Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations

Table of Contents

“P” Quotations



  • All that a pacifist can undertake—but it is a very great deal—is to refuse to kill, injure or otherwise cause suffering to another human creature, and untiringly to order his life by the rule of love though others may be captured by hate. Vera Brittain, “What Can We Do in War Time?” in Forward (1939)
  • I'm not a pacifist. I'm not that brave. Phil Donahue, in a television interview (May 31, 1988)
  • I am not only a pacifist, but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war. Albert Einstein, in an interview with G. S. Viereck (January 1931)
  • A pacifism which does not actively fight against the armament of nations is and must remain impotent. Albert Einstein, in The World As I See It (1934)

Einstein preceded the thought by writing: “As long as armies exist, any serious conflict will lead to war.”

  • A pacifism which can see the cruelties only of occasional military warfare and is blind to the continuous cruelties of our social system is worthless. Mohandas K. Gandhi, quoted in Young India (Nov. 18, 1926)
  • Pacifism is simply undisguised cowardice. Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Nuremberg, Germany (Aug. 21, 1926)
  • If it means loathing war sufficiently to bear the unpleasant brunt of being branded a coward, I suppose I am a pacifist. Fannie Hurst, the character Paula speaking, in Lummox (1923)
  • True pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistant to evil. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Stride Toward Freedom (1958)
  • Pacifism simply is not a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work. Käthe Kollwitz, in letter to Ottilie Kollwitz (Feb. 21, 1944), in The Diaries and Letters of Käthe Kollwitz (1955; Hans Kollwitz, ed.)
  • A truly pacifist people would quickly disappear from history. Gustave Le Bon, in Aphorisms of Present Times (1913)
  • Once your eyes get opened to pacifism, you can’t shut them again. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. You may bitterly regret the fact that you happen to be one of the tiny minority of the human race who have caught this angle of vision, but you can’t help it. Muriel Lester, in It Occurred to Me (1937)
  • A pacifist is as surely a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer. Theodore Roosevelt, in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania speech (July 27, 1917)
  • Pacifism means letting the nonpacifists have control. Oswald Spengler, in Aphorisms (pub. posthumously in 1941)



  • It is easy for the one who stands outside/The prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one/Who suffers. Aeschylus, the title character speaking, in Prometheus Bound (5th C. B.C.)
  • History, despite its wrenching pain,/Cannot be unlived, but if faced/With courage, need not be lived again. Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning,” poem read at inauguration of Bill Clinton (Jan. 20, 1993)
  • Pain is something that’s common to human life. When we ignore it, we aren't engaging in the whole reality, and the pain begins to fester. Karen Armstrong, in Heidi Bruce, “Practical Compassion: An Interview with Karen Armstrong,” Yes! magazine (April 12, 2012)
  • But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind. Margaret Atwood, the voice of the narrator (Offred), in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • When pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. Jane Austen, the protagonist Anne Elliot speaking, in Persuasion (1818)
  • Isn’t the fear of pain next brother to pain itself? Enid Bagnold, in A Diary Without Dates (1918)
  • There has never been a great athlete who died not knowing what pain is. Bill Bradlee, quoted in John McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are (1965)
  • The wish to hurt, the momentary intoxication with pain, is the loophole through which the pervert climbs into the minds of ordinary men. Jacob Bronowski, in The Face of Violence (1954)
  • I am convinced that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others. Edmund Burke, in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756)
  • They talk of short-lived pleasure—be it so—/Pain dies as quickly: stern, hard-featured pain/Expires, and lets her weary prisoner go. William Cullen Bryant, “Mutation: A Sonnet” (1824), in The Complete Poems of William Cullen Bryant (1836)

In his short poem, one of his most popular pieces of verse, Bryant continued: “The fiercest agonies have shortest reign;/And after dreams of horror, comes again/The welcome morning with its rays of peace.”

  • Pain was not given thee merely to be miserable under; learn from it, turn it to account. Thomas Carlyle, a journal entry (Sep. 8, 1834); quoted in J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years, 1795–1835 (1882)
  • An aspirin can cure a headache for an hour or two, but if the pain’s really deep, nothing short of brain surgery is going to make it go away. Ray Charles, in Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story (1978; with David Ritz)

This was the concluding line to a passage in which Charles described how music had eased the deep pain in his life, but didn’t make it go away. He wrote: “I release feelings inside me through my songs. I take some of the sadness, some of the heartache, and turn it out. I’m able to stave off the severity. By expressing myself in music, I can soften the blow. But those melodies and rhythms can only do so much.”

  • Courage takes many forms. There is physical courage, there is moral courage. Then there is a still higher type of courage—the courage to brave pain, to live with it, to never let others know of it and to still find joy in life; to wake up in the morning with an enthusiasm for the day ahead. Howard Cosell, in Like It Is (1974)
  • Pain is part of the body’s magic. It is the way the body transmits a sign to the brain that something is wrong. Norman Cousins, in Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (1979)
  • Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him. Alphonse Daudet, in The Land of Pain (2002; Julian Barnes, trans.); originally pub. as La Doulou (La Douleur): 1887–1895 (1930)

QUOTE NOTE: Daudet (1840–97), a popular nineteenth-century French novelist, suffered for most of his adult life from syphilis, an incurable disease at the time, and one rarely discussed or even mentioned in public. In the final dozen years of his life—a life filled with excruciatating pain—he recorded his thoughts and experiences in a detailed notebook (published more than three decades later by his widow).

  • There is no real evil in life, except great pain; all the rest is imaginary, and depends on the light in which we view things. Marie de Rabutin-Chantal (Madame de Sévigné), from a 1680 letter, in Letters of Madame de Sévigné to her Daughter and Her Friends, Vol. 6 (1811)
  • Pain—whether our own pain, or learning of someone else’s—is a Zion. It’s the place our wisest teacher lives. Natashia Deon, “Lessons in Our Painful History,” in Los Angeles Times (Nov 2, 2021)
  • Human beings have invented so many new sources of pain. Emma Donoghue, a reflection of protagonist Eliza Raine, in Learned by Heart (2023)
  • There is only one thing that arouses animals more than pleasure, and that is pain. Umberto Eco, the character Brother William speaking, in The Name of the Rose (1980) ADD TO TORTURE

Brother William, talking with Umbertino about torture, continued: “Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond…is established between you and him.”

  • There is much pain that is quite noiseless; and vibrations that make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurrying existence. George Eliot, “Introduction” to Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)

Eliot continued: “There are glances of hatred that stab and raise no cry of murder; robberies that leave man or woman forever beggared of peace and joy, yet kept secret by the sufferer—committed to no sound except that of low moans in the night, seen in no writing except that made on the face by the slow months of suppressed anguish and early morning tears. Many an inherited sorrow that has marred a life has been breathed into no human ear.”

  • Pain must enter into its glorified life of memory before it can turn into compassion. George Eliot, the voice of the narrator, in Middlemarch (serialized 1871–72; published as stand-alone novel in 1874)
  • He has seen but half the universe who never has been shown the house of pain. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in letter to Mary Moody Emerson (March, 1827); the line reprised in “Tragic,” Natural History of the Intellect (1893)
  • Pain has no effect but to steal some of my time. Margaret Fuller, in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1840)
  • Pain is another word for fear. True believers have no fears. Marvin Gaye, quoted in David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (1985)
  • The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings. William Hazlitt, “American Literature—Dr. Channing,” in Edinburgh Review (Oct., 1829)
  • The art of life is the art of avoiding pain; and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset. Thomas Jefferson, in letter to Maria Cosway (Oct. 12, 1786)
  • You can get so anesthetized by your own pain or your own problem that you don’t quite fully share the hell of someone close to you. Lady Bird Johnson, in A White House Diary (1970)
  • Those who do not feel pain seldom think that it is felt. Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler (Sep. 1, 1750)
  • Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? John Keats, in an 1819 letter to George & Georgiana Keats
  • There is no tyrant as merciless as pain. Stephen King, the voice of protagonist Edgar Freemantle, in Duma Key (2008)
  • Pain is a gift. Humanity, without pain, would know neither fear nor pity. Dean Koontz, the voice of the narrator, in Velocity: A Novel (2005)

The narrator continued: “Without fear, there could be no humility, and every man would be a monster. The recognition of pain and fear in others give rise in us to pity, and in our pity is our humanity, our redemption.”

  • Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain. Emma Lazarus, “In Exile,” in Songs of a Semite (1882)
  • Once you get beyond the crust of the first pang it is all the same and you can easily bear it. It is just the transition from painlessness to pain that is so terrible. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in Bring me a Unicorn (1971)
  • Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it. Audre Lorde, quoted in Nina Winter, Interview With the Muse (1978)
  • Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named, and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action. Audre Lorde, “Eye to Eye,” in Sister Outsider (1984)

In making her well-known distinction between pain and suffering, Lorde continued: “Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain. When I live through pain without recognizing it, self-consciously, I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

  • One does not become fully human painlessly. Rollo May, in Foreword to Ronald S. Valle and Mark King, Existential-Phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology (1978)
  • We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. Kenji Miyazawa, quoted in Barbara De Angelis, How Did I Get Here? (2005)

QUOTATION CAUTION: I first discovered this remarkable observation in De Angelis’s 2005 book and have since seen it in hundreds of anthologies, self-help books, and blogs—but never with a citation. After a fairly extensive search, I have not identified an original source.

  • Life is pain and the enjoyment of love is an anesthetic. Cesare Pavese, diary entry (Jan. 19, 1938), in This Business of Living: Diaries 1935–50 (1952)

QUOTE NOTE: To see the larger metaphorical passage in which this aphorism originally appeared, go to the Pavese entry in the LIFE section.

  • There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful; nor is there any port of call where it is possible to forget. Fernando Pessoa, in a letter to Mário de Sá-Carneiro (March 14, 1916)

ERROR ALERT: Numerous internet sites mistakenly identify the source as Pessoa’s classic The Book of Disquiet. To see the entire letter, written when Pessoa was “at the bottom of a bottomless depression,” see Pessoa 1916 Letter.

  • In the country of pain we are each alone. May Sarton, “The Country of Pain,” in Halfway to Silence (1980)
  • The Fellowship of Those who Bear the Mark of Pain. Albert Schweitzer, in On the Edge of the Primeval Forest: The Experiences and Observations of a Doctor in Equatorial Africa (1928)

QUOTE NOTE: This was Schweitzer’s expression for the powerful bond connecting people who have experienced great pain. He wrote: “Who are the members of this Fellowship? Those who have learnt by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean, belong together all the world over; they are united by a secret bond. One and all they know the horrors of suffering to which man can be exposed, and one and all they know the longing to be free from pain.”

  • We forget that pain is information and can be a powerful teacher. Susan L. Taylor, in Foreword to Terrie Williams, A Plentiful Harvest: Creating Balance and Harmony Through the Seven Living Virtues (2002)

Taylor, the longtime editor of Essence magazine, added: “In some way, all in life is instructive and good. All our experiences are meant to help us grow in wisdom, faith, and courage, and they are always right on time.”

  • My soul is a broken field/Ploughed by pain. Sara Teasdale, “The Broken Field,” in Flame and Shadow (1920)
  • Nothing begins, and nothing ends,/That is not paid with moan;/For we are born in others’ pain, /And perish in our own. Francis Thompson, the concluding stanza of the poem “Daisy,” in Poems (1893)
  • What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have. Lionel Trilling, “Art and Neurosis,” in The Liberal Imagination (1950)
  • In deep pain, people don’t need logic, advice, encouragement, or even Scripture. They just need you to show up and shut up. Rick Warren, in a Facebook post (May 22, 2013)
  • Evil being the root of mystery, pain is the root of knowledge. Simone Weil, a 1942 journal entry, in New York Notebook (1950); reprinted in First and Last Notebooks (1970; Richard Rees, ed.)
  • We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity. H. G. Wells, the protagonist (who is identified only as The Time Traveller) speaking, in The Time Machine (1895)
  • Maybe we haven't made enough of pain—been too afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of it. Edith Wharton, the character Mrs. Scrimser speaking, in The Gods Arrive (1932)
  • There’s no pain equal to that of being forced to think. Frank Yerby, the character Talos speaking, in Goat Song: A Novel of Ancient Greece (1967)



  • I say that good painters imitated nature; but that bad ones vomited it. Miguel de Cervantes, in Exemplary Novels (1613)
  • There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other. Paul Cezanne, quoted in Emile Bernard, “Paul Cezanne,” in L’Occident magazine (July, 1904)
  • A painter has really no serious enemies like his bad paintings. Henri Matisse, quoted in Picture Post magazine (1949)
  • There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun. Pablo Picasso, quoted in Quote magazine (March 21, 1965)

QUOTATION CAUTION: One of the most famous Picasso quotations, this one has been making the rounds since just after WWII (the earliest appearance I’ve seen was a 1945 article in The Norseman, a Norwegian literary and political review). I have never seen an original source cited, though, and have been unable to locate one. Note that the observation is also an example of chiasmus.

  • The painter’s brush consumes his dreams. William Butler Yeats, “Two Songs From a Play,” in The Tower (1928)

QUOTE NOTE: The line appears in a larger passage about the fleeting nature of man’s deepest pursuits: “Everything that man esteems/Endures a moment or a day./Love’s pleasure drives his love away,/The painter’s brush consumes his dreams.”



  • A painting is like a man. If you can live without it, then there isn’t much point in having it. Lila Acheson Wallace, quoted in her obituary, The New York Times (May 9, 1984)

Wallace, who co-founded Reader’s Digest with husband Dewitt in 1922, had a multimillion dollar art collection. She told an interviewer that she never purchased art as an investment or with an eye toward future value, but only when she “fell in love” with a piece.

  • Soul is as necessary in a painting as body. Marie Bashkirtseff, journal entry (Oct. 9, 1881), in The Journal of a Young Artist, 1860–1884 (1889)

Bashkirtseff added: “The true artist should conceive as a man of genius, and execute as a poet.”

  • The biggest part of painting perhaps is faith, and waiting receptively, content to go any way, not planning or forcing. The fear, though, is laziness. It is so easy to drift and finally be tossed up on the beach, derelict. Emily Carr, in Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr (1966)
  • Painting is the intermediate somewhat between a thought and a thing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Table Talk (August 30, 1827)
  • Painting is only a bridge linking the painter’s mind with that of the viewer. Eugène Delacroix, journal entry (Oct. 8, 1822)
  • It isn’t enough to have the eyes of a gazelle . . . you also need the claws of a cat in order to capture your bird alive and play with it before you eat it, and so join its life to yours. This is the mystery of painting. Augustus John, quoted in Time magazine (Nov. 13, 1950)
  • Like a guide dog, paintings help you see. Martin Mull, in “20 Questions with Martin Mull,” Playboy magazine (April, 1984)

Mull’s observation came in response to interviewer David Rensin’s question, “What can we learn from looking at paintings?” Mull began his answer by saying: “After leaving an exhibition, I’ll find that my perception of the outside world has been changed. Instantly. My experience has been altered by the artists’s vision, and I will see things that I haven’t seen before.” The entire interview may be found at: Mull Playboy Interview.

  • Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy. Pablo Picasso, in interview with Simone Téry (March 24, 1945); reported in Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art (1946)
  • As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight. James McNeill Whistler, in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890)
  • In painting as in eloquence, the greater your strength, the quieter your manner. John Ruskin, in Modern Painters, Vol. 5 (1860)





  • Sculpture is a parable in three dimensions, a symbol of a spiritual experience, and a means of conveying truth by concentrating its essence into visible form. Malvina Hoffman, in Sculpture Inside and Out (1939)

Hoffman went on to add: “It must be the reflection of the artist who creates it and of the era in which he lives, not an echo or a memory of other days and other ways.”

  • A person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. Ursula K. Le Guin, “Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing,” in The Living Light (Fall, 1970); reprinted in Language of the Night (1979

Le Guin continued: “For the story—from ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ to ‘War and Peace’—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

  • Fiction to me is a kind of parable. You have got to make up your mind it's not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it, but it’s not fact. Muriel Spark, “My Conversion,” in Twentieth Century magazine (Autumn, 1961)



  • All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair. Mitch Albom, in The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003)
  • Successful parenting was like log rolling, and she’d often landed in the drink. Lisa Alther, the character Clea reflecting on her adequacy as parent, in Bedrock (1990)
  • Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them. Russell Baker, in Growing Up (1982)
  • When we are young our parents run our life; when we get older, our children do. Vicki Baum, in I Know What I’m Worth (1964)
  • It’s frightening to think that you mark your children merely by being yourself. It seems unfair. Simone de Beauvoir, in Les Belles Images (1966)

De Beauvoir continued: “You can’t assume the responsibility for everything you do—or don’t do.”

  • The trick, which requires the combined skills of a tightrope walker and a cordon bleu chef frying a plain egg, is to take your daughter seriously without taking everything she says and does every minute seriously. Stella Chess & Jane Whitbread, on dealing with pre-teen daughters, in Daughters: From Infancy to Independence (1978)
  • Every parent is at some time the father of the unreturned prodigal, with nothing to do but keep his house open to hope. John Ciardi, in “Of Time and Chances: A Parental Reverie,” the title of his regular “Manner of Speaking” column, Saturday Review (March 18, 1972)
  • Raising children is like baking bread: it has to be a slow process or you end up with an overdone crust and an underdone interior. Marcelene Cox, in a 1945 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal
  • If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent. Bette Davis, in The Lonely Life (1962)
  • There are times when parenthood seems nothing but feeding the mouth that bites you. Peter De Vries, playing off the expression biting the hand that feeds you, in The Tunnel of Love (1954)
  • It’s the most rewarding thankless job on earth. Robert Downey, Jr., in interview with Krista Smith at Toronto International Film Festival (Sep., 2014)
  • The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet. Isadora Duncan, in My Life (1927)
  • When your children are teenagers it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you. Nora Ephron, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (2006)
  • Let your children go if you want to keep them. Malcolm Forbes, quoted in William Safire and Leonard Safir, Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice (1989)
  • The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. Robert Frost, in Paris Review interview (Summer–Fall, 1960)

Frost introduced the thought by saying: “You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat.”

  • Bringing a child into the world is the greatest act of hope there is. Louise Hart, in The Winning Family: Increasing Self-Esteem in Your Children and Yourself (1987)
  • If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils. P. D. James, in The Children of Men (1992)
  • Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and benevolent and extremely nearsighted gaze. Garrison Keillor, in Leaving Home‎ (1987)

Keillor preceded the thought by writing: “Selective ignorance, a cornerstone of child rearing. You don’t put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you.”

  • Although we consider parents the king and queen of a family, we think they must respect their subjects now, if only to avoid the guillotine later. Marguerite Kelly & Elia Parsons, in The Mother’s Almanac (1975)
  • The most assiduous task of parenting is to divine the difference between boundaries and bondage. Barbara Kingsolver, “Civil Disobedience at Breakfast,” in Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (1996)
  • Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear. Maxine Hong Kingston, in The Woman Warrior (1976)
  • They fuck you up, you mum and dad./They may not mean to but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you. Phillip Larkin, in “This be the Verse” (1946)
  • You have to be grown up, really grown up, not merely in years, to understand your parents. Doris Lessing, in Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949–1962 (1997)
  • Parents are untamed, excessive, potentially troublesome creatures. Rose Macaulay, in My World My Wilderness (1950)

Macaulay added: “Charming to be with for a time, in the main they must lead their own lives, independent and self-employed with companions of their own age and selection.

  • I discovered when I had a child of my own that I had become a biased observer of small children. Instead of looking at them with affectionate but nonpartisan eyes, I saw each of them as older or younger, bigger or smaller, more or less graceful, intelligent, or skilled than my own child. Margaret Mead, in Blackberry Winter (1972)
  • our parents give us their song of life. We receive it from them and work on it, and will hand it down to those who follow us to make of it a new and better thing, to make it understood by their own generation. Let us be careful to take the song reverently, not to snatch it ungratefully, lest we break the hearts of those who conceive it. Lily H. Montagu, a 1916 observation, in Lily Montagu: Sermons, Addresses, Letters and Prayers (1985; Ellen M. Umansky, ed.)
  • The last step in parental love involves the release of the beloved; the willful cutting of the cord that would otherwise keep the child in a state of emotional dependence. Lewis Mumford, in The Conduct of Life (1951)
  • Oh, what a tangled web do parents weave/When they think that their children are naïve. Ogden Nash, tweaking the proverbial expression, in “Baby, What Makes the Sky Blue” (1940)

QUOTE NOTE: The tangled web expression first appeared in a couplet from Sir Walter Scott, to be found in Deception & Deceit.

  • Romance fails us and so do friendships—but the relationship of parent and child remains indelible and indestructible, the strongest relationship on earth. Theodore Reik, in Of Love and Lust (1941)

Reik added: “There is no call coming from those living as insistent, permanent and penetrating as the silent voice of our parents from the country of the dead.”

  • Having a baby dragged me, kicking and screaming, from the world of self-absorption. Paul Reiser, quoted in a 1997 issue of Good Housekeeping (specific issue undetermined)
  • Proper parenting is an act of love for one’s neighbor. It is the act of training a child such that the child will treat other people properly and make America a better place. John Rosemond, “Emotions and Proper Parenting,” in syndicated “Parenting” column (June 17, 2016)
  • Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go, providing continuity to succeeding ages. Fred Rogers, in You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor (1994)
  • There is no magic on earth strong enough to wipe out the legacies of one's parents. Salman Rushdie, the voice of the protagonist Saleem Sinai, in Midnight’s Children: A Novel (1981)
  • Parents teach in the toughest school in the world—The School for Making People. You are the board of education, the principal, the classroom teacher, and the janitor. Virginia Satir, in Peoplemaking (1972)
  • Having parents was just about as troublesome as having children, plus way tougher to avoid. Laurence Shames, a reflection of the character Pete Amsterdam, in The Paradise Gig (2020)
  • In automobile terms, the child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering. Dr. Benjamin Spock, in Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)
  • Parental trust is extremely important in the guidance of adolescent children as they get further and further away from the direct supervision of their parents and teachers. I don’t mean that trust without clear guidance is enough, but guidance without trust is worthless. Benjamin Spock, in Raising Children in a Difficult Time (1985)
  • How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child. William Shakespeare, the title character speaking, in King Lear (1605–06)
  • Parentage is a very important profession; but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944)
  • Most American children suffer too much mother and too little father. Gloria Steinem, quoted in The New York Times (Aug. 26, 1971)
  • Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children. Charles R. Swindoll, in The Strong Family: Growing Wise in Family Life (1991)
  • Despite the increasing complexity of the task, parenthood remains the greatest single preserve of the amateur. Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock (1970)
  • Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. Peter Ustinov, in Dear Me (1977)



  • The best inheritance a parent can give his children is a few minutes of his time each day.  O. A. Battista, quoted in Sidney Greenberg, A Treasury of the Art of Living (1963)
  • When we are young our parents run our life; when we get older, our children do. Vicki Baum, in I Know What I’m Worth (1964)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a perfectly fine observation in its own right, but when I first came upon it many years ago, I misread it as ruin rather than run. I even remember thinking at the time that it was even better in my misread version. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I ultimately came across a remark attributed to Clarence Darrow: “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, the second half is ruined by our children” (see the Darrow entry below)

  • It isn’t surprising that many children consider their parents to be a little dim, and that they sometimes try to update them. The fact that they don’t usually try too hard is just as well; a thoroughly updated parent is an unappetizing sight. Peg Bracken, in I Didn’t Come Here to Argue (1969)
  • What parent ever thought that a child had arrived at maturity? Mrs. Mary Clavers, the voice of the narrator, in A New Home—Who’ll Follow (1839)
  • Parents and children cannot be to each other, as husbands with wives and wives with husbands. Nature has separated them by an almost impassable barrier of time; the mind and the heart are in quite a different state at fifteen and forty. Sara Coleridge, an 1846 remark, in Memoir and Letters, Vol. 2 (1873)
  • It is no bad thing that children should occasionally, and politely, put parents in their proper place. Colette (pen name of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), the character Bel-Gazou speaking, in the short story “The Priest on the Wall,” in My Mother’s House (1922)

QUOTE NOTE: This passage has also been translated this way: “It is not a bad thing that children should occasionally, and politely, put parents in their place.

  • For though the first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, the second half is ruined by our children. Clarence Darrow, quoted in Changing Times magazine (July, 1878)

QUOTE NOTE: I have not been able to find an original source for this popular remark, and it just may be apocryphal. In the Changing Times piece, editor Sidney Sulkin cites it in "Chat with the Editor," an imaginary conversation he has with Darrow, Shaw, Twain, and John Milton.

  • If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent. Bette Davis, in The Lonely Life (1962)
  • Becoming a parent is like discovering a new room in the house of your soul, where you were certain there wasn’t one. Emily Giffin, in Baby Proof (2010)
  • The attitude you have as a parent is what your kids will learn from more than what you tell them. They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are. Jim Henson, in It’s not Easy Being Green (2005; Cheryl Henson, ed.)
  • Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. Elizabeth Stone, quoted in Ellen Cantarow, “No Kids,” The Village Voice (1985)
  • I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want, and advise them to do it. Harry S Truman, in television interview with Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (May 27, 1953)
  • Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them. Oscar Wilde, the voice of the narrator, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

QUOTE NOTE: Wilde reprised the sentiment in his 1893 play A Woman of No importance (1893), with the word “sometimes” replacing “rarely, if ever.”

  • Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out. Oscar Wilde, the character Gwendolen Fairfax speaking (and reversing the natural order of things), in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)


(see also ALARM and DANGER and DREAD and FEAR and HORROR and HYSTERIA and TERROR)

  • In times of panic man seems to exchange his soul for a tail. Gertrude Atherton, The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton (1902)
  • Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend. Helen Keller, in Optimism (1903)
  • Panic is out great enemy. Melody Beattie, in The Language of Letting Go (1990)

In her book, Beattie also wrote: “Panic, not the task, is the enemy.”

  • Thus, a panic is, usually, a sudden going over to the enemy of our imagination. All is then lost, for we have not only to fight against that enemy, but our imagination as well. Christian Nevell Bovee, in Intuitions and Summaries of Thought, Vol. I (1862)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation came in a discussion of real versus imagined dangers. Bovee introduced the thought by writing, “A visible danger rouses our energies to meet or avert it; a fancied peril appalls from its presenting nothing to be resisted.”

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites mistakenly present the first portion of the observation above as if it read, “A panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination.”

