Imagination Rules the World

Napoleon Bonaparte? Blaise Pascal? Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases? Hugh Henry Brackenridge? Irving Babbitt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The French military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte has received credit for a statement about vision. Here are two versions in English:

  • Imagination rules the world.
  • Imagination governs the world.

Is this attribution genuine? Would you please help me to find a citation in French?

Quote Investigator: Napoléon Bonaparte surrendered to the British and was exiled to the island of Saint Helena in 1815 where he died in 1821. Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases met regularly with the ex-emperor, and he took notes of conversations. The popular work “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena” was released and translated into English in 1823.

Within a section dated January 1816 Las Cases described meetings with sailors who expressed the highest admiration and good wishes for Napoléon. The statesman observed that the sailors did not really know him, and their intense feelings were based on imagination. Below is an excerpt in French 1 followed by a rendering into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Voilà des gens qui ne me connaissaient point, qui ne m’avaient jamais vu, seulement ils avaient entendu parler de moi; et que ne sentent-ils pas, que ne feraient-ils pas en ma faveur! Et la même bizarrerie se renouvelle dans tous les pays, dans tous les âges, dans tous les sexes! Voilà le fanatisme! Oui, l’imagination gouverne le monde!”

He then said, “See the effect of imagination? How powerful is its influence! Here are people who do not know me–who have never seen me; they have only heard me spoken of; and what do they not feel! what would they not do to serve me! And the same caprice is to be found in all countries, in all ages, and in both sexes! This is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world!”

Below are additional selected citations.

Continue reading Imagination Rules the World

Notes:

  1. 1823, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal de la Vie Privée et des Conversations de l’Empereur Napoléon, à Sainte Hélène par Le Comte de Las Cases, Tome 1 (Volume 1), Seconde Partif (Part 2), Date: January 1816, Quote Page 110, Chez Henri Colburn et Co., Londres. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1823, Memorial de Sainte Helene: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by The Count De las Cases, Volume 1 and 2, Date: January 1816, Section: Life at Longwood, Start Page 249, Quote Page 255, Printed by Thomas Smith, Lexington, K. (Google Books Full View) link

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

Notes:

  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