All You Need In This Life Is Ignorance and Confidence; Then Success Is Sure

Mark Twain? Benjamin De Casseres? Richard Grant White? Mary Hallock Foote? Cordelia Foote? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain once joked that the key to success was a combination of ignorance and confidence. I do not know the precise phrasing. Would you please help me to find the exact quotation and a citation?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain penned this amusing remark in a letter dated December 2, 1887 which he sent to “Mrs. Foote”. The letter was reprinted in the “Los Angeles Times” on March 16, 1930. 1 Also, in 1934 a facsimile of the missive appeared in the book “When Huck Finn Went Highbrow” by Benjamin De Casseres, a limited edition with 125 copies.

There was a long delay between the letter’s composition and its publication, but Twain scholars believe that it is authentic. The famed humorist discussed leading a study group who were exploring the poetry of Robert Browning. 2 The quotation reflected Twain’s comical reaction to holding a position of leadership: 3

Now when you come to think of it, wasn’t it a curious idea—I mean for a dozen ladies of (apparently) high intelligence to elect me their Browning reader? Of course you think I declined at first; but I didn’t. I’m not the declining sort. I would take charge of the constellations if I were asked to do it. All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading All You Need In This Life Is Ignorance and Confidence; Then Success Is Sure

Notes:

  1. 1930 March 16, Los Angeles Times, Twain Letter Unearthed by Neeta Marquis, Section 3, Quote Page 22, Column 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) link
  2. 1978, Browning Institute Studies, Volume 6, Article: “A Splendor of Stars & Suns”: Twain as a Reader of Browning’s Poems by Alan Gribben, Start Page 87, End Page 107, Published by Cambridge University Press. (JSTOR; Accessed September 5, 2021) link
  3. 1934, When Huck Finn Went Highbrow by Benjamin De Casseres, Limited edition with 125 copies, (Book includes facsimile of letter sent from Mark Twain to Mrs. Foote dated December 2, 1887), Quote Page 7, Thomas F. Madigan, New York. (Verified with page scans; thanks to Barbara Schmidt and Kevin Mac Donnell)

Tortoises All the Way Down

Hester Lynch Piozzi? William James? Bertrand Russell? Mark Twain? Henry David Thoreau? Carl Sagan? Terry Pratchett? Samuel Purchas? John Locke? George B. Cheever? Joseph F. Berg? George Chainey? John Phoenix? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a prominent scientist once presented a lecture on cosmology which discussed the solar system and galaxies. Afterwards, a critical audience member approached and stated that the information given was completely wrong.

Instead, the world was supported by four great elephants, and the elephants stood on the back of an enormous turtle. The scientist inquired what the turtle stood upon. Another more massive turtle was the reply. The scientist asked about the support of the last turtle and elicited this response:

“Oh, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Some versions of this anecdote use tortoises instead of turtles. A variety of individuals have been linked to this tale including writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, psychologist William James, logician Bertrand Russell, humorist Mark Twain, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, astronomer Carl Sagan, and fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This anecdote evolved over time. It began with European interpretations of Hindu cosmography. Early instances featuring tortoises and elephants did not mention an infinite iteration; instead, the lowest creature was sitting upon something unknown or on nothing. In 1838 a humorous version employed the punchline “there’s rocks all the way down!” In 1854 a debater used the phrase “there are tortoises all the way down.” By 1886 another punchline was circulating: “it is turtle all the way down!” Here is an overview sampling showing pertinent statements with dates:

1626: the Elephants feete stood on Tortoises, and they were borne by they know not what.
1690: what gave support to the broad-back’d Tortoise, replied, something, he knew not what.
1804: And on what does the tortoise stand? I cannot tell.
1826: tortoise rests on mud, the mud on water, and the water on air!
1836: what does the tortoise rest on? Nothing!
1838: there’s rocks all the way down!
1842: extremely anxious to know what it is that the tortoise stands upon.
1844: after the tortoise is chaotic mud.
1852: had nothing to put under the tortoise.
1854: there are tortoises all the way down.
1867: elephants . . . their legs “reach all the way down.”
1882: the snake reaching all the way down.
1886: it is turtle all the way down!
1904: a big turtle whose legs reach all the way down!
1917: there are turtles all the way down
1927: he was tired of metaphysics and wanted to change the subject.
1967: It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tortoises All the Way Down

