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.
Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Marian T. Wirth, Brian Zachary Mayer, Thayne Davidson Muller, Robert McMillan, AnxiousPony, and Jane Bella whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Matt Seybold for his pioneering research.