There Is a Plague on Man: His Opinion That He Knows Something

Michel de Montaigne? Charles Cotton? M. A. Screech? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Overconfidence is one of the great faults of humankind. Gaining mastery of a topic is often quite difficult. Here is a pertinent remark:

There is a plague on Man: his opinion that he knows something.

The prominent French philosopher Michel de Montaigne has received credit for this saying. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Michel de Montaigne began to publish his famous essays in the 1570s. He continued to create, revise, and publish the essays up to the time of his death in 1592. The work titled “Apologie de Raymond de Sebonde” (“Apology for Raimond Sebond”) contained the saying under examination. The following text and spelling is from a 1652 edition. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

La peste de l’homme c’est l’opinion de sçauoir. Voila pourquoy l’ignorance nous est tant recommandée par nostre Religion, comme piece propre à la creance et à l’obeissance.

The sentences above have been translated into English by M. A. Screech as follows: 2

There is a plague on Man: his opinion that he knows something. That is why ignorance is so strongly advocated by our religion as a quality appropriate to belief and obedience.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Is a Plague on Man: His Opinion That He Knows Something

Notes:

  1. 1652, Les Essais de Michel, Seignevr de Montaigne, Novvelle Edition, Livre Second (Book 2), Chapitre 12 (Chapter 12): Apologie de Raymond de Sebonde, Start Page 313, Quote Page 353, Chez Edme Covsterot, ruë Sainct Iacques, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1987, An Apology for Raymond Sebond by Michel de Montaigne, Translated and Edited by M. A. Screech, Book 2, Chapter 12, Quote Page 53, Penguin Classics: Penguin Books, London, England. (Verified with scans)

There Are No Atheists in Foxholes

Plato? Michel de Montaigne? Hannah More? C. V. Hibbard? Warren J. Clear? Ruth Straub? William Thomas Cummings? Ernie Pyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When exposed to extreme peril many people reflect on the spiritual or supernatural dimension of existence. The following saying has been particularly popular during times of war. Here are two versions:

  1. There are no atheists in the trenches.
  2. There are no atheists in foxholes.

Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The first saying circulated during World War 1, and the second saying spread during World War 2. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in “The Western Times” newspaper of Devon, England in November 1914. A speaker at a memorial service for a fallen soldier held at St. Matthias’ Church, Ilsham read from the letter of an unnamed chaplain serving at the front. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The writer further said, “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.”

The adage does not have a clear origin, and anonymous is the most reasonable ascription. Yet, some popularizers have been named and citations given further below do list some individuals. Unsurprisingly, non-believers who have served in the military disagree with the adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are No Atheists in Foxholes

Notes:

  1. 1914 November 6, The Western Times, Col. Burn’s Late Son: Torquay’s Expression of Sincere Sympathy, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Devon, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Youth Is Wasted on the Young

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Irvin Cobb? Michel de Montaigne? John Brunner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A very popular acerbic adage combines wisdom and wistfulness together with a modicum of jealousy:

Youth is wasted on the young.

These words have been attributed to two famous Irish wits: George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Oddly, I have not seen any precise citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a syndicated newspaper column called “Cook-Coos” by Ted Cook in February 1931. 1 The expression was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw, and the central meaning was congruent to modern instances; however, the phrasing was quite different Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Someone asked Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.

“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”

QI has not yet identified an interview with Shaw containing the above remark; hence, the attribution was indirect. In the following months and years there was an efflorescence of similar statements linked to Shaw employing highly-variable phrasing. No closely matching written remark has been found in the corpus of Shaw; thus, residual uncertainty remains.

Attributions to Oscar Wilde were in circulation by 1963, but QI has found no substantive support for the linkage.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Youth Is Wasted on the Young

Notes:

  1. 1931 February 14, Rockford Register-Republic, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1931 February 14, Nevada State Journal, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)

I Am an Old Man and Have Known a Great Many Troubles, But Most of Them Never Happened

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Martin Farquhar Tupper? Seneca? Winston Churchill? James A. Garfield? Thomas Dixon? Michel de Montaigne? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone faces difficulties in life; however, the worry-filled anticipation of possible setbacks pointlessly magnifies dangers. A comical statement illuminating this theme has been attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill:

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

I hope you will be willing to explore this saying. An upbeat perspective suggests that great discoveries await.

Quote Investigator: A version of this quip was ascribed to Mark Twain in a Singapore newspaper in 1923, but Twain died in 1910; hence, this evidence is quite weak. Winston Churchill employed an instance of the saying in 1924, but he attributed the words to an anonymous “old man”. Details for these citations are given further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI was published in 1881. The humorous remark was spoken by President-elect James A. Garfield who was discussing the large number of tasks he would be facing as President. The statement was reported in the Cleveland Leader of Cleveland, Ohio, and the phrasing indicated that Garfield was referencing a saying that was already in circulation: 1

I remember the old man who said he had had a great many troubles in his life, but the worst of them never happened.

Interesting ideational precursors of this expression were used by Seneca the Younger, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Farquhar Tupper.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order which trace the evolution of the sentiment and the saying.

Continue reading I Am an Old Man and Have Known a Great Many Troubles, But Most of Them Never Happened

Notes:

  1. 1881 February 19, Cleveland Leader, The Next President: Visited Yesterday by the Now Popular Governor Murray, Article section header: I Have Got Into A Way, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)