Life Is a Shipwreck, But We Must Not Forget To Sing in the Lifeboats

Voltaire? Peter Gay? William F. Bottiglia? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many dubious quotations have been ascribed to the preeminent French satirist and philosopher Voltaire. One popular saying depicts life as a metaphorical shipwreck. The survivors are exhorted to sing while sitting in the lifeboats. Is this saccharine guidance really from the acrid pen of Voltaire?

I have also seen the words credited to a fictional character named Bottiglia. Does that ascription make sense?

Quote Investigator: Voltaire did employ the shipwreck metaphor in his letters; for example, in 1760 he wrote: 1

Comptez que le monde est un grand naufrage, et que la devise des hommes est, sauve qui peut.

Here is one possible translation: 2

The world, my friend, is one great shipwreck: and man’s motto, “Save yourself if you can.”

Voltaire’s remark did not mention lifeboats or singing; thus, his tone was quite different.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in 1963 within the introductory section of “Voltaire’s Candide: A Bilingual Edition”. Professor of History Peter Gay performed the translation of “Candide” from French to English, and he also wrote the introduction which contained the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

Indeed, Voltaire preached—by example rather than by precept—that the recognition of the truth that this world is filled with evils leads to a certain good humor. If this life is a desert, it is our duty to make an oasis in it; if this life is a shipwreck, we must rescue as many as we can, and not forget to sing in the lifeboats. This, I think, is the message of Candide; its continuing popularity rests not only on its wit, its pace, its color, but also on its enduring relevance.

In 1966 Peter Gay restated his analysis of “Candide” within his book “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism”. Gay reprinted the final line of Voltaire’s satirical tale: “That’s well said, but we must cultivate our garden”, and he added the following commentary: 4

Here, in that concluding sentence of the tale, Voltaire has fused the lessons of ancient philosophy into a prescription: Men are thrown into the world to suffer and to dominate their suffering. Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats; life is a desert, but we can transform our corner into a garden.

Thus, the quotation under examination was crafted by Peter Gay who was presenting his interpretation of the central thesis of Voltaire’s story “Candide”. The misattribution illustrates a known error mechanism. Person A summarizes, condenses, or restates the opinion of person B. At a later time the restatement is directly ascribed to person B.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Life Is a Shipwreck, But We Must Not Forget To Sing in the Lifeboats


  1. 1785, Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire, Tome Cinquante-Sixième, Letter CLXXXVIII, From: Voltaire, To: M. Le Chevalier de R___X, à Toulouse, Date: 1760, 20 de Septembre, Start Page 376, Quote Page 377, De L’Imprimerie de la Société Littéraire-Typographique. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1773, Letters from M. de Voltaire to Several of His Friends, Translated from the French by The Reverend Dr. Franklin, (Thomas Francklin, D.D., Rector of Brasted), Second Edition, Letter XXXI, From: Voltaire, To: Mr. the Chevalier de R___X, at Toulouse, Date: Sept. 20, 1760, Start Page 183, Quote Page 184, Printed for T. Davies, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1963, Voltaire’s Candide: A Bilingual Edition by Voltaire, Translated and Edited by Peter Gay, Introduction by Peter Gay, Start Page v, Quote Page xxvi, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Seventh Printing 1981) (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1966, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay, Book One: The Appeal to Antiquity, Chapter Three: The Climate of Criticism, Quote Page 201, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)