All Comedy Is Tragedy, If You Only Look Deep Enough Into It

Thomas Hardy? John Ruskin? William Stearns Davis? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comedy and tragedy are sometimes intertwined. The prominent English novelist Thomas Hardy has received credit for the following remark:

Comedy is tragedy, if you only look deep enough.

This statement has also been ascribed to the influential English art critic John Ruskin. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a letter Thomas Hardy sent to John Addington Symonds in 1889. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

I often begin a story with the intention of making it brighter & gayer than usual; but the question of conscience soon comes in; & it does not seem right, even in novels, to wilfully belie one’s own views. All comedy, is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading All Comedy Is Tragedy, If You Only Look Deep Enough Into It


  1. 1978, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1, 1840-1892, Edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, Letter date: April 14, 1889, Letter from: Thomas Hardy, Letter to: John Addington Symonds, Location: Max Gate, Near Dorchester, Quote Page 190, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)

A Man Wrapped Up in Himself Makes a Very Small Bundle

Benjamin Franklin? John Ruskin? Harry Emerson Fosdick? Mae A. Byrnes? Dan Crawford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An individual who is self-absorbed typically experiences a diminished life and does not achieve great renown. Here are four versions of a figurative saying on this theme:

  • A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.
  • A person all wrapped up in herself makes a pretty small package.
  • When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a very small parcel.
  • People who are entirely wrapped up in themselves make pretty small packages.

This expression has been attributed to U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin, English art critic John Ruskin, and U.S. pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this expression was used by Benjamin Franklin or John Ruskin. It was employed by Harry Emerson Fosdick by 1942, but only after it had been circulating for decades.

This saying is difficult to trace because it can be phrased in many different ways. The earliest instances located by QI were anonymous. A comical precursor evincing disdain for the self-absorbed appeared in a Nebraska newspaper in 1899. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

People who are all wrapped up in themselves ought to be bundled off together.

In 1904 a match occurred for the saying in a Clarksville, Tennessee. newspaper. The anonymous statement appeared together with miscellaneous items under the title “Bubbles”. The word “small” was absent: 2

People who are wrapped up in themselves are bound to be bundles of self conceit.

Five days later the same statement appeared in an Okolona, Mississippi newspaper under the title “Gathered Gems”. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Man Wrapped Up in Himself Makes a Very Small Bundle


  1. 1899 April 3, The Nebraska State Journal, Bulletin Bubbles, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1904 May 06, Daily Leaf-Chronicle, Bubbles, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Clarksville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1904 May 11, Okolona Messenger, Gathered Gems, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Okolona, Mississippi. (GenealogyBank)

Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So

Bertrand Russell? Sheldon? John Ruskin? Woods Hutchinson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Cantankerous individuals who believe they are surrounded by an ignorant and unthinking public sometimes proclaim:

  • People would rather die than think.

This statement has been enhanced with a funny addition that reinvigorates the cliché. Here are two versions:

  • Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do.
  • Most people would rather die than think, and many of them do.

The influential British intellectual Bertrand Russell has received credit for this saying. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: Bertrand Russell did include an instance in his 1925 book about physics titled “The ABC of Relativity”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so. But the fact that a spherical universe seems odd to people who have been brought up on Euclidean prejudices is no evidence that it is impossible.

Confusion has occurred because Russell’s book has been reprinted and revised several times over the years. The humorous statement above was omitted from the revised 1958 edition and subsequent editions.

Interestingly, Bertrand Russell did not create this joke. An elaborate version was in circulation by 1913. Below are additional selected citations and further details in chronological order.

Continue reading Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So


  1. 1925, The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell, Chapter XI: Is the Universe Finite?, Quote Page 166, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)

You Just Chip Away Everything That Doesn’t Look Like David

Michelangelo? John Ruskin? George F. Pentecost? Boys’ Life Magazine? Orison Swett Marden? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is an unlikely tale about the brilliant Renaissance artist Michelangelo. He was asked about the difficulties that he must have encountered in sculpting his masterpiece David. But he replied with an unassuming and comical description of his creative process:

It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.

