Author Archives: garson

What Has Posterity Ever Done for Us?

Groucho Marx? John Stuart Mill? Joseph Addison? Thomas Stafford? Boyle Roche? Adam Neale? Samuel Goldwyn? Bill Nye?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making sacrifices now for the people and environment of the future is difficult. This challenge has been encapsulated with a humorous remark. Here are two versions:

  • Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?
  • Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?

Groucho Marx often receives credit for this quip, but I have been unable to find a proper citation. Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx died in 1977, and an instance of this jest was ascribed to him near the end of his life in 1975, but the quip can be traced back to the 1700s.

A close variant appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1714. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated the magazine, and both were significant literary and political figures. The passage below was reprinted in the works of Addison. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I know when a man talks of posterity in matters of this nature he is looked upon with an eye of ridicule by the cunning and selfish part of mankind. Most people are of the humour of an old fellow of a colledge, who when he was pressed by the society to come into something that might redound to the good of their successors, grew very peevish, We are always doing, says he, something for posterity, but I would fain see posterity do something for us.

Addison disclaimed credit for the joke which he attributed to an “old fellow of a colledge”. The most likely candidate is Oxford scholar Thomas Stafford.

The Oxford Historical Society has published material from the papers of Thomas Hearne, an English diarist and antiquarian. An entry dated February 27, 1722/3 stated that on that day a great bell was sounded at Magdalen College, Oxford to honor Thomas Stafford, Fellow of the College, who had died that morning. Hearne then presented an anecdote from Stafford’s past: 2

He was a Man that lov’d to get Money, but was, however, very kind to his poor Relations. There is this Story going of him, that some of the College talking once of doing something by way of Benevolence or Generosity, upon some publick Account, & he asking for what reason, it was answered, to do good to Posterity. Posterity, says the Dr., What good will Posterity do for us?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 4 of 4, The Spectator, Number 583, Issue Year: 1714, Issue Date: “Friday, August 20”, Start Page 105, Quote Page 107, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907, Oxford Historical Society, Volume 50, Hearne’s Remarks and Collections: September 23, 1722 to August 9. 1725, Volume 8, Entry Date: February 27, 1722/3, Quote Page 50, Oxford Historical Society, Printed for the Society at Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Always Do What You Are Afraid To Do

Quotation: Always do what you are afraid to do.

Popularizer: Ralph Waldo Emerson (He did not create the adage.)

Context: In 1841 Emerson published the essay “Heroism”, and he recommended a simple maxim to readers for overcoming trepidation. Some fears are justified, and the guidance does not encourage foolish or self-destructive actions. Emerson disclaimed credit for the saying with the phrase “I once heard”: 1

Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

Related Article 01: Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You
Related Article 02: Make It a Point To Do Something Every Day That You Don’t Want To Do

Image Notes: Picture of wingsuits; author: Richard Schneider from Los Angeles; CC BY 2.0. Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson circa 1857; via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1841, Essays by R. W. Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Essay VIII: Heroism, Start Page 247, Quote Page 262, James Fraser, London. (Google Books full view) link

Within Thirty Years, We Will Have the Technological Means To Create Superhuman Intelligence. Shortly After, the Human Era Will Be Ended

Quotation: Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

Creator: Vernor Vinge, prize-winning science fiction author; retired professor of computer science at San Diego State University

Context: In 1993 NASA sponsored a symposium titled “Vision 21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace”. Vernor Vinge introduced the term “technological singularity” and predicted a cataclysmic change in human society resulting from the construction of superintelligent agents by 2023: 1

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

Is such progress avoidable? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? These questions are investigated. Some possible answers (and some further dangers) are presented.

Vinge outlined four pathways that lead toward surpassing human intelligence:

  • The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, most controversy in the area of AI relates to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is “yes, we can”, then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.
  • Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  • Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  • Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.

Related Article: If We’re Lucky, Robots Might Decide To Keep Us as Pets

Image Notes: Robot with companion from kellepics at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1993, Proceedings of Symposium Vision 21, Held in Westlake, Ohio on March 30-31, 1993, Cosponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, NASA Conference Publication 10129, Article: The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era by Vernor Vinge (San Diego State University), Section: Abstract, Quote Page 11, Published by NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Management, Scientific and Technical Information Program. (Accessed May 7 2018 via archive at ntrs.nasa.gov)

Part of the Inhumanity of the Computer Is That Once It Is Competently Programmed and Working Smoothly—It Is Completely Honest

Quotation: Part of the inhumanity of the computer is that once it is competently programmed and working smoothly—it is completely honest.

