I Prefer an Injurious Truth To a Useful Error. Truth Heals Any Pain It May Inflict On Us

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Mann? André Gide? Arthur Koestler? Garrett Hardin? Horace Mann? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes a truthful statement can undermine a cherished belief and provide comfort to an adversary. Thus, it is tempting to embrace an untruthful statement that provides temporary solace. Yet, accepting uncomfortable truths leads to personal growth, whereas accepting errors and lies fails terribly over time. Here are three instances from a family of sayings:

  • An injurious truth is better than a useful error.
  • A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
  • A destructive truth is preferable to a constructive error.

These expressions have been attributed to two prominent German literary figures Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1787 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a letter to Charlotte von Stein which included a discussion of this concept. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Es ist nichts groß als das Wahre und das kleinste Wahre ist groß. Ich kam neulich auf einen Gedancken der mich sagen ließ: auch eine schädliche Wahrheit ist nützlich, weil sie nur Augenblicke schädlich seyn kann und alsdann zu andern Wahrheiten führt, die immer nützlich und sehr nützlich werden müßen und umgekehrt ist ein nützlicher Irrthum schädlich weil er es nur augenblicklich seyn kann und in andre Irrthümer verleitet die immer schädlicher werden.

Translator Heinz Norden rendered the above passage into English for the book “Goethe’s World View” in 1963: 2

Nothing is great but truth, and the smallest truth is great. The other day I had a thought, which I put like this: Even a harmful truth is useful, for it can be harmful only for the moment and will lead to other truths, which must always become useful, very much so. Conversely, even a useful error is harmful, for it can be useful only for the moment, enticing us into other errors, which become more and more harmful.

Goethe formulated a more compact version of this idea which was reprinted in “Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung” (“General Literature Newspaper”) in 1801: 3

Schädliche Wahrheit, ich ziehe sie vor dem nützlichen Irrthum;
Wahrheit heilet den Schmerz, den sie vielleicht uns erregt.

Penguin Books published an English translation of the above statements in 1964: 4

I prefer an injurious truth to a useful error.
Truth heals any pain it may inflict on us.

Below are additional selected citations and comments.

Continue reading I Prefer an Injurious Truth To a Useful Error. Truth Heals Any Pain It May Inflict On Us


  1. 1902, Title: Goethe-Briefe: Mit Einleitungen und Erläuterungen, (Goethe’s Letters: With Introductions and Explanations), Volume 3: Wiemar und Italien 1784-1792, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Editor: Philipp Stein, (Letter dated June 8, 1787 from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Charlotte von Stein), Start Page: 163, Quote Page: 165, Publisher: von Otto Eisner, Berlin (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1963, Goethe’s World View: Presented in His Reflections and Maxims by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Edited with an Introduction by Frederick Ungar, Translated by Heinz Norden, (Untitled passage), Quote Page 72 and 73, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1801 January, Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (General Literature Newspaper), Number 2, Schöne Künste (Fine Arts): (Review of Göthe’s neue Schriften: 1795-1800 (Göthe’s new writings)), Quote Number 50, Start Column 9, Quote Column 15, Jena, in der Expedition dieser Zeitung. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1986 (1964 Copyright), Goethe Selected Verse, Introduced and Edited by David Luke, Section: Vier Jahreszeiten (The Four Seasons), Quote Page 130, Penguin Classics: Penguin Books, New York. Verified with scans)

A Different World Cannot Be Built By Indifferent People

Peter Marshall? E. W. Palmer? Mary Morain? Stanley Sykes? Horace Mann? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore the provenance of the following inspirational quotation?

A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.

These words are often attributed to someone named Peter Marshall, but I have seen other individuals credited.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in January 1944 in the U.S. military newspaper “The Stars and Stripes”. Multiple editions of this periodical were published, and the saying was included in the London and Northern Ireland editions: 1 2

GI Philosophy. A different world can never be built with indifferent people.

GI was a nickname for soldiers in the U.S. Army. No specific name was given for the originator of the adage.

The expression has been connected to Peter Marshall because he held the prominent position of Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and he popularized the maxim by including it in two prayers in 1947 and 1948. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Different World Cannot Be Built By Indifferent People


  1. 1944 January 11, The Stars and Stripes (London Stars and Stripes), Hash Marks, Quote Page 2, Column 2, London, Middlesex, England. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1944 January 11, The Stars and Stripes (North Ireland Stars and Stripes), Hash Marks, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Belfast, Ulster, Northern Ireland. (NewspaperArchive)