  • A red-hot belief in eternal glory is probably the best antidote to human panic that there is. Phyllis Bottome, a reflection of the narrator and protagonist, a Viennese psychoanalyst who fled to England in the 1930s, in Survival (1943)
  • Don't panic—at least not in front of others. Connie Glaser, quoted in Connie Glaser and Barbara Steinberg Smalley, Swim With the Dolphins (1995)
  • Panic is efficient. Panic is effective. Panic is the way I get things done! Panic attacks are my booster rockets! Sandra Tsing Loh, in Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting (2008)



  • How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. Niels Bohr, remark to students when an experiment yielded an unexpected result; quoted in Bill Becker, “Pioneer of the Atom,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine (Oct. 20, 1957)
  • Paradoxes are useful to attract attention to ideas. Mandell Creighton, in The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London (1904; Louise Creighton, ed.)
  • Paradox has been defined as “Truth standing on her head to get attention.” G. K. Chesterton, the voice of the narrator, from the short story “When Doctors Agree,” in The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (1936)

QUOTE NOTE: For many years, it was believed that some anonymous person was the author of the popular saying that a paradox is truth standing on its head to get [or attract] our attention. It now appears that Chesterton—through the narrator of his short story—may have been the first to use this memorable phrasing. Chesterton is not, however, the original author of the sentiment. That honor goes to Richard Le Gallienne, who first offered the thought in connection with Oscar Wilde. See the Le Gallienne entry below.

  • Yet a man may love a paradox, without either losing his wit or his honesty. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Walter Savage Landor,” in The Dial (Oct., 1841)
  • One should not think slightly of the paradoxical; for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity. Søren Kierkegaard, “The Absolute Paradox: A Metaphysical Crotchet,” in Philosophical Fragments: Or, A Fragment of Philosophy (1844)

QUOTE NOTE: Kierkegaard originally published the work under the pen name Johannes Climacus. When the work first began to appear in English translations in the 1920s, one publisher titled it Philosophical Trifles and another Philosophical Chips.

  • Paradox is a particularly powerful device to ensnare truth because it concisely illuminates the contradictions that are at the very heart of our lives. It engages our hearts and minds because, beyond its figurative employment, paradox has always been at the center of the human condition. Richard Lederer, in “Foreword” to Dr. Mardy Grothe’s Oxymoronica (2004)
  • Paradox was with him only Truth standing on its head to attract attention. Richard Le Gallienne, on Oscar Wilde, in In The Romantic 90s (1926)

QUOTE NOTE: According to quotation expert Nigel Rees, this is the original thought that eventually morphed into the popular saying, “Paradox is truth standing on its head to get our attention.” See the Chesterton entry above for more.

  • Truth consists of paradoxes and a paradox/is two facts that stand on opposite hilltops/and across the intervening valley call/each other liars. Carl Sandburg, in Incidentals (1904; originally published under the name Charles Sandburg)

QUOTE NOTE: Sandburg was twenty-four years old when Incidentals, a book of prose and poetry, first came out. In Gay Wilson Allen’s biography Carl Sandburg (1972), he wrote of this and a few other Sandburg thoughts: “These juvenilia Sandburg was glad to forget, and they have never been reprinted, except for brief quotations in Harry Golden’s Carl Sandburg and in an article I wrote for an academic magazine.” While Incidentals does contain a number of what might be regarded as juvenile creations, I do not regard Sandburg’s paradox observation as one of them.

  • The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us. Paul Valéry, in Introduction to The Method of Leonardo da Vinci (1895)



  • There’s something about Paris that gives you a mental slap all the time, and you can't just sit still and do nothing. Daphne du Maurier, in I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932)

Du Maurier continued: “You’ve got to work, to keep up with the pace, the sting in the atmosphere.”

  • Paris in the early morning has a cheerful, bustling aspect, a promise of delicious things to come, a positive smell of coffee and croissants, quite peculiar to itself. Nancy Mitford, a reflection of the character Linda, in The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The reflection continued: “The people welcome a new day as if they were certain of liking it, the shopkeepers pull up their blinds serene in the expectation of good trade, the workers go happily to their work, the people who have sat up all night in night-clubs go happily to their rest, the orchestra of motor-car horns, of clanking trams, of whistling policemen tunes up for the daily symphony, and everywhere is joy.”

  • One’s emotions are intensified in Paris—one can be more happy and also more unhappy here than in any other place. Nancy Mitford, the character Fabrice speaking, in Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Fabrice continued: “But it is always a source of joy to live here, and there is nobody so miserable as a Parisian in exile from his town. The rest of the world seems unbearably cold and bleak to us, hardly worth living in.”

  • It’s often been remarked that every human activity, whether it be love, philosophy, art, or revolution, is carried on with a special intensity in Paris. Rebecca West, the character Vassili Iulievitch speaking, in The Birds Fall Down (1966)



  • It is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life. Old age is life’s parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Coming of Age (1970)
  • With good parody, you have to be smarter than the people you’re parodying. Craig Ferguson, “Craig Ferguson’s 10 Favorite Comedy Moments,” The Daily Beast (May 20, 2009)
  • As a literary form, parody is a method of criticism that amuses as it derogates…it is a form favored by writers of the second and third rank, who take revenge on their betters by putting just the wrong words to just the right tunes. Brendan Gill, in Here at the New Yorker (1975)

Gill was writing specifically about Wolcott Gibbs, but his remarks were clearly intended to describe parodists in general. He went on to write: “Parody is homage gone sour; it is an accommodation to one’s own failings in the very act of pointing out the failings of others. For a writer, it amounts to a kind of gallows humor, in which the executioner is seen to be envious of his victim.”

  • Self-parody is the first portent of age. Larry McMurtry, the narrator and protagonist Danny Deck reflecting on life, in Some Can Whistle (1989)
  • The parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer. Parodies are what you write when you are associate editor of the Harvard Lampoon. The greater the work of literature, the easier the parody. The step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in A. E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir (1966)
  • Parodies and caricatures are the most penetrating of criticisms. Aldous Huxley, the voice of the narrator, in Point Counter Point (1928)
  • Satire is a lesson, parody is a game. Vladimir Nabokov, in Strong Opinions (1973)
  • There is parody, when you make fun of people who are smarter than you; satire, when you make fun of people who are richer than you; and burlesque, when you make fun of both while taking your clothes off. P. J. O’Rourke, in Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut (1995)
  • Parody is satire without the fangs. Richard Raymond III, in personal communication to the compiler (July 17, 2017)
  • One parody is worth a thousand polemics. Jennifer Stone, “The Revisionist Imperative,” in Stone’s Throw (1988)



  • The writer has to take the most used, most familiar objects—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs—ball them together and make them bounce. Maya Angelou, in Lucinda Moore, “A Conversation with Maya Angelou at 75,” in Smithsonian magazine (April, 2003)
  • Adjectives are the curse of America. Rita Mae Brown, a reflection of protagonist Carole Hanratty, in In Her Day (1976)

A moment earlier, Hanratty preceded the thought by thinking: “People reveal how ordinary their minds are by the metaphors they use.”

  • When you read proof, take out adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. Anton Chekhov, in letter to Maxim Gorky (Sep. 3, 1899)

Chekhov continued with this piece of feedback to his friend: “You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired.” For the full letter, go to Chekhov Letter to Gorky.

  • The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech. Clifton Fadiman, “Beware the Awful Adjective,” in Reader’s Digest (Sep., 1956)
  • I know exaggerators of both kinds: people whose lies are only picturesque adjectives, and people whose picturesque adjectives are only lies. Katharine Fullerton Gerould, in Modes and Morals (1920)

Yet another example of chiasmus.

  • Nouns and verbs are almost pure metal. Adjectives are cheaper ore. Marie Gilchrist, in Writing Poetry: Suggestions for Young Writers (1932)

Gilchrist continued about adjectives: “They have less strength of meaning, since they stand for just one aspect of a thing, one characteristic, and do not represent it in its entirety.” The American poet (and concert violinist) Leonora Speyer featured Gilchrist’s observation in a 1946 Saturday Review of Literature article, adding that adverbs are also a cheaper ore. But Speyer came to the defense of the oft-maligned adjective, writing: “But the adjective can be pure metal too.” As examples, she cited “man’s own resinous heart” (Yeats) and “mild and magnificent eye” (Wordsworth).

  • The beastly adverb—far more damaging to a writer than an adjective. Graham Greene, in Ways of Escape (1980)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation usually appears, but it was originally part of a larger observation. Discussing books by Evelyn Waugh, Greene wrote: “Pinfold, I think, shows him technically at his most perfect. How well he faces the problem of linking passages between the scenes. There is almost a complete absence of the beastly adverb—far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.”

  • The adjective is the enemy of the noun and the adverb the enemy of damn near everything else. Nouns and verbs are the guts of the language. A. B. Guthrie, Jr., in A Field Guide to Writing Fiction (1991)

QUOTE NOTE: For more than a century, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun” has been attributed to Voltaire, and numerous books on writing continue that pattern. The quotation has never been found in his writings, though, and the actual author remains unknown. Here, Guthrie is simply making reference to the saying, and adding to it.

  • I’m glad you like adverbs—I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect. Henry James, in letter to Miss M. Bethan Edwards (Jan. 5, 1912)
  • Adjectives are the sugar of literature and adverbs the salt. Henry James, quoted in Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work (1924)
  • I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (10th Anniversary Edition, 2010)

King continued with a metaphorical masterpiece:

To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.

  • I give myself to adjectives body and soul, I die with pleasure for them. Violette Leduc, in Mad in Pursuit (1971)
  • If an adverb became a character in one of my books, I'd have it shot. Immediately. Elmore Leonard, “What I’ve Learned,” in Esquire magazine (March 31, 2005)
  • Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude. Mary Oliver, in Blue Pastures (1995)
  • I have always had a deep and abiding love for the English language. I’ve always loved the flirtatious tango of consonants and vowels, the sturdy dependability of nouns and the capricious whimsy of verbs, the strutting pageantry of the adjective and the flitting evanescence of the adverb, all kept safe and orderly by those reliable little policeman, punctuation marks. Dennis Miller, in The Rant Zone (2001)

Miller ended his metaphorical flight of fancy in, for him, a predictable way: “Wow! Think I got my ass kicked much in high school?”

  • Poets are always in search of the right word, the adjective that is inevitable,/Because an ill-chosen adjective induces levity in the reader, and no poet wishes to be levitable. Ogden Nash, “A Strange Casement of the Poetic Apothecary,” in Everyone But Thee and Me (1962)
  • Adjective salad is delicious, with each element contributing its individual and unique flavor; but a puree of adjective soup tastes yecchy. William Safire, “The Great Permitter,” in On Language (1980)
  • Whoever has power takes over the noun—and the norm—while the less powerful get an adjective. Gloria Steinem, “In Defense of the ‘Chick-Flick,’” in Alternet (2007)
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating. William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White, in The Elements of Style (1999)
  • I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. Mark Twain, “Reply to a Boston Girl,” in Atlantic Monthly (June, 1880)

QUOTE NOTE: The article, in which Twain was replying to a letter from “A Boston Girl” about his improper use of adverbs, originally appeared as an anonymously-authored piece in a section of the magazine called “Contributors’ Club.” Some years later, it was discovered that Twain was the author. Twain went on to write: “There are subtleties which I cannot master at all—they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me—and this adverb plague is one of them.” To see the entire piece, go to Reply to a Boston Girl.

  • An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice. Mark Twain, in 1880 letter, quoted by P. Covici, in Southwest Review (Spring, 1960)

Twain began his letter to twelve-year-old Wattie Bowser by writing: “I notice you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way, and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They give strength when they are wide apart.”

  • As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out. Mark Twain, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar,” in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
  • Pick adjectives as you would pick a diamond or a mistress. Too many are dangerous. Stanley Walker, advice to journalists, in City Editor (1934)

Walker, the city editor at the New York Herald Tribune, was one of the best known “newspaper men” of his time. He continued: “Because one adjective is as revealing as a lightning flash, don’t think that ten will make the story ten times as good. There is a law of diminishing returns.”

  • Don Basilio was a forbidding-looking man with a bushy moustache who did not suffer fools and who subscribed to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, in The Angel’s Game (2009)
  • Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty. The sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and graceful boughs and frisky kittens and sleepy lagoons. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Zinsser added: “Not every oak has to be gnarled, every detective hard-bitten. The adjective that exists solely as a decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and an obstacle for the reader.”

  • Avoid the ecstatic adjectives that occupy such disproportionate space in every critic’s quiver—words like “enthralling” and “luminous.” William Zinsser, on writing criticism, in On Writing Well (1980; 2nd ed.)

Zinsser continued: “Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think. Florid adjectives smack of the panting prose with which Vogue likes to disclose its latest chichi discovery: ‘We’ve just heard about the most utterly enchanting little beach at Cozumel.’”



  • Why indeed must “God” be a noun? Why not a verb—the most active and dynamic of all? Mary Daly, in Beyond God the Father (1973)

  • Marriage is not a noun, it’s a verb. It’s not something you have, like a house or a car. It is not a piece of paper that proves you are husband and wife. Barbara De Angelis, in Ask Barbara: The 100 Most-Asked Questions About Love, Sex, and Relationships (1997)

De Angelis continued: “Marriage is a behavior. It is a choice you make over and over again, reflected in the way you treat your partner every day.”

  • God, to me, it seems,/is a verb/not a noun/proper or improper. R. Buckminster Fuller, in No More Secondhand God (1963; written in 1940)
  • Life is a verb, not a noun. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in Human Work (1904)
  • The whole of nature, as has been said, is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and the passive. W. R. Inge, “Confessio Fidei,” in Outspoken Essays: Second Series (1922)



  • Ecstasy is what everyone craves—not love or sex, but a hot-blooded, soaring intensity, in which being alive is a joy and a thrill. That enravishment doesn’t give meaning to life, and yet without it life seems meaningless. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of Love (1994)
  • The fire which enlightens is the same fire which consumes. Henri-Frédéric Amiel, an entry in his Journal Intime (March 25, 1851)
  • Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark. Henri-Frédéric Amiel, entry in Journal Intime (Dec. 17, 1856)
  • Life loves the liver of it. Maya Angelou, a 1977 remark, quoted in Jeffrey M. Elliot, Conversations With Maya Angelou (1989)
  • My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style. Maya Angelou in a Twitter post (August 19, 2015)
  • Whereas the law is passionless, passion must ever sway the heart of man. Aristotle, in Politics (4th c. B.C.)
  • Passion is terrifying, it can rock you, change you, bring your head under, as when a wind rises from the bottom of the sea, and you’re out there in the craft of your mortality, alone. James Baldwin, a reflection of protagonist Arthur Hall, in Just Above My Head: A Novel (1978)
  • For passion, be it observed, brings insight with it; it can give a sort of intelligence to simpletons, fools, and idiots, especially during youth. Honoré de Balzac, in A Bachelor's Establishment (1841).
  • Ambition is a passion, at once strong and insidious, and is very apt to cheat a man out of his happiness and his true respectability of character. Edward Bates, in a July 1859 letter, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)
  • The way to avoid evil is not by maiming our passions, but by compelling them to yield their vigor to our moral nature. Henry Ward Beecher, in Life Thoughts (1858)

Beecher continued: “Thus they become, as in the ancient fable, the harnessed steeds which bear the chariot of the sun.”

  • I’ve never sought success in order to get fame and money: it’s the talent and the passion that count in success. Ingrid Bergman, quoted in Oriana Fallaci, Limelighters (1963)
  • You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you. Jeff Bezos, in interview with Charlie Rose (October 27, 2016)
  • I believe a burning purpose attracts others who are drawn along with it and help fulfill it. Margaret Bourke-White, in Portrait of Myself (1963)
  • We are minor in everything but our passions. Elizabeth Bowen, the character Thomas Quayne speaking, in The Death of the Heart (1938)
  • Passion will have all things now. John Bunyan, quoted in John Morley, Notes on Politics and History (1913)
  • No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. Edmund Burke, in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756)
  • Thunder and lightning, wars, fires, plagues, have not done that mischief to mankind as this burning lust, this brutish passion. Robert Burton, on lust, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-51)
  • somewhere in your life there has to be a passion. There has to be some desire to go forward. If not, why live? Alexa Canady, quoted in Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, The Creative Spirit (1992)
  • Her secret? It is every artist’s secret…passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials. Willa Cather, the character Mr. Harsanyi speaking about protagonist Thea Kronborg, in The Song of the Lark (1915)
  • All passions exaggerate; and they are passions only because they do exaggerate. Nicolas Chamfort, in Maxims and Considerations (1796)
  • One heat, all know, doth drive out another,/One passion doth expel another still. George Chapman, in Monsieur d’Olive (1606)
  • It’s a shame to be caught up in something that doesn’t absolutely make you tremble with joy. Julia Child, in Bottom Line/Tomorrow (1998)
  • What is love without passion?—A garden without flowers, a hat without feathers, tobogganing without snow. Jennie Jerome Churchill, in His Borrowed Plume (1909)
  • Bridle passions, and be yourself a free man. John Clarke, in Proverbs: English and Latin (1639)
  • If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Table Talk (March 18, 1831); published in Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1835; Henry Nelson Coleridge, ed.)
  • We must select the illusion which appeals to our temperament and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy. Cyril Connolly, in The Unquiet Grave (1944)
  • Intellectual passion drives out sensuality. Leonardo da Vinci. quoted in Bradley I. Collins, Leonardo (1997)
  • The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. Richard Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

Dawkins continued: “It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

  • Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Richard Dawkins, title and subtitle of 2017 book
  • My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose. Bette Davis, in The Lonely Life (1962)

Richard Dawkins (2017). “Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist”,

  • There is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast. Charles Dickens, the voice of the narrator, in Oliver Twist (1838)
  • Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things. Denis Diderot, in Pensées philosophiques (1746)
  • Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions. Benjamin Disraeli, the character Sidonia speaking, in Coningsby (1844)
  • Longing, the hope for fulfillment, is the one unwavering passion of the world’s commerce. E. L. Doctorow, “Theodore Dreiser: Book One and Book Two,” in Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (1993)
  • What passion cannot Music raise and quell? John Dryden, in A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day (1687)
  • Love is the most selfish of all the passions. Alexandre Dumas, the voice of the narrator, in The Three Musketeers (1844)
  • Never strive, O artist, to create what you are not irresistibly impelled to create! Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • A man never lies with more delicious languor under the influence of a passion than when he has persuaded himself that he shall subdue it tomorrow. George Eliot, the narrator describing Arthur Donnithone’s feelings for Hettie Sorrel, in Adam Bede (1859)
  • It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind. T. S. Eliot, from Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley, his 1916 doctoral dissertation at Harvard University
  • Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Considerations by the Way,” in The Conduct of Life (1960)
  • Check your passions, that you may not be punished by them. Epictetus, in Fragments (1st. c. AD)
  • The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire. Ferdinand Foch, quoted in Harold Whittle Blakeley, The 32nd Infantry Division in World War II (1957)
  • The human passions transform man from a mere thing into a hero, into a being that in spite of tremendous handicaps tries to make sense out of life. Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973)
  • A man in passion rides a horse that runs away with him. Thomas Fuller, M.D., in Gnomologia (1732)

QUOTE NOTE: In an 1749 issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin presented a slightly altered version of Fuller’s observation: “A man in a passion rides a mad horse.”

  • I have only one passion and it is to be a good judge, to judge fairly. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her U.S. Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings (July 21, 1993)
  • My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them. Allen Ginzberg, a journal entry (July 30, 1947)
  • Passion alone could destroy passion. All the thinking in the world could not make so much as a dent in its surface. Ellen Glasgow, in In This Our Life (1941)
  • Whatever it is that you do, if you have that passion and desire for it, that's the most important thing. Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Lessons of Presidential Leadership,” Academy of Achievement Interview, www.achievement.org (June 28, 1996)
  • Passion is always a search for the ideal. Dorothy Graham, in The French Wife (1928)
  • Sometimes you have to give up an intense heat for a continuing warmth. Toni Grant, quoted in Elaine Warren, “Sexy Guru for Kvetches,” The Los Angeles Herald Examiner (July 20, 1980)
  • The art of your passion, embraced fully, redeems you from all the sins and shortcomings of a life. Doris Haddock, in Granny D: Walking Across America in My 90th Year (2001; with Dennis Burke)
  • Passion is the relentless pursuit of those life-enhancing activities or experiences that give our souls meaning. Janet O. Hagberg, in Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations (3rd ed.; 2003)

Hagberg continued: “Passion comes when we connect with the things, people, causes, or issues that touch us at our deepest place.”

In her book, Hagburg also offered these two other observations on the subject:

“Passion is the engagement of our soul with something beyond us, something that helps us put up with or fight against insurmountable odds, even at high risks, because it is all worth it.”

“Once we have found our passion, we feel a strange contradiction: On one hand, we could die today and life would have been worth it, and at the same time, we want to live forever to continue our connection to our passion.”

  • It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The voice of the narrator, in The Scarlet Letter (1850)

QUOTE NOTE: The passage comes near the end of the book, with the narrator adding: “Philosophically considered, therefore, the two passions seem essentially the same, except that one happens to be seen in a celestial radiance, and the other in a dusky and lurid glow.”

  • When you find out a man’s ruling passion, beware of crossing him in it. William Hazlitt, in Characteristics in the Manner of Rochefoucault’s Maxims (1823)
  • We may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821)
  • Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer (1951)
  • Where ambition can be so happy as to cover its enterprises, even to the person himself, under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of all human passions. David Hume, “William the Conqueror,” in The History of England (1754–61)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites mistakenly present the observation in the following way: “Where ambition can cover its enterprises, even to the person himself, under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of passions.”

  • I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. Steve Jobs, advice to young entrepreneurs, in interview with Daniel Morrow at The Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program (April 20, 1995)

A moment later, Jobs went on to add: “Unless you have a lot of passion…you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give it up. So you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about otherwise you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that’s half the battle right there.”

  • Passions are spiritual rebels and raise sedition against the understanding. Ben Jonson, “Explorata,” in Timber (1640)
  • A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. Carl Jung, in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962)
  • Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. James Joyce, the voice of the character Gabriel, from the short story “The Dead,” in Dubliners (1914)
  • The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. Jack Kerouac, in On the Road (1957)
  • The passions are the only orators which always persuade. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (first edition in 1665, and periodically revised until a final version in 1678)
  • When we resist our passions, it is more on account of their weakness than our strength. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665-78)
  • Passion very often makes the wisest men fools, and very often too inspires the greatest fools with wit. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665-78)

An example of chiasmus.

  • Absence lessens the minor passions and increases the great ones, as the wind douses a candle and kindles a fire. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665-78)

QUOTE NOTE: La Rochefoucauld, the most famous of all French aphorists, usually gets credit for this sentiment, but he may have been inspired by a similar analogy in Histoire amoureuse des Gaules (1665) by Roger de Bussy-Rabutin. In a section on “Maxims of Love,” he wrote: “Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it enkindles the great.”

  • Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot. D. H. Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
  • There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. John Lennon, in In His Own Write (1964)

Lennon continued: “We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hope for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”

  • He was then in his fifty-fourth year, when even in the case of poets, reason and passion begin to discuss a peace treaty and usually conclude it not very long afterwards. G. C. Lichtenberg, in Aphorisms: Notebook B (written between 1768–1771)
  • They fight for the sake of ambition, which is so powerful a passion in the human breast that, no matter the rank to which a man may rise, he never abandons it. Niccolò Machiavelli, in Discourses on Livy (1513–1517)
  • Great passions, my dear, don’t exist; they’re liars’ fantasies. What do exist are little loves that may last for a short of a longer while. Anna Magnani, quoted in Oriana Fallaci, The Egotists (1963)
  • How can one make art without passion? Without passion there is no art. The artist to a greater or lesser degree dominates himself, but it is passion which motivates his work. Henri Matisse, from a 1949 interview with R. W. Howe; quoted in Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art (1973)
  • A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position. John C. Maxwell, in The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow (1999)
  • Passion is more important than justice. Carson McCullers, in Clock Without Hands (1961)
  • We welcome passion, for the mind is briefly let off duty. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1960)
  • He who reigns within himself, and rules/Passions, desires, and fears, is more than a king. John Milton, in Paradise Regained (1671)
  • Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man. Vladimir Nabokov, quoted in Radio Times (Oct. 1962)
  • The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality. Anaïs Nin, in The Novel of the Future (1968)
  • Human passion is a heavy working charge of electricity, which runs safely and profitably through the cable reason; but, if the cable is broken, the current becomes dangerous. Austin O'Malley, in Keystones of Thought (1914)
  • Passion makes the best observations and draws the most wretched conclusions. Jean Paul (pen name of Johann Paul Richter), in Hesperus (1795)

Richter added about passion: “It is a telescope whose field is so much the brighter as it is narrower.”

  • The ruling passion, be it what it will./The ruling passion conquers reason still. Alexander Pope, “To Lord Bathurst,” in Epistles to Several Persons (1733)
  • Rule your passions, or they will rule you. Proverb (Greek)
  • If I had to nominate a driving force in my life, I’d plump for passion every time. Anita Roddick, in Body and Soul (1991)

In Rebecca Maddox’s Inc. Your Dreams (1995), she quoted Roddick as saying: “If I had to choose my driving force, it would be passion.”

  • The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Bertrand Russell, “Introduction: On the Value of Skepticism,” in Skeptical Essays (1928)

Russell added: “Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.”

  • Passion of any sort is seldom governed by the rules of etiquette. Nayantara Sahgal, in From Fear Set Free (1962)
  • Let a man in a garret but burn with enough intensity and he will set fire to the world. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939)
  • We must have a passion in life. George Sand, in a letter to M. Duteil (Feb. 15, 1831), quoted in Letters of George Sand, Vol. 1 (1886; Raphaël Ledos de Beaufort, ed.)
  • I have a purpose in view, a task before me, and, if I may use the word a passion, For the profession of writing is nothing else but a violent indestructible passion. When it has once entered people’s heads it never leaves them. George Sand, in an 1831 letter to Jules Boucoiran (March 4, 1831), quoted in Letters of George Sand, Vol. 1 (1886; Raphaël Ledos de Beaufort, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: Sand was twenty-six, and at the very beginning of her career, when she wrote this letter. She had published a brief autobiographical sketch (Voyage en Auvergne in 1827, and her first novel (Rose et Blanche), written with Jules Sandeau), would appear later in 1831. She preceded the thought above by writing that, despite the difficulties associated with a writing career, “I feel that henceforth my existence has an aim.”

