Everything Which Is Not Compulsory Is Forbidden

T. H. White? Robert Heinlein? W. H. Auden? Murray Gell-Mann? Friedrich Schiller? Weare Holbrook? Ronald Storrs? Harry Lindsay? Gordon Daniel Conant? Gerhart H. Seger? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following societal principle has been called totalitarian, authoritarian, fascist, and dictatorial. Here are two versions:

Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.
Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.

This saying has been attributed to fantasy author T. H. White, science fiction author Robert Heinlein, poet W. H. Auden, and physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this principle was derived from an older principle articulated by the German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller in “Wallensteins Lager” (“Wallenstein’s Camp”) in 1798. Here is the German statement followed by an English translation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Was nicht verboten ist, ist erlaubt
Whatever is not forbidden is permitted

Changing the word “permitted” to “compulsory” changes the meaning dramatically. Here is a dated sampling of pertinent statements located by QI. The phrasing varies, and these assertions are not all logically equivalent:

1932 Sep 11: Everything was either “absolutely compulsory” or “strictly forbidden under pain of expulsion”

1938 Aug 06: Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory

1938 Sep 29: Everything not forbidden is compulsory

1939 Jan 03: Everything is either compulsory or forbidden

1939 May 24: Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden

1940 Jan 08: Everything is either forbidden or compulsory

1940 July: Anything not compulsory was forbidden

The earliest match found by QI occurred in a 1932 article about college campuses titled “The Way of All Freshmen” by Weare Holbrook. The author discussed the tight discipline enforced on undergraduates who experienced nine o’clock curfews and two-hour mandatory chapel services. Course selection was rigid until an elective system was adapted: 2

Government by graybeards presented many shining targets for the young idea to shoot at. Everything was either “absolutely compulsory” or “strictly forbidden under pain of expulsion.” The elective system was in its infancy. There was no middle ground on which a student could stroll around and exercise his option.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Everything Which Is Not Compulsory Is Forbidden


  1. 1800, Wallenstein ein dramatisches Gedicht von Schiller (Wallenstein a dramatic poem by Friedrich Schiller), Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), Erster Jäger (First Yager), Quote Page 29, J.G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, Tübingen, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1932 September 11, The Charleston Daily Mail, Section: The Charleston Daily Mail Magazine, The Way of All Freshmen by Weare Holbrook, Quote Page 16, Column 1,Charleston, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)