I have heard a similar anecdote about an unnamed artist asked about sculpting an elephant:

Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

Would you please examine this story?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Michelangelo or any other great sculptor made this remark. A comment of this type was published in 1858 in “The Methodist Quarterly Review” without any overt humor. The essay discussed poetry, and the author compared the methods of adroit sculptors and poets. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is the sculptor’s power, so often alluded to, of finding the perfect form and features of a goddess, in the shapeless block of marble; and his ability to chip off all extraneous matter, and let the divine excellence stand forth for itself. Thus, in every incident of business, in every accident of life, the poet sees something divine, and carefully scales off all that encumbers that divinity, and permits it to be revealed in all its transcendent loveliness.

By 1879 a humorous version of the tale was in circulation. A weekly paper devoted to free religion called “The Index” printed a short item under the tile “The Simplest Thing in the World”. The statement was ludicrously credited to the leading art critic John Ruskin, and an acknowledgement to a periodical in Paris, France was included: 2

“That Venus” said a critic severely, “is a pretty poor piece of work.” “It is very easy for you to say so,” says a friend of the artist; “still a man has got to have some acquaintance with art before he can sculp a statue like that.” “Oh, bosh, as Mr. Ruskin says. Sculpture, per se, is the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is to take a big chunk of marble and a hammer and chisel, make up your mind what you are about to create and chip off all the marble you don’t want.”—Paris Gaulois.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading You Just Chip Away Everything That Doesn’t Look Like David


  1. 1858 January, The Methodist Quarterly Review, Whittier’s Poems, (Book Review of “The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier), Start Page 72, Quote Page 78, Published by Carlton & Porter, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1879 July 10, The Index: A Weekly Paper Devoted to Free Religion, Volume 10, The Simplest Thing in the World, (Short item), Quote Page 333, Column 2, (The spelling “sculp” appears in the original text) Published by the Index Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Never Lose an Opportunity of Seeing Anything Beautiful. Beauty is God’s Handwriting

Ralph Waldo Emerson? John Ruskin? Charles Kingsley? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Extraordinary scenes of beauty can uplift one’s spirit. The following remark is often attributed to the philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting.

I searched in a database of Emerson’s writings and was unable to locate this quotation. The words are sometimes credited to the influential art critic John Ruskin. Would you please examine the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1848 a new periodical called “Politics for the People” began to publish, and it included an article about the National Gallery in London. The authorship was cloaked by the pseudonym “Parson Lot”. Ultimately, the author was identified as Charles Kingsley, a member of the clergy who later became a Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge.

Kingsley believed that a gallery had the potential to brighten the lives of visitors by exposing them to lovely artworks: 1

Picture-galleries should be the workman’s paradise, and garden of pleasure, to which he goes to refresh his eyes and heart with beautiful shapes and sweet colouring, when they are wearied with dull bricks and mortar, and the ugly colourless things which fill the workshop and the factory.

Kingsley originated the quotation as a piece of advice to readers in this 1848 article. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

Those who live in towns should carefully remember this, for their own sakes, for their wives’ sakes, for their children’s sakes. Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful. Beauty is God’s hand-writing—a way-side sacrament; welcome it in every fair face, every fair sky, every fair flower, and thank for it Him, the fountain of all loveliness, and drink it in, simply and earnestly, with all your eyes; it is a charmed draught, a cup of blessing.

Over time this quotation has incorrectly been reassigned to other famous thinkers, e.g., Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin. These misattributions have been in circulation for more than one hundred years. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Lose an Opportunity of Seeing Anything Beautiful. Beauty is God’s Handwriting


  1. 1848 May 6, Politics for the People, Number 1, “The National Gallery.—No. I.” by Parson Lot (Charles Kingsley), Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Published by John W. Parker, West Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link