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