  • The capacity for passion is both cruel and divine. George Sand, an 1834 journal entry, in The Intimate Journal of George Sand (1929; Marie Jenney Howe, ed.)
  • No mortal man has ever served at the same time his passions and his best interests. Sallust, in The War with Cataline (1st c. B.C.)
  • More than any other beauty (though it is true of all beauty except in art) passion seems to me to have the seeds of its own destruction in it. May Sarton, a 1948 remark, quoted in Susan Sherman, May Sarton: Among the Usual Days (1993)
  • I think that passion if really intense is always destructive if not to the two involved, always to other people. May Sarton, in a 1954 letter, quoted in Susan Sherman, May Sarton: Selected Letters: 1916-1954 (1997)
  • The worst sin—perhaps the only sin—passion can commit, is to be joyless. Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey speaking, in Gaudy Night (1935)
  • If our passions are aroused, we are apt to see things in an exaggerated way, or imagine what does not exist. Arthur Schopenhauer, “Studies in Pessimism: On Women,” in Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer (1851)
  • Experience teaches us in a millennium what passion teaches us in an hour. Olive Schreiner, in The Story of an African Farm (1883; written under the pen name Ralph Iron)
  • How little do they know human nature, who think they can say no to passion, so far shalt thou go, and no farther! Sarah Scott, in The History of Cornelia (1750)

O, that my tongue were in the thunder's mouth! Then with a passion would I shake the world. William Shakespeare, King John (1598), Act III, scene 4, line 38.

Give me that man That is not passion's slave. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1600-02), Act III, scene 2, line 75.

  • The secret in the search for meaning is to find your passion and pursue it. Gail Sheehy, in New Passages (1995)
  • While we labor to subdue our passions, we should take care not to extinguish them. William Shenstone, in Essays on Men and Manners (1804)

Shenstone continued: “Subduing our passions is disengaging ourselves from the world; to which however, whilst we reside in it, we must always bear relation; and we may detach ourselves to such a degree as to pass an useless and insipid life, which we were not meant to do.”

  • It is better to be passionate than to be tolerant at the expense of one’s soul. Freya Stark, in Ionia: A Quest (1954); reprinted in The Journey’s Echo: Selections (1964)
  • We should employ our passions in the service of life, not spend life in the service of our passions. Richard Steele, quoted in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895),
  • Every true passion thinks only of itself. Stendhal (penname of Marie-Henri Beyle), a reflection of protagonist Julien Sorel, in The Red and the Black (1830)
  • You will have energy to burn once you pursue your enthusiasms with passion. Alexandra Stoddard, in Grace Notes (1993)

Stoddard went on to add: “We gain energy from being free to do those things we chose to do. We never tire when we are working on our projects. Energy is emotional to a large degree.”

  • Finding your passion is like finding your career soul mate. You “date around” a bit, trying various jobs, but one day you find something you love so much you wanna marry it and see it every morning before your first cup of coffee. Emme Stoynoff, in Emme and Natasha Stoynoff, Life’s Little Emergencies (2003)
  • When natural inclination develops into a passionate desire, one advances towards his goal in seven-league boots. Nikola Tesla, in My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla (1919)
  • Living had little use for me other than how it could be funneled into dance. Twyla Tharp, on her passion for dance, in Push Comes to Shove (1992)
  • I believe we come to earth with sealed orders. I believe that only those who lack passion look down on purpose. Liv Ullmann, in Choices (1984)
  • They are the winds that fill the ship’s sails. Sometimes they submerge the ship, but without them the ship could not sail. Voltaire, the title character on passion, in Zadig (1747)
  • Before I embark on any new venture, I ask myself: will the joy of doing this make me lose track of any concern for time? If the answer is yes, I proceed! Alice Walker, in The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way (2013)
  • Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion. Jack Welch, quoted in N. Tichy and R. Charan, “Speed, Simplicity, and Self-Confidence: An Interview with Jack Welch,” in Harvard Business Review (Sep.-Oct., 1989)
  • Passion is our ground, our island—do others exist? Eudora Welty, “Circe,” in The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955)
  • It is the soul’s duty to be loyal to its own desires. It must abandon itself to its master passion. Rebecca West, quoted in Alfred Leslie Rowse, Glimpses of the Great (1985)
  • Passion is the breath we take, the water we drink to sustain ourselves. Without air and water we perish; without passion an artist will wither and blow away. Jack White, in Methods of Success (2002)
  • Passion is what the sun feels for the earth/When harvests ripen into golden birth. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “The Difference,” in Poems of Pleasure (1888)
  • Her secret? It is every artist’s secret…passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials. Willa Cather, in The Song of the Lark (1915)
  • Ambition is peculiarly the passion of great minds. It is the aspiration after a sphere of those who feel within them the capability of filling one. Lady Jane Wilde, “Charles Kean as King Richard,” in Notes on Men, Women, and Books (1891)

Lady Jane continued: “The ambition of such is not the vulgar passion for the possession of an object, be it a fortune or a crown, but a passionate desire for the power which accompanies such possession, enabling the hand to execute what the soul conceives.”

  • The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are filled with a passionate intensity. W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919, first published in The Dial (November 1920); reprinted in Yeats’s 1921 book of verse, Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
  • Want of passion is, I think, a very striking characteristic of Americans, not unrelated to their predilection for violence. For very few people truly have a passionate desire to achieve, and violence serves as a kind of substitute. Marguerite Yourcenar, in With Open Eyes: Conversations With Matthieu Galey (1980)
  • In how many lives does Love really play a dominant part? The average taxpayer is no more capable of a “grand passion” than of a grand opera. Israel Zangwill, “Love in Life and Literature,” in Without Prejudice (1899)


(see also DESIRE and EMOTION and FEELINGS and LOVE and LUST and REASON and SEX)

  • Passion crashes into obstacles; reason peers around them. Mason Cooley, in City Aphorisms, 6th Selection (1989)
  • If passion drives, let reason hold the reins. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (May, 1774)
  • Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. David Hume, “Of the Passions,” in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)
  • Passion, that thing of beauty, that flowering without roots, has to be born, live and die without reason. Georgette Leblanc, in Souvenirs: My Life with Maeterlinck (1932)
  • Reason is the historian, but passions are the actors. Antoine de Rivarol, quoted in Antonio Marichalar, The Perils and Fortune of the Duke of Osuna (1930)
  • There seem near as many people that want passion as want reason. William Shenstone, in Essays on Men and Manners (1804)



  • When you’re forty, half of you belongs to the past—and when you are seventy, nearly all of you. Jean Anouilh, the Duchess speaking, in Time Remembered (1939)
  • A long past vividly remembered is like a heavy garment that clings to your limbs when you would run. Mary Antin, in The Promised Land (1912)
  • Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go. Brooks Atkinson, “December 31, ” in Once Around the Sun (1951)
  • I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it. Margaret Atwood, the protagonist Offred speaking, in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind. W. H. Auden, “D. H. Lawrence,” in The Dyer’s Hand (1962)
  • An unhappy past always carries painful memories, though it looks at one with ghostly eyes that have lost their fire. Ruby M. Ayres, in Unofficial Wife (1936)
  • One must always maintain one’s connection to the past and yet ceaselessly pull away from it. Gaston Bachelard, Fragments of a Poetics of Fire (1988)

Bachelard continued: “To remain in touch with the past requires a love of memory. To remain in touch with the past requires a constant imaginative effort.”

  • The older one becomes the quicker the present fades into sepia and the past looms up in glorious technicolor. Beryl Bainbridge, quoted in The Observer (1998; specific date undetermined)
  • To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time (1963)

Baldwin added: “An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressure of life like clay in a season of drought.”

  • A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. J. M. Barrie, “To the Five—A Dedication,” in Peter Pan (1902)

Barrie added: “If you are searching for anything in particular you don’t find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting.”

  • Why is there anxiety about a past we cannot change? The top of my mind has no answer for this. Lynda Barry, in What It Is (2008)
  • The past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for the dying. John Berger, in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984)
  • The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it. Wendell Berry, “The Specialization of Poetry,” in Standing by Words (1983)
  • Without the faculty of forgetting, our past would weigh so heavily on our present that we should not have the strength to confront another moment, still less to live through it. E. M. Cioran, in The Trouble With Being Born (1973)

Cioran added: “Life would be bearable only to frivolous natures, those in fact who do not remember.”

  • If the past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and the surest emancipation. John Dalberg (Lord Acton), in A Lecture on the Study of History (1895)
  • The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealized past. Robertson Davies, in A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading (1960)
  • When the past is recaptured by the imagination, breath is put back into life. Marguerite Duras, in Le Nouvel Observateur (Sep. 28, 1984); quoted in Alain Vircondelet, Duras: A Biography (1991; Eng. trans. in 1994)
  • It’s but little good you’ll do a-watering the last year’s crop. George Eliot, the character Mrs. Poyser speaking, in Adam Bede (1859)
  • The past cannot be cured. Elizabeth I, in The Sayings of Queen Elizabeth (1923; Frederick Chamberlin, ed.)
  • Be not the slave of your own past. Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry (June 19, 1838)
  • The past is never dead. It’s not even past. William Faulkner, the character Gavin Stevens speaking, in Requiem for a Nun (1951)

ERROR ALERT: For many years, and even up to the present day, this line has been mistakenly presented: “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.” The quotation waters got further muddied in 2008 when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama recast the observation in his famous “A More Perfect Union Speech” (March 18, 2008), saying, “As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’” For a fascinating Harper’s blog post, written a week after the Obama speech, go to The Past is Not Past. Or Is It?

  • Living in the past is a dull and lonely business; and looking back, if persisted in, strains the neck-muscles, causes you to bump into people not going your way. Edna Ferber, in A Kind of Magic (1963)
  • The person intent on self-renewal will have to deal with the ghosts of the past—the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dreams and rebellions, and the accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. John W. Gardner, “Personal Renewal,” in Western Journal of Medicine (Oct., 1992)

Gardner continued: “Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure—but the hampering effect in growth is inescapable.”

  • It is discouraging to leave the past behind only to see it coming toward you like the thunderstorm which drenched you yesterday. William H. Gass, in The Tunnel (1995)
  • The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image. Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Angles of Vision,” in Marc Patcher, Telling Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography (1979)
  • In the carriages of the past you can’t go anywhere. Maxim Gorky, the character Satin speaking, in The Lower Depths (1902)
  • What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself. Sue Grafton, the opening line reflection of narrator and protagonist Kinsey Millhone, in U is for Undertow (2009)
  • The Past’s a Book wherein some Truths are found,/But not a Chain by which Men’s Feet are bound. Arthur Guiterman, in A Poet’s Proverbs (1924)
  • The past is a sorry country. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, in Foreign Bodies (1984)
  • The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. L. P. Hartley, the opening line of The Go-Between (1953)

QUOTE NOTE: Some opening lines go on to enjoy a life of their own as quotations, and this one has long held an honored place in The Big Three quotation anthologies: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, The Oxford Book of Quotations, and the Yale Book of Quotations (in each one, it is Hartley’s only entry). Many quotation lovers—including me—consider it one of the very best things ever written about the subject of the past.

Hartley’s elegant observation is also regarded as one of the best opening lines in literary history. The American Book Review ranked it Number 78 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels,” and writer Colin Falconer ranked it Number 20 on his 2013 list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History.” About it, Falconer wrote: “Wonderful metaphor, and so many questions arise from this simple sentence. You just have to know what he means and why the past is important to him.”

  • To look back on one’s life is to experience the capriciousness of memory. P. D. James, in Time to Be in Earnest (1999)

James went on to add, “The past is not static. It can be relived only in memory, and memory is a device for forgetting as well as remembering. It, too, is not immutable. It rediscovers, reinvents, reorganizes. Like a passage of prose it can be revised and repunctuated. To that extent, every autobiography is a work of fiction and every work of fiction an autobiography.”

  • The past is a scene from which the light is slowly fading. Storm Jameson, the opening line of A Richer Dust (1931)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a spectacular metaphorical observation—and a fabulous opening line—from a female writer who was well known and widely praised in her era (she was so familiar to English readers that publishers selected her to write the Introduction to the 1952 British edition of The Diary of Anne Frank). Sadly, Jameson has been largely forgotten by modern readers.

Jameson’s opening line is similar to L. P. Hartley’s even more famous metaphorical opening line, seen above. Even though I have no evidence to support my contention, I’ve always suspected that Hartley might have been inspired by Jameson’s opening line which appeared a few decades earlier.

  • Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. Milan Kundera, “Paths in the Fog,” in Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (1995)
  • No man can put a rope on the past and hope to snub it down. The best thing is to learn to ride the new trails. Louis L’Amour, the character Kilkenny speaking, in Kilkenny (1954)
  • The past is perpetual youth to the heart. L. E. Landon, “The Past is Perpetual Youth to the Heart,” in The Vow of the Peacock (1929)
  • Why doesn’t the past decently bury itself, instead of sitting waiting to be admired by the present? D. H. Lawrence, in St. Mawr (1925)
  • The first recipe for happiness is: Avoid too lengthy meditations on the past. André Maurois, quoted in Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life (1950)

QUOTATION CAUTION: This looks like the earliest appearance of this observation, which has become very popular despite its lack of authentication. I’m not ready to declare it apocryphal, but I’m close.

  • The past is strapped to our backs. We do not have to see it; we can always feel it. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)
  • If we forget our past, we won’t remember our future and it will be as well because we won’t have one. Flannery O’Connor, the voice of an unnamed speaker, in “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953)
  • The glimmering world is the past. And everybody inherits a past. And it glimmers either happily or miserably. Cynthia Ozick, in interview with Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News (Dec. 14, 2004)

Ozick continued: “In any case it flickers in and out of our lives. We never escape from it and we all inherit it.” The remark came in a discussion of the title of her 2004 book Heir to the Glimmering World. See the full interview at 2004 Ozick Interview.

  • You can live in the past, but there is no future in it. Rabbi Kalman Packouz, in Shabbat Shalom Weekly (Jan. 20, 2007)
  • The past is never where you think you left it. Katherine Anne Porter, in Ship of Fools (1962)
  • Every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories, false namings of real events. Adrienne Rich, in Foreword to Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976)
  • I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes./I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,/a sun dropped in the west. Carl Sandburg, “Prairie,” in Cornhuskers (1918)

Sandburg continued: “I tell you there is nothing in the world/only an ocean of tomorrows,/a sky of tomorrows.”

  • Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905–06)

QUOTE NOTE: This may be history’s most famous saying on the importance of learning from past experience. The essential proposition makes a lot of sense, of course, but throughout history individuals as well as nations have failed to heed the lesson. The problem has been described in a multitude of ways by a multitude of writers over the ages. In his 1987 novel Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut has a character say: “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

  • What’s past is prologue. William Shakespeare, the character Antonio speaking, in The Tempest (1611). Also an example of Oxymoronica.
  • The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet. Edward Thomas, “Early One Morning,” in Poems (1917)

ERROR ALERT: Numerous quotation collections mistakenly attribute this quotation to Cyril Connolly.

  • Like camels, we lived on our past. Alice B. Toklas, in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954)
  • The story and study of the past, both recent and distant, will not reveal the future, but it flashes beacon lights along the way and it is a useful nostrum against despair. Barbara W. Tuchman, “The Historian’s Opportunity,” in Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981)
  • We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it. Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life (2002)
  • Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death above ground. Jessamyn West, in The Life I Really Lived: A Novel (1979)
  • The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future. Jessamyn West, in A Matter of Time (1966)
  • Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title. Virginia Woolf, in Jacob’s Room (1922)



  • The past is a canceled check. The future a promissory note. Only today is cash. Author Unknown
  • The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future. Carl Becker, “What Are Historical Facts?” in Western Political Quarterly (Sep., 1955)
  • One faces the future with one’s past. Pearl S. Buck, in What America Means to Me (1943)
  • As the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, Vol II (1840)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the observation has been traditionally translated, but today one is more likely to see it presented in the following way on internet sites: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”

  • The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding. Will & Ariel Durant, in The Lessons of History (1968)

QUOTE NOTE: Durant reprised the observation in a prefatory note “To the Reader,” in The Story of Civilization: The Reformation (Vol. VI; 1957)The observation is also a perfect example of the literary device known as chiasmus.

  • When we point to the past it is always to illustrate a moral that buttresses our viewpoint about the present; it is never to draw a contrary example, which may be just as often found. Sydney J. Harris, in his “Strictly Personal” syndicated column (July 19, 1973)
  • Why doesn’t the past decently bury itself, instead of sitting waiting to be admired by the present? D. H. Lawrence, in St. Mawr (1925)

QUOTE NOTE: The observation comes from the daughter of Mrs. Lou Witt, the novella’s protagonist, in a letter written to her mother.

  • The past has meaning as it lights up the present, and the future as it makes the present richer and more profound. Rollo May, in Man’s Search for Meaning (1953)
  • If we forget our past, we won’t remember our future and it will be as well because we won’t have one. Flannery O’Connor, the voice of an unknown speaker, in “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953)
  • The past is fantasy, and the future is science fiction. T. L. Rese, in a personal communication to the compiler (Feb. 6, 2018)
  • Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now (1997)
  • The past is to be respected and acknowledged, but not to be worshipped. It is our future in which we will find our greatness. Pierre Trudeau, a 1970 remark, quoted in George A. Walker, Trudeau: La Vie en Rose (2015)
  • History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007)

Ulrich introduced the thought by writing: “Some history-making is intentional; much of it is accidental. People make history when they scale a mountain, ignite a bomb, or refuse to move to the back of the bus. But they also make history by keeping diaries, writing letters, or embroidering initials on linen sheets.”

  • The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future. Jessamyn West, in A Matter of Time (1966)



  • The best path through life is the high road. Henri-Frédéric Amiel, entry in his Journal Intime (Oct. 4, 1873)
  • Weary the path that does not challenge. Hosea Ballou, quoted in George Seldes, The Great Quotations (1983)
  • The path that leadeth on is lighted by one fire—the light of daring, burning in the heart. Helena Petrova Blavatsky, in The Voice of the Silence (1909)

AUTHOR NOTE: Blavatsky was a founder of The Theosophical Society, which propounded a variant of Theravada Buddhism. She added: “The more one dares, the more he shall obtain. The more he fears, the more that light shall pale.”

  • So often when the obstacles in your path can’t be overcome, it’s not your path. Robert Brault, in The Second Collection (2015)
  • To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday. Author Unknown, but commonly attributed to John Burroughs

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, this quotation is attributed to Burroughs, but it has not been found in his works. It appears to be a paraphrasing of the following thought from Signs and Seasons (1886): “The place to observe nature is where you are: the walk you take to-day is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things.”

  • One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it. Albert Camus, in the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942; first Eng. trans., 1955)
  • Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question . . . Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Carlos Castanada, in The Teachings of Don Juan (1968)
  • To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence. Joseph Conrad, “Rulers of East and West,” in The Mirror of the Sea (1906)
  • True morality consists, not in following the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it. Mohandas K. Gandhi, in Ethical Religion (1907)
  • One may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night. Kahlil Gibran, in Sand and Foam (1926)
  • Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. Milan Kundera, “Paths in the Fog,” in Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (1995)
  • No path of flowers leads to glory. Jean de La Fontaine, in Fables, Book Ten (1679)

AUTHOR NOTE: La Fontaine, a popular seventeenth-century French poet, is best remembered for his Fables, published in a dozen volumes from 1668 to 1694. In the tradition of Aesop and the Indian fabulists who authored The Panchatantra, he offered moral lessons in short stories—many involving animals—that were simple enough for children to understand. About his efforts, Madame de Sévigné, the French wit and woman of letters, wrote: “La Fontaine’s Fables are like a basket of strawberries. You begin by selecting the largest and best, but, little by little, you eat first one, then another, till at last the basket is empty.”

  • Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. Abraham Lincoln, in 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois

QUOTE NOTE: Lincoln added: “It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it.” For more on the speech, which was instrumental in establishing Lincoln’s skills as an orator, go to Lyceum Address.

  • All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. Pablo Neruda, in his Nobel Prize lecture (Dec. 31, 1971).

In the speech, titled “Toward the Splendid City,” Neruda added: “And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song.”

  • So long as you are praised think only that you are not yet on your own path but on that of another. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Assorted Opinions and Maxims (1879)
  • Every path has its puddle. Proverb (English)
  • Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (Oct. 18, 1855)

Just prior to this passage, Thoreau wrote that a magazine article about Australian gold miners got him to do some serious soul-searching: “I was thinking of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do without any fixed star habitually in my eye, my foot not planted in any blessed isle. Then, with that vision of the diggings before me, I asked myself why I might not…sink a shaft down to the gold within me and work that mine.”

  • The world’s a wood, in which all lose their way/Though by a different path each goes astray. George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, in Timon (c.1680)

ERROR ALERT: Most versions of the quote on the web mistakenly begin the couplet, “The world’s a forest.”

  • Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road. Voltaire, in Philosophical Dictionary (1764)



  • A paté is nothing more than a French meat loaf that’s had a couple of cocktails. Carol Cutler, in Paté: The New Main Course for the 80’s (1983)



  • Patience is passion tamed. Lyman Abbott, in The Theology of an Evolutionist (1897)

QUOTE NOTE: This powerful epigrammatic thought was the conclusion to a larger, and equally impressive, passage on the subject: “What is patience? It is the experience of the sensitive man whose sensitiveness is mastered by a dominating love, and therefore endures; who is roiled and tried, and still maintains an equable temper. No man can be patient who has not strong passions, for patience is passion tamed.”

  • Blessings may appear under the shape of pains, losses, and disappointments; but let him have patience, and he will see them in their proper figures. Joseph Addison, in The Guardian (July 25, 1713)
  • Patience is the companion of wisdom. Saint Augustine, in “On Patience” (c. 425), quoted in H. L. Mencken, A New Dictionary of Quotations (1942)
  • Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can./Seldom found in woman, never found in man. Author Unknown
  • Patience is an integral part of talent. Vicki Baum, in I Know What I’m Worth (1964)

Baum added: “People who have, or believe they have talent but no patience are and remain dilettantes.”

  • Ye have heard of the patience of Job. The Bible—James 5:11 (KJV)
  • Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. The Bible—Romans 12–12 (RSV)
  • The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Bible—Galatians 5:22–23 (NRSV)
  • Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • I worked with patience which means almost power. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Aurora Leigh (1857)

QUOTE NOTE: This line was followed by Browning’s more famous words: “I did some excellent things indifferently,/Some bad things excellently. Both were praised,/The latter loudest.”

  • Our patience will achieve more than our force. Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • Patience is a high virtue. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Franklin’s Tale,” in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387)
  • Patience is sorrow’s salve; what can’t be cur’d,/…must be endur’d. Charles Churchill, “The Jockey,” in The Prophecy of Famine (1763)
  • Patience is the ability to care slowly. John Ciardi, in his regular Saturday Review column (May 21, 1966)
  • You have passed through the two hardest tests on the spiritual road: the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what you encounter. Paulo Coelho, The character Nasrudin speaking, in Veronika Decides to Die: A Novel of Redemption (2000)

ERROR ALERT: This quotation is often mistakenly presented as if it were phrased in the following way: “The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”

  • Patience is not about waiting, but how we act when things take longer than we expect. Paulo Coelho, in a Tweet (Sep. 2, 2017)
  • As the years go on a sense of deep patience comes over one; one seems to know the virtue of ripeness, and the danger of rushing events. Amanda Cross (pen name of Carolyn Heilbrun), the voice of the protagonist, professor Kate Fansler, in A Trap for Fools (1989)
  • Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. Leonardo da Vinci, in Leonardo da Vinci’s Note-Books (1906, Edward MacCurdy, ed.)

Da Vinci added: “For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.”

  • Patience is the art of hoping. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)
  • You can’t have genius without patience. Margaret Deland, the character Dr. Lavendar speaking, in The Awakening of Helena Richie (1906)
  • To know how to wait is the great secret to success. Joseph de Maistre, quoted in Samuel Smiles, Self-Help (1859)
  • Be patient with everyone, but above all with yourself. I mean, do not be disturbed because of your imperfections, and always rise up bravely from a fall. St. Francis de Sales, from a letter to a friend (May 19, 1609), in A Selection from the Spiritual Letters of St. Francis de Sales (1871; H. L. Lear ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: De Sales was writing to a female friend who was going through a difficult time. A bit earlier in the letter, he wrote: “You greatly need patience; and I hope God will grant it to you if you diligently ask it of Him, and strive to cultivate it faithfully. Make special application of some point in your daily meditation to this subject, and then be persistent in summoning up your patience all through the day, as often as you feel that it is wavering. Never let slip on any occasion, however trifling, of practicing the grace of gentleness toward those around [you].”

  • Beware the fury of a patient man. John Dryden, in Absalom and Achitophel (1681)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the version of the sentiment most often remembered by history, but Dryden was almost certainly inspired by an observation from the Roman writer Publilius Syrus, who wrote in Sententiae (1st. cent. B.C.): “Patience provoked often turns to fury.” It is likely that Michel de Montaigne was also inspired by the Syrus observation when he wrote in a 1581 essay (“Upon Some Verses of Virgil”): “Extreme patience or long-sufferance, if it once come to be dissolved, produceth most bitter and outrageous revenges.”

  • Possess your soul with patience. John Dryden, in The Hind and the Panther (1687)
  • Have patience with the quarrelsomeness of the stupid. It is not easy to comprehend that one does not comprehend. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • It’s easy finding reasons why other folks should be patient. George Eliot, the character Bartle speaking, in Adam Bede (1859)
  • Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Education,” in Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1883)
  • He that can have patience can have what he will. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (June, 1736)
  • To lose patience is to lose the battle. Mohandas K. Gandhi, in Wit and Wisdom of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore (1968)
  • Patience, that blending of moral courage with physical timidity. Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)
  • Patience makes lighter/What sorrow may not heal. Horace, in Odes (1st cent. B.C.)
  • Patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness. T. H. Huxley, “On Medical Education,” an 1870 address at London’s University College, reprinted in Collected Essays (vol. 3, 1893)
  • Patience is necessary, and one cannot reap immediately where one has sown. Søren Kierkegaard, journal entry (Aug. 1, 1835)
  • Genius is only a greater aptitude for patience. George-Louis Leclerc (Comte de Buffon), quoted in Hérault de Séchelles, Voyage à Montbar (1803)

QUOTE NOTE: Leclerc, the great French naturalist who is better known by his title (Count de Buffon), is also commonly cited as the author of an even more famous observation about patience: “Never think that God’s delays are God’s denials. Hold on; hold fast, hold out. Patience is genius.” These words are often cited in literary and scientific works as Buffon’s Maxim, but the passage has never been found in Buffon’s writings.

  • Only with winter-patience can we bring/The deep-desired, long-awaited spring. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “Autumn 1939,” in The Unicorn and Other Poems, 1935-1955 (1956)
  • Patience lives in the gap between our experience of an event and our response to that experience. Allan Lokos, in Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living (2012)

Lokos added: “If we spend time with our experience—the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise—we can gain insight. Wisdom arises as we see things with greater clarity.”

