The Test of a First-Rate Intelligence Is the Ability To Hold Two Opposed Ideas in the Mind at the Same Time

F. Scott Fitzgerald? Lionel Trilling? Katherine A. Powers? H. Maynard Smith? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Our experiences in the world are often complex, ambiguous, and ill-defined. We must be able to accommodate conflicting hypotheses. Here is a pertinent adage:

The truest sign of intelligence is the ability to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

A notion like this has been credited to the prominent literary figure F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In February 1936 “Esquire” magazine published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “The Crack-Up” which contained the quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Before I go on with this short history let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible” come true.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Test of a First-Rate Intelligence Is the Ability To Hold Two Opposed Ideas in the Mind at the Same Time

Notes:

  1. 1936 February, Esquire, The Crack-Up: A desolately frank document from one for whom the salt of life has lost its savor by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Column 1, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Esquire archive at classic.esquire.com)

Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Steve Jobs? Pablo Picasso? T. S. Eliot? W. H. Davenport Adams? Lionel Trilling? Igor Stravinsky? William Faulkner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The gifted entrepreneur Steve Jobs made some controversial comments about innovation during his career. He expressed strong agreement with the following aphorism which he ascribed to the famous painter Pablo Picasso:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

Did Picasso really make this remark? Are there other examples of similar statements?

Quote Investigator: An intriguing precursor appeared in an article titled “Imitators and Plagiarists” published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892. The author was W. H. Davenport Adams, and the terminology he used was transposed: “to imitate” was commendable, but “to steal” was unworthy. Adams extolled the works of the famed poet Alfred Tennyson, and presented several examples in which Tennyson constructed his verses using the efforts of his artistic antecedents as a resource. In the following passage Adams referred to his aphorism as a “canon”, and he placed it between quotation marks. Boldface has been added to some excerpts below: 1

Of Tennyson’s assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric, I shall give a few instances, offering as the result and summing up of the preceding inquiries a modest canon: “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

Note that Adams depicted poets who stole harshly, but the adage used by Jobs was accepting of the artist who copied or stole: one was good, and the other was great. Adams concluded his essay with additional praise for Tennyson and a condemnation of plagiarists. Oddly, the word “plagiarizes” was incorporated in later variants of the expression.

In 1920 the major poet T. S. Eliot published “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, and he presented his own version of the maxim. Eliot interchanged the terminology used by Davenport by suggesting that: “to imitate” was shoddy, and “to steal” was praiseworthy. This change moved the expression closer to the modern incarnation employed by Steve Jobs: 2

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Notes:

  1. 1892 June, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 272, Imitators and Plagiarists (Part 2 of 2) by W. H. Davenport Adams, Start Page 613, Quote Page 627 and 628, Published by Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1920, The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry and Criticism by T. S. Eliot, Section: Philip Massinger, Quote Page 114, Methuen & Company Ltd., London. (Internet Archive)