Tag Archives: Warren Buffet

The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Warren Buffett? Samuel Johnson? Maria Edgeworth? Bertrand Russell? Anonymous?

edgeworth01Dear Quote Investigator: I recall seeing a lecture by the famed investor Warren Buffett during which he cautioned his audience to avoid falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. He used this eloquent analysis:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

While searching for a source I found some other versions of the statement. Here are two that are credited to the brilliant dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson:

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

I was unable to find a precise citation to Dr. Johnson’s works. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: Investor Warren Buffett did use this phrase more than once during speeches, but he did not claim credit for originating the saying. Detailed citations are given further below.

The expression has a long history, and the famous lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson did write a prolix passage that was transformed and simplified in an evolutionary process that ultimately produced the concise modern aphorism used by Buffett.

In 1748 Johnson published an allegorical fable about the path to the Temple of Happiness titled “The Vision of Theodore”. The story warned readers using a symbolic figure named Habit who would bind the unwary in chains. A bound individual would be taken to a grim destination called the caverns of Despair. The following excerpt displayed a conceptual match to the modern saying. In addition, Johnson used the phrase “too strong to be broken” which was retained in some modern instances. Boldface has been added below: 1

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

In the early 1800s an influential Irish writer named Maria Edgeworth crafted a compact version of the sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson. Her book “Moral Tales for Young People” (second edition 1806) included a story called “Forester”, and in one scene the title character picked up a pair of scissors and twirled them on his finger absentmindedly. The character believed that this habit was undesirable: 2

He was rather ashamed to perceive that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.

Maria Edgeworth placed a footnote asterisk after the phrase “chains of habit”, and in the footnote she referenced “Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.” Edgeworth’s concise summary statement was clearly derived from Johnson’s story, but her expression was distinctive and did not appear directly in the fable’s text. Her forthright acknowledgement of Johnson probably facilitated some later confusion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1748 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 18, “The Vision of Theodore, The Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (by Samuel Johnson), Start Page 159, Quote Page 160, Printed by E. Cave, St John’s Gate, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1806, Moral Tales For Young People by Miss Edgeworth (Maria Edgeworth), Volume 1, Second Edition, Forester, Quote Page 86, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link

Gold Gets Dug Out of the Ground; Then We Melt It Down, Dig Another Hole, Bury It Again

Warren Buffett? Frank Fellinger? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

buffettgold01Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest and most perceptive comment about the precious metal gold is attributed to the super-investor Warren Buffett:

Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or some place. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.

Did Buffett really say this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI of this quotation in a major newspaper was printed in The Times of London in July 2003: 1

Warren Buffett, the renowned investor, famously dismissed gold in a speech given at Harvard in 1998. He said: “It gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or some place. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”

The five year gap between 1998 and 2003 weakens the probative value of this citation. QI has not yet located a transcript of the supposed 1998 speech. A statement from Buffett himself on this topic would be desirable.

So, QI reached out to the accomplished financial journalist Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal who contacted the personal assistant of Warren Buffett with an enquiry about the quotation. The assistant conferred with Buffett and sent the following reply: 2

I double-checked this with Warren. He never writes out prepared speeches. But he has said things like this in the past.

This statement supported the attribution and corroborated multiple citations that name Buffett as originator of the expression; however, the answer was still not definitive. A cite with a date closer to 1998 giving more details of the speech would be welcomed by QI.

Pronouncements about gold and silver that conform to this theme have a very long history. In 1877 a newspaper in Galveston, Texas wrote about the “The Monetary Problem” using similar vocabulary and tropes. Remarkably, this passage from more than 135 years ago also included a puzzled alien creature: 3

Look at the actual history of our metallic money; see at what great cost we procure it from its ores, coin it, pass it from hand to hand, finally to bury it again in the vault of some bank. The dust of centuries rests upon coin laid away in the Bank of England. A hundred millions are now buried under the Treasury building in Washington, and probably ever will be together with much more, for should the government ever accumulate enough to offer to redeem the greenback at par, nobody would present the greenbacks for redemption. The paper, being the more convenient money, would be kept and the gold and silver left to slumber where we have been at such pains to store it.

If a being from another world should come among us to study our habits, how he would be puzzled as he saw us with infinite labor obtain from deep in the earth a shining substance, zealously guard it to an establishment where it was cut into small pieces, and then hide the pieces where they could be neither seen nor touched; occasionally he would observe an expression of fear and anxiety upon our faces, we would rush wildly about, drag out our precious pieces and hide them elsewhere, and yet drag them out again and yet hide them elsewhere.

Thanks to top researcher Suzanne Watkins who found the marvelous citation above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 2003 July 21, The Times (UK), Section: Business, “Demand for global listing helps to put new gloss on gold”, Quote Page 21, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)
  2. Personal communication via email from Jason Zweig to Garson O’Toole dated May 21, 2013. The message contained the forwarded message from Debbie Bosanek, Assistant to Warren Buffett.
  3. 1877 August 9, Galveston Daily News, The Monetary Problem, Page unnumbered (final page), Column 5, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)