Nearly Any Invented Quotation, Played With Confidence, Stands a Good Chance To Deceive

Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain once spun a tale in which he won an argument by concocting a fake quotation. His successful deception led him to pronounce a maxim similar to this: Any invented quotation, spoken with confidence, will be accepted by listeners. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain published his popular travel book “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” in 1897. He described a dinner with companions who disagreed about the pronunciation of the word “three” by common Scottish people. The two options were “three” and “thraw”. Twain created a verse he attributed to the prominent Scottish poet Robert Burns that rhymed the word with “knee”. Twain won the argument because of the prestige of the poet. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Does Robbie Burns say — what does he say?”

“This is what he says :
“There were nae bairns but only three —
Ane at the breast, twa at the knee.”

It ended the discussion. There was no man there profane enough, disloyal enough, to say any word against a thing which Robert Burns had settled. I shall always honor that great name for the salvation it brought me in this time of my sore need.

It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive. There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition; there are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nearly Any Invented Quotation, Played With Confidence, Stands a Good Chance To Deceive

Notes:

  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), Chapter 5, Quote Page 78, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

When Everybody Is Digging for Gold, It’s Good To Be in the Pick and Shovel Business

Mark Twain? Walter Powell? Collis Huntington? Mark Hopkins? Jim Winder? Gavin Dobson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During the 1800s the discovery of gold in a locale triggered a frenetic scramble of miners who dreamed of great fortunes. Unfortunately, mining led to disappointment for most miners. Here are two versions of a pertinent adage:

  • Don’t dig for gold, sell shovels.
  • The secret to getting rich in a gold rush is selling picks.

This observation has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Mark Twain. He died in 1910, and he received credit many decades later in 1982.

The adage can be expressed in many ways which makes it difficult to trace. QI believes the saying evolved over time. Tales about individuals achieving great wealth by supplying goods and services to miners have a long history.

In 1876 the acumen of Australian businessman Walter Powell was highlighted in a piece published in “The General Baptist Magazine” of London. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . he returned to Melbourne a little before the Australian gold fields were discovered. Everybody that could rushed off to the diggings. The city was deserted; and then people commenced to pour through Melbourne from all parts, delirious with the idea that they would soon all be wealthy. Walter Powell had the good sense to stop at his store and sell shovels and pickaxes at a premium, and so he suddenly grew rich.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When Everybody Is Digging for Gold, It’s Good To Be in the Pick and Shovel Business

Notes:

  1. 1876 May, The General Baptist Magazine, Studies in Present-Day Biography: Walter Powell, Start Page 169, Quote Page 172, Published by E. Marlborough & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Best Swordsman in the World Doesn’t Need To Fear the Second Best Swordsman

Mark Twain? David Weber? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Achieving expert knowledge and abilities in a domain may require many years of hard work. Yet, expertise does not guarantee success. Here is a counterintuitive adage:

The best swordsman does not fear the second best. He fears the worst since there’s no telling what that idiot is going to do.

This statement has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain and the popular science fiction author David Weber. But I am having trouble locating a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1889 Mark Twain published “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. The book included an observation about the “best swordsman”, but the phrasing differed from the remark specified in the inquiry above. The following excerpt represents the thoughts of the book’s narrator. Bold face added by QI: 1

But don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do: and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.

The viewpoint of the narrator of a novel may diverge from the author’s viewpoint; however, in this case, QI suspects that Twain would concur with the insight provided by the narrator.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Best Swordsman in the World Doesn’t Need To Fear the Second Best Swordsman

Notes:

  1. 1889 Copyright, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, Chapter 34: The Yankee and the King Sold as Slaves, Quote Page 330, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

Theodore Roosevelt? Mark Twain? C. S. Lewis? Dwight Edwards? John Powell? Ray Cummings? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comparing your status to others often produces envy and unhappiness. Here are four instances from a family of pertinent adages:

  • Comparison is the thief of joy.
  • The thief of joy is comparison.
  • Comparison is the death of joy.
  • Comparison is the death of contentment.

