Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness

Eleanor Roosevelt? Confucius? Chinese Proverb? William L. Watkinson? E. Pomeroy Cutler? James Keller? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Adlai Stevenson? John F. Kennedy?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the emphasis on constructive action in the following saying:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

These words have been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, and several other people. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

In September 1907 Watkinson’s sermon “The Invincible Strategy” was reprinted in a periodical called “China’s Millions” which was published by a Protestant Christian missionary society based in China. 2

Thus, the expression was disseminated to a group of people in China. Nowadays, the words are sometimes ascribed to Confucius or labeled a Chinese proverb, but QI has not found compelling evidence to support that assignment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness


  1. 1907 Copyright, The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America by W. L. Watkinson (William Lonsdale Watkinson), Sermon XIV: The Invincible Strategy, (Romans: xii, 21), Start Page 206, Quote Page 217 and 218, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907 September, China’s Millions, The Invincible Strategy by Rev. Wm. L. Watkinson, (Sermon printed by special permission of the Methodist Publishing House from the book “The Supreme Conquest” by W. L. Watkinson), Start Page 135, Quote Page 137, Column 2, Morgan and Scott, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Ah, Would That I Were Only 80 Years Old!

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Samuel Rogers? Walter Besant? Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Georges Clemenceau?

fontenelle07Dear Quote Investigator: An amusing remark about longevity and libido has been ascribed to septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians. A venerable gentleman was sitting on a park bench with a friend, and he gazed at a beautiful woman who walked by them. He turned to his companion and said one of the following:

1) Oh, to be sixty again!
2) Ah! To be seventy again, with thirty years more to live!
3) Ah! What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!
4) If I could only be eighty once more.

This type of comment has been attributed to the French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, the English poet Samuel Rogers, and the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1813 a collection of letters was published under the title “Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique”. A letter dated February 1, 1757 discussed Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and his place in the exclusive salons of France. Fontenelle had died during the previous month when he was 99 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Sans sa surdité qui l’empêchait de prendre part à la conversation, il eût été aussi agréable dans la société qu’il l’avait été à l’âge de trente ans. Il disait, il n’y a pas longtemps à une jeune femme, pour lui faire sentir l’impression que sa beauté faisait sur lui: Ah! si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans.

Here’s one possible translation into English:

If his deafness hadn’t kept him from participating in conversation, he would have been as pleasant in society as he was at the age of 30. Not long ago he said to a young woman, to show her how impressed he was by her beauty, “Ah, would that I were only 80 years old!”

The remark above was the earliest instance in this family located by QI. During the 1800s, 1900s, and 2000s the expression was often ascribed to Fontenelle though the precise phrasing and circumstances varied. QI conjectures that other members in the family were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Fontenelle.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Ah, Would That I Were Only 80 Years Old!


  1. 1813, Title: Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique: Adressée à Un Souverain d’Allemagne, depuis 1753 jusqu’en 1769, Part 1, Volume 2, Letter Date: 1er Février 1757 (February 1, 1757), Letter Location: Paris, Start Page 147, Quote Page 151 and 152, Publisher: Longchamps, F. Buisson, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link

You Should Share the Passion and Action of Your Time at Peril of Being Judged Not To Have Lived

Plotinus? Herodotus? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Anonymous?

cannon11Dear Quote Investigator: Many are familiar with the ancient Latin injunction of the poet Horace: “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day”. The following thematically similar statement has been attributed to other figures of the ancient world: the philosopher Plotinus and the historian Herodotus:

Not to be involved with the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of having not really lived at all.

Oddly, the same saying has been ascribed to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence linking the statement above to Plotinus or Herodotus. Unsupported attributions appeared in the 2000s, i.e., very recently.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered a Memorial Day address on May 30, 1884 in Keene, New Hampshire. He spoke about a pivotal event in U.S history, the Civil War, which had ended nineteen years earlier. The speech of Holmes included the original instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take his part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right—in the South as in the North. I think that as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.

Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. Many instances in circulation have been simplified and streamlined.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Should Share the Passion and Action of Your Time at Peril of Being Judged Not To Have Lived


  1. 1884, Dead, Yet Living: An Address Delivered at Keene, New Hampshire on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, Speaker: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, (Reprinted from the Boston Daily Advertiser by the Author’s Permission), Published by Ginn, Heath, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

The Common Law Consists of About Half A Dozen Obvious Propositions, But Unfortunately …

Judge Dowdall? William Pickford? Lord Sterndale? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

commonlaw01Dear Quote Investigator: Some lawyers take pride in their use of rigorous logical and legal reasoning. I once heard a hilarious remark about the body of law accumulated over the centuries. I do not remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:

The entire body of law and legal precedents may be derived from six obvious propositions; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Have you heard this saying before? Could you explore it?

