To Die for an Idea Is To Place a Very High Price Upon Conjecture

Anatole France? François Rabelais? Michel de Montaigne? Lewis Piaget Shanks? Will Durant? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The French Nobel laureate Anatole France was skeptical of martyrdom. Here are three versions of a statement attributed to him:

  • To die for an idea is to set a pretty high value on conjectures.
  • To die for an idea is to put a very high value on one’s opinions.
  • To die for an idea is to set a rather high price upon guesswork.

Would you please help me to find the original statement in French?

Quote Investigator: In April 1889 Anatole France published a piece in “Le Temps” (“The Times”) newspaper of Paris in which he discussed a book about François Rabelais. France’s essay praised the controversial 16th century satirical writer for maintaining integrity while avoiding execution. The following is a statement from the essay together with one possible translation into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . mourir pour une idée, c’est mettre à bien haut prix des conjectures.

. . . to die for an idea is to place a very high price on conjectures.

Below are additional selected citations.

Continue reading To Die for an Idea Is To Place a Very High Price Upon Conjecture


  1. 1889 Avril (April) 21, Le Temps (The Times), La Vie Littéraire: Rabelais by Anatole France, (Discussion of Paul Stapfer’s book “Rabelais, sa personne, son génie, son oeuvre”), Quote Page 2 (Not paginated), Column 3, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica)

Wagner Has Some Beautiful Moments But Terrible Quarter-Hours

Critic: Gioachino Rossini? Mr. Archer? Charles Gounod? Apocryphal?
Criticized: Richard Wagner? Signor Tamberlik? François Rabelais? M. Chelles?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent Italian composer Gioachino Rossini reportedly delivered an amusingly harsh assessment of the famous German composer Richard Wagner. Here are three versions:

1) Wagner’s operas contain wonderful moments but terrible half hours.
2) Wagner has great moments, but some pretty awful half-hours.
3) Wagner had some fine moments but ugly quarter-hours.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip can be expressed in many ways; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in an 1861 issue of a London weekly called “The Illustrated Times”. The criticism was aimed at an operatic tenor named Signor Tamberlik, and the key phrases were presented in French instead of English. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Signor Tamberlik, sings more tremulously this year than ever. He would always seem admirable if we never heard him in anything but the “Otello” duet, where his quivering voice suggests naturally enough the emotion of jealous rage. In other operas he has, according to a French expression, his “beaux moments,” but he has also his “fichus quarts d’heure.”

One way to render this statement into English is the following:

He has his “beautiful moments”, but he also has his “ugly quarter-hours”.

In 1872 an instance in this family of jokes was published in a French-language newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana called “Le Carillon”. The statement was grouped together with other remarks in a column titled “Pensees de Larochefaux-Col”: 2

Rabelais, si l’on en croit la légende, avait de bons moments, mais de fichus quarts d’heure.

In 1876 a German-language book about Italian composers was published in Berlin titled “Italienische Tondichter von Palestrina bis auf die Gegenwart”. Gioachino Rossini was credited with a remark about Wagner: 3

“O!” rief Rossini aus, “in dieser Beziehung bin ich ganz Ihrer Meinung und Niemandist entferner davon, die Origianlität des Schöpfers des Lohengrin anzuzweifeln, als ich; nur daß es uns der Componist mitunter recht schwer macht, das Schöne, was wir ihm verdanken, in dem Chaos von Tönen, das seine Opern enthalten, aufzufinden. Sie werden es selbst schon erfahren haben: Mr. Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures! Dennoch bin ich seiner bisherigen Laufbahn mit gespanntem Interesse gefolgt.”

Below is one possible rendering of the above passage into English

“O!” cried out Rossini, “in this connection I am completely of your opinion and no one is further from doubting the originality of the creator of Lohengrin than I; only that the composer sometimes makes it right difficult for us to find the beauty, which we thank him for, in the chaos of the tones, that his operas contain. You will have heard it yourself already: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarter-hours. Nevertheless I have followed his career up to now with excited interest.”

The text above contained the earliest linkage of the quip to Rossini known to QI. Lohengrin was first performed in 1850, and the book was published in 1876. So if Rossini made the remark above then he must have spoken sometime between those two dates. In addition, the joke schema was circulating by 1861. The authenticity of the ascription was not clear to QI. Future researchers may discover more evidence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Wagner Has Some Beautiful Moments But Terrible Quarter-Hours


  1. 1861 April 20, The Illustrated Times: Weekly Newspaper, Volume 12, Opera and Concerts, Quote Page 257, Published at the Office, Catherine Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1872 December 8, Le Carillon, Pensees de Larochefaux-Col, Quote Page 6, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1876, Title: Italienische Tondichter von Palestrina bis auf die Gegenwart: Eine Reihe von Vorträgen gehalten in den Jahren 1874 u. 1875, Author: Dr. Emil Naumann, Quote Page 543 and 544, Publisher: Robert Oppenheim, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link