Category Archives: Voltaire

He Is a Modest Man Who Has a Great Deal To Be Modest About

Winston Churchill? Voltaire? Julian Amery? Ronald Reagan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a political rival of Winston Churchill was once praised with the description “He is a modest man.” Churchill responded with the quip “He has much to be modest about.” Would you please investigate this tale?

Quote Investigator: Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July 1945. In December 1945 “The New York Times” printed a group of anecdotes that were circulating in newspapers and diplomatic circles in London. One tale was about Attlee. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Although some quarters contend that the Labor Government has gone too far too fast in instituting reforms, a considerable bloc of Prime Minister Attlee’s supporters is frankly disappointed. That explains this observation, now making the rounds: “Attlee is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.”

The originator of the barb was unidentified although the prefatory words suggested that the critic wished to see more reforms from Attlee’s administration whereas Churchill opposed those reforms. The phrasing of the remark has been variable, and an instance was ascribed to Churchill by April 1947 in a Canadian newspaper.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1945 December 9, The New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, What London Is Laughing At, Quote Page 21, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)

What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

history10Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added: 1 2

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

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Notes:

  1. 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Voltaire? Spider-Man? Winston Churchill? Theodore Roosevelt? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Lord Melbourne? John Cumming? Hercules G. R. Robinson? Henry W. Haynes? Anonymous?

scales08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular saying about the relationship between ascendancy and obligation:

With great power comes great responsibility.

This expression has been attributed to two very different sources: Voltaire and the Spider-Man comic book. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have been unable to locate this statement in the oeuvre of Voltaire who died in 1778, and currently that linkage is unsupported.

QI has found a strong match during the period of the French Revolution. The following passage appeared with a date of May 8, 1793 in a collection of the decrees made by the French National Convention. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Les Représentans du peuple se rendront à leur destination, investis de la plus haute confiance et de pouvoirs illimités. Ils vont déployer un grand caractère. Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir. Ce sera à leur énergie, à leur courage, et sur-tout à leur prudence, qu’ils devront leur succès et leur gloire.

Here’s one possible translation into English:

The people’s representatives will reach their destination, invested with the highest confidence and unlimited power. They will show great character. They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power. To their energy, to their courage, and above all to their prudence, they shall owe their success and their glory.

Prominent leaders such as Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar statements in later years. Also, the appearance of an instance in a Spider-Man story in 1962 was influential in U.S. popular culture.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1793 May, Title: Collection Générale des Décrets Rendus par la Convention Nationale, Date: May 8, 1793 (Du 8 Mai 1793), Quote Page 72, Publisher: Chez Baudouin, Imprimeur de la Convention Nationale. A, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link

I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It

Voltaire? François-Marie Arouet? S. G. Tallentyre? Evelyn Beatrice Hall? Ignazio Silone? Douglas Young? Norbert Guterman?
voltaire08Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore a famous saying that apparently has been misattributed to Voltaire:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The words above reportedly originated with an English author named Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906, but the situation is baffling because I have also seen a French version of the saying that some claim is authentic:

Monsieur l’abbé, je déteste ce que vous écrivez, mais je donnerai ma vie pour que vous puissiez continuer à écrire.

Here is one rendering in English:

Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Voltaire was the pen name of François-Marie Arouet who died in 1778. The earliest evidence of the saying appeared many years afterwards in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire” by S. G. Tallentyre which was the pseudonym of historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Her book described an incident involving the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius who in 1758 published a controversial work titled “De l’esprit” (“On the Mind”). The book was condemned in the Parlement of Paris and by the Collège de Sorbonne. Voltaire was unimpressed with the text, but he considered the attacks unjustified. After Voltaire learned that the book by Helvétius had been publicly incinerated he reacted as follows according to Hall: 1

‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.

The above passage was confusing because Hall enclosed the now famous statement in quotation marks. Yet, the elegant phrase depicted Hall’s conception of Voltaire’s internal mental attitude and not his actual spoken words. Indeed, Hall asserted that the words were hers and not Voltaire’s in a 1939 letter published in the journal “Modern Language Notes”. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding persists to this day.

The questioner highlighted a French version of the saying, and QI has located a new matching citation in 1950, but the origin of this French statement remains uncertain. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1906, The Friends of Voltaire by S. G. Tallentyre (Actual author: Evelyn Beatrice Hall), Quote Page 198 and 199, Published be John Murray, Albemarle Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Originality Is Undetected Plagiarism

Voltaire? William Ralph Inge? Herbert Paul? Paul Chatfield? Horace Smith? Katharine Fullerton Gerould? Anonymous?

copydoc14Dear Quote Investigator: I have been attempting to trace a provocative and humorous remark about originality that has been attributed to a professor at the University of Cambridge named William Ralph Inge:

Originality is undetected plagiarism.

Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: William Ralph Inge held the position of Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in addition to his professorship, and he was typically referred to as Dean Inge. He did make a comparable remark in 1928 but disclaimed authorship. The earliest closely matching statement located by QI was published in the journal “The Nineteenth Century” in 1896 by the English writer and politician Herbert Paul: 1

And, after all, what is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism.

The saying has a long history and important precursors were in circulation in the 1700s and 1800s as illustrated below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1896 April, The Nineteenth Century, Volume 39, The Decay of Classical Quotation by Herbert Paul, Start Page 636, Quote Page 645, Published by Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Believe Those Who Are Seeking the Truth; Doubt Those Who Find It

Václav Havel? André Gide? François Truffaut? Marcel Proust? John Dingell Sr.? Luis Buñuel? Amanda Palmer? Voltaire? Anonymous?

gidesistine03Dear Quote Investigator: There is a provocative saying about leadership, discipleship, and the search for truth that is commonly attributed to the Czech statesman Václav Havel who passed away in 2011. Here are two versions:

Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it.

Seek the company of those who search for truth; run from those who have found it.

Although I have connected these statements to Havel for years I recently began to doubt the ascription. I have been unable locate solid information about its provenance. Would you be willing to attempt to trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: A large and diverse set of expressions can be grouped together naturally with the two sayings presented by the questioner. Below are nine examples labeled with their years of publication. This exploration was conducted primarily using databases of English text, hence it was incomplete. Only the keystone first expression from Nobel laureate André Gide is listed here in French:

1952: Croyez ceux qui cherchent la vérité, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent.

1959: Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.

1971: Love those who seek the truth; beware of those who find it.

1974: Love those who seek the truth; distrust those who have found it.

1980: Follow the man who seeks the truth. Shun the one who claims to have found it.

1986: Lead me to those who seek the truth, and deliver me from those who’ve found it.

2007: Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it.

2009: Honour those who seek the truth, but beware of those who’ve found it.

2010: I love the man who seeks the truth and hate the man who claims to have it.

In 1952 “Ainsi Soit-Il, Ou Les Jeux Sont Faits” by André Gide was released in France. The title in English was “So Be It: Or The Chips Are Down”. The following statement was included in the book: 1

Croyez ceux qui cherchent la vérité, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent; doutez de tout; mais ne doutez pas de vous-mêmes.

In 1959 a translation of Gide’s volume to English by Justin O’Brien was created. Here is an extended excerpt. Boldface has been added to the excerpts below. In this passage the boldface corresponds to the French text immediately above: 2

I resist giving advice; and in a discussion I beat a hasty retreat. But I know that today many seek their way gropingly and don’t know in whom to trust. To them I say: believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it; doubt everything, but don’t doubt of yourself. There is more light in Christ’s words than in any other human word. This is not enough, it seems, to be a Christian: in addition, one must believe. Well, I do not believe. Having said this, I am your brother.

QI hypothesizes that the other eight statements above were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Gide. The second statement labeled 1959 is simply the translation created by O’Brien.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1953 October, The French Review, Volume 27, Number 1, André Gide-deux ans après sa mort, II by Lucien Wolff, Start Page 6, Quote Page 8, Published by American Association of Teachers of French. (JSTOR) link
  2. 1959 copyright (1960 edition), So Be It: Or The Chips Are Down (Ainsi Soit-Il, Ou Les Jeux Sont Faits) by André Gide, Translated from French to English by Justin O’Brien, Quote Page 146, Chatto & Windus, London. (Verified on paper)

Deathbed Remark: This Is No Time To Be Making New Enemies

Voltaire? Niccolò Machiavelli? Wilson Mizner? Dying Irishman? Canny Scot? Aging Rock Star? Apocryphal?

voltaire01Dear Quote Investigator: While reading speeches given by Nobel Prize recipients I came across an entertaining anecdote about Voltaire told by the eminent economist Robert E. Lucas: 1

When Voltaire was dying, in his eighties, a priest in attendance called upon him to renounce the devil. Voltaire considered his advice, but decided not to follow it. “This is no time,” he said, “to be making new enemies”. In this same spirit, I offer my thanks and good wishes to the Bank of Sweden, to the Nobel Committee, and to everyone involved in this wonderful occasion.

Reports of deathbed pronouncements are notoriously inaccurate, and the speaker was probably knowingly presenting a lighthearted fanciful tale. I have heard the same story told about the famous political schemer Niccolò Machiavelli. Could you explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke known to QI was published in April 1856, and the person lying on the deathbed was not famous. The jocular tale was told in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper and featured a generic Irishman: 2

You remind me of a dying Irishman, who was asked by his confessor if he was ready to renounce the devil and his works ‘Oh, your honor,’ said Pat, ‘don’t ask me that; I’m going into a strange country, and I don’t want to make myself enemies!’

This popular account was printed in multiple newspapers and periodicals in the following years, e.g., The Nebraskian of Omaha, Nebraska in August 1856; 3 the Boston Investigator of Boston, Massachusetts in August 1856; 4 the Chicago Daily Tribune of Chicago, Illinois in July 1857; 5 and the Saturday Evening Post of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in March 1860. 6

Over the decades the identity of the main character has shifted between: an Irishman, a Scotsman, Wilson Mizner, Voltaire, Niccolò Machiavelli, an aging rock luminary, and others.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1995 December 10, Speech at Banquet for the Nobel Prize Award by Robert E. Lucas, Jr., [Lucas won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel], From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor Tore Frangsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm. (Accessed at nobelprize.org on August 13, 2013) link
  2. 1856 April 30, Springfield Republican, Political Miscellanies, Page 2, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1856 August 06, The Nebraskian, (Freestanding short filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Issue 28, Omaha, Nebraska. (19th Century Newspapers)
  4. 1856 August 27, Boston Investigator, Wit, Humor, and Sentiment, Page 1, Column 5, Issue 18, Boston, Massachusetts, (19th Century Newspapers)
  5. 1857 July 25, Chicago Daily Tribune, [Freestanding article], Page 0_3, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  6. 1860 March 10, Saturday Evening Post, [Freestanding article], Page 6, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)