Creator: Isaac Asimov, bestselling author of science fiction and science books

Context: The book “Change! Seventy-One Glimpses of the Future” contained a series of short speculative essays detailing Isaac Asimov’s visions of the future. The piece “Who Needs Money?” discussed a cashless economy based on computerized electronic money. Asimov believed that the precise tracking of transactions via computer would reduce duplicity: 1

Abuses? They might actually decrease as dishonest dealing and tax evasion became more difficult. Part of the inhumanity of the computer is that once it is competently programmed and working smoothly—it is completely honest.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Luigi Muzii who requested a verified citation for this quotation.

Image Notes: Portrait of Isaac Asimov from New York World-Telegram & Sun via U.S. Library of Congress. Public domain picture of Colossus codebreaking computer from the UK National Archives via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes:

  1. 1981, Change! Seventy-One Glimpses of the Future by Isaac Asimov, Chapter 6: Who Needs Money?, Start Page 15, Quote Page 17, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)

It Is Not the Clear-Sighted Who Lead the World. Great Achievements Are Accomplished in a Blessed, Warm, Mental Fog

Joseph Conrad? Edgar Ansel Mowrer? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Great attainments are normally thought to require superior mental acuity, but the brilliant novelist Joseph Conrad apparently contended that a “warm mental fog” was necessary. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1915 Joseph Conrad published “Victory: An Island Story” in “Munsey’s Magazine”. The narrator described a young impressionable man who was taught by his father to profoundly mistrust life. The result was detrimental. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It is not the clear-sighted who lead the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm, mental fog, which the pitiless cold blasts of the father’s analysis had blown away from the son.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1915 February (1914 Copyright), Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 54, Victory: An Island Story by Joseph Conrad, Start Page 112, Quote Page 139, The Frank A. Munsey Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Nothing Is More Responsible for the Good Old Days than a Bad Memory

Franklin P. Adams? Franklin P. Jones? H. B. Meyers? Sylvia Strum Bremer? Loring Smith? Mike Connolly? Steven Pinker?

Dear Quote Investigator: Public intellectual Steven Pinker recently published the bestselling book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” which includes an entertaining quotation about nostalgia attributed to a prominent newspaper columnist: 1

As the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying was attributed to Franklin Pierce Adams in 1964 by the prominent publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf, but Adams had died in 1960, and Cerf is occasionally unreliable.

More than a decade before Adams received credit, the remark was ascribed to a columnist with a similar name, Franklin P. Jones. So Cerf may have confused the two names. Interestingly, the initial evidence found by QI occurred even earlier, and the saying appears to have evolved over time.

The May 1913 issue of “The American Food Journal” contained a prolix match within an editorial. H. B. Meyers was the editor, managing editor, and publisher of the journal. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

“THE GOOD OLD DAYS.”

A certain class of people are fond of talking about “the good old days,” but they are for the most part individuals without imagination and with a very poor memory. As a matter of fact, there never was a time in the history of the world when the days were as good as they are right now in this year of our Lord 1913.

In 1950 a columnist in an Iowa newspaper, Sylvia Strum Bremer, presented a more concise version of the sentiment: 3

Everybody is always talking about “the good old days,” and a lot of the nostalgia expressed is simply the result of poor memory.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 2018, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, Chapter 4: Progressophobia, Quote Page 48, Viking, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1913 May, The American Food Journal, Volume 8, Number 5, “The Good Old Days”, Start Page 131, Quote Page 131, H. B. Meyers & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1950 December 26, The Daily Times, Syl-o-ettes by Sylvia Strum Bremer, Quote Page 14A, Column 3, Davenport, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

I Want to Be What I Was When I Wanted To Be What I Now Am

Marlon Brando? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: We are unable to anticipate the full consequences of the changes we make to ourselves. The following wistful and convoluted expression reflects this unease:

I want to be who I was when I wanted to become who I am now.

While listening to the radio I heard this attributed to the famous actor Marlon Brando, but I cannot find any citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence linking this expression to Marlon Brando.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in an article published in the journal “Christianity Today” in July 1967 about the rebellious young generation. The words were printed as a slogan on a button, and no ascription was provided. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

When it comes to expressing their views on life, they say by button: “I Want to Be What I Was When I Wanted To Be What I Now Am,” or “Neuroses Are Red, Melancholy Is Blue, I’m Schizophrenic, What Are You?,” or “End Poverty, Give Me $10.” They further advise: “Reality Is Good Sometimes for Kicks But Don’t Let It Get You Down,” and “Even Paranoids Have Real Enemies.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1967 July 21, Christianity Today, Dear Slogan-Lovers by Etychus III, Page 20, Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Clare Boothe Luce? Oscar Wilde? Walter Map? Marie Belloc Lowndes? James Agate? Leo Pavia? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: For centuries moral philosophers have propounded a conventional viewpoint about the rewards and punishments delivered by a deity. Here is an example from the “Summa Theologica” by Saint Thomas Aquinas who lived during the 13th century: 1

For as punishment is to the evil act, so is reward to a good act. Now no evil deed is unpunished, by God the just judge. Therefore no good deed is unrewarded, and so every good deed merits some good.