  • Many are the sayings of the wise/In ancient and in modern books enrolled,/Extolling patience as the truest fortitude;And to the bearing well of all calamities,/All chances incident to man’s frail life. John Milton, voices from the Chorus, in Samson Agonistes (1671)
  • There is a point when patience ceases to be a virtue. Thomas Morton, the character Henry speaking, in Speed the Plough (1798)

QUOTE NOTE: Morton was almost certainly inspired by something Edmund Burke had written three decades earlier in the 1769 pamphlet Observations on a Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation: “There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” Forbearance, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “Tolerance and restraint in the face of provocation,” is often seen as a synonym of patience.

  • Patience and diligence, like faith, remove mountains. William Penn, in Fruits of Solitude (1682)

ERROR ALERT: This quotation is often presented as “move mountains/”

  • Patience is the best remedy for every trouble. Titus Maccius Plautus, in Rudens (3rd. c B.C.)
  • Patience and the mulberry leaf become a silk gown. Proverb (Chinese)
  • Patience caught the nimble hare. Proverb (Greek)
  • He that has patience may compass anything. François Rabelais, in Gargantua and Pantagruel, Vol. IV (1548)

QUOTE NOTE: The word compass here means “to understand; comprehend.”

  • Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet! Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Julie, or the New Eloise (1761)

QUOTE NOTE: The saying is commonly attributed to Rousseau, but he was passing along a maxim that had already achieved proverbial status.

  • Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod. William Shakespeare, the character Nym speaking, in Henry V (1599)
  • How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? William Shakespeare, the character Iago speaking, in Othello (1602–04)
  • Patience, when too often outraged, is converted to madness. Publilius Syrus, in Sententiae (1st c. B.C.)
  • Every misfortune is to be subdued by patience. Virgil, in The Aeneid (1st. c. B.C.



  • Cure the disease and kill the patient. Francis Bacon, “Of Friendship,” in Essays (1625)
  • Keeping the patient uninformed and closing ranks with regard to information are two of the ways that doctors limit the power and autonomy of patients. Marcia Millman, in The Unkindest Cut: Life in the Backrooms of Medicine (1977)
  • The Doctor’s Motto: Have patients. Ethel Watts Mumford, in Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford, and Addison Mizner, The Complete Cynic (1902)
  • Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion. Florence Nightingale, in Notes on Nursing (1859)

In the book, Nightingale also offered these additional observations on patients:

“Never to allow a patient to be waked, intentionally or accidentally, is a sine qua non of all good nursing.”

“Nature alone cures…what nursing has to do…is to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.”

  • Doctors always think anybody doing something they aren’t is a quack; also they think all patients are idiots. Flannery O’Connor, a 1961 remark, quoted in Sally Fitzgerald, The Habit of Being (1979)
  • I never kept a book or sent a bill during the first ten years of my practice, theorizing that patients belong to one of three classes: those whom no one could prevent paying their bills; those who never pay any bills, even under pressure; and those, to which the vast majority of patients belong, who pay their bills if pleased with the service, and if it is humanly possible. Bertha Van Hoosen, in Petticoat Surgeon (1947)



  • A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government. Edward Abbey, in A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis en Deserto) : Notes from a Secret Journal (1990)

ERROR ALERT: A similar observation (“It is the duty of every patriot to protect his country from its government”) is commonly attributed to Thomas Paine, but there is no evidence he every wrote such a thing.

  • If ever the time should come when vain & aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin. Samuel Adams, in letter to James Warren (Oct. 24, 1780); reprinted in The Writings of Samuel Adams, 1778–1802 (1908; H. A. Cushing, ed.)

Adams continued: “There may be more danger of this than some even of our well disposed citizens may imagine.”

  • If ever the time shall come when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats of government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin. Samuel Adams, in letter to James Warren (Oct. 24, 1780); reprinted in Paul Huber Smith, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1771-1789 (1978)
  • Totalitarianism is patriotism institutionalized. Steve Allen, in Reflections (1994)
  • This is an example of what those who have studied history well know: When stupidity is considered patriotism, it is unsafe to be intelligent. Isaac Asimov, on the example of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1, in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1970)
  • You cannot love your country only when you win. Joseph R. Biden, in presidential address to the nation on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol (Jan. 6, 2022)
  • Patriot, n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of a whole. The dupe of statesman and the tool of conquerors. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

QUOTE NOTE: See how Bierce finished his definition of patriotism after the Samuel Johnson entry below.

  • “On the contrary, I'm a universal patriot, if you could understand me rightly: my country is the world. Charlotte Brontë, the character Mr. Hundsen speaking, in The Professor (1846)
  • The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border? Pablo Casals, quoted in Albert E. Kahn, Joys and Sorrows: Reflections‎ by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn (1974)

According to Kahn, Casals continued: “There is a brotherhood among all men. This must be recognized if life is to remain. We must learn the love of man.”

  • It is the people who scream the loudest about America and Freedom who seem to be the most intolerant for a differing point of view. Rosanne Cash, a 2003 remark to the Australia’s Undercover Music Magazine; quoted in William McDougal, “Georgie on My Mind,” CounterPunch magazine (April 5, 2003)
  • “My country, right or wrong” is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.” G. K. Chesterton, “Defense of Patriotism,” in The Defendant (1901)
  • There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country. William Sloane Coffin, in Credo (2004)
  • Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive. Henry Steele Commager, in Freedom and Order (1966)
  • Patriotism is in political life what faith is in religion. John Dalberg (Lord Acton), “Nationality,” in The Home and Foreign Review (July, 1862)
  • In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor, and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People. Eugene V. Debs, in Canton, Ohio anti-war speech (June 16, 1918), in Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs (1948)
  • Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched. Guy de Maupassant, “My Uncle Sosthenes” (1883), in The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant (1903)

QUOTE NOTE: For an earlier patriotism as religion metaphor, see the de Tocqueville observation below.

  • Americans rightly think their patriotism is a sort of religion strengthened by practical service. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, Vol. 1 (1835)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation has also been translated this way: “For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance.”

  • You can’t prove you’re an American by waving Old Glory. Helen Gahagan Douglas, in A Full Life (1982)
  • I make no pretensions to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. Frederick Douglass, in speech at Market Hall, New York, NY (Oct. 22, 1847)
  • “It looks to me,” he went on in a melancholy tone, “as if there was too much noise and smoke about patriotism in America for the good of the country.” Finley Peter Dunne, the character Mr. Dooley speaking, in the 1897 story “Freedom and the Fourth of July”

QUOTE NOTE: The quotation was originally written in Dunne's signature dialect style: “It looks to me,” he went on in a melancholy tone, “as if they was too much noise an’ smoke about pathritism in America f’r the good ib th’ country.”

  • No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots. Barbara Ehrenreich, in The Worst Years of Our Lives (1991)
  • Heroism by order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism—how I hate them! Albert Einstein, in The World As I See It (1949)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation came as Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was discussing his abhorrence for war. He famously continued: “War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business.”

  • When a whole country is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanliness of its hands & purity of its heart. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a journal entry (Dec. 10, 1824)
  • Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship. Erich Fromm, in The Sane Society (1955)
  • …that kind of patriotism which consists in hating all other nations. Elizabeth Gaskell, the voice of the narrator, in Sylvia’s Lovers (1863)
  • Of all ennobling sentiments, patriotism may be the most easily manipulated. On the one hand, it gives powerful expression to what is best in a nation’s character: a commitment to principle, a willingness to sacrifice, a devotion to the community by the choice of the individual. But among its toxic fruits are intolerance, belligerence , and blind obedience, perhaps because it blooms most luxuriantly during times of war. Nancy Gibbs, “The Home Front,” in Time magazine (Feb. 11, 1991)
  • What a strange development of patriotism that turns a thinking being into a loyal machine! Emma Goldman, “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty,” in Anarchism and Other Essays (1910)
  • Love and business and family and religion and art and patriotism are nothing but shadows of words when a man’s starving. O. Henry, the voice of the narrator, in the short story “Cupid à la Carte,” Heart of the West (1907)
  • The less a statesman amounts to, the more he loves the flag. Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard, in Abe Martin’s Sayings (1915)
  • One of the greatest attractions of patriotism—it fulfills our worst wishes. In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous. Aldous Huxley, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Anthony Beavis, in Eyeless in Gaza (1936)
  • Like other idealisms, patriotism varies, from a noble devotion to a moral lunacy. William Ralph Inge, “Our Present Discontents,” in Outspoken Essays (1919)
  • It is the subtle blend of noble and ignoble sentiment which makes patriotism such a difficult problem for the moralist. The patriot nearly always believes, or thinks he believes, that he desires the greatness of his country because his country stands for something intrinsically great and valuable. W. R. Inge, “Patriotism,” in Outspoken Essays: First Series (1915)

Inge preceded the thought by writing: “But, though pugnacity and acquisitiveness have been the real foundation of much miscalled patriotism, better motives are generally mingled with these primitive instincts.”

  • On the whole, I prefer not to be lectured on patriotism by those who keep offshore maildrops in order to avoid paying their taxes. Molly Ivins, in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (July 5, 2003)
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Samuel Johnson, an April 7, 1775 remark, in James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

QUOTE NOTE: This is one of quotation history’s most celebrated observations, and the inspiration for numerous spin-offs. In the “patriotism” entry of The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), Ambrose Bierce wrote: “In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.” For a number of observations inspired by Dr. Johnson’s legendary quotation, see REFUGE METAPHORS

You might also be interested in Boswell’s full original entry: “Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone an apophthegm at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.”

  • Patriotism was a great thing but it worked best when it was tempered by common sense. Jayne Ann Krentz, a reflection of protagonist Zoe Luce, in Truth or Dare (2003)
  • True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right—is precisely the same. Robert E. Lee, in letter to Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard (Oct. 3, 1865)
  • What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Ursula K. Le Guin, the character Estraven speaking, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  • Religion, patriotism, race, and sex are the favorite red herrings of foul political method—they are the most successful because they explode so easily and flood the mind with those unconscious prejudices which make critical thinking difficult. Walter Lippmann, in A Preface to Politics (1913)
  • I don’t ever lose sight of the fact that this country is the best one. I don’t care nearly as much about other societies. My country is the one I want to make better. But I do think the patriotic thing to do is to critique my country. How else do you make a country better but by pointing out its flaws? Bill Maher, in “Bill Maher, Incorrect American Patriot” (interview with Sharon Waxman), Washington Post (Nov. 8, 2002)
  • You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. Malcolm X, in “Prospects for Freedom” speech, New York City (Jan. 7, 1965)
  • To deride patriotism marks impoverished blood, but to extol it as an ideal or an impulse above truth and justice, at the cost of the general interests of humanity, is far worse. John Morley, in Note on Politics and History (1913)
  • No wonder scoundrels find refuge in patriotism; it offers them immunity from criticism. Bill Moyers, in speech to The Society of Professional Journalists (Sep., 11, 2004)
  • Patriotism, as I see it, is often an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles. George Jean Nathan, in Testament of a Critic (1931)
  • These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Thomas Paine, in “The American Crisis” (Dec. 23, 1776)
  • We should behave towards our country as women behave towards the men they love. A loving wife will do anything for her husband except to stop criticizing and trying to improve him. That is the right attitude for a citizen. J. B. Priestley, in Rain Upon Godshill: A Further Chapter of Autobiography (1939)

Priestley continued: “We should cast the same affectionate by sharp glance at our country. We should love it, but also insist upon telling it all its faults. The dangerous man is not the critic, but the noisy, empty ‘patriot’ who encourages us to result in orgies of self-congratulation.”

  • True patriotism springs from a belief in the dignity of the individual, freedom and equality not only for Americans but for all people on earth, universal brotherhood and good will, and a constant and earnest striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded. Eleanor Roosevelt, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Sense Etiquette (1962)
  • All of us…should remember that no amount of flag-waving, pledging allegiance, or fervent singing of the national anthem is evidence that we are patriotic in the real sense of the word. Eleanor Roosevelt, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Sense Etiquette (1962)

A bit later, Roosevelt added: “Outward behavior, while important, is not the real measure of a man’s patriotism. ”

  • Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead. Arundhati Roy, in “Come September,” a speech at Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe, NM (2002); reprinted in War Talk (2003)

Roy was talking about the dangers of nationalism, which she described as “the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century.” She continued: “When independent, thinking people…begin to rally under flags, when writers, painters, musicians, film makers suspend their judgment and blindly yoke their art to the service of the nation, it’s time for all of us to sit up and worry.”

  • Dissent truly is patriotism in action. Donna Seaman, “In Praise of Dissent,” in Speakeasy (2003)

Seaman preceded the thought by writing: “Dissent is essential to democracy, although those who practice it are often accused of being unpatriotic. The idea that patriotism demands passivity and obedience, a following of orders as though citizenship is a form of military service, or as if the state is a church and citizens are required to embrace an unexamined faith, or at least act as though they do, contradicts democratic principles and is out of sync with the structure of our government, which accommodates and even demands debate, and which consists of a system of checks and balances to ensure that power is never absolute.”

  • Patriotism, when it wants to make itself felt in the domain of learning, is a dirty fellow who should be thrown out of doors. Arthur Schopenhauer, in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851)
  • The noble kind of patriotism…aims at ends that are worthy of the whole of mankind. Albert Schweitzer, in The Philosophy of Civilization (1923)
  • The idea that patriotism demands passivity and obedience, a following of orders as though citizenship is a form of military service, or as if the state is a church and citizens are required to embrace an unexamined faith, or at least act as though they do, contradicts democratic principles and is out of sync with the structure of our government, which accommodates and even demands debate, and which consists of a system of checks and balances to ensure that power is never absolute. Donna Seaman, “In Praise of Dissent,” in Speakeasy (2003)
  • Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it. George Bernard Shaw, quoted in The World (Nov. 15, 1893)
  • You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race. George Bernard Shaw, the character O’Flaherty speaking, in O’Flaherty V.C. (1919)
  • We’re being sold a brand new idea of patriotism. It never occurred to me that patriotism had to be advertised. Patriotism is something you deeply felt. You didn’t have to wear it on your lapel or show it in your window or on a bumper sticker. That kind of patriotism does not appeal to me at all. Sam Shepard, in The Village Voice (Nov. 12, 2004)
  • The modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it. Mark Twain, “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in North American Review (March 1905)

ERROR ALERT: The observation is often presented as if it were phrased: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

  • Guard against the postures of pretended patriotism. George Washington, in his Farewell Address (Sep. 17, 1796)
  • Patriotism covers a multitude of sins. Carolyn Wells, “Proverbial Patriotism,” in The Carolyn Wells Year Book of Old Favorites and New Fancies for 1909 (1908)
  • American patriotism is generally something that amuses Europeans, I suppose because children look idiotic saluting the flag and because the constitution contains so many cracks through which the lawyers may creep. Katharine Whitehorn, in Roundabout (1962)
  • Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. Oscar Wilde, a remark in conversation, quoted in A. H. Cooper-Prichard, “Reminiscences of Oscar Wilde,” in The Cornhill Magazine (Feb., 1930)



  • Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility. Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill. Richard Aldington, the character Mr. Purfleet speaking, in The Colonel’s Daughter (1931)
  • Nationalism at the expense of another nation, is just as wicked as racism at the expense of another race. In other words, good patriots are not nationalists. A nationalist is a bad patriot. William Sloane Coffin, in Credo (2004)
  • Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first. Charles de Gaulle, in remarks on leaving his presidency, quoted in Life magazine (May 9, 1969)
  • I am against any nationalism, even in the guise of mere patriotism. Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as did any exaggerated personality cult. Albert Einstein, in My Credo (1932)
  • The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war. Sydney J. Harris, “Purely Personal Prejudices,” in Strictly Personal (1953)
  • Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, ‘the greatest,’ but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. Sydney J. Harris, “What’s Wrong with Being Proud?” in Pieces of Eight (1982)
  • By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality. George Orwell, in “Notes on Nationalism” (1945)

Orwell’s essay was written just as WWII was coming to an end, but his observations on nationalism and patriotism seem as relevant today as when they were originally written. Here are some other quotes from the essay:

“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.”

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved….”

  • What is nationalism? It is an ignoble patriotism. Albert Schweitzer, in The Philosophy of Civilization (1923)



  • Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? Samuel Johnson, in letter to Lord Chesterfield (Feb. 7, 1955); reported in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

QUOTE NOTE: While Lord Chesterfield was officially listed as a patron of Dr. Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language (first published in 1755), he offered very little assistance during the early years of the project. A few months before publication, however, he wrote two “puff” pieces endorsing the effort, From Johnson’s perspective, it was not simply a case of “too little, too late,” but an outright act of opportunism on Chesterfield’s part. Johnson preceded the thought above by writing: “Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.” Johnson's resentment toward Chesterfield even showed up in his dictionary's definition of patron: “Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”



  • The pause—that impressive silence, that eloquent silence, that geometrically progressive silence which often achieves a desired effect where no combination of words, howsoever felicitous, could accomplish it. Mark Twain, autobiographical dictation (Oct. 11, 1907), in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 (2015; B. Griffin & H. E. Smith, eds.)



  • An ounce of peace is worth more than a pound of victory. St. Robert Bellarmine, quoted in Pope John XXIII, Journey to a Soul (1964)
  • Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • There may be Peace without Joy, and Joy without Peace, but the two combined make Happiness. John Buchan, in Pilgrim’s Way: An Essay in Recollection (1940)
  • Peace is the only battle worth waging. Albert Camus, “After Hiroshima: Between Hell and Reason,” in Combat magazine (August 8, 1945)
  • If everyone demanded peace instead of another TV set, we’d have peace. John Lennon, remark during “Bed-In for Peace” (Montreal, Quebec, Canada; June 1, 1969)
  • There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy. George Washington, in letter to Elbridge Geary (Jan. 29, 1780)

[Disturbing the] PEACE


  • I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Aretha Franklin, in remarks about posting bail for Angela Davis, Jet magazine (Dec. 3, 1970)



  • Resolve to be thyself; and know, that he/Who finds himself, loses his misery. Matthew Arnold, in “Self-Dependence” (1852)
  • My inner self was a house divided against itself. St. Augustine, in Confessions (5th c. A.D.)
  • You know who you are inside, but people outside see something different. You can choose to become the image, and let go of who you are, or continue as you are and feel phony when you play the image. Richard Bach, in Bridge Across Forever (1984)
  • Inner peace is beyond victory or defeat. The Bhagavad Gita:18:26
  • In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength. The Bible—Isaiah 30:15 (KJV)
  • At the heart of happiness lies peace. It is the last and the highest attainment of the soul. Hugh Black, in Happiness (1911)
  • Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then where are you? Fanny Brice, quoted in Norman Katkov, The Fabulous Fanny (1952)
  • You cannot find peace anywhere save in your own self…. When a man has made peace with himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world. Martin Buber, in The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidim (1950)

ERROR ALERT: Buber offered this thought just after he had quoted Rabbi Simha Bunam as saying, “Seek peace in your own place.” As a result, the observation is often mistakenly attributed to Bunam, even in such respected quotation anthologies as Joseph L. Baron’s A Treasury of Jewish Quotations (1956)

  • He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind. Siddhartha Guatama Buddha, quoted in Celina LuZanne Boozer, Heritage of Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha Gautama (1953)
  • What all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace. Joseph Conrad, a reflection of the unnamed narrator, in Under Western Eyes (1911)
  • To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting. e. e. cummings, quoted in Charles Norman, The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings (1958)
  • I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. Frederick Douglass, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845)
  • Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the closing words of “Self-Reliance” essay, in Essays: First Series (1841)
  • Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Prayer of St. Francis

QUOTE NOTE: This is the first line of one of Christendom’s most famous prayers, sometimes called The Peace Prayer and frequently misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi. While there are a number of versions, the most popular goes this way:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

For more on the history of the prayer, see the Peace Prayer of St. Francis and this 2011 post by The Quote Investigator.

  • Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances. Mohandas K. Gandhi, in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi: Vol. I, Civilization, Politics, and Religion (1986)
  • Dedicate yourself to the good you deserve and desire for yourself. Give yourself peace of mind. You deserve to be happy. Mark Victor Hansen, in Future Diary (198O).

QUOTE NOTE: Sixteen years later, in the 1996 book Out of the Blue: Delight Comes Into Our Lives (co-authored with Barbara Nichols and Patty Hansen, the same quotation appears, but this time with the words “You deserve delight” appended.

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, and in a number of popular books on the subject of happiness, this observation is mistakenly attributed to the philosopher Hannah Arendt. For more, see Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator post here

  • There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home. Josephine Hart, the voice of the narrator, in Damage: A Novel (1991)

A moment later, the narrator went on to explain: “We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.”

  • Peace is such a precious jewel that I could give any thing for it but truth. Matthew Henry, in Memoirs of the Life, Character, and Writings of the Rev. Matthew Henry (1828; J. B. Williams, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: Henry was talking about peace and reconciliation between warring religious factions. He continued: “Those who are hot and bitter in their contendings for or against little things, and zealous in keeping up names of division and maintaining parties, are of a spirit which I understand not.”

  • There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651)
  • When once their slumbering passions burn,/The peaceful are the strong! Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in the poem “A Voice of the Loyal North” (1861)
  • I can have peace of mind only when I forgive rather than judge. Gerald G. Jampolsky, in Good-Bye to Guilt: Releasing Fear Through Forgiveness (1985)
  • When we do not find peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek for it elsewhere. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness or death. Fran Lebowitz, “Manners,” in Metropolitan Life (1978)
  • What is dangerous about the tranquilizers is that whatever peace of mind they bring is a packaged peace of mind. Where you buy a pill and buy peace with it, you get conditioned to cheap solutions instead of deep ones. Max Lerner, “The Assault on the Mind,” in The Unfinished Country (1957)
  • A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. Abraham Maslow, in Motivation and Personality (1954)

Maslow preceded the thought by writing: “We may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he, individually, is fitted for.”

  • If you don’t have peace, it isn’t because someone took it from you; you gave it away. You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can control what happens in you. John C. Maxwell, in Be a People Person: Effective Leadership Through Effective Relationships (1989)

Maxwell preceded the thought by writing: “There have been hundreds of times when I’ve experienced strained relatioships. I have had people swear at me, tell me where to go, how to get there, and offer their assistance. But I have never knowingly let them walk out the door without telling them I love them. I don’t hold any grudges or carry any resentment against anyone. I cannot stress this enough.”

  • If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having. Henry Miller, title essay, in The Wisdom of the Heart (1941)
  • Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have. Doris Mortman, in Circles (1984)
  • If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love, those who live under the same roof. Thich Nhat Hanh, in Being Peace (1987)

Nhat Hanh continued: “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.”

  • If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. Thich Nhat Hanh, in Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (1992)

Nhat Hanh continued: “If we really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile? Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.”

  • Lovely, lasting peace of mind!/Sweet delight of human-kind! Thomas Parnell, the opening words of the poem “A Hymn to Contentment” (1721)
  • Learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace. Robert J. Sawyer, the character Hollus speaking, in Calculating God: A Novel (2000)
  • The mind is never right but when it is at peace within itself. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), Letter XVIII, in Epistles (1st. c. A.D.)
  • A mind at peace does not engender wars. Sophocles, the character Creon speaking, in Oedipus Rex (5th c. B.C.)
  • Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Virginia Woolf, journal entry (Sep. 5, 1925); reprinted in A Writer’s Diary (1953; Leonard Woolf, ed.)

Woolf continued: “Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life, hag-ridden as she is by my own queer, difficult, nervous system.”

  • Possession of material riches, without inner peace, is like dying of thirst while bathing in a lake. Paramhansa Yogananda, in The Essence of Self-Realization: The Wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda (1990)



  • The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography. Federico Fellini, in The Atlantic (December, 1965)

Fellini preceded the thought by writing, “All art is autobiographical.”


  • I tended to place my wife under a pedestal. Woody Allen, from his early 1960s comedy routine; in the 1999 album Standup Comic
  • A pedestal is a prison as much as any other small space. Author Unknown, but widely misattributed to Gloria Steinem

QUOTE NOTE: Almost all internet sites and quotation anthologies wrongly cite Gloria Steinem as the author of this saying. While Steinem has employed the saying many times—and is clearly the person most responsible for popularizing it—she credited an anonymous “southern black feminist” with authorship in an April 1977 speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The saying began to emerge in the early 1970s and, according to a 2017 Quote Investigator post, it first showed up in print in a 1974 advertisement for a realty company in a September 1974 issue of the Uma Daily Sun. The saying builds upon a number of earlier observations that questioned the value of putting people on pedestals (you’ll see them below).

  • Cows in India occupy the same position in society as women did in England before they got the vote. Woman was revered but not encouraged. Her life was one long obstacle race owing to the anxiety of man to put pedestals at her feet. While she was falling over the pedestals she was soothingly told that she must occupy a Place Apart—and indeed, so far Apart did her place prove to be that it was practically out of earshot. Stella Benson, in The Little World (1925)

Benson continued: “The cow in India finds her position equally lofty and tiresome. You practically never see a happy cow in India.”

  • To be on a pedestal is to be in a corner. Elizabeth Bibesco, in Haven (1951)
  • There can be no doubt that our Nation has had a long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination. Traditionally, such discrimination was rationalized by an attitude of “romantic paternalism” which, in practical effect, put women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage. William J. Brennan, Jr., in a majority opinion, in Frontiero v. Richardson (1973).
  • Our culture is obsessed with dead musicians. We love to put them on a pedestal. If Kurt had just been another guy who abandoned his family in the most awful way possible…. But he wasn’t. He inspired people to put him on a pedestal, to become St. Kurt. Francis Bean Cobain, on her father, Kurt Cobain, in interview in Rolling Stone magazine (April 8, 2015)
  • A writer is hoisted up onto a pedestal only to scrutinize him more closely and conclude that it was a mistake to put him up there in the first place. Simone de Beauvoir, in Force of Circumstance: The Autobiography of Simone De Beauvoir (1963)
  • The favorites of fortune or of fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)
  • As a general rule, when something gets elevated to apple-pie status in the hierarchy of American values, you have to suspect that its actual monetary value is skidding toward zero. Take motherhood: nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent. Barbara Ehrenreich, “Good-Bye to the Work Ethic,” in The Worst Years of Our Lives (1990)

Ehrenreich continued: “Same thing with work: would we be so reverent about the ‘work ethic’ if it wasn’t for the fact that the average working stiff’s hourly pay is shrinking, year by year.”

  • The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead. William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public,” in inaugural issue of The Liberator (Jan. 1, 1831)
  • Friends who knew him all his life insisted that for many years he was a statue in search of a pedestal. Noel Bertram Gerson, on the Marquis de Lafayette, in Statue in Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (1976)
  • The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos. Stephen Jay Gould, summarizing a thought from Sigmund Freud, in “Jove’s Thunderbolts,” in Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (1995)
  • The practice of putting women on pedestals began to die out when it was discovered that they could give orders better from that position. Betty Grable, quoted in Doug McClelland, Star Speak (1987)
  • Women are not ladies. The term connotes females who are simultaneously put on a pedestal and patronized. Cynthia Heimel, in Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Good-Bye! (1993)
  • It seems likely that she had great difficulty in distinguishing the difference between a pedestal and a shelf. Katherine A. Kendall, on Jane Addams, in Reflections on Social Work Education 1950-1978 (1978)

QUOTE NOTE: Addams (1860-1935) was a pioneering American social activist and reformer, possibly best known for helping to found Hull House, a settlement house for the poor. Kendall preceded the observation by writing, “At that time men tended to place women of her cultivated tastes on a pedestal.”

  • When smashing monuments, save the pedestals. They always come in handy. Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, in Unkempt Thoughts (1957)
  • Sam Malone (Ted Danson): “She’s a terrific person. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s horny. I mean, she’s just the kinda chick you wanna stick up on a pedestal.” Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar): “You know, Sam, it’s always amazed me how you can elevate and demean in the same sentence.”

Ken Levine and David Isaacs, dialogue from the television sitcom “Frazier,” (Feb. 21, 1995; episode 16 of season 2)

  • There is never any real danger in allowing a pedestal for a hero. He never has time to sit on it. One sees him always over and over again kicking his pedestal out from under him, and using it to batter a world with. Gerald Stanley Lee, in Crowds (1913)
  • Recently, while criticizing my husband for something flawed in his person, like how he laces his boots or something, I was struck by a realization. Either I am perfect or my husband enjoys the relative peace that reigns when we both pretend I am. Ammi Midstokke, a reflection after being complimented by her husband, “How to Build a Pedestal,” in Spokane, Washington’s The Spokesman-Review (Feb. 22, 2024)

QUOTE NOTE: In the article, Midstokke was talking about the importance of compliments, praise, acknowledgments, and other affirmations of our personal worth. Later in the column, she wrote:

“Which brings me to the importance of the pedestal. I am told they are topple-tippy things, a precarious risk to be stood upon. Once placed up there, the only place we can go is down. I disagree. We should be put on pedestals all the time, preferably for the most mundane things. I know this because my husband has healed a thousands wounds of my inner child by doing just that. He literally told me he was proud of me for taking a nap the other day. This is brilliant because I’m really good at taking naps. What I’m learning is that it is often these nearly microscopic acknowledgements, the tiny affirmations of our choices, the nods of empathy when we wrestle with our mistakes, that give us our sense of place, belonging, worth.”

  • When you put someone on a pedestal, it just makes it easier for them to look down on you. Alfred E. Neuman, in Mad magazine (October, 2004; issue #446)

QUOTE NOTE: Along with an image of Newman's iconic face, almost every one of the 550-plus issues of Mad included a short humorous quotation credited to Neuman on the magazine's Table of Contents (most were likely written by editor Harvey Kurtzman).

  • Pedestals are always lonely. Myrtle Reed, in The Myrtle Reed Year Book (1911)
  • Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthly pedestals. Agnes Repplier, “A Plea for Humor,” in Points of View (1891)
  • Men put me on a pedestal, then never come to visit. Sharon Stone, quoted in a 2002 issue of Star magazine (specific issue undetermined)



  • Pedantry is paraded knowledge. Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), quoted in Maturin Murray Ballou, Edge-Tools of Speech (1886)

QUOTE NOTE: It’s possible that Ballou was summarizing a thought from Billings rather than quoting him directly. In Donald Day’s Uncle Sam’s Uncle Josh (1972), Billings is quoted as saying, “Pedantry is a little knowledge on parade.”

  • Pedantry prides herself on being wrong by rules; while common sense is contented to be right without them. Charles Caleb Colton, in Lacon (1825)
  • Pedantry is the dotage of knowledge. Holbrook Jackson, in The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930)
  • Have you ever seen a pedant with a warm heart? Johann Kaspar Lavater, in Aphorisms on Man (1788)
  • To apply a rule to the letter, rigidly, unquestioningly, in cases where it fits and in cases where it does not fit, is pedantry. George Polya, in How to Solve It (1945)




  • We’ve licked pneumonia and T.B./And plagues that used to mock us,/We’ve got the virus on the run,/The small pox cannot pock us./We’ve found the antibodies for/The staphylo-strepto-cocus. But oh the universal curse/From Cuba to Korea,/The bug of bugs that bugs us still/And begs for panacea!/Oh, who will find the antidote/For Pentagonarea? E. Y. Harburg, “An Atom a Day Keeps the Doctor Away,” in Rhymes for the Irreverent (1965)



  • If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. William Blake, “A Memorable Fancy,” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93)

QUOTE NOTE: These words so inspired Aldous Huxley that he chose The Doors of Perception as the title for his 1954 book on mind-expanding drugs. Less than a decade later, Huxley’s book, in turn, inspired UCLA poetry student and aspiring musician Jim Morrison to name his newly-formed rock group The Doors.

  • Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate. Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969; Sally & Robert Fitzgerald, eds.)
  • We see things as we are, not as they are. Leo Rosten, in Passions & Prejudices: Or, Some of My Best Friends Are People (1978)

Rosten continued: “I said this before; let me expand on it. All of our perceptions are partial. crippled recognitions of the realities around us. We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.”

ERROR ALERT: This observation is often mistakenly attributed to Anaïs Nin.

  • All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy; we reason from our hands to our head. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (Sep. 5, 1851)



  • If we don’t begin by imagining the perfect society, how shall we create one? Isabel Allende, the character Jacob Todd speaking in Daughter of Fortune (1999)
  • In order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfection. Hannah Arendt, in Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (1957)
  • Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection. It is a study in perfection. Matthew Arnold, “Sweetness and Light,” in Culture and Anarchy (1869)

QUOTE NOTE: A bit later in the same essay, Arnold wrote: “Not a having and a resting, but a growing and becoming is the character of perfection as culture conceives it.”

  • Perfection irritates as well as it attracts, in fiction as in life. Louis Auchincloss, “Edith Wharton,” in Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1961)
  • Perfection bores me, in art, in music; most of all, in people. Luckily, perfection is rare. Vicki Baum, in I Know What I’m Worth (1964)
  • Strive for excellence, not perfection. H. Jackson Brown, Jr., in Life’s Little Instruction Book (1991)
  • We can fix our eyes on perfection, and make almost every thing speed towards it. This is, indeed, a noble prerogative of our nature. William Ellery Channing, in Self Culture (1838)

Channing continued: “Possessing this, it matters little what or where we are now; for we can conquer a better lot, and even be happier for starting from the lowest point.”

  • The maxim “Nothing avails but perfection” may be spelt shorter: “Paralysis.” Winston Churchill, in telegram to General H. L. Ismay (Dec. 6, 1942); reprinted in The Hinge of Fate, Vol. 4 of The Second World War series (1950)
  • Ring the bells that still can ring,/Forget your perfect offering,/There is a crack in everything,/That’s how the light gets in. Leonard Cohen, refrain from “Anthem,” on the album The Future (1992)

QUOTE NOTE: Cohen wrote many memorable lyrics in his career, but few rival the power of this simple refrain about imperfection in human life. To see Cohen deliver a live performance of the song, go to Anthem.

  • Perfection is an undiscovered jewel. Edward Counsel, in Maxims: Political, Philosophical, and Moral (2nd ed., 1892)
  • Perfection never exists in reality, but only in our dreams and, if we are foolish enough to think so, in the past. Rudolf Dreikurs, in The Challenge of Marriage (1946)
  • All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. William Faulkner, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1956)
  • Perfection is the measure of heaven, and the wish to be perfect the measure of man. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1892; Bailey Saunders, trans. & ed.)
  • It is, however, reasonable to have perfection in our eye; that we may always advance towards it, though we know it never can be reached. Samuel Johnson, in The Adventurer (Aug. 28, 1753)
  • Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good. Vince Lombardi, in June, 1959 remarks to his Green Bay Packers team, quoted in John Eisenberg, That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on a Path to Glory (2009)

QUOTE NOTE: I can’t be sure, but it’s possible that Lombardi was familiar with similar observations from Samuel Johnson (seen above) and Lord Chesterfield (see the Phillip Dormer Stanhope entry below).

  • We are all grateful for perfection when we recognize it, even if it is only in a game. And it is in games that many men discover their paradise. Robert Lynd, in Searchlights and Nightingales (1939)
  • Nothing would be done at all, if a man waited till he could do it so well that no one could find fault with it. John Henry Newman, “Duties of Catholics Towards the Protestant View,” in Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851)

ERROR ALERT: On almost all internet sites, this quotation is mistakenly presented in the following way: “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”

  • Call it the Absolute, the Ideal, Perfection, Sanctity, Decency, or what you will, but strive toward it or you will smother in the morass. Austin O’Malley, in Keystones of Thought (1914)
  • Excellence is not the same as perfection. Excellence must above all conform with realistic standards. Otherwise it becomes a rationalization of obsessive, perfectionistic needs. Theodore Isaac Rubin, in Overcoming Indecisiveness (1985)
  • Where is perfection? Where I cannot reach. Percy Bysshe Shelley, in letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg (June 16, 1811)
  • The indefatigable pursuit of an unattainable perfection, even though it consist in nothing more than the pounding of an old piano, is what alone gives a meaning to our life on this unavailing star. Logan Pearsall Smith, “Arts and Letters,” in Afterthoughts (1931)
  • Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable; however, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer it, than those whose laziness and despondency makes them give it up as unattainable. Phillip Dormer Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield), in letter to his son (May 24, 1750)

QUOTE NOTE: Lord Chesterfield returned to the theme two years later (Feb. 20, 1752) when he wrote to his son: “Those who aim at perfection will come infinitely nearer it than those desponding [sic], or indolent spirits, who foolishly say to themselves, Nobody is perfect; perfection is unattainable; to attempt it is chimerical.” Go here to see Chesterfield’s additional thoughts on the subject of aiming for perfection—thoughts which are still worth reading, even though originally written more than 250 years ago. Lord Chesterfield’s observation may have also served as an inspiration for Vince Lombardi’s famous observation on the subject, offered more than two centuries later (see the Lombardi entry above).

  • Perfectionism is the enemy of creation, as extreme self-solicitude is the enemy of well-being. John Updike, “Ungreat Lives,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991)
  • Perfection falls not to the share of mortals. George Washington, in letter to John Jay (Aug. 1, 1786)
  • It is better to aim at perfection and miss it than it is to aim at imperfection and hit it. Thomas J. Watson, Sr., quoted in Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs: The Ideas That Helped Build IBM (1963)



  • Perils commonly ask to be paid in pleasures. Francis Bacon, “Of Love,” in Essays (1625)
  • Through perils both of wind and limb,/Through thick and thin she follow’d him/In Every adventure he undertook,/And never him or it forsook. Samuel Butler (1612–80), describing the character Trulla, in Hudibras (1663)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the first appearance of the words through thick and thin, which went on to become a popular catchphrase.

  • Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers. Victor Hugo, the voice of the narrator, in Les Misérables, Vol. II (1862)
  • Look back, and smile at perils past. Sir Walter Scott, in Introduction to The Bridal of Trierman (1813)



  • I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest. Dashiell Hammett, from “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” in Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001; Steven Marcus, ed.). An example of oxymoronica.
  • The perjurer’s mother told white lies. Austin O’Malley, in Keystones of Thought (1914)



  • It is easier to get forgiveness than permission. Arthur Bloch, in Murphy's Law, Book Two (1980)

QUOTE NOTE: This appears to be the earliest appearance of a sentiment that has evolved into a modern proverb.



  • All persecution is a sign of fear; for if we did not fear the power of an opinion different from our own, we should not mind others holding it. Truth is its own defense. Phyllis Bottome, Professor Roth speaking to son Rudi, in The Mortal Storm (1938)

QUOTE NOTE: The Mortal Storm holds the distinction of being the first novel to mention Adolf Hitler’s name and to warn of the dangers of a fascist state. It was adapted into a 1940 film starring James Stewart.

  • Persecution is a bad and indirect way to plant religion. Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici (1643)
  • Opposition may become sweet to a man when he christened it persecution. George Eliot, the voice of the narrator, in Janet’s Repentance (first published in an 1857 issue of Blackwood’s magazine); reprinted in Scenes of a Clerical Life (1858)
  • Men who would persecute others for religious opinions, prove the errors of their own. Marguerite Gardiner (Lady Blessington), quoted in R. R. Madden, The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington, Vol. 1 (1855)
  • To punish a man because we infer from the nature of some doctrine which he holds, or from the conduct of other persons who hold the same doctrines with him, that he will commit a crime, is persecution; and is, in every case, foolish and wicked. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Hallam’s Constitutional History,” in Edinburgh Review (Sep., 1828)

QUOTE NOTE: Macaulay was making a distinction between prosecution—even when misguided or downright wrong—from persecution. He preceded the thought by writing: “To punish a man because he has committed a a crime, or is believed, though unjustly, to have committed a crime, is not persecution.”

  • There is no truth sure enough to justify persecution. Louis L. Snyder, summarizing a belief of John Milton, in The Making of Modern Man (1967)

ERROR ALERT: The exact phrasing is Snyder’s, but in his book he clarified it by writing, “This point of view was expressed eloquently by England’s great epic poet John Milton (1608–1674).” Today, most internet sites mistakenly attribute the quotation directly to Milton.

  • Persecution is not an original feature of any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of any law-religions, or religions established by law. Thomas Paine, in The Rights of Man (1791)



  • Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance. Abigail Adams, in letter to husband John (Nov. 27, 1775)
  • Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. John Quincy Adams, in speech at Plymouth, Massachusetts (Dec. 22, 1802)
  • Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears. Gillian Anderson, in Foreword to Girl Boss: Running the Show Like the Big Chicks (1999).
  • Genius, that power which dazzles mortal eyes,/Is oft but perseverance in disguise. Henry Austin, the opening lines of “Perseverance Conquers All,” in The Business Philosopher (March, 1911)

Austin continued: “Continuous effort of itself implies,/In spite of countless falls, the power to rise.” To see how the poem continues, go to ”Perseverance Conquers All”.

  • The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one often comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t. Author Unknown, quoted in Adam Woolever, Treasury of Wisdom, Wit, and Humor (4th edition, 1881)

ERROR ALERT: In a 1903 anthology of quotations, this observation was mistakenly attributed to Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most popular orators of the era. The mistake has been repeated ever since.

  • The rewards come to those who travel the second, undemanded mile. Bruce Barton, in The Man and the Book Nobody Knows (1959)
  • Perseverance, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. The Bible—James 1:2-4 (NIV)
  • It is a human thing to sin, but perseverance in sin is a thing of the devil. Catherine of Siena, in a 1378 letter, in St. Catherine of Siena As Seen in Her Letters (1905; Vida D. Scudder, ed.)
  • Sure I am of this, that you have only to endure to conquer. You have only to persevere to save yourselves. Winston Churchill, in his first wartime address to the British people (Sep. 4, 1914)
  • Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Winston Churchill, in speech at Harrow School, Harrow, England (Oct. 29, 1941)
  • The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication. Cecil B. de Mille, in Sunshine and Shadow (1955)
  • Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure. George Eliot, the character Dorothea speaking, in Middlemarch (serialized 1871–72; published as stand-alone novel in 1874)
  • To persevere, trusting in what hopes he has,/is courage in a man. Euripides, in Heracles (5th cent. B.C.)

Euripides added: “The coward despairs.”

  • God Almighty hates a quitter. Samuel Fessenden, in speech at Republican National Convention (June, 1896)
  • If our sex life were determined by our first youthful experiments, most of the world would be doomed to celibacy. In no area of human experience are human beings more convinced that something better can be had if only they persevere. P. D. James, in The Children of Men (1992)
  • I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. Steve Jobs, advice to young entrepreneurs, in interview with Daniel Morrow at The Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program (April 20, 1995)

A moment later, Jobs went on to add: “Unless you have a lot of passion…you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give it up. So you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about otherwise you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that’s half the battle right there.”

  • You will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles Helen Keller, in The Story of My Life (1902)
  • Perseverance can lend the appearance of dignity and grandeur to many actions, just as silence in company affords wisdom and apparent intelligence to a stupid person. G. C. Lichtenberg, in Aphorisms (1775–79)
  • There is a fine line between perseverance and madness. Lynda Obst, in Hello, He Lied—And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches (1996)
  • Through persistence, you can be one of those happy, victorious people who not only chases dreams, but who catches them! The persistent man also perseveres long enough for his dreams to catch up with him! Catherine Ponder, in The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity (1962)
  • When you get to the end of your rope—tie a knot in it and hang on. Eleanor Roosevelt, in You Learn by Living (1960)
  • Through persistence, you can be one of those happy, victorious people who not only chases dreams, but who catches them! The persistent man also perseveres long enough for his dreams to catch up with him! Catherine Ponder, in The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity (1962)

In her book, Ponder also offered this intriguing oxymoronic thought: “Often, failure is success trying to be born in a bigger way, and persistence helps you to experience that greater result.”

  • You can’t fall off the floor. Try once more. Charles Rubens II, in a personal communication to the compiler (July, 2016)
  • One of the first principles of perseverance is to know when to stop persevering. Carolyn Wells, in The Rest of My Life (1937)



  • Nowhere can it rain harder and with a more tiresome persistence than in California during the brief season when it rains at all. Gertrude Atherton, in The Adventures of a Novelist (1932)
  • The rewards come to those who travel the second, undemanded mile. Bruce Barton, in The Man and the Book Nobody Knows (1959)
  • Children always take the line of most persistence. Marcelene Cox, in a 1947 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal (specific issue undetermined)
  • God Almighty hates a quitter. Samuel Fessenden, in speech at Republican National Convention (June, 1896)
  • Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Notebook E,” in The Crack-Up (1945; Edmund Wilson, ed.)
  • Skeeters have the reputation/Of continuous application/To their poisonous profession;/Never missing nightly session,/Wearing out your life's existence/By their practical persistence. Anna Adams Gordon, “Concerning Mosquitoes,” in Kate Sanborn, The Wit of Women (1885)
  • Persistence is a virtue only when the goal is laudable; the world would be a far better place if fewer bad men were steadfast in their objectives. (Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin came out of confinement and exile more determined than ever.) Sydney J. Harris, in an August 1983 edition of his syndicated “Strictly Personal” column
  • Learning to deal with setbacks, and maintaining the persistence and optimism necessary for childhood's long road to mastery are the real foundations of lasting self-esteem. Lilian G. Katz, “Reading, Writing, Narcissism,” in The New York Times (July 15, 1993)
  • Always remember, the value of persistence is in the fact that so few people have any, you’ll be left at the finish line when everyone else has quit in the middle of the race! Shirley Muldowney, “Shirley Muldowney,” in Andy Andrews, Storms of Perfection: In Their Own Words (1992)
  • Through persistence, you can be one of those happy, victorious people who not only chases dreams, but who catches them! The persistent man also perseveres long enough for his dreams to catch up with him! Catherine Ponder, in The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity (1962)

In her book, Ponder also offered this intriguing oxymoronic thought: “Often, failure is success trying to be born in a bigger way, and persistence helps you to experience that greater result.”

  • In every human endeavor, persistence is everything. Joan Rivers, in Bouncing Back (1997)
  • When you get to the end of your rope—tie a knot in it and hang on. Eleanor Roosevelt, in You Learn by Living (1960)
  • Progress is often mere persistence. Phyllis Zagano, quoted in Ita Ford: Missionary Martyr (1996)



  • The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place. Chinua Achebe, the character Ezeulu offering words of wisdom to son Oduche, in The Arrow of God (1988)
  • What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly. Richard Bach, in Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (1977)
  • Another person’s life, observed from the outside, always has a shape and definition that one’s own life lacks. Pat Barker, in The Ghost Road (1995)
  • An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. G. K. Chesterton, “On Running After One’s Hat,” in All Things Considered (1908). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • There is nothing ugly. I never saw an ugly thing in my life; for let the form of an object be what it may—light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful. It is perspective which improves the form. John Constable, quoted in a review of Edward J. Poynter’s Lectures on Art (1897); The Saturday Review (Aug. 28, 1897)
  • From the vantage point of the continent’s original residents, or, for example, the captive African laborers who made America a great agricultural power, our ‘traditional values’ have always been bigotry, greed, and belligerence, buttressed by wanton appeals to a God of love. Barbara Ehrenreich, “Introduction: Family Values,” in The Worst Years of Our Lives (1990)
  • She had plenty of evidence that she had a good life. She just couldn’t feel the life she saw she had. It was as though she had cancer of the perspective. Carrie Fisher, the narrator describing the life of protagonist Suzanne Vale, in Postcards From the Edge (1987)

Fisher preceded the thought by writing: “She wanted so to be tranquil, to be someone who took walks in the late-afternoon sun, listening to the birds and crickets and feeling the whole world breathe. Instead, she lived in her head like a madwoman locked in a tower, hearing the wind howling through her hair and waiting for someone to come and rescue her from feeling things so deeply that her bones burned.”

  • It was best to see it first of all like this, at a far distance. All the best things are seen first of all at a far distance. Elizabeth Goudge, the voice of the narrator, describing Maria Merryweather’s first visit to the sea, in The Little White Horse (1946)

QUOTE NOTE: After winning The Carnegie Medal in 1946, this book became the favorite childhood book of many Baby Boomers, including J. K. Rowling, who said in a 2011 interview: The Little White Horse was my favorite childhood book. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.” in 2008, the book was adapted into a film titled The Secret of Moonacre.

  • Take time to look back. Looking back teaches you how far you have come, and reinforces your belief in your abilities. Rosemarie Rossetti, in Take Back Your Life! Regaining Your Footing After Life Throws You a Curve (2003)
  • I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. Kurt Vonnegut, the character Finnerty speaking, in Player Piano: A Novel (1952)

Finnerty added: “Big undreamed-of things—the people on the edge see them first.”



  • Persuasion is often more effectual than force. Aesop, “The Wind and the Sun,” in Fables (6th c. B.C.)
  • Advertising isn’t a science. It’s persuasion. And persuasion is an art. William Bernbach, quoted in Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov, Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English (1997)
  • There are two attitudes you can wear: that of cold arithmetic or that of warm, human persuasion. I will urge the latter on you. William Bernbach, in Bill Bernbach Said… (1989); reprinted in Lemon 2020 (Issue 58)

Bernbach continued: “For there is evidence that in the field of communications the more intellectual you grow, the more you lose the great intuitive skills that make for the greatest persuasion—the things that really touch and move people.”

  • He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. Joseph Conrad, in “A Familiar Preface” to A Personal Record (1912)
  • I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone. Dwight D. Eisenhower, remark at a White House news conference (Nov. 14, 1956); reported in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower (1958)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation is typically reported, but it was originally the concluding portion of a larger thought that began this way: “Leadership is a word and a concept that has been more argued than almost any other I know. I am not one of the desk-pounding type that likes to stick out his jaw and look like he is bossing the show. I would far rather get behind and, recognizing the frailties and the requirements of human nature, I would rather try to persuade a man to go along….”

  • A belated discovery, one that causes considerable anguish, is that no one can persuade another to change [italics in original]. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be unlocked from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal. Marilyn Ferguson, in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1987, 2nd ed.)
  • Would you persuade, speak of Interest, not of Reason. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (June, 1734)
  • The passions are the only orators which always persuade. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears—by listening to them. Dean Rusk, quoted in Reader's Digest (July 1961)
  • To please people is a great step toward persuading them. Philip Dormer Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield), in letter to his son (Nov. 1, 1739)
  • The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same. Stendhal (penname of Marie-Henri Beyle), in letter to a friend, quoted in Matthew Josephson, Stendhal: Or the Pursuit of Happiness (1948)
  • Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces. Henry David Thoreau, “Spring,” in Walden (1854)
  • The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity. Zig Ziglar, quoted in Dave Stone, Refining Your Style: Learning from Respected Communicators (2004)



  • Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism. Indeed, I think it must be more agreeable, must have a more real savor, than optimism—from the way in which pessimists abandon themselves to it. Arnold Bennett, “Slump in Pessimism,” in Things That Have Interested Me (1921)
  • Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege. William Henry Beveridge, in “Sayings of the Week,” The Observer (London; Dec. 17, 1943)
  • All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality. Elias Canetti, in The Human Province (1978)
  • Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege. Leon Eisenberg, “The Human Nature of Human Nature,” Science magazine (April 14, 1972)
  • How happy are the pessimists! What joy is theirs when they have proved that there is no joy. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • First, I was an idealist (that was early—fools are born, not made, you know); next I was a realist; now I am a pessimist, and, by Jove! if things get much worse I’ll become a humorist. Ellen Glasgow, the character Driscoll speaking, in The Descendant (1897)
  • Pessimism is the affectation of youth, the reality of age. Ellen Glasgow, in The Descendant (1897)
  • Pessimism (or rather what is called such) is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at all; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Thomas Hardy, a notebook entry (Jan. 1, 1902)

Hardy continued: “Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.”

