Voltaire? Niccolò Machiavelli? Wilson Mizner? Dying Irishman? Canny Scot? Aging Rock Star? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: While reading speeches given by Nobel Prize recipients I came across an entertaining anecdote about Voltaire from 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.
- 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 ↩
- 1856 April 30, Springfield Republican, Political Miscellanies, Page 2, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1856 August 06, The Nebraskian, (Freestanding short filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Issue 28, Omaha, Nebraska. (19th Century Newspapers) ↩
- 1856 August 27, Boston Investigator, Wit, Humor, and Sentiment, Page 1, Column 5, Issue 18, Boston, Massachusetts, (19th Century Newspapers) ↩
- 1857 July 25, Chicago Daily Tribune, [Freestanding article], Page 0_3, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1860 March 10, Saturday Evening Post, [Freestanding article], Page 6, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest) ↩