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.

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


  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)

To Die for an Idea Is To Place a Very High Price Upon Conjecture

Anatole France? François Rabelais? Michel de Montaigne? Lewis Piaget Shanks? Will Durant? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The French Nobel laureate Anatole France was skeptical of martyrdom. Here are three versions of a statement attributed to him:

  • To die for an idea is to set a pretty high value on conjectures.
  • To die for an idea is to put a very high value on one’s opinions.
  • To die for an idea is to set a rather high price upon guesswork.

Would you please help me to find the original statement in French?

Quote Investigator: In April 1889 Anatole France published a piece in “Le Temps” (“The Times”) newspaper of Paris in which he discussed a book about François Rabelais. France’s essay praised the controversial 16th century satirical writer for maintaining integrity while avoiding execution. The following is a statement from the essay together with one possible translation into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . mourir pour une idée, c’est mettre à bien haut prix des conjectures.

. . . to die for an idea is to place a very high price on conjectures.

Below are additional selected citations.

Continue reading To Die for an Idea Is To Place a Very High Price Upon Conjecture


  1. 1889 Avril (April) 21, Le Temps (The Times), La Vie Littéraire: Rabelais by Anatole France, (Discussion of Paul Stapfer’s book “Rabelais, sa personne, son génie, son oeuvre”), Quote Page 2 (Not paginated), Column 3, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica)

Awaken People’s Curiosity. It Is Enough To Open Minds; Do Not Overload Them

Anatole France? George Pólya? George B. Hartzog Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Educators are tempted to cover numerous topics and present a farrago of facts, but this superfluity discourages many learners. A small number of well-chosen topics and pertinent examples can activate curiosity. The Nobel-Prize winner Anatole France has been credited with the following astute advice for teachers:

It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1894 prominent literary figure Anatole France published a collection of essays titled “Le Jardin d’Épicure” (“The Garden of Epicurus”) which included a section containing guidance for educators. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Soyez des généralisateurs, soyez des philosophes et cachez si bien votre philosophie qu’on vous croie aussi simples que les esprits auxquels vous parlez. Exposez sans jargon, dans la langue vulgaire et commune à tous, un petit nombre de faits qui frappent l’imagination et contentent l’intelligence. Que votre parole soit naïve, grande et généreuse. Ne vous flattez pas d’enseigner un grand nombre de choses. Excitez seulement la curiosité. Contents d’ouvrir les esprits, ne les surchargez point. Mettez-y l’étincelle. D’eux-mêmes, ils s’éprendront par l’endroit où ils sont inflammables.

Here is one possible translation into English performed by Alfred Allinson in 1908: 2

Deal in broad generalities, be philosophical, but hide your philosophy so skilfully that you appear as artless as the minds you address. Avoiding technical jargon, expound in the vulgar tongue all share alike a small number of great facts that strike the imagination and satisfy the intelligence. Let your language be simple, noble, magnanimous. Never pride yourselves on teaching a great number of things. Rest content to rouse curiosity. Be satisfied with opening your scholars’ minds, and do not overload them. Without any interference of yours, they will catch fire at the point where they are inflammable.

The instance provided by the questioner and other modern instances attributed to Anatole France may be viewed as alternative translations of the original French text of varying fidelity.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Awaken People’s Curiosity. It Is Enough To Open Minds; Do Not Overload Them


  1. 1895 (First published in 1894), Le Jardin d’Épicure by Anatole France, Dixième Édition (Tenth Edition), Quote Page 199 and 200, Publisher: Calmann-Lévy, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1908, The Garden of Epicurus by Anatole France, Translation by Alfred Allinson, Edited by Frederic Chapman, Chapter: Careers for Woman, Start Page 167, Quote Page 171, John Lane Company, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) link

But Suppose the Child Inherited My Beauty and Your Brains?

George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan? Anatole France and Isadora Duncan? Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe? Albert Einstein and a chorus girl? George Bernard Shaw and a strange lady in Zurich?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly there was famous exchange between the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw and the glamorous dancer Isadora Duncan on the topic of producing a child together. Duncan stated that Shaw had a magnificent brain and she had a glorious beauty; the combination would yield a remarkable child. Shaw replied with regret that he feared the result would embody his beauty and her brains.

Recently, I read this same tale, but the dialog was between two other people: the playwright Arthur Miller and the icon Marilyn Monroe. Is this anecdote genuine? Who were the participants?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence matching the template of this story located by QI was published in the Boston Globe newspaper in 1923. The two supposed participants were the Frenchman Anatole France who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 and the acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan. The spelling “Isadore” was used by the paper: 1

In all probability the conversation between Isadore Duncan and Anatole France, who were discussing eugenics, came to a sudden stop when Isadore said: “Imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!” and Anatole responded: “Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!”

A version of the anecdote featuring George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan was in circulation during the same time period. Here is an instance from an Interfraternity Conference held in New York in 1925 where the communication between Shaw and Duncan was via letters instead of spoken. This tale was presented by Oswald C. Hering, a noted architect. The spelling “Isidora” was used in the following passage: 2

It reminds me of the story going around about the letters interchanged by Isidora Duncan and Bernard Shaw. Miss Duncan wrote Mr. Shaw as follows: ‘My dear Mr. Shaw: I beg to remind you that as you have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body, it is our duty to posterity to have a child.’ Whereupon Mr. Shaw replied to Miss Duncan: ‘My dear Miss Duncan: I admit that I have the greatest brain in the world and that you have the most beautiful body, but it might happen that our child would have my body and your brain. Therefore, I respectfully decline.’

This popular story was disseminated internationally, and George Bernard Shaw was asked directly about the anecdote by the editor of the German periodical Sächsisches Volksblatt because of a controversy involving a writer named Max Hayek. A short story by Hayek shared similarities with the anecdote, and he was accused plagiarizing an instance of the tale featuring Shaw and Duncan that was published in the Italian periodical Milan Corriere della Sera.

On March 3, 1926 Shaw sent a letter in which he strongly denied the Italian story about his interaction with Duncan and remarked on the unreliability of newspaper accounts in general: 3

… No beautiful American dancer has ever proposed marriage to me, on eugenic or any other grounds. The Italian journalist invented the dancer and her proposal; stole the witty reply from Herr Max; and chose me for the hero of his tale because newspapers always buy stories about me. 99% of these stories are flat falsehoods. 1/2% are half true. The remaining 1/2% are true, but spoilt in the telling.

Strikingly, Shaw made additional intriguing comments on this topic in 1931. He claimed that he once received a comparable “strange offer” from a “foreign actress”, and his reply was analogous to the one in the famous anecdote. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations and commentary.

Continue reading But Suppose the Child Inherited My Beauty and Your Brains?


  1. 1923 December 7, Boston Globe, Editorial Points, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  2. 1925, Minutes of the Seventeenth Session of the Interfraternity Conference, (Held at New York on November 27th and 28th, 1925), Report of Committee on Chapter House Architecture, Quote Page 111, Publisher: National Interfraternity Conference, New York. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  3. 1988, Bernard Shaw Collected Letters: 1926-1950, Edited by Dan H. Laurence, Volume 4 of 4, (Letter from George Bernard Shaw to The Sächsisches Volksblatt, Zwickau, dated March 3, 1926), Quote Page 16 and 17, Viking, New York. (Verified on paper)