A comically acerbic statement transforms this perspective. Here are two versions:

  • Every good deed brings its own punishment.
  • No good deed goes unpunished.

These words are often attributed to playwright and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce, and sometimes the credit goes to Oscar Wilde. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Clare Boothe Luce did receive credit for the saying by 1949, but the attribution was weak because the phrase had been circulating for multiple years before that date. Also, the saying was implausibly assigned in 1972 to Oscar Wilde who had died in 1900. Details are given further below.

Courtier Walter Map wrote “De Nugis Curialium” (“Courtiers’ Trifles”) in the 12th century. The Medieval Latin text was translated into English and published by an Oxford University scholar in 1923. Map described the actions of Eudo who was a rapacious adherent of an inverted morality. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

He put the worst of men to command the bad, he gave additional authority and power to those who were wickedest in their attacks on the innocent, and promoted over all others those to whom pity was unknown. He spared none of his band who inclined to spare any, left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded; and when he could find no rival and no rebel on earth, like Capaneus, he challenged opposition from heaven. He spoiled churchyards, violated churches, and desisted not either for fear of the living or respect for the dead…

The passage above contained a match for the saying under examination, but it was not really in proverbial form. It was a remark about a one person or about a class of wicked people instead of a general adage.

In August 1927 the prominent author Marie Belloc Lowndes published a short story in “The Windsor Magazine” titled “A Breaker of Hearts” which included an interesting precursor statement. Lowndes referred to “kindness” which is one type of “good deed”: 3

“Are you doing a wise thing, Laura? It’s dangerous work, you know, bringing about a marriage between middle-aged people. The couple don’t always thank you afterwards.”

“Kindness,” said the Duchess thoughtfully, “often brings its own punishment. But I don’t think it will in this case!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1917, The “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Third Part, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Fourth Number (QQ LXXXIV-Suppl. XXXIII), Chapter XIV: Of the Quality of Satisfaction, Quote Page 222,R. & T. Washbourne, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1983, De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, Author: Walter Map, Edited and Translated by M. R. James, Revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, Section: Distinctio iv: The Fourth Distinction, Start Page 278, Quote Page 331, (Translation based on 1923 edition by E. Sidney Hartland with notes by Sir John Lloyd; 1983 edition brought together English text and Medieval Latin text), Published: Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1927 August, The Windsor Magazine, A Breaker of Hearts by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Start Page 297, Quote Page 308 and 309, Ward, Lock & Company, London. (Verified with scans at archive.org)

If Something Cannot Go On Forever It Will Stop

Herbert Stein? Paul Krugman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Economic trends are sometimes unsettling. For example, political commentators in countries that develop large foreign trade deficits often complain that the situation is untenable. A prominent economist responded to this fretting with a tautology. Here are four versions:

  • If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
  • If it can’t go on forever it will stop.
  • If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.
  • Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.

Would you please help me to identify the creator of this saying together with a citation?

Quote Investigator: In May 1985 economist Herbert Stein wrote a column in “The Wall Street Journal” in which he discussed the shift in the U.S. balance between foreign debts and foreign assets. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

What economists know seems to consist entirely of a list of things that cannot go on forever, and this may be one of them. But if it can’t go on forever it will stop. And if we never do anything that we can’t go on doing forever we will never do very much.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1985 May 10, Wall Street Journal, My Foreign Debt by Herbert Stein, Quote Page 24, New York. (ProQuest)

Without Magic, There Is No Art. Without Art, There Is No Idealism

Raymond Chandler? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Raymond Chandler wrote influential detective novels such as “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye”. He moved to Hollywood and co-wrote the screenplay for the film noir classic “Double Indemnity”, but Chandler grew to dislike the heavy hand of producers, directors, and censorship boards on the writing process. He wrote:

Without magic, there is no art. Without art, there is no idealism.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Dear Quote Investigator: Raymond Chandler wrote an essay about his disenchantment with Hollywood for the “The Screen Writer” published by the Screen Writers’ Guild, but he withdrew the piece when the editor of the journal changed. Chandler died in 1959, and the essay appeared posthumously in “The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler” under the title “A Qualified Farewell” in 1976. He wanted to create artistically worthy scripts, but interference from many sources made it difficult: 1

Without magic, there is no art. Without art, there is no idealism. Without idealism, there is no integrity. Without integrity, there is nothing but production, and in the end not even that . . .

This article finishes with one more citation and a conclusion.
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Notes:

  1. 1976, The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler and English Summer: A Gothic Romance by Raymond Chandler, Edited by Frank MacShane, Chapter: A Qualified Farewell (Appeared in the journal “Antaeus” under the title “Farewell My Hollywood”), Start Page 68, Quote Page 69, The Ecco Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)