  • No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit. Helen Keller, in Optimism: An Essay (1903)
  • The first-rate mind is always curious, compassionate, original, and pessimistic. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)
  • The prophet who fails to present a bearable alternative and yet preaches doom is part of the trap that he postulates. Margaret Mead, in Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap (1970)
  • The only “ism” that has justified itself is pessimism. George Orwell, “The Limit to Pessimism,” in New English Weekly (Autumn, 1940)
  • The pessimist, however—be it recorded to his credit—is seldom an agitating individual. His creed breeds indifference to others, and he does not trouble himself to thrust his views upon the unconvinced. Agnes Repplier, “Some Aspects of Pessimism,” in Books and Men (1888)
  • A pessimist is a person who has not had enough experience to be a cynic. Mary Pettibone Poole, “No Ax to Grind,” in A Glass Eye at a Keyhole (1938)
  • It is important to possess a short-term pessimism and a long-term optimism. Adrienne Rich, in What is Found There (1993)
  • To the pessimist the light at the end of the tunnel is another train. Joan Rivers, in Bouncing Back (1997)
  • One thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, “It can’t be done.” Eleanor Roosevelt, in You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (1960)
  • To be a prophet it is sufficient to be a pessimist. Elsa Triolet, in Proverbes d’Elsa (1971)
  • The prophets of doom, in my experience, are generally ignored and usually right. Fay Weldon, in Auto da Fay (2002)



  • Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. Rachel Carson, on the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment, in Silent Spring (1962)
  • Birds, with short lives, are teaching us what pesticides, herbicides, oil in the ocean, pollutants of many sorts may also be doing to long-lived human bodies. Birds and fish kills wave red flags at us, although we don't often heed them. Erma J. Fisk, in The Peacocks of Baboquivari (1983)


(see also ANIMALS and CATS and COMPANIONS and DOGS)

  • The real reason I had wanted to grow up, the main reason I had been willing to even consider becoming an adult, was so I could have as many pets as I wanted. Betsy Byars, in The Moon and I (1991)
  • You enter into a certain amount of madness when you marry a person with pets, but I didn’t care. Nora Ephron, a reflection of the narrator Rachel Samstat, in Heartburn (1983)
  • I hate a word like “pets;” it sounds so much/Like something with no living of its own. Elizabeth Jennings in the 1966 poem “My Animals”
  • We are pretty sure that we and our pets share the same reality, until one day we come home to find that our wistful, intelligent friend who reminds us of our better self has decided a good way to spend the day is to open a box of Brillo pads, unravel a few, distribute some throughout the house, and eat or wear all the rest. And we shake our heads in an inability to comprehend what went wrong here. Merrill Markoe, in What the Dogs Have Taught Me: And Other Amazing Things I’ve Learned (1992)
  • A small pet is often an excellent companion. Florence Nightingale, in Notes on Nursing (1859)
  • It is part of the pathos of a pet, that it always stands on the edge of the moral dialogue, staring from beyond an impassable barrier at the life which is now everything to it, and which yet it cannot comprehend. Roger Scruton, in Animal Rights and Wrongs (1996)
  • Over the years, this family has had enough pets to make us feel as all-American as the next family. This is not to say that any of the pets have been successful. I have a theory about this. Phyllis Theroux, in Night Lights (1987)

Theroux added: “Animals, particularly dogs, pick up whatever human instability is in the air and become its primary ‘host carrier.’ And since I have always acquired a new pet to calm things down, the various rabbits, gerbils, mice, singing canaries and dogs have absorbed the tension and gone crazy—if they weren’t already crazy when they arrived.”

  • Whatever sales people or sentimental books may state, wild animals do not make good pets. Captivity, no matter how 'kind,' is always cruel. Joan Ward-Harris, in Creature Comforts (1979)



  • Ah that blessed degree that stamps us for life as creatures of guaranteed intellectual worth. Robertson Davies, the character John Parlabane speaking about a Ph.D. degree, in The Rebel Angels (1981)

QUOTE NOTE: Parlabane’s quip came in response to another character, who had said: “I’m getting on with the work that will eventually make me a Doctor of Philosophy.”



  • I regard philanthropy as a tragic apology for wrong conditions under which human beings live. Helen Keller, in letter to Nella Braddy (Sep. 18, 1944); reprinted in To Love This Life: Quotations by Helen Keller (2000; Ellen Bilofsky, ed.)



  • All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher. Ambrose Bierce, in Cosmopolitan magazine (Feb., 1907)
  • When Life does not find a singer to sing her heart she produces a philosopher to speak her mind. Kahlil Gibran, in Sand and Foam (1926)
  • Definition of a philosopher: a man who has the right to say maybe. Theodore Roethke, notebook entry (1948-53), published in Straw for the Fire (1972; David Wagoner, ed.)
  • Professional philosophers are usually only apologists: that is, they are absorbed in defending some vested illusion or some eloquent idea. Like lawyers or detectives, they study the case for which they are retained. George Santayana, in The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy (1967)
  • The philosopher is Nature’s pilot. And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift: to be in heaven is to steer. George Bernard Shaw, the character Don Juan speaking to the Devil, in Man and Superman (1903)
  • To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” in Walden (1854)

Thoreau concluded: “It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

  • A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Personal Recollections (1981)



  • I made the journey to knowledge like dogs who go for walks with their masters, a hundred times forward and backward over the same territory; and when I arrived I was tired. G. C. Lichtenberg, in Lichtenberg: Aphorisms & Letters (1969)
  • Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. Bertrand Russell, in Prologue to Autobiography (1967)



  • Aristotle, the Philosopher’s Pope. James Howell, in Paroimiographia (1659)



  • Philosophy is called upon to compensate for the frustrations of politics and, more generally, of life itself. Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind, Vol. One (1978)
  • Philosophy directs us first to seek the goods of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied, or are not much wanted. Francis Bacon, in The Advancement of Learning (1605)
  • A wise man weaves a philosophy out of each acceptance life forces upon him. Elizabeth Bibesco, in Haven: Short Stories, Pems, and Aphorisms (1951)
  • The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind (1987)
  • Philosophy, like medicine, has plenty of drugs, few good remedies, and hardly any specific cures. Nicolas Chamfort, in Maxims and Considerations (1796)
  • One cannot live through a long stretch of years without forming some philosophy of life. Clarence Darrow, in The Story of My Life (1932)
  • Philosophy's work is finding the shortest path between two points. Kahlil Gibran, in Spiritual Sayings of Kahlil Gibran (1962)
  • Just as philosophy is the study of other people’s misconceptions, so history is the study of other people’s mistakes. Philip Guedalla, in Supers and Superman: Studies in Politics, History, and Letters (1921)
  • Any philosophy that can be put “in a nutshell” belongs there. Sydney J. Harris, in Leaving the Surface (1968)
  • The great difficulty in philosophy is to come to every question with a mind fresh and unshackled by former theories, though strengthened by exercise and information. William Hazlitt, “On Novelty and Familiarity,” in The Plain Speaker (1826)

Hazlitt preceded the observation by writing: “It is easier taking the beaten path than making our way over bogs and precipices.”

  • Philosophy, to be relevant, must offer us a wisdom to live by. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Who is Man? (1965)
  • Philosophy means thinking things out for oneself. Ultimately, there can be only one true philosophy, since reason is one and we all live in the same world. W. R. Inge, “Confessio Fidei,” in Outspoken Essays: Second Series (1922)
  • Philosophy is life’s dry-nurse, who can take care of us—but not suckle us. Søren Kierkegaard, an 1837 journal entry, in Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, Vol. 3 (1976)

In another entry made later in the year, Kierkegaard wrote: “With every step it takes, philosophy sheds a skin and into it creep the more foolish adherents.”

  • Philosophizing is a process of making sense out of experience. Suzanne K. Langer, in Philosophical Sketches (1962)
  • In philosophy if you aren't moving at a snail’s pace you aren’t moving at all. Iris Murdoch, the voice of Socrates in “Above the Gods: A Dialogue About Religion,” in Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986)
  • As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Ayn Rand, in Philosophy: Who Needs It? (1982)

Rand continued: “Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.”

  • Between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Bertrand Russell, “Introductory,” in A History of Western Philosophy (1945)

Russell added: “Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries.”

  • Philosophy is a more intense sort of experience than common life is, just as pure and subtle music, heard in retirement, is something keener and more intense than the howling of storms or the rumble of cities. George Santayana, “Religion and Philosophy,” in Little Essays: Drawn from the Writings of George Santayana (1921; Logan Pearsall Smith, ed.)
  • Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy. William Shakespeare, Friar Laurence speaking, in Romeo and Juliet (1595)
  • It is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to put one principle into practice. Leo Tolstoy, quoted in Stefan Zweig, “Tolstoy: Struggle for Realization,” in Master Builders: A Typology of the Spirit (1939)
  • Every philosophy is tinged with the coloring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its train of reasoning. Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World (1926)
  • In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly. Alfred North Whitehead, in Preface to Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929)

Whitehead preceded the thought by writing: “How shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things.”

  • The safest general characterization the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. Alfred North Whitehead, in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929)
  • Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations (1953)
  • Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 1930 remark, in Personal Recollections (1981)



  • Nobody should listen to a man giving a lecture or a sermon on his “philosophy of life” until we know exactly how he treats his wife, his children, his neighbors, his friends, his subordinates—and his enemies. Sydney J. Harris, in his “Strictly Personal” syndicated column (Nov. 1974)
  • Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you. Marlon Brando, as the character Terry Malloy, in the 1954 film On the Waterfront (Budd Schulberg, screenwriter)


  • Generally speaking, the errors of religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous. David Hume, in A Treatise upon Human Nature (1739)
  • The quarrels of theologians and philosophers have not been about religion, but about philosophy; and philosophers not unfrequently seem to entertain the same feeling toward theologians that sportsmen cherish toward poachers. T. H. Huxley, in Hume (1878)



  • A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. Diane Arbus, “Five Photographs by Diane Arbus,” in ArtForum (May, 1971)
  • Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do. Diane Arbus, quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

QUOTE NOTE: A few years earlier, in Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (1972 Arbus was quoted as saying, “The camera is a kind of license.”

  • Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation, or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however, naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way a photograph does. John Berger, “Uses of Photography,” in About Looking (1980)
  • What most of us are after, when we have a picture taken, is a good natural-looking picture that doesn’t resemble us. Peg Bracken, IN The I Hate to Housekeep Book (1962)
  • To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. Henri Cartier-Bresson, in The Decisive Moment (1952)
  • If you scratch a great photograph, you find two things; a painting and a photograph. Janet Malcolm, in a 1978 issue in the New Boston Review (specific date undetermined); republished in Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (1981)
  • The photographer is like the cod which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity. George Bernard Shaw, in a 1906 catalogue for an exhibition by photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn at the Royal Photographic Society; reprinted in The British Journal of Photography (Feb. 2, 1906)
  • Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still. Dorothea Lange, quoted in George P. Elliott, Dorothea Lange (1966)
  • Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power. Susan Sontag, “Photography”, in The New York Review of Books (Oct. 18, 1973); reprinted in On Photography (1977)
  • Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. Susan Sontag, “Photography”, in The New York Review of Books (Oct. 18, 1973); reprinted in On Photography (1977)
  • To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. Susan Sontag, “Photography”, in The New York Review of Books (Oct. 18, 1973); reprinted in On Photography (1977)
  • So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. Susan Sontag, “The Heroism of Vision,” in On Photography (1977)



  • There is no democracy in physics. We can’t say that some second rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi. Luis Walter Alvarez, quoted in Daniel S. Greenburg, The Politics of Pure Science (1967)
  • Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it. Author Unknown (but widely misattributed to the American physicist Richard Feynman)
  • No science is more pretentious than physics, for the physicist lays claim to the whole universe as his subject matter. Julian R. Brown, in Introduction to Superstrings: A Theory of Everything (1988)
  • Physics is really nothing more than a search for ultimate simplicity, but so far all we have is a kind of elegant messiness. Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)
  • Physics-envy is the curse of biology. Joel Cohen, in a review of R. Rosen’s Dynamical System Theory in Biology, in a 1971 issue of the journal Science (Vol. 172)
  • Reality is the real business of physics. Albert Einstein, quoted in Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics (1985)
  • Physics is to mathematics what sex is to masturbation. Richard Feynman, quoted in Lawrence M. Krauss, Fear of Physics: A Guide for the Perplexed (1993)
  • Physics has never been a comfortable subject for human psychology. The desire to regard everything outside the human race's purview as insignificant, and everything within that purview as firmly under the control of tribal myth and custom, is as strong today as it was in the time of Galileo. Celia Green, in The Decline and Fall of Science (1976)
  • Physics is the Supreme Court of the sciences. Dave Maiullo, quoted in Laurel Graeber, “That Physics Show,” in The New York Times (April 7, 2016)
  • Most people believe that physicists are explaining the world. Some physicists even believe that, but the Wu Li Masters know that they are only dancing with it. Gary Zukav, in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979)



  • A piano is full of suppressed desires, recalcitrance, inhibition, conflict. Anita T. Sullivan, in The Seventh Dragon (1985)
  • I wish the Government would put a tax on pianos for the incompetent. Edith Sitwell, in a 1943 letter, quoted in John Lehmann and Derek Parker, Selected Letters (1970)
  • Piano playing, a dance of human fingers. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 1939-40 notebook entry, in Culture and Value (1980)


(see also BOX and CATEGORIZE and LABEL)

  • Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons. Jessye Norman, in Stand Up Straight and Sing! (2014)



  • Cats will be clean in a pigsty while pigs will be dirty in a marble hall. Vicki Baum, in Written on Water (1956)
  • Pig, n. An animal (Porcus omnivorus) closely allied to the human race by the splendor and vivacity of its appetite. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).
  • Making the movie Babe opened my eyes to the intelligence and the inquisitive personalities of pigs. These highly social animals possess an amazing capacity for love, joy and sorrow that makes them remarkably similar to our beloved canine and feline friends. James Cromwell, in a press statement for SaveBabe campaign, as quoted in “James Cromwell: King Lear, Babe and the Black Panthers” in Nouse magazine (October 26, 2007)
  • Never try to teach a pig to sing. You waste your time and you annoy the pig. Robert A. Heinlein, an entry in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long,” in Time Enough for Love. (1973)
  • Many times I’ve looked into a pig’s eye and convinced myself that inside that brain is a sentient being, who is looking back at me observing him wondering what he’s thinking about. Dick King-Smith, quoted in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals (2004)
  • Those who live with pigs often speak of them as we normally speak of dogs—intelligent, loyal, and above all, affectionate. Each one, I am continually reminded by people who know them, is a complete individual, like no other pig. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, in The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals (2004)
  • You can put lipstick and earrings on a hog and call it Monique, but it’s still a pig. Ann Richards, on ineffective government programs, in a 2006 issue of The New York Times (specific issue undetermined)



  • Pity is love in undress. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • Irony and pity are two good counselors: one, in smiling, makes life pleasurable; the other who cries, makes it sacred. Anatole France, in Le jardin d’Epicure (1895)
  • A person who has no genuine sense of pity for the weak is missing a basic source of strength, for one of the prime moral forces that comprise greatness and strength of character is a feeling of mercy. The ruthless man, au fond, is always a weak and frightened man. Sydney J. Harris, in On the Contrary (1964)

QUOTE NOTE: The French term au fond means: “at bottom” or “by one’s (or it’s) very nature.”

  • I’m not particularly keen on pity. Pity takes something away from grief. People think they’re sharing it, but really they’re just taking some. I prefer to keep my grief intact. Elizabeth Jane Howard, in Getting It Right (1982)
  • Beauty plus pity—this is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Vladimir Nabokov, discussing Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in Lectures on Literature (1980)
  • All pity is self-pity. Cynthia Ozick, “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America,” in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1969)
  • Pity is an agreeable sentiment, uplifting like military music. Françoise Sagan, a reflection of the narrator and protagonist, a wealthy, disillusioned 17-year-old French girl named Cécile, in Bonjour Tristesse (1954)
  • As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. Edith Wharton, the voice of the narrator, in The House of Mirth (1905)
  • I think I love most people best when they are in adversity; for pity is one of my prevailing passions. Mary Wollstonecraft, in a 1785 letter to George Blood (1785), reprinted in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (2003; Janet M. Todd)



  • After all, what is a planet but an island in space? John Wyndham, from a character in The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)



  • No plan survives first contact with the enemy. Author Unknown

QUOTE NOTE: Variations of this legendary military maxim—which is sometimes phrased first encounter with the enemy—have been offered by Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Colin Powell, and other military leaders. In The Quote Verifier (2006), Ralph Keyes says the maxim can be traced to an observation by Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian Army for three decades of the nineteenth century. In “On Strategy” (1871), he wrote: “Victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle.” He then went on to conclude: “Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” His original essay can be seen at Moltke on "First Contact”. Moltke, who was a disciple of the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, may have been inspired by an earlier observation from his hero (see the Clausewitz entry below).

  • The infirmity of human nature renders all plans precarious in the execution in proportion as they are extensive in design. Jeremy Bentham, in Preface to An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)
  • I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business. Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1990)
  • You can never plan the future by the past. Edmund Burke, in “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791)
  • The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft a-gley. Robert Burns, in “To a Mouse” (1785)

QUOTE NOTE: This line, originally presented in Scottish dialect, become one of history’s most popular verses, commonly presented as “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” The line also inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.

  • Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Daniel Burnham, in a 1910 speech in London, later quoted in Collier’s magazine (July 6, 1912)
  • We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell, quoted in Diane K. Osbod, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion (1991)

QUOTE NOTE: Osbon said she heard the remark directly from Campbell and immediately recorded it in her journal.

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, a strikingly similar quotation is attributed to English writer E. M. Forster (“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us”). There is no evidence that Forster ever wrote or said anything like this (sadly, the erroneous attribution now shows up on almost all internet quotation sites.) For more, see this 2017 post by Garson O'Toole, better known as the Quote Investigator.

  • To be practical, any plan must take account of the enemy’s power to frustrate it. Karl von Clausewitz, in On War (1832-34)
  • Strategic planning does not deal with future decisions. It deals with the futurity of present decisions. Peter F. Drucker, in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (1973)
  • In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted in Richard Nixon, Six Crises (1962)
  • I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, make the execution of that same plan his sole study and business. Benjamin Franklin, in Autobiography (1868)
  • Indefinite plans get dubious results. Natalie Goldberg, in Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft (2000)
  • When the plan doesn’t work, change the plan. Viki King, in How to Write a Movie in 21 Days (1988)

King introduced the thought by writing about a common mistake people make: “When our plan doesn’t work, we think we failed. So we go at it again in the same way, only this time harder.”

  • Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now. Alan Lakein, in How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1974)
  • Planning takes time but, in the end, saves time and gets better results. Bonnie McCullough, in Totally Organized (1986)
  • For the happiest life, days should be rigorously planned, nights left open to chance. Mignon McLaughlin, in Atlantic magazine (July, 1965)
  • The things in life which don’t go to plan are usually more important, more formative, in the long run, than the things that do. Maggie O’Farrell, in I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death (2018)
  • Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), Letter LXXI, in Letters to Lucilius (c. 65 A.D.)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation has also been commonly presented this way: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

  • It has been said that if you aim at nothing in life, you are likely to hit nothing! I have never had anyone come to me and say, “Venita, I plan to fail.” Yet I have observed many who failed to plan and who unfortunately met with the same dismal results. Venita VanCaspel, in Money Dynamics for the New Economy (1986)



  • To the gardener who goes about his task with the right spirit must every plant appear as the most wonderful of laboratories in which miracles of transformation, outmatching the utmost feats of the most skillful conjurer, are being performed every hour. Luther Burbank, “How the Garden May Be Made More Productive,” in How Plants Are Trained to Work for Man: Gardening, Vol. 5 (1921)
  • About the most interesting thing in the world, from the standpoint of animal economy—which of course includes human economy—is the wonderful laboratory or factory of the plant. Luther Burbank, “How the Garden May Be Made More Productive,” in How Plants Are Trained to Work for Man: Gardening, Vol. 5 (1921)



  • A platitude is simply a truth repeated until people get tired of hearing about it. Stanley Baldwin, in House of Commons speech (May 29, 1924)


(see also GAMES and LEISURE and RECREATION and SPORT and WORK and WORK & PLAY)

  • Play is an activity enjoyed for its own sake. It is our brain’s favorite way of learning and maneuvering. Diane Ackerman, in Deep Play (1999)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites present a mistaken version of the observation (“Play is the brain’s favorite way of learning”).

  • We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing. Author Unknown. Also an example of chiasmus.

ERROR ALERT: This observation, in a variety of somewhat similar phrasings, has been mistakenly attributed to many people over the years, including George Bernard Shaw, Herbert Spencer, Ben Franklin, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. An original author has never been conclusively identified.

  • At the center of everything we call “the arts,” and children call “play,” is something which seems somehow alive. Lynda Barry, in What It Is (2008)
  • Play is what lifts people out of the mundane. I sometimes compare play to oxygen—it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing. Stuart Brown, M.D., in Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009; with Christopher Vaughan)

Brown went on to write: “We don’t need to play all the time to be fulfilled. The truth is that in most cases, play is a catalyst. The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.”

  • Play is the exultation of the possible. Martin Buber, in To Hallow This Life (1974)
  • The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. G. K. Chesterton, “Oxford from Without,” in All Things Considered (1908)
  • It is a happy talent to know how to play. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a journal entry (April 19, 1835)

Emerson continued: “Some men must always work if they would be respectable; for the moment they trifle, they are silly. Others show most talent when they trifle.”

  • The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery. Erik H. Erikson, in Childhood and Society (1950)
  • Play needs direction as well as work. Elbert Hubbard, in Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Scientists: Copernicus (1905)
  • The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. Madeleine L’Engle, in A Circle of Quiet (1972)
  • A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him, and he will certainly miss him. Pablo Neruda, quoted in Joseph Roman, Pablo Neruda (1992)
  • In our play we reveal what kind of people we are. Ovid, in The Art of Love (1st. c. A.D.)
  • Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold. Joseph Chilton Pearce, in Magical Child: Rediscovering Nature’s Plan for Our Children (1977)
  • Play is the real work of childhood. Fred Rogers, in You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages From a Beloved Neighbor (1994)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the observation is commonly presented, but it originally appeared in this larger observation: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, But for children, play is serious learning. At various times, play is a way to cope with life and to prepare for adulthood. Playing is a way to solve problems and to express feelings. In fact, play is the real work of childhood.”

  • To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well. George Santayana, in Little Essays (1920)
  • Deep meaning oft lies hid in childish play. Johann Friedrich von Schiller, “Thekla’s Song,” in Wallenstein (1799)
  • If all the year were playing holidays,/To sport would be as tedious as to work. William Shakespeare, the character Prince Harry (Hal) speaking, in Henry IV, Pt. 1 (1597)
  • Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be. George Sheehan, in Running to Win (1991)

Sheehan, described by The New York Times as “the philosopher of the recreational running movement,” preceded the thought by writing: “There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you.”

  • If necessity is the mother of invention, play is the father. Roger von Oech, tweaking the familiar proverb, in A Whack on the Side of the Head (1983)
  • This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize that it is play. Alan Watts, in The Essence of Alan Watts (1977)
  • There is for many a poverty of play and cultural life. D. W. Winnicott, in Playing and Reality (1974)



  • In theater, the playwright is the raft that everyone else’s dreams float on. Johnna Adams, quoted in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN; Feb. 24, 2014)
  • A play is fiction—and fiction is fact distilled into truth. Edward Albee, quoted in The New York Times (Sep. 18, 1966)
  • If there’s a spirit world why don’t the ghosts of dead artists get together and inhibit bad playwrights from tormenting first-nighters? Gertrude Atherton, the voice of the protagonist Mary Zattiany, in Black Oxen (1923)
  • It would be difficult to determine whether the age is growing better or worse; for I think our plays are growing like sermons, and our sermons like plays. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, from a 1771 letter, in The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Vol. 2 (1825). An example of chiasmus/
  • A play has two authors, the playwright and the actor. Eric Bentley, in “Monsieur Verdoux and Theater” (1948); reprinted in In Search of Theater (1953)
  • He’s seen so many plays he uses dialogue instead of conversation. Ruth Gordon, the character Gay Marriott describing the character Benjy, in The Leading Lady (1948)
  • I have noticed that in plays where the characters on stage laugh a great deal, the people out front laugh very little. Jean Kerr, in Penny Candy (1970)
  • I know all about improvisation and the free-form that mirrors the chaos of our time, but I do like to feel that the playwright has done some work before I got there. Jean Kerr, in Penny Candy (1970)
  • The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds come home to roost. Arthur Miller, in Harper’s magazine (Aug., 1958)

QUOTE NOTE: Miller would have likely been better understood if he used the more familiar metaphor—chickens coming home to roost—but his point remains the same: the structure of a play is about people ultimately facing the consequences of their actions and choices

  • A play is much more like a poem. Iris Murdoch, in Paris Review article (Summer 1990)

Murdoch preceded the thought by writing: “It is very difficult to compress the reflections of one’s characters and the great pattern of a novel into drama where it is a matter of lines and short speeches and actual actors and so on. The forms [drama and fiction] are so different that they can’t possibly be compared.”

  • In the creative process, there is the father, the author of the play; the mother, the actor pregnant with the part; and the child, the role to be born. Konstantin Stanislavsky, in An Actor Prepares (1936)
  • Playwriting and safe-cracking are similar occupations. Both are lonely work, tedious and tense, and, for the most part, not especially rewarding when one considers the time, effort, and risk involved. Howard Teichmann, in George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait (1972)
  • Many plays—certainly mine—are like blank checks. The actors and directors put their own signatures on them. Thornton Wilder, quoted The New York Mirror (July 13, 1956)
  • Anyone who writes plays is unbelievably persistent, because there isn’t a need in the world for plays. Somehow you internally have to feel a need to write a play. Wendy Wasserstein, in a 1993 issue of Parade magazine (specific issue undetermined)
  • A snare for the truth of human experience. Tennessee Williams, his description of a play, in a stage direction written for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)

Earlier in the direction, Williams wrote: “The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problems. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of five human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”



  • Pleasure seizes the whole man who addicts himself to it, and will not give him leisure for any good office in life which contradicts the gaiety of the present hour. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (Aug. 23, 1711)
  • When Pleasure is at the bar the jury is not impartial. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics (4th c. B.C.)
  • Pleasure is by no means an infallible guide, but it is the least fallible. W. H. Auden, in The Dyer’s Hand (1962)
  • One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. Jane Austen, the title character speaking, in Emma (1815)
  • The more he plumbed the depths of sensual pleasure, the more he emerged with grit rather than pearls. Honoré de Balzac, the narrator describing the character Henri de Marsay, in The Girl With the Golden Eyes (1835)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites—and many published anthologies—present the following rendition of the thought: “In diving to the bottom of pleasure we bring up more gravel than pearls.” While beautifully phrased, this is such a liberal translation of Balzac’s original words that it should be considered erroneous. It appears to have been based on yet another translation of the Balzac passage: “Now plunged into the depths of voluptuousness he found that he had gathered more gravel than pearls.”

  • Pleasure only starts once the worm has got into the fruit; to become delightful, happiness must be tainted with poison. Georges Bataille, the title character speaking, in The Mother (1966)
  • Variety is the soul of pleasure. Aphra Behn, the character Willmore speaking, in The Rover (1677)
  • Debauchee, n. One who has so earnestly pursued pleasure that he has had the misfortune to overtake it. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

QUOTE NOTE: Debauchee is now rarely used, but not the word from which it derives. Debauchery is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary this way: “Extreme indulgence in sensual pleasures; dissipation.”

  • It is the paradox of life that the way to miss pleasure is to seek it first. Hugh Black, in Culture and Restraint (1901)

Black continued: “The very first condition of lasting happiness is that a life should be full of purpose, aiming at something outside self.”

  • Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. Harold Bloom, in Preface to How to Read and Why (2000)
  • Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes sin’s a pleasure. George Noel Gordon (Lord Byron), in Don Juan (1821–24)
  • It may also be said that rational, industrious, useful human beings are divided into two classes: first, those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly, those whose work and pleasure are one. Of these the former are the majority. Winston Churchill, in Thoughts and Adventures (1932)

QUOTE NOTE: The book was published in America under the title: Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures.

  • Where pleasure prevails, all the greatest virtues will lose their power. Marcus Tullius Cicero, in De Finibus (1st. c. B.C.)

QUOTE NOTE: The passage has also been translated this way: “Where pleasure is eagerly pursued, the greatest virtues will lose their power.”

  • The secret of the smallest natural pleasure defies understanding. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)
  • When our pleasures have exhausted us, we think we have exhausted pleasure. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)
  • The life of pleasure breeds boredom. Mason Cooley, in City Aphorisms, 11th Selection (1993)
  • Pleasure is a thief to business. Daniel Defoe, in The Complete English Tradesman (1725)
  • The mind’s pleasures are made to calm the tempests of the heart. Germaine de Staël, in Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau (1788)
  • Pleasure is like a cordial—a little of it is not injurious, but too much destroys. Marguerite Gardiner (Lady Blessington), in Desultory Thoughts and Reflections (1839)
  • Oh, how desperately bored, in spite of their grim determination to have a Good Time, the majority of pleasure-seekers really are! Aldous Huxley, “Holy Face,” in Do What You Will (1929)
  • Pleasure is merely contemptible,/the dangled/Carrot the ass follows to market or precipice. Robinson Jeffers, “Birth-Dues,” in Dear Judas: and Other Poems (1929)
  • Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it. Thomas Jefferson, in letter to Maria Cosway (Oct. 26, 1786)

Jefferson continued: “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain; and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset.”

  • Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks. Samuel Johnson, in The Idler (May 26, 1759)
  • The less we indulge our pleasures the more we enjoy them. Juvenal, in Satires (c. 100 A.D.)
  • Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it. Søren Kierkegaard, in Either/Or (1843)
  • The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident. Charles Lamb, “Table Talk by the Late Elia,” in The Athenaeum (Jan. 4, 1834)
  • He who seeks pleasure with reference to himself, not others, will ever find that pleasure is only another name for discontent. L. E. Landon, “The Enchantress,” in The Book of Beauty (1833)
  • The Puritan hated bear-bating, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Thomas Babington Macaulay, in The History of England, Vol. 1 (1849)
  • We cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves. Katherine Mansfield, the voice of the narrator, in “The Fly,” from The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories (1923)
  • It’s true Heaven forbids some pleasures, but a compromise can usually be found. Molière (Jean Baptiste Poquelin), the title character speaking, in Tartuffe (1664)
  • There’s no pleasure on earth that’s worth sacrificing for the sake of an extra five years in the geriatric ward of the Sunset Old People’s Home. John Mortimer, the protagonist Horace Rumpole speaking, in Rumpole’s Last Case (1987)

ERROR ALERT: A similar saying about giving up alcohol as he got older is often attributed to the English writer Kingsley Amis, but never with supporting source information. If Amis ever did say something similar, he was almost certainly inspired by Horace Rumpole’s remark.

  • When the cup of any sensual pleasure is drained to the bottom, there is always poison in the dregs. Jane Porter, in Aphorisms of Sir Philip Sidney, With Remarks by Miss Porter (1807; Jane Porter, ed.)
  • It is in his pleasures that a man really lives, it is from his leisure that he constructs the true fabric of self. Agnes Repplier, “Leisure,” in Essays in Idleness (1893)
  • The enemy for the fanatic is pleasure, which makes it extremely important to continue to indulge in pleasure. Dance madly. That is how you get rid of terrorism. Salman Rushdie, in speech at University of Colorado—Boulder (April 17, 2013), quoted in Joe Rubino, “Salman Rushdie Discusses the Role of the Novel” in Huffington Post (April 18, 2013)
  • No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety. Publilius Syrus, in Sententiae (1st c. B.C.)
  • That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (March 11, 1856); reprinted in Alex Ayres, The Quotable Thoreau (2013)
  • There is a limit to enjoyment, though the sources of wealth be boundless;/And the choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation. Martin F. Tupper, “Of Compensation,” in Proverbial Philosophy (1838–42)
  • Everyone is dragged on by their favorite pleasure. Virgil, in Eclogues (1st. c. B.C.)
  • Anticipation of pleasure is a pleasure in itself. Sylvia Townsend Warner, from a 1960 letter, in William Maxwell, Letters: Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982)
  • All pleasures should be taken in great leisure and are worth going into in detail; love is not like eating a quick lunch with one’s hat on. Mae West, in Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It! (1959)
  • Pleasure is nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment. Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891)



  • A fool bolts pleasure, then complains of moral indigestion. Minna Antrim, in Naked Truth and Veiled Allusions (1901)
  • In educating the young we use pleasure and pain as rudders to steer their course. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics (4th c. B.C.)
  • When pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. Jane Austen, the protagonist Anne Eliot speaking, in Persuasion (1818)
  • Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. Jeremy Bentham, in A Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

Bentham continued: “It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.”

  • There is a pleasure in poetic pains/Which only poets know. William Cowper, “The Time-Piece,” in The Task (1785). Also an example of Oxymoronica.
  • We toss and turn about our feverish will,/When all our ease must come by lying still:/For all the happiness mankind can gain/Is not in pleasure, but in rest from pain. John Dryden, the character Cortés speaking, in The Indian Emperor (1665)
  • Pain wastes the body; pleasures, the understanding. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (1735)
  • Pleasure is oft a visitant; but pain/Clings cruelly to us. John Keats, in Endymion (1818)
  • Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain (1940)
  • Pleasure and pain, the good and the bad, are so intermixed that we can not shun the one without depriving ourselves of the other. Françoise de Maintenon, quoted in J. De Finod, A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness (1880)
  • Every nerve that can thrill with pleasure can also agonize with pain. Horace Mann, in A Few Thoughts for a Young Man (1850)
  • It is not shameful for man to succumb under pain, and it is shameful for him to succumb under pleasure. Blaise Pascal, in Pensées (1670)
  • Pleasure is nothing else but the intermission of pain. John Selden, “Pleasure,” in Table Talk (1689)
  • There is room in the halls of pleasure/For a large and lordly train,/But one by one we must all file on/Through the narrow aisles of pain. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Solitude,” in Poems of Passion (1883)

ERROR ALERT: Many internet sites mistakenly contain the phrase a long and lordly train.



  • Pleonasm, n. An army of words escorting a corporal of thought. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)



  • Plot springs from character in conflict. Martha Alerson, in Blockbuster Plots Pure and Simple (2005)
  • Plot and melodrama were in every life; in some so briefly as hardly to be recognized, in others—in that of certain men and women in the public eye, for instance—they were almost in the nature of a continuous performance. Gertrude Atherton, the voice of the narrator, in The Avalanche (1919)
  • No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible. W. H. Auden, quoted in Time magazine (Dec. 29, 1961)
  • The real writer is haunted by a plot which he must write out of inner necessity. He is impervious to suggestions. Edmund Bergler, in The Writer and Psychoanalysis (1950)
  • Plot is the knowing of destination. Elizabeth Bowen, “Notes on Writing a Novel,” in Collected Impressions (1950)
  • Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Ray Bradbury, the title essay, in Zen in the Art of Writing (1990)

Bradbury added: “Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through.”

  • Plot is to literature what individual holes are to miniature golf. Stanley Elkin, quoted in Ken Emerson, “The Indecorous, Rabelaisian Convoluted Righteousness of Stanley Elkin,” in The New York Times (Mar. 3, 1991)
  • Plot is character in action. Maren Elwood, in Characters Make Your Story (1942)
  • Plot is just a fancy way of saying “and then.” Erica Jong, in Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life (2006)
  • There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person. Anaïs Nin, diary entry (June, 1935), in The Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1934–1939 (Vol. 2, 1967)
  • Plots are, indeed, what the writer sees with, and so do we as we read. The plot is the Why. Eudora Welty, in On Writing (2002)

Welty preceded the thought by writing: “The fact that stories have plots in common is of no more account than that many people have blue eyes.”



  • A poem records emotions and moods that lie beyond normal language, that can only be patched together and hinted at metaphorically. Diane Ackerman, “White Lanterns,” in Janet Sternburg, The Writer on Her Work (1991)
  • Of all things of thought, poetry is the closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958)

Arendt preceded the thought by writing: “Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.”

  • A poem is a witness to man’s knowledge of evil as well as good. W. H. Auden, in The Dyer’s Hand (1962)

Auden continued: “It is not the duty of a witness to pass moral judgement on the evidence he has to give, but to give it clearly and accurately; the only crime of which a witness can be guilty is perjury.”

  • The poet marries the language, and out of this marriage the poem is born. W. H. Auden, a private remark to Rollo May, first reported in May’s The Courage to Create (1975)
  • There is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man. Thomas Carlyle, “Sir Walter Scott,” in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1838-39)

Carlyle finished the thought by writing: “Also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.” The entire quotation is an example of chiasmus.

  • Every good poem, in fact, is a bridge built from the known, familiar side of life over into the unknown. C. Day-Lewis, in Poetry for You (1944)

Day-Lewis added: “Science too, is always making expeditions into the unknown. But this does not mean that science can supersede poetry. For poetry enlightens us in a different way from science; it speaks directly to our feelings or imagination.”

  • A good poem is like a bouillon cube. It’s concentrated, you carry it around with you, and it nourishes you when you need it. Rita Dove, quoted in Jack E. White, “Rooms of Their Own,” Time magazine (Oct. 18, 1993)
  • For many years, I thought a poem was a whisper overheard, not an aria heard. Rita Dove, in interview with Jesse Kornbluth (April 8, 1997) for AOL’s The Book Report. See the full interview at The Book Report
  • The beginning of a poem is always a moment of tiny revelation, a new way of seeing something, which almost simultaneously attracts language to it. Carol Ann Duffy, in The Independent (London; Oct. 2, 1999)
  • A poem is language distilled into premium whiskey, no mix, no ice, no little paper umbrella. Penny Dyer, in The Chattanooga Pulse (May 24, 2006)
  • Poems in a way are spells against death. They are milestones, to see where you were then from where you are now. Richard Eberhart, in a 1979 interview, quoted in his obituary in Dartmouth (University) News ( June 10, 2005)

Eberhart concluded with an observation about literary immortality: “If you have in any way touched the central heart of mankind’s feelings, you’ll survive.”

  • The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation. James Fenton, in Ars Poetica, no. 22; quoted in The Independent on Sunday (London; June 24, 1990)

QUOTE NOTE: In framing this observation, Fenton was almost certainly inspired by a famous quotation from Don Marquis: “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo” (quoted in E. Anthony, O Rare Don Marquis, 1962).

  • A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words. Robert Frost, “Some Definitions of Robert Frost,” in Robert Frost: The Man and His Work (1923)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a re-working of a larger set of thoughts Frost originally expressed in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (Jan. 1, 1916). He wrote: “A poem is never a put-up job so to speak. It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness. It finds its thought and succeeds, or doesn't find it and comes to nothing. It finds its thought or makes its thought. I suppose it finds it lying around with others not so much to its purpose in a more or less full mind. That’s why it oftener comes to nothing in youth before experience has filled the mind with thoughts. It may be a big big [sic] emotion then and yet finds nothing it can embody in. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words. Let’s say again: A poem particularly must not begin with thought first.”

  • Poems, like dreams, are a sort of royal road to the unconscious. They tell you what your secret self cannot express. Erica Jong, “Author’s Afterword,” in Sappho’s Leap: A Novel (2003)
  • The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it. Robert Frost, “The Poetry of Amy Lowell,” in The Christian Science Monitor (May 16, 1925)
  • The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Robert Frost, in Preface to Collected Poems (1939)
  • Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. Robert Frost, in “The Figure a Poem Makes”, in Collected Poems (1939)

QUOTE NOTE: This quotation is almost always presented as if were the complete thought, but in the essay, Frost continued: “A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.”

  • The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright or lust—the female spider or the queen bee whose embrace is death. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (1948)
  • And in a way a poem is like a wine glass in which you can hold up a little bit of reality and taste it. Gwen Harwood, quoted in Jennifer Strauss, Boundary Conditions: The Poetry of Gwen Harwood (1992)
  • What are poems for? They are to console us/with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch. Geoffrey Hill, in The Triumph of Love (1999)
  • A poem lies inert, like Sleeping Beauty, until we love it into life. Norman N. Holland, in Literature and the Brain (2009)
  • A poem is like a painting. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), in Ars Poetica (c. 15 B.C)
  • A poem needs nervous tension, like an arrow needs a bowstring. A. B. Jackson, in Poetry News (Winter, 2003–04)
  • Poems, like dreams, are a sort of royal road to the unconscious. They tell you what your secret self cannot express. Erica Jong, in Author’s Foreword to Sappho’s Leap (2003)
  • A long poem is a test of invention which I take to be the polar star of poetry, as fancy is the sails, and imagination the rudder. John Keats, in letter to Benjamin Bailey (Oct. 8, 1817)
  • I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a poem and to be given away by a novel. John Keats, in letter to Fanny Brawne (July 8, 1819)
  • I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree. Joyce Kilmer, in “Trees” (1913)

This is the opening couplet of one of history’s most famous poems—and one of its most frequently parodied. For the complete poem, and more on its history, go to “Trees”.

  • The poem comes in the form of a blessing—“like rapture breaking on the mind,” as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Stanley Kunitz, “Speaking of Poetry” (written “Instead of a Foreword”), in Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995)

Kunitz continued chiastically: “Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”

  • Poetry should begin with emotion in the poet, and end with the same emotion in the reader. The poem is simply the instrument of transference. Philip Larkin, remark on BBC Third Programme (April 13, 1956)
  • What are poems but words/Set edgewise up like children’s blocks/To build a structure no one can inhabit. Amy Lowell, “One! Two! Three!” in Ballads for Sale (1927)
  • In a poem, the words should be as pleasing to the ear as the meaning is to the mind. Marianne Moore, in a 1965 interview with Donald Hall, reported in Hall’s Their Ancient Glittering Eyes (1992)
  • Writing a poem is like a short love affair, writing a short story like a long love affair, writing a novel like a marriage. Amos Oz, quoted in The Observer (London; July 21, 1985)
  • Touched by poetry, language is more fully language and at the same time is no longer language: it is a poem. Octavio Paz, in Claude Lévi-Strauss (1967)
  • A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle,” in Home Journal (Aug. 31, 1850; pub. posthumously)
  • I often think of a poem as a door that opens into a room where I want to go. Minnie Bruce Pratt, “All the Women,” in Crime Against Nature (1990)

Pratt added: “But to go in here is to enter where my own suffering exists as an almost unheard low note in the music, amplified, almost unbearable.”

  • Ordering a man to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child. Carl Sandburg, quoted in Reader’s Digest (Feb., 1978)
  • A poem is a meteor. Wallace Stevens, “Adagia,” in Opus Posthumous (1957)
  • A poem releases itself, secretes itself slowly, sometimes almost poisonously, into the mind of the reader. Mark Strand, quoted in PBS “NewsHour” interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth (April 15, 1999)

Strand clarified the meaning of this observation by saying: “The reader has to sort of give himself over to the poem and allow the poem to inhabit him and—how does the poem do that? It does it by rearranging the world in such a way that it appears new. It does it by using language that is slightly different from the way language is used in the workday world, so that you’re forced to pay attention to it.” A transcript of the full interview is available at “The Pulitzer Poet”.

  • A poem is never finished—it’s always an accident that ends it. Paul Valéry, in Littérature (1929)

QUOTATION CAUTION: Almost all anthologies and internet sites present Valéry as saying: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” In doing so, they’ve followed the lead of W. H. Auden, whose 1970 book A Certain World offered what can only be described as a liberal translation of Valéry’s original thought. In Valéry’s original phrasing, the concept of abandonment is not even suggested: Une poème n’est jamais achevé—c’est toujours un accident qui le termine. A similar quotation has long been attributed to the American sportswriter–turned–screenwriter Gene Fowler: “A book is never finished, it is abandoned.” See the Fowler entry in BOOKS.

  • The poem is, then, a little myth of man’s capacity for making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life. Robert Penn Warren, “Formula for a Poem,” in Saturday Review (March 22, 1958)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all quotation sites, including Wikiquote, mistakenly present the first portion of the remark this way: “The poem…is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful.” The Saturday Review piece was taken from Warren’s speech accepting the 1958 National Book Award for Promises: Poems 1954–1956.

  • For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding? It is the 
deepest part of autobiography. Robert Penn Warren, the concluding lines of “Poetry Is a Kind of Unconscious Autobiography,” in The New York Times Book Review (May 12, 1985)



  • Poetry is a kind of attentiveness that permits one both the organized adventure of the nomad and the armchair security of the bank teller, a way of dabbling without being a dilettante. Diane Ackerman, “White Lanterns,” in Janet Sternburg, The Writer on Her Work (1991)
  • Poetry is what you find/in the dirt in the corner,/overhear on the bus, God/in the details, the only way/to get from here to there. Elizabeth Alexander, “Ars Poetica # 100: I Believe,” in American Sublime (2005)
  • A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs. Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in letter to Rainer Maria Rilke (July 2, 1914)
  • Poetry is music written for the human voice. Maya Angelou, in PBS radio interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of the Word”; Sep. 15, 1989); reprinted in Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (1995)
  • Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular. Aristotle, in Poetics (4th c. B.C.)
  • Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life. Matthew Arnold, “Wordsworth,” in Essays in Criticism: Second Series (1888)
  • The crown of literature is poetry. Matthew Arnold, “Count Leo Tolstoi.” in Essays in Criticism: Second Series (1888)
  • There is a view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army. John Ashbery, quoted in the International Herald Tribune (London, Oct. 2, 1989)
  • Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: “memorable speech.” W. H. Auden, in Introduction to The Poet’s Tongue (1935)
  • Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings. W. H. Auden, a note to “New Year Letter,” a 1940 poem that was first printed in Auden’s The Double Man (1941)
  • Poetry is devil’s wine. Saint Augustine, in Contra Academicos (386 A.D.)
  • In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech. Gaston Bachelard, in Introduction to The Politics of Reverie (1960)
  • There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake. Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997)
  • Poetry…shows with a sudden intense clarity what is already there. Helen Bevington, in When Found, Make a Verse Of (1961)
  • It is certainly true to say that we know little about the judgment of contemporary poetry except that it is highly soluble in time. There may be absolute external standards to judge the quality of petrol or detergent, but for art we have only the solitary communion of the individual with a particular work and its capacity to endure the acid test of time. Thomas Blackburn, “The Contemporary Dream,” in The London Review (Jan., 1959)

QUOTE NOTE: Blackburn, an English poet and professor, preceded the observation with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever seen in a critical essay: “A psychologist once said that we know little about the conscience except that it is soluble in alcohol.”‬

  • Reality only reveals itself when it is illuminated by a ray of poetry. Georges Braque, quoted in his New York Times obituary (Sep. 2, 1963)
  • Poetry is life distilled. Gwendolyn Brooks, quoted in M. K. Mootry & G. Smith, A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction (1987)
  • For the creative impulses of men are always at war with their possessive impulses, and poetry, as we know, springs from brooding on just those aspects of experience that most retard the swift advance of the acquisitive mind. Van Wyck Brooks, in Letters and Leadership (1918)
  • You speak/As one who fed on poetry. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the character Baradas speaking, in Richelieu (1839)
  • Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing. Edmund Burke, quoted in James Prior, Memoir of the Life and Character of Edmund Burke, Vol I (2nd ed.; 1826)
  • I by no means rank poetry high in the scale of intelligence—this may look like affectation but it is my real opinion. It is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake. Lord Byron (George Noel Gordon), in letter to Annabelle Milbanke, later to become Lady Byron (Nov. 29, 1813)
  • Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. James Branch Cabell, the character Prince speaking, in Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice (1919)
  • A vein of Poetry exists in the hearts of all men. Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Poet” lecture (May 12, 1840); reprinted in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841)

In that lecture, Carlyle also said on the subject: “Poetry, therefore, we will call Musical Thought.”

  • Poetry, unlike oratory, should not aim at clarity…but be dense with meaning, “something to be chewed and digested.” George Chapman, in Preface to Ovid's Banquet of Sense (1595)
  • The poetry of art is in beholding the single tower; the poetry of nature in seeing the single tree; the poetry of love in following the single woman; the poetry of religion in worshiping the single star. G. K. Chesterton, “The Advantages of Having One Leg,” in Tremendous Trifles (1909)
  • Poetry lies its way to the truth. John Ciardi, in Saturday Review (April 28, 1962)

QUOTE NOTE: Ciardi may have been inspired by a famous observation from Pablo Picasso (to be found in ART).

  • Poetry is a religion without hope. Jean Cocteau, “The Cat That Walks by Itself,” in The Listener (Feb 4, 1954)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation is almost always presented, but the fuller version is as follows: “Poetry is a religion without hope, but its martyrs guarantee the eternal truth of its dogma.”

  • My method is simple: not to bother about poetry. It must come of its own accord. Merely whispering its name drives it away. Jean Cocteau, an August 26, 1945 remark, in Professional Secrets: An Autobiography (1972)
  • Next time you feel the itch, let poetry help you scratch it. Sage Cohen, quoted in Wendy Burt-Thomas, The Everything Creative Writing Book (2010)

Cohen added: “Next time you experience impatience, you can transform it into interest through the lens of a poem. Next time you feel anger, you can dig deeper and find the awe underneath. This is the gift of poetry. You can write yourself where you need to go.”

  • No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Biographia Literaria (1817)
  • Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, journal entry (May 9, 1830), in Table Talk (1835)
  • There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality. Richard Dawkins, in “Slaves to Superstition,” episode one of the Channel Four documentary film The Enemies of Reason (August 13, 2007)
  • If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. Emily Dickinson, quoted by Thomas Wentworth Higginson in a letter to his wife (Aug. 16, 1870); reprinted in Martha Gilbert Dickinson Bianchi, Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson (1924)

QUOTE NOTE: Dickinson, a prominent critic of the era, wrote the letter after his first face-to-face meeting with Dickinson at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts (the two had been corresponding since 1862). An article on “Emily Dickinson’s Letters” in an 1891 issue of The Atlantic mistakenly suggested the observation appeared in a letter Dickinson had written. According to Higginson, Dickinson concluded by saying: “These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

  • Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild. Denis Diderot, in On Dramatic Poetry (1758)
  • Poetry has been able to function quite directly as human interpretation of the raw, loose universe. It is a mixture, if you will, of journalism and metaphysics, or of science and religion. Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction (1983)
  • Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It’s the tightest cage, and if you can get to sing in that cage it’s really really wonderful. Rita Dove, in Poetry Flash (Jan., 1993)
  • As well as between tongue and teeth, poetry happens between the ears and behind the left nipple. Douglas Dunn, in Observer (March 23, 1997)
  • Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. T. S. Eliot, in The Sacred Wood (1920)
  • Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. T. S. Eliot, in Dante (1929)
  • And of poetry, the success is not attained when it lulls and satisfies, but when it astonishes and fires us with new endeavors after the unattainable. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Love,” in Essays: First Series (1841)
  • Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a journal entry (March, 1845)
  • Poetry’s a mere drug, Sir. George Farquhar, in Love and a Bottle (1698)
  • Poetry is a subject as precise as geometry. Gustave Flaubert, in letter to Louise Colet (Aug. 14, 1853)
  • My definition of poetry (if I were forced to give one) would be this: words that have become deeds. Robert Frost, “Some Definitions of Robert Frost,” in Robert Frost: The Man and His Work (1923)

Frost preceded the observation by writing: “Sometimes I have my doubts of words altogether, and I ask myself what is the place of them. They are worse than nothing unless they do something; unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle-cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal.”

  • Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. Robert Frost, quoted in Elizabeth S. Sergeant, Robert Frost (1960)
  • Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement. Christopher Fry, quoted in Time magazine (April 3, 1950)
  • Poetry. A wire/Probes chasms among us, and/Touching, sparks a soul. Nancy C. Gates Meyer, written in 1973, in a personal communication to the compiler (May 8, 2017)
  • It is a species of painting with words, in which the figures are happily conceived, ingeniously arranged, affectingly expressed, and recommended with all the warmth and harmony of coloring. Oliver Goldsmith, on poetry, in “Poetry Distinguished from Other Writing,” Essays (1758–65)

Goldsmith added: “It consistes of imagery, description, metaphors, similes, and sentiments, adapted with propriety to the subject, so contrived and executed as to soothe the ear, surrprise and delight the fancy, mend and melt the heart, elevate the mind, and please the understanding.” Earlier, Goldsmith introduced the entire subject in an equally eloquent way when he wrote that poetry “has a language of its own, which speaks so feelingly to the heart, and so pleasingly to the imagination, that its meaning cannot possibly be misunderstood by any person of delicate sensations.”

  • Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the history that we stand for. Amanda Gorman, quoted in Alexandra Alter, “Amanda Gorman Captures the Moment, in Verse,” The New York Times (Jan. 19, 2021)
  • The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse. Robert Graves, in The White Goddesss (1948)

Graves continued: “Its use is the experience of mixed exultation and horror that her presence excites.”

  • Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. Thomas Gray, on poetry, in The Progress of Poesy (1754)

ERROR ALERT: On nearly all internet sites and in many quotation collections, this line is mistakenly presented as: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” In the original passage, I believe Gray was referring to the creations of such great poets as Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden.

  • Poetry is emotion put into measure. The emotion must come by nature, but the measure can be acquired by art. Thomas Hardy, an 1899 note, quoted in Florence Emily Hardy, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1930)
  • If people need to exercise the spirit as well as the body, then poetry is gymnastics for the soul. Dorothy L. Hatch, quoted in The New York Times (April 19, 1992)
  • Poetry is language in orbit. Seamus Heaney, in The Sunday Independent (London; Sep. 25, 1994)
  • A year or two ago…I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. A. E. Housman, in The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933)
  • Poetry, in the most comprehensive application of the term, I take to be the flower of any kind of experience, rooted in truth, and issuing forth into beauty. Leigh Hunt, in The Story of Rimini (1832 edition)
  • Poetry is like walking along a little, tiny, narrow ridge up on a precipice. You never know the next step, whether there's going to be a plunge. I think poetry is dangerous. There's nothing mild and predictable about poetry. Josephine Jacobson, quoted in a 1990 issue of The Baltimore Sun (specific issue undetermnined)
  • We need poetry most at those moments when life astounds us with losses, gains, or celebrations. We need it most when we are most hurt, most happy, most downcast, most jubilant. Poetry is the language we speak in times of greatest need. And the fact that it is an endangered species in our culture tells us that we are in deep trouble. Erica Jong, “Yeats’s Glade and Basho’s Bee: The Impossibility of Doing Without Poetry,” in What Do Women Want? (1998)
  • Poetry…comes blood-warm straight out of the unconscious. Erica Jong, in Seducing the Demon (2006)
  • If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all. John Keats, in letter to John Taylor (Feb. 27, 1818)
  • In poetry you can leave out everything but the truth. Deborah Keenan, in an interview in a 1995 issue of the Grand Gazette newspaper (St. Paul, MN; specific date undetermined)
  • Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul. Stanley Kunitz, “Speaking of Poetry” (written “Instead of a Foreword”), in Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995)

Kunitz went on to write: “Poetry, it cannot be denied, requires a mastery of craft, but it is more than a playground for technicians. The craft that I admire most manifests itself not as an aggregate of linguistic or prosodic skills, but as a form of spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity.”

