Tortoises All the Way Down

Hester Lynch Piozzi? William James? Bertrand Russell? Mark Twain? Henry David Thoreau? Carl Sagan? Terry Pratchett? Samuel Purchas? John Locke? George B. Cheever? Joseph F. Berg? George Chainey? John Phoenix? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a prominent scientist once presented a lecture on cosmology which discussed the solar system and galaxies. Afterwards, a critical audience member approached and stated that the information given was completely wrong.

Instead, the world was supported by four great elephants, and the elephants stood on the back of an enormous turtle. The scientist inquired what the turtle stood upon. Another more massive turtle was the reply. The scientist asked about the support of the last turtle and elicited this response:

“Oh, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Some versions of this anecdote use tortoises instead of turtles. A variety of individuals have been linked to this tale including writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, psychologist William James, logician Bertrand Russell, humorist Mark Twain, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, astronomer Carl Sagan, and fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This anecdote evolved over time. It began with European interpretations of Hindu cosmography. Early instances featuring tortoises and elephants did not mention an infinite iteration; instead, the lowest creature was sitting upon something unknown or on nothing. In 1838 a humorous version employed the punchline “there’s rocks all the way down!” In 1854 a debater used the phrase “there are tortoises all the way down.” By 1886 another punchline was circulating: “it is turtle all the way down!” Here is an overview sampling showing pertinent statements with dates:

1626: the Elephants feete stood on Tortoises, and they were borne by they know not what.
1690: what gave support to the broad-back’d Tortoise, replied, something, he knew not what.
1804: And on what does the tortoise stand? I cannot tell.
1826: tortoise rests on mud, the mud on water, and the water on air!
1836: what does the tortoise rest on? Nothing!
1838: there’s rocks all the way down!
1842: extremely anxious to know what it is that the tortoise stands upon.
1844: after the tortoise is chaotic mud.
1852: had nothing to put under the tortoise.
1854: there are tortoises all the way down.
1867: elephants . . . their legs “reach all the way down.”
1882: the snake reaching all the way down.
1886: it is turtle all the way down!
1904: a big turtle whose legs reach all the way down!
1917: there are turtles all the way down
1927: he was tired of metaphysics and wanted to change the subject.
1967: It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tortoises All the Way Down

If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter

Blaise Pascal? John Locke? Benjamin Franklin? Henry David Thoreau? Cicero? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was planning to end a letter with the following remark:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

But the number of different people credited with this comment is so numerous that an explanatory appendix would have been required, and the letter was already too long. Here is a partial list of attributions I have seen: Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Blaise Pascal, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Cato, Cicero, Bill Clinton, and Benjamin Franklin. Did anybody in this group really say it?

Quote Investigator: Some of the attributions you have listed are spurious, but several are supported by solid evidence. The first known instance in the English language was a sentence translated from a text written by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The French statement appeared in a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the year 1657: 1 2 3

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Here is one possible modern day translation of Pascal’s statement. Note that the term “this” refers to the letter itself.

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

An English translation was created in 1658 and published in London. Here is an excerpt from that early rendition of the letter. The spelling differed in 1658, and the phrases “longer then” and “shorter then” occurred in this text instead of “shorter than” and “longer than”: 4

My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer then the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.

Pascal’s notion was quite memorable, and it was discussed in a French book about language. That work was translated and published in London in 1676 as “The Art of Speaking”: 5

These Inventions require much wit, and application; and therefore it was, that Mons. Pascal (an Author very famous for his felicity in comprising much in few words) excused himself wittily for the extravagant length of one of his Letters, by saying, he had not time to make it shorter.

In 1688 a religious controversialist named George Tullie included a version of the witticism in an essay he wrote about the celibacy of the clergy: 6

The Reader will I doubt too soon discover that so large an interval of time was not spent in writing this discourse; the very length of it will convince him, that the writer had not time enough to make a shorter.

Below are listed several variations of the expression as used by well known, lesser known, and unknown individuals. The philosopher John Locke, the statesman Benjamin Franklin, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and the President Woodrow Wilson all presented statements matching this theme and the details are provided.

Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research, but one of his tangentially related quotations is given later for your entertainment.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter


  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Blaise Pascal, Page 583, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 119-120, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Blaise Pascal, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed March 27, 2012)
  4. 1658, Les Provinciales, or, The Mystery of Jesuitisme by Blaise Pascal, [Translated into English], Second Edition Corrected, Page 292, Letter 16: Postscript, [Letter addressed to Reverend Fathers from Blaise Pascal], Printed for Richard Royston, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1676, The Art of Speaking, Written in French by Messieurs Du Port Royal: In Pursuance of a former Treatise, Intitled, The Art of Thinking, Rendred into English, Page 8, Printed by W. Godbid, London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1688, An Answer to a Discourse Concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy by George Tullie, Preface, [Page 2 of Preface; unnumbered], Oxford, Printed at the Theater for Richard Chiswell, London. (Google Books full view) link