Statesman Theodore Roosevelt, humorist Mark Twain, author C. S. Lewis, and religious figure Dwight Edwards have all been given credit for sayings in this family. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence supporting ascriptions to Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and C. S. Lewis. Tracing this family is difficult, and this article presents a snapshot of current research. The statements above are not semantically identical, but QI believes that this grouping is natural.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1989 book “Happiness Is an Inside Job” by John Powell. This instance referred to self-contentment and not joy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Why can’t you be like that. ” “Why don’t you do as well as your brother?” “If you comb your hair down, people won’t notice your big forehead. You’ll look more presentable.”

And so most of us have been taught to compare ourselves with others. And all the professionals agree: Comparison is the death of true self-contentment.

The earliest match using “comparison” and “thief of joy” located by QI appeared in the 2003 religious book “Are You Following Jesus Or Just Fooling Around?!” by Dr. Ray Cummings. He discussed three thieves of joy. The first thief was bitterness; the second thief was complaining, and the third thief was comparison: 2

A third thief of joy is comparison. When Satan can’t make you bitter enough to complain, he will seek to lower your self-esteem and allow you to compare.

The 2004 religious book “Connect2God: Instant Messages from God to Teens” by Curt Cloninger included an exact match for the popular modern version of the saying. Cloninger disclaimed credit: 3

Somebody once said that comparison is the thief of joy. In other words, if you’re always comparing yourself to other people, then you’ll never be happy.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

Notes:

  1. 1989, Happiness Is an Inside Job by John Powell S.J., Chapter: My Assumption – Happiness is a natural condition, Quote Page 6, Tabor Publishing, Allen, Texas. (Verified with scans)
  2. 2003, Are You Following Jesus Or Just Fooling Around?! by Dr. Ray Cummings, Quote Page 81, Xulon Press: Salem Media Group, Camarillo, California. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 2004, Connect2God: Instant Messages from God to Teens by Curt Cloninger, Chapter: True Original, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Honor Books, An Imprint of Cook Communications Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Verified with scans)

It’s Easier To Fool People Than To Convince Them That They’ve Been Fooled

Mark Twain? Baltasar Gracian? John Maynard Keynes? Norman Angell? Joreth? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An energetic liar can confuse, mislead, and deceive people. Yet, in many cases, that same liar is unable to reverse the deception. Hoodwinked people embrace their misperceptions. Here is a pertinent adage:

It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

Mark Twain has received credit for this statement, but I have been unable to find a citation, and I have become skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) authored this remark. The earliest close match known to QI appeared in a tweet from @Joreth on January 10, 2011. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“It’s easier to fool ppl than to convince them that they’ve been fooled” ~Mark Twain #skeptic #atheist #skepticism

Thematically related statements have a long history, and Twain did express similar sentiments in 1906 as shown further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It’s Easier To Fool People Than To Convince Them That They’ve Been Fooled

Notes:

  1. Tweet, From: Joreth @Joreth, Time: 7:47 AM, Date: January 10, 2011, Text: It’s easier to fool ppl than… (Accessed on twitter.com on December 23, 2020) link

God In Creating Man, Somewhat Overestimated His Ability

Oscar Wilde? Francis Douglas? 11th Marquess of Queensberry? ‎Percy Colson? Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Book of Genesis describes the creation of the world and the formation of Adam and Eve. The actions of this couple in the Garden of Eden quickly revealed behavioral defects. A sardonic commentator has suggested that God overestimated his capabilities when he synthesized humankind.

This remark is usually attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wide. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest match known to QI occurred decades later in the 1940 book “Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas” by Francis Douglas, 11th Marquess of Queensberry in collaboration with ‎Percy Colson. The following passage mixes commentary about Wilde together with quotations attributed to him. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Art and religion had much in common, he thought; both give an enhanced sense of living. St. Francis of Assisi, and Jeanne d’Arc were artists in their way, and he loved tradition. “Never try to pull down public monuments such as the Albert Memorial and the Church,” he said. “You are sure to be damaged by the falling masonry.”

But the Creator as an artist did not meet with his whole-hearted admiration. “I sometimes think that God in creating man, somewhat over-estimated his ability,” he remarked to a friend.

The friend was unidentified, and the long delay between 1900 and 1940 reduced the evidentiary value of this citation. Yet, QI is unaware of any other candidate creator with substantive support.

Francis Douglas was the nephew of Lord Alfred Douglas who was the lover and repudiator of Wilde. In addition, Francis Douglas was the grandchild of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry who was Wilde’s nemesis. Interestingly, the book is sympathetic to Wilde.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading God In Creating Man, Somewhat Overestimated His Ability

Notes:

  1. 1949, Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas by The Marquess of Queensberry (Francis Douglas) in collaboration with ‎Percy Colson, Chapter 2: Oscar Wilde’s Parentage and Youth, Quote Page 20, Hutchinson & Company, London. (Verified with scans)

The Trouble Ain’t That There Is Too Many Fools, But That the Lightning Ain’t Distributed Right

Mark Twain? Merle Johnson? Caroline Thomas Harnsberger? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain once spoke about the number of fools in the world. He did not believe that there were too many fools, but he did suggest that lightning strikes were not ideally distributed. Would you please help me to find a citation for this quip which presents the precise phrasing employed by Twain?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a slim volume titled “More Maxims of Mark” containing quotations ascribed to Twain which was privately printed as a limited edition of fifty copies in November 1927 by Merle Johnson who was a rare book collector. Johnson published the first careful bibliography of Twain’s works in 1910 shortly after the writer’s death. Twain scholars believe that the sayings compiled by Johnson in this book are genuine.

The Rubenstein Rare Book Library at Duke University holds copy 14 of 50, and a friend of QI’s was able to access it. The adage appears on page 13. Below is the saying together with the two preceding items. All the maxims in the work were presented in uppercase. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

TO BE GOOD IS NOBLE, BUT TO SHOW OTHERS HOW TO BE GOOD IS NOBLER, AND NO TROUBLE.

THE TIME TO BEGIN WRITING AN ARTICLE IS WHEN YOU HAVE FINISHED IT TO YOUR SATISFACTION.

THE TROUBLE AIN’T THAT THERE IS TOO MANY FOOLS, BUT THAT THE LIGHTNING AIN’T DISTRIBUTED RIGHT.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Trouble Ain’t That There Is Too Many Fools, But That the Lightning Ain’t Distributed Right

Notes:

  1. 1927, More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain, Compiled by Merle Johnson, Quote Page 13, First edition privately printed November 1927; Number 14 of 50 copies. (Verified via image; thanks to the Rubenstein Library at Duke University; special thanks to Mike)

I Destroy My Enemies When I Make Them My Friends

Abraham Lincoln? Emperor Sigismund? Martin Luther King? Loretta Young? Mark Twain? Cardinal Richelieu? Robert Jones Burdette? John Wooden? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The leader of a victorious group decided to treat the vanquished people with compassion. Critics of the leader were unhappy because they believed that the enemies deserved destruction. Here are three versions of the response:

  • The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.
  • I will slay my enemies by making them my friends.
  • The only safe and sure way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.

This saying has been attributed to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this anecdote located by QI appeared in a Bellows Falls, Vermont newspaper in April 1818. The word “reproaching” should have been “reproached” in the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The Emperor Sigismund was reproaching for rewarding instead destroying his enemies, as by that means he gave them an opportunity to injure him. “What!” said the noble minded monarch, “do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends.”

Sigismund died in 1437, and the long delay before this tale appeared reduces its credibility. A similar anecdote was told by the 1940s about Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865. The delay suggests that this story was also apocryphal.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Destroy My Enemies When I Make Them My Friends

Notes:

  1. 1818 April 6, Vermont Intelligencer, Anecdotes, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Bellows Falls, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)