QUOTE NOTE: Kunitz’s use of the phrase “I have insisted” suggested an earlier appearance of the sentiment. Sure enough, he was recycling a thought that originally appeared in a 1985 essay in the journal Antaeus: “Poetry is ultimately mythology, the telling of stories of the soul. The old myths, the old gods, the old heroes have never died. They are only sleeping at the bottom of our minds, waiting for our call. We have need of them, never more desperately than now, for in their sum they epitomize the wisdom and experience of the race.”

  • Prose on certain occasions can bear a great deal of poetry: on the other hand poetry sinks and swoons under a moderate weight of prose. Walter Savage Landor, “Archdeacon Hare and Walter Landor,” in Imaginary Conversations (1824–53)
  • Poetry should begin with emotion in the poet, and end with the same emotion in the reader. The poem is simply the instrument of transference. Philip Larkin, remark on BBC Third Programme (April 13, 1956)
  • The notion of expressing sentiments in short lines having similar sounds at the ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon. Philip Larkin, in letter to Barbara Pym (Jan. 22, 1975)
  • If poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion-stains on the bedsheets. Irving Layton, “Obs II,” in The Whole Bloody Bird (1969)
  • Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde, title of article in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture (1977; no. 3)
  • Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture (1977; no. 3); reprinted in Sister Outsider (1984)
  • Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture (1977; no. 3); reprinted in Sister Outsider (1984)
  • Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper. Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex,” a 1980 speech, reprinted in Sister Outsider (1984)

Lorde went on to add: “Poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women. A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.”

  • Poetry, far more than fiction, reveals the soul of humanity. Amy Lowell, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917)

Lowell continued: “Poets are always the advance guard of literature; the advance guard of life. It is for this reason that their recognition comes so slowly.”

  • Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea. Mina Loy, “Modern Poetry” (a c. 1925 essay), reprinted in Roger L. Conover, The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (1996)
  • By poetry we mean the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the imagination, the art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colors. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Milton,” in The Edinburgh Review (Aug., 1825)
  • Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. Don Marquis, quoted in Edward Anthony, O Rare Don Marquis: A Biography (1962)
  • A grain of poetry suffices to season a century. José Marti, in Dedication of the Statue of Liberty (1887)
  • The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. W. Somerset Maugham, in Cakes and Ale (1930)

QUOTE NOTE: The words come from the novel’s narrator, William Ashenden. He added: “It is the achievement of beauty. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes; he makes the best of us look like a piece of cheese.” The entire observation (without the final piece of cheese portion) graced the cover of a 1957 Saturday Review issue titled “Accent on Poetry”.

  • Poetry is a comforting piece of fiction set to more or less lascivious music. H. L. Mencken, in Prejudices: Third Series (1922)
  • When something is too beautiful or too terrible or even too funny for words, then it is time for poetry. Eve Merriam, in a 1981 issue of The Horn Book Magazine (specific issue undetermined)
  • Poetry and eloquence are both alike expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,” in Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. 1 (1859)

Mill continued: “Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener.”

  • Poetry, “The Cinderella of the Arts.” Harriet Monroe, quoted in Hope Stoddard, Famous American Women (1970)
  • Poetry is the original language of the gods. Michel de Montaigne, “On Vanity,” in Essays (1580–88)
  • Paradoxically, it helps that both prayer and poetry begin deep within a person, beyond the reach of language. Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk (1996)

A moment later, Norris wrote: “Poets are used to discovering, years after a poem is written, what it’s really about.”

  • Touched by poetry, language is more fully language and at the same time is no longer language: it is a poem. Octavio Paz, in Claude Lévi-Strauss (1967)
  • I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty. Its sole arbiter is taste. Edgar Allan Poe, in a review of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Ballads and Other Poems, in Graham's Magazine (April, 1842)
  • Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language. Peter Porter, in appearance on BBC Radio 3 (May 3, 1995). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music. Ezra Pound, in The ABC of Reading (1934)

Pound preceded the thought by writing: “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.”

  • Creation is an effort of the Will,/A stern and studied searching of the heart,/Self-schooling in a hard, demanding drill—/Not for the weak is Poetry as Art. Richard Raymond III, from the poem “Ars Poetibus” (September 1973)
  • Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination. Ishmael Reed, “Gwendolyn Brooks: Poet,” in Airing Dirty Laundry (1993)
  • Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe. Adrienne Rich, quoted in Judy Grahn, The Work of a Common Woman (1978)
  • In a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone. Adrienne Rich, in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)

ERROR ALERT: Most internet sites present the following abridged version of the thought: “Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.”

  • Poetry can open locked chambers of possibiity, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire. Adrienne Rich, in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)

About poetry, Rich also wrote in the book: “I do not think it is more, or less, necessary than food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions. It is as necessary.”

  • Much of poetry is an anguished waiting. Theodore Roethke, notebook entry (1950-53), published in Straw for the Fire (1972; David Wagoner, ed.)
  • One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre. Theodore Roethke, notebook entry (1950-53), published in Straw for the Fire (1972; David Wagoner, ed.)
  • Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes. Joseph Roux, in Meditations of a Parish Priest (1886)
  • Breathe-in, experience, breathe-out, poetry. Muriel Rukeyser, opening line of “Poem Out of Childhood” (1935)
  • He who draws noble delights from the sentiment of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life. George Sand, in The Devil's Pool (1851; also published in English under the title The Haunted Pool)
  • Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment. Carl Sandburg, “Poetry Considered,” in Atlantic Monthly (March, 1923)
  • Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. Carl Sandburg, in Atlantic Monthly (March, 1923)
  • Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length. George Santayana, “Religion and Philosophy,” in Little Essays: Drawn From the Writings of George Santayana (1921; Logan Pearsall Smith, ed.)
  • Poetry to me is prayer. Anne Sexton, in letter to Claire S. Degener (March 29, 1966); reprinted in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977; Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames, eds.)

Sexton added: “The rest of it is leftovers.”

  • Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), published posthumously in Essays, Letters From Abroad, Translations and Fragments (1840)

Shelley’s influential essay on the central importance of poetry in human life also included these other memorable metaphorical observations:

Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.

Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.

Poetry strengthens that faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

  • Painting is silent poetry, poetry is eloquent painting. Simonides, quoted in Plutarch, Moralia (c. 100 A.D.)
  • All great poetry is dipped in the dyes of the heart, and is, in Emerson’s phrase, “a larger imbibing of the common heart.” Edith Sitwell, “The Poet’s Vision,” in The Saturday Evening Post (Nov. 15, 1958)
  • It is as unseeing to ask what is the use of poetry as it would be to ask what is the use of religion. Edith Sitwell, in Preface to The Outcasts (1962)
  • It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. Wallace Stevens, on poetry, in “The Noble Rider and The Sounds of Words” (1942); reprinted in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1951)

Stevens continued with this concluding line of the essay: “It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

  • Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully. Wallace Stevens, “Adagia,” in Opus Posthumous (1955)

In that same section of the book, Stevens also wrote: “Poetry is a search for the inexplicable.”

  • Poetry is not the most important thing in life. Dylan Thomas, a 1943 remark, quoted in Joan Wyndham, Love is Blue (1986)

According to Wyndham, Thomas went on to add: “I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets.”

  • All poetry is a call to action. Amor Towles, the character Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov speaking, in A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)
  • Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking. John Wain, in a BBC radio broadcast (Jan. 13, 1976)
  • “Poetry Is a Kind of Unconscious Autobiography.” Robert Penn Warren, title of article in The New York Times Book Review (May 12, 1985)
  • All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic. Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” in Intentions (1891)
  • Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Virginia Woolf, “Montaigne,” in The Common Reader, First Series (1925)
  • All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. William Wordsworth, in Preface to Lyrical Ballads (jointly published with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; 1800 edition)

QUOTE NOTE: Many books and internet sites present the quotation as if it began: Poetry is the spontaneous….

  • We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. William Butler Yeats, “Anima Hominis,” in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918)
  • I think poetry should be alive. You should be able to dance to it. Benjamin Zephaniah, quoted in Sunday Times (London; Aug. 23, 1987)



  • It seems to me that this is the true test for poetry—that it should go beneath experience, as prose can never do, and awaken an apprehension of things we have never, and can never, know in the actuality. Ellen Glasgow, in Letters of Ellen Glasgow (1958)
  • Mediocre prose might be read as an escape, might be spoken on television by actors, or mouthed in movies. But mediocre poetry did not exist at all. If poetry wasn’t good, it wasn’t poetry. It was that simple. Erica Jong, a reflection of protagonist Isadora Wing, in How to Save Your Own Life (1977)
  • Prose on certain occasions can bear a great deal of poetry: on the other hand poetry sinks and swoons under a moderate weight of prose. Walter Savage Landor, “Archdeacon Hare and Walter Landor,” in Imaginary Conversations (1824–53)
  • The borderline between prose and poetry is one of those fog-shrouded literary minefields where the wary explorer gets blown to bits before ever seeing anything clearly. It is full of barbed wire and the stumps of dead opinions. Ursula K. Le Guin, in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989)
  • Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper. Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex,” a 1980 speech, reprinted in Sister Outsider (1984)

Lorde went on to add: “Poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women. A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.”

  • Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea. Mina Loy, “Modern Poetry” (a c. 1925 essay), reprinted in Roger L. Conover, The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (1996)
  • The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. W. Somerset Maugham, in Cakes and Ale (1930)

QUOTE NOTE: The words come from the novel’s narrator, William Ashenden. He added: “It is the achievement of beauty. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes; he makes the best of us look like a piece of cheese.” The entire observation (without the final piece of cheese portion) graced the cover of a 1957 Saturday Review issue titled “Accent on Poetry”.

  • prose is the respectable, grown-up form of written communication. Poetry is reserved for children and others brave or foolish enough to refuse the mainstream’s ability to stipulate what color cows must be, which notes girls may sing, who can make love with whom. Toni McNaron, in I Dwell in Possibility (1992)
  • One reason why I like writing poetry—you can say so many things in it that are true in poetry but wouldn’t be true in prose. L. M. Montgomery, the character Walter speaking, in Rainbow Valley (1919)
  • Prose—it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication;” the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. Joyce Carol Oates, “The Romance of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,” in (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1988)
  • Prose is a poor thing, a poor inadequate thing, compared with poetry which says so much more in shorter time. Vita Sackville-West, “May,” in Country Notes (1940)
  • One could go on revising a prose page forever whereas there is a point in a poem when one knows it is done forever. May Sarton, a 1949 observation, quoted in Susan Sherman, May Sarton: Among the Usual Days (1993)
  • The unit of the poet is the word, the unit of the prose writer is the sentence. Susan Sontag, a 1980 observation, quoted in David Rieff, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (2012)
  • Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking. John Wain, in a BBC radio broadcast (Jan. 13, 1976)
  • Poetry, I thought then, and still do, is a matter of space on the page interrupted by a few well-chosen words, to give them importance. Prose is a less grand affair which has to stretch to the edges of the page to be convincing. Fay Weldon, in Auto da Fay (2002)
  • Poetry requires two readers. They need to be read aloud, to be sung, cried, bellowed; they need to be exclaimed over. Prose can be read alone, as one can eat a sandwich alone; but poetry is an intoxicant, and solitary drinking is a vice. Jessamyn West, in To See the Dream (1957)
  • Poetry is easier to learn than prose. Once you have learned it you can use it as a light and a laser. It shows up your true situation and it helps you cut through it. Jeanette Winterson, in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)
  • Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Virginia Woolf, “Montaigne,” in The Common Reader, First Series (1925)



  • You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket. You will never have an idle hour. John Adams, in 1781 letter to son John Quincy Adams

QUOTE NOTE: Adams, a great lover of poetry, was advising his son to always travel with a volume of poetry. In the letter, pocket was originally spelled poket.

  • Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart/Or squash it flat? Kingsley Amis, in “A Bookshop Idyll” (1956)
  • Not deep the Poet sees, but wide. Matthew Arnold, “Resignation,” in The Strayed Reveller And Other Poems (1849)
  • A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language. W. H. Auden, in The New York Times (Oct. 9, 1960)
  • The poet marries the language, and out of this marriage the poem is born. W. H. Auden, a private remark to Rollo May, first reported in May’s The Courage to Create (1975)
  • A poet’s hope: to be,/like some valley cheese,/local, but prized elsewhere. W. H. Auden, in “Shorts II” (1976)
  • Poets and painters are outside the class system, or rather they constitute a special class of their own, like the circus people and the gypsies. Gerald Brenan, in Thoughts in a Dry Season: A Miscellany (1978)
  • Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language. Joseph Brodsky, “To Please a Shadow” (1983); reprinted in Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986)

QUOTE NOTE: For Brodsky, the poet he knew from cover to cover was W. H. Auden. Brodsky’s essay concluded with this wonderful story about his favorite poet: “I saw him last in July 1973, at a supper at Stephen Spender’s place in London. Wystan [Auden’s formal first name] was sitting there at the table, a cigarette in his right hand, a goblet in his left, holding forth on the subject of cold salmon. The chair being too low, two disheveled volumes of the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] were put under him by the mistress of the house. I thought then that I was seeing the only man who had the right to use those volumes as his seat.” Thanks to David Evans for drawing the OED anecdote to my attention.

  • You don’t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone. John Ciardi, in Saturday Review (Fall, 1962)
  • A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses. Jean Cocteau, in Professional Secrets (1922)
  • Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet’s job. Jean Cocteau, “Le Secret professionnel” (1922), reprinted in A Call to Order (1926)
  • The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood. Jean Cocteau, in Le Rappel à l’Ordre (1926)
  • A poet ought not to pick nature’s pocket: let him borrow, and so borrow as to repay by the very act of borrowing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Table Talk (Sep. 22, 1830)

Coleridge concluded the observation with a piece advice to poets: “Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection; and trust more to your imagination than to your memory.”

  • Novelists, playwrights, painters and others may hold in their heads the expectation of fame, but not poets. Having chosen that road, all one can dream of is the jealousy of one’s rivals. Billy Collins, from interview with Farideh Hassanzadeh, in Kritya: A Journal of Poetry (specific date undetermined)

Collins continued: “Celebrity is unexpected and almost unseemly—it forces one to wear a constant look of chagrin, if that is possible. Unless you are Byron, who was the first poet to become a star. At its worst, fame means being known by strangers—enough to bring on waves of paranoia.”

  • It is important for the poet not to be emotional because you cannot see the world clearly with tears in your eyes. Billy Collins, from interview with Farideh Hassanzadeh, in Kritya: A Journal of Poetry (specific date undetermined)
  • There is a pleasure in poetic pains/Which only poets know. William Cowper, “The Time-Piece,” in The Task (1785). Also an example of Oxymoronica.
  • The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot. Salvador Dali, in Preface to Dialoques with Marcel Duchamp (1968; Pierre Cabanne, ed.)
  • The true poet is just such a fortunate creation as the elusive crab. He is born wary and is frequently in retreat because he is a protector of the human spirit. Loren Eiseley, in The Invisible Pyramid (1970)
  • The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time. T, S. Eliot, “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” (1927) in Selected Essays (1934)
  • They are masters of us ordinary men in knowledge of the mind because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science. Sigmund Freud, on poets, quoted in André Breton, Les Vases communicants (1932)

QUOTE NOTE: A half century earlier, during his famous tour of America, Oscar Wilde made a strikingly similar point: “Poets, you know, are always ahead of science; all the great discoveries of science have been stated before in poetry” (quoted in The Philadelphia Press, Jan. 17, 1882).

  • A poet is a bird of unearthly excellence, who escapes from his celestial realm [and] arrives in this world warbling. If we do not cherish him, he spreads his wings and flies back into his homeland. Kahlil Gibran, in The Treasured Writings of Kahlil Gibran (1995)
  • As soon as war is declared it will be impossible to hold the poets back. Rhyme is still the most effective drum. Jean Giraudoux, the character Hecuba speaking, in Tiger at the Gates (1935)
  • To be a poet is a condition rather than a profession. Robert Graves, “The Cost of Letters,” in Horizon magazine (Sep., 1946)
  • The poet avoids the entire vocabulary of logic unless for satiric purposes, and treats words as living creatures with a preference for those with long emotional histories dating from mediaeval times. Poetry at its purest is, indeed, a defiance of logic. Robert Graves, “Genius,” in Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (1972)

Graves introduced the thought by writing: “The difference between prose logic and poetic thought is simple. The logician uses words as a builder uses bricks, for the unemotional deadness of his academic prose; and is always coining newer, deader words with a natural preference for Greek formations.”

  • Poets are the leaven in the lump of civilization. Elizabeth Janeway, quoted in Helen Hull, The Writer’s Book (1950)
  • Poets are in the beginning hypotheses, in the middle facts, and in the end values. Randall Jarrell, “Poetry in War and Peace,” in Partisan Review (Winter 1945)
  • A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great. Randall Jarrell, “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” in Poetry and the Age (1953)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites mistakenly attribute the sentiment to James Dickey, and in this abridged form: “A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.”

  • Poets are always the advance guard of literature; the advance guard of life. It is for this reason that their recognition comes so slowly. Amy Lowell, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917)

Lowell preceded the observation by writing: “Poetry, far more than fiction, reveals the soul of humanity.”

  • If God made poets for anything, it was to keep alive the traditions of the pure, the holy, and the beautiful. James Russell Lowell, “Pope,” in The North American Review (Jan., 1871)
  • Language, the machine of the poet. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Milton,” in Edinburgh Review (Aug., 1825); reprinted in Critical and Historical Essays (1843)
  • Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Milton” in Edinburgh Review (Aug., 1825); reprinted in Critical and Historical Essays (1843)
  • Poets, you see, are literal-minded men who will squeeze a word till it hurts. Archibald MacLeish, “Apologia,” in Harvard Law Review (June 1972)
  • A poet is a state of mind. Virginia Moore, “Saint Teresa,” in Distinguished Women Writers (1934)
  • Poets are always in search of the right word, the adjective that is inevitable,/Because an ill-chosen adjective induces levity in the reader, and no poet wishes to be levitable. Ogden Nash, “A Strange Casement of the Poetic Apothecary,” in Everyone But Thee and Me (1962)
  • He lives on pain, and sells his utter/Grief for roses, bread, and butter. Robert Nathan, on the poet, in Youth Grows Old (1922)
  • All a poet can do today is warn. Wilfred Owen, in Preface (written in 1918) to Poems (1936)
  • He who draws noble delights from the sentiment of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life. George Sand, in The Devil's Pool (1851; also published in English under the title The Haunted Pool)
  • For ne’er/Was flattery lost on poet’s ear:/A simple race!/They waste their toil/For the vain tribute of a smile. Sir Walter Scott, in Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805)
  • That is what all poets do: they talk to themselves out loud; and the world overhears them. George Bernard Shaw, the character Marchbanks speaking, in Candida (1898)
  • Chameleons feed on light and air:/Poets’ food is love and fame. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the opening lines of “An Exhortation,” in Prometheus Unbound (1820)

QUOTE NOTE: The writer and poet Louis Phillips was inspired by Shelley's words when he composed this clever little ditty titled “Love and Fame” (2024):

“Poets food is love and fame,/But I prefer whiskey & champagne./No wonder nobody knows my name.”

  • A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds. Percy Bysshe Shelley, in “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), published posthumously in Essays, Letters From Abroad, Translations and Fragments (1840)

About the poet’s peers and readers—those who ultimately determine the poet’s reputation in the world—Shelley added: “His auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

  • Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the final line of “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), published posthumously in Essays, Letters From Abroad, Translations and Fragments (1840)

QUOTE NOTE: In composing this thought—one of literary history’s most famous quotations—Shelley might have been influenced by an earlier observation from Samuel Johnson. In his History of Rasselas (1759), Johnson described the role of the poet this way: “He must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations.” Both observations began to be seen in a different light as centuries passed. In The Dyer’s Hand (1962), W. H. Auden had totalitarianism on his mind when he wrote: “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describe the secret police, not the poets.”

  • A poet hurts himself by writing prose; as a racehorse hurts his motions by condescending to draw in a team. William Shenstone, in Essays on Men and Manners (1804)
  • Being a minor poet is like being minor royalty. And no one, as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me, is happy as that. Stephen Spender, quoted in his obituary in The Daily Telegraph (London; July 18, 1995)
  • For the poet, the imagination is paramount, and . . . he dwells apart in his imagination, as the philosopher dwells in his reason, and as the priest dwells in his belief. Wallace Stevens, “Imagination as Value,” in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1951)
  • A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman. Wallace Stevens, “Adagia,” in Opus Posthumous (1955)
  • The poet is the priest of the invisible. Wallace Stevens, “Adagia,” in Opus Posthumous (1955)
  • The poet is a man who lives at last by watching his moods. An old poet comes at last to watch his moods as narrowly as a cat does a mouse. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (Aug. 29, 1851)
  • The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause. He may be used as the barometer, but let us not forget that he is also part of the weather. Lionel Trilling, “The Sense of the Past,” in The Liberal Imagination (1950)

ERROR ALERT: Most internet sites present the following abridged version of the thought: “The poet may be used as a barometer, but let us not forget that he is also part of the weather.”

  • The poet is in command of his fantasy, while it is exactly the the mark of the neurotic that he is possessed by his fantasy. Lionel Trilling, “Freud and Literature,” in The Liberal Imagination (1950)
  • What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. Barbara W. Tuchman, “Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (March 8, 1964)
  • The poets have familiarized more people with history than have the historians. Barbara W. Tuchman, “Can History Be Served Up Hot,” in The New York Times Book Review (March 8, 1964)
  • A poet must be a psychologist, but a secret one: he should know and feel the roots of phenomena but present only the phenomena themselves—in full bloom or as they fade away. Ivan Turgenev, in letter to K. N. Leontiev (Oct. 3, 1860); reprinted in The Essential Turgenev (1994; E. C. Allen, ed.)
  • He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. E. B. White, on the poet, in One Man’s Meat (1942)
  • Poets are the policemen of language, they are always arresting those old reprobates the words. William Butler Yeats, in letter to Ellen O’ Leary (Feb. 3, 1889)

Yeats preceded the observation by writing: “Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is one of the works of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses.”

  • A poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else can be only a footnote. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in A Precocious Autobiography (1963)

Yevtushenko continued: “A poet is only a poet when the reader can see him whole as if he held him in the hollow of his hand with all his feelings, thoughts, and actions.”

  • If the poet tries to split himself in two between the man and the poet, he will invariably commit suicide as an artist. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in A Precocious Autobiography (1963)
  • For me, a poet is someone who is “in contact.” Someone through whom a current is passing. Marguerite Yourcenar, in With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey (1984)



  • When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes. W. H. Auden, “The Poet and the City,” in The Dyer’s Hand (1962)
  • Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. W. H. Auden, on the poet as master of his domain, in The Dyer’s Hand (1962)

Auden added: “If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk, and dishonest.”

  • Too many people in the modern world view poetry as a luxury, not a necessity like petrol. But to me it’s the oil of life. John Betjeman, quoted in The Observer (London, Dec. 29, 1974)
  • I have been one acquainted with the night. Robert Frost, in “Acquainted with the Night” (1928)
  • Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Robert Frost, in address at Milton Academy (Massachusetts; May 17, 1935)
  • I had a lover’s quarrel with the world. Robert Frost, the final line of “The Lesson for Today,” a poem delivered before Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa Society (June 20, 1941); reprinted in A Witness Tree (1942)

QUOTE NOTE: This is often described as Frost’s epitaph, and it is true that the words do appear on Frost’s gravestone in the Old Bennington Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont. Frost died twenty-two years after the poem was written, and it is not clear that he intended the saying as his final words. But that is exactly what happened when, shortly after his death, surviving family members had the saying inscribed on his gravestone. The saying became indelibly associated with Frost after the broadcast of a 1963 PBS documentary titled Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World. For more on the saying, go to “This Day in Quotes”.

  • I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering. Robert Frost, in The New York Times (Nov. 7, 1955)
  • There’s room for only one person…at the top of the steeple…I always meant that person to be me. Robert Frost, quoted in Jeffrey Meyers, Robert Frost: A Biography (1996)
  • Writing a poem for me is putting myself in a very odd state indeed in which I am excessively sensitive to interruption—I can hear, or think I can hear, people doing disturbing things behind shut doors three houses off—and really suffer very painfully, as though I were performing a major operation on my own skull. Robert Graves, in a letter (July 31, 1942); quoted in Peter Kemp, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations (2003)
  • Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat. Robert Graves, on writing novels to support his books of poetry, in “Mostly It’s Money That Makes a Writer Go, Go, Go,” in The New York Times Book Review (July 13, 1958)
  • Experience has taught me, when I am shaving…to keep watch over my thoughts, because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. A. E. Housman, in lecture at Cambridge University (May 9, 1933)
  • For me, it’s like Jacob wrestling with the angel. In every encounter with a poem there is a possibility of an abysmal failure. Josephine Jacobsen, in interview with Betty Parry, Belles/Lettres (May/June, 1986)

Jacobsen continued: “It’s like the difficulty of trying to climb a mountain: the chances that you are going to fall are very steep, and the sense of triumph if you get there is very strong.”

  • The tremendous fun of writing in rhyme is reeling in whatever it is you’ve caught and being surprised by it. X. J. Kennedy, quoted in Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac (Aug. 21, 2013)
  • The notion of expressing sentiments in short lines having similar sounds at the ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon. Philip Larkin, in letter to Barbara Pym (Jan. 22, 1975)
  • When you’re really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I’m not very good at praying, but what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Denise Levertov, quoted in Nicholas O’Connell, At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (1998)
  • I lie in wait like a leopard on a branch-strained metaphor. Marianne