Most of the Evil in This World Is Done by People with Good Intentions

T. S. Eliot? Ayn Rand? Reinhold Niebuhr? Isabel Paterson? Krister Stendahl? C. S. Lewis? June Bingham? Paul Simon? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Tyrannical systems are often created by people who believe that they have the highest and noblest intentions. Totalitarian countries, theocratic dictatorships, and abusive cults are typically founded and promoted by those who are convinced that their actions will benefit humankind. Here is a pertinent adage about self-deception and fallibility:

Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.

The above statement has been attributed to the famous poet and playwright T.S. Eliot, but I have never seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no evidence that T. S. Eliot wrote or spoke the statement above. On the other hand, he did write two thematically related remarks which are presented further below.

The viewpoint of the adage can be expressed in many different ways which makes it very difficult to trace. A match occurred in 1914 within a trade journal called “The Creamery and Milk Plant Monthly”. A section presenting miscellaneous news stories included a short item discussing milk pasteurization. The anonymous author of the item wrote the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

But the fact is, that the greatest harm in the world has been done by people with good intentions. The bad ones seldom have power enough to do great harm.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Most of the Evil in This World Is Done by People with Good Intentions

Notes:

  1. 1914 November, The Creamery and Milk Plant Monthly, Volume 3, Number 3, Knowledge, zeal and efficiency, Quote Page 45, Column 1, National Milk Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

How Can I Know What I Think Till I See What I Say?

Graham Wallas? E. M. Forster? André Gide? Anonymous Little Girl? Anonymous Old Lady? Herbert Samuel? W. H. Auden? C. S. Lewis? Arthur Koestler? Christopher Hollis?

Dear Quote Investigator: Pre-verbal and non-verbal thoughts are vitally important. Yet, there is an intimate relationship between thinking and using language especially when analysis and reflection are required. A family of comical remarks reflect this connection:

  • How can I know what I think till I see what I say?
  • How can I tell what I think till I know what I’ve said?
  • I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1926 book “The Art of Thought” by Graham Wallas who was Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of London. Wallas suggested that the processes of thinking and expressing were entangled for the poet because the precise selection of words was crucial to success. Wallas attributed the saying under examination to an anonymous young girl. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” A modern professed thinker must, however, sooner or later in the process of thought, make the conscious effort of expression, with all its risks.

The next match known to QI appeared in the 1927 book “Aspects Of The Novel” by the prominent literary figure E. M. Forster who discussed the recent novel “Les Faux Monnayeurs” (“The Counterfeiters”) by André Gide. Gide’s complex work employed a novel-within-a-novel framework, and its plot was presented via fragments. Forster stated that the novel was “all to pieces logically”.

In the following passage, Forster attributed the saying under examination to an old lady in an anecdote. The phrase “distinguished critic” was a humorous reference to the old lady: 2

Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide—that old lady in the anecdote who was accused by her nieces of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. “Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!” she exclaimed. “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passée; she was really more up to date than they were.

Thus, the saying was popularized by both Graham Wallas and E. M. Forster although both disclaimed credit for authorship. Instead, the words were ascribed to two anonymous figures: a little girl and an old lady. The saying has also been attributed to Gide. The passage above is not easy to parse. But QI believes that the attribution to Gide is based on a misreading of Forster.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading How Can I Know What I Think Till I See What I Say?

Notes:

  1. 1926 Copyright, The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas (Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of London), Chapter 4: Stages of Control, Quote Page 106, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1927 Copyright, Aspects Of The Novel by E. M. Forster, Chapter 5: The Plot, Quote Page 152, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

If You Find a Book You Really Want To Read But It Hasn’t Been Written Yet, Then You Must Write It

Toni Morrison? Benjamin Disraeli? Mickey Spillane? C. S. Lewis? J. R. R. Tolkien? Janet Fitch? Ann Patchett? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent American editor, writer, and educator Toni Morrison who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” has been credited with an exhilarating remark about the creative process:

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

I have not been able to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1981 Toni Morrison spoke at the annual meeting of the Ohio Arts Council, and “The Cincinnati Enquirer” reported some of her comments. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Writing to me is an advanced and slow form of reading. If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

“It took me a long time to do a short book; a long time to leave the world of language and the building up and shaping of the book, but once it began to float I knew I could not not do it . . .

Morrison’s original phrasing differed slightly from the popular modern version of the quotation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Find a Book You Really Want To Read But It Hasn’t Been Written Yet, Then You Must Write It

Notes:

  1. 1981 September 27, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Writing Is Third Career For Morrison by Ellen Brown (Entertainment Reporter), Quote Page F11, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

You Are Never Too Old To Set Another Goal or To Dream a New Dream

C. S. Lewis? Les Brown? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous fantasy author C. S. Lewis has been credited with an encouraging statement aimed at seniors:

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

I haven’t been able to find a citation. Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the linkage to C. S. Lewis.

The first match found by QI occurred in the 1992 book “Live Your Dreams” by the motivational speaker and author Les Brown within a section titled “Never Too Old to Be Bold”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And please note this: You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. A gentleman nearing retirement age once approached me after I’d given a speech to his corporation. He said, “You know, that was real great motivation for the young guys, but I’ve done all my work. There is nothing else for me to do.”

I replied, “Oh yes, you have a lot to give. The fact that you are still here on this planet means that your business is NOT DONE.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Are Never Too Old To Set Another Goal or To Dream a New Dream

Notes:

  1. 1992, Live Your Dreams by Les Brown, Chapter 3: The Power To Change, Quote Page 75, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

To Be Happy at Home Is the Ultimate Result of All Ambition

Samuel Johnson? C. S. Lewis? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous English lexicographer Samuel Johnson apparently extolled domestic bliss. Did he write or say something like the following?

The chief aim of all human endeavors is to be happy at home.

Quote Investigator: In 1746 Samuel Johnson signed a contract to create “A Dictionary of the English Language”, and in 1755 the remarkable two volume product of his prodigious efforts appeared. He worked on other projects during this busy period including a periodical called “The Rambler”. His essay dated November 10, 1750 highlighted the importance of home life: 1

To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading To Be Happy at Home Is the Ultimate Result of All Ambition

Notes:

  1. 1785, Harrison’s British Classicks, Volume 1, Containing Dr. Johnson’s Rambler and Lord Lyttelton’s Persian Letters, Issue Number LXVIII (68), Date: Saturday, November 10, 1750, Start Page 155, Quote Page 156, Column 1, Printed for Harrison and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link