Quote Investigator: In 1931 a judge named Dowdall presented a paper titled “The Psychological Origins of Law” at the Centenary Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He included a saying about the common law that matched your description. But he enclosed the remark in quotation marks to indicate that the words were not his. Boldface has been added to the passages below: 1

Man’s rational nature looks to find some presiding genius or logical principle behind, and giving consistency to, these decisions—a god of justice, a law of nature, etc. But such is not easily found even in these days, and the discovery is fragmentary. ‘The English common law consists of half a dozen obvious propositions, but unfortunately no one knows what they are.’

In 1932 Judge Dowdall wrote a letter to The Times of London and stated that he heard the saying from William Pickford who became Lord Sterndale, a British judge appointed to the High Court. In the following excerpt the phrase “taken silk” referred to a barrister becoming a Senior counsel: 2

Lord Sterndale once said, “The common law consists of about half a dozen obvious propositions, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” He was reading a case I had looked up for him, and I did not know whether he was speaking to himself or enlightening a junior barrister in the mysteries of the law, and as his clerk immediately called him into Court the matter dropped. He was a leader at the time, and I think it was not long after he had taken silk. The observation is so witty and true that, unless it is already familiar, it deserves record; but as the number of those who knew, Lord Sterndale diminishes it would be interesting if any of your readers ever heard him make a similar observation.

Here are two more citations and the conclusion.

Continue reading The Common Law Consists of About Half A Dozen Obvious Propositions, But Unfortunately …


  1. 1932, British Association for the Advancement of Science: Report of the Centenary Meeting, (Held in London on September 23 through 30, 1931), Sectional Transactions – H – Anthropology, (Paper presented Saturday, September 26, 1931), “The Psychological Origins of Law” by His Honour Judge Dowdall, Start Page 448, Quote Page 449, Published at the Office of the British Association, London. (Biodiversity Heritage Library at link
  2. 1932 January 26, The Times (UK), Points from Letters: Lord Sterndale on Common Law, [Letter from Judge Dowdall], Page 8, Column 6, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive Cengage)

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Vermont Legislature? Albert Bushnell Hart? IRS Building? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is tax time in the U.S., and I have a question about the inscription engraved on the exterior of the IRS Building in Washington D.C.:

Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society

The IRS website credited the remark to the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. But my searches have not yet uncovered a solid attribution. Can you tell me where he wrote this or when he said it? I also found some other phrases attributed to Holmes expressing the same idea:

Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.
Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.

Quote Investigator: In 1927 in the court case of Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue a dissenting opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that included the following phrase. Note that the text differed slightly from the inscription. The word “a” was omitted:

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society …

Here is a longer excerpt from the opinion by Holmes [OHCG]:

It is true, as indicated in the last cited case, that every exaction of money for an act is a discouragement to the extent of the payment required, but that which in its immediacy is a discouragement may be part of an encouragement when seen in its organic connection with the whole. Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure.

There is intriguing evidence supporting another of the quotations above in an anecdote recounted by a friend of Holmes named Felix Frankfurter who joined the Supreme Court in 1939 four years after Holmes died. In 1938 Frankfurter published the book “Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court”, and he also wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Both publications included this story about Holmes [ATFF] [LPFF]:

He did not have a curmudgeon’s feelings about his own taxes. A secretary who exclaimed ‘Don’t you hate to pay taxes!’ was rebuked with the hot response, ‘No, young feller. I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.’

Interestingly, this basic sentiment was expressed multiple times over a period of decades before Holmes wrote it. Although the wording used was variable. For example, in 1852 a committee appointed by the governor of Vermont wrote a report for the legislature which included the following:

Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society

Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable: 1

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879: 3

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout


  1. 1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback reprint: A Touchstone Book: Simon and Schuster)
  2. 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank)
  3. 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link

Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? John B. Finch? John Stuart Mill? Abraham Lincoln? Zechariah Chafee, Jr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am writing a book on the theme of freedom and would like to include a classic quotation about the pragmatic limitations on liberty. My research has identified several versions of this popular saying:

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.

My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

Strangely, these three similar statements were credited to three very different people. The first quote was attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The second saying was credited to John Stuart Mill, and the third was ascribed to Abraham Lincoln. But I do not trust any of these attributions because no citations were provided. Could you investigate this adage and determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The seminal reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” presents an important citation for this saying that shows when the phrase entered the realm of scholarly legal discourse. The saying was not credited to any one of the three luminaries mentioned in the query. In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge [ZCYQ] [ZCHL]:

Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Interestingly, the genesis of this adage can be traced back more than thirty-five additional years. Several variants of the expression were employed by a set of lecturers who were aligned with the temperance movement which favored restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a collection of speeches that were delivered by John B. Finch who was the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee for several years in the 1880s and died in 1887.

The saying Finch used was somewhat longer and clumsier than later versions of the aphorism. But the central idea was the same, and Finch received credit from some of his colleagues. It is common for expressions to be shortened and polished as they pass from one speaker to another over a period of years. Here is the relevant excerpt from an oration Finch gave in Iowa City in 1882 [PVJF]:

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:

“Is not this a free country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”

“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.

For decades the saying was used at pro-Prohibition rallies and meetings. Also, at the turn of the century the saying was adopted by some educators who presented it as a moral rule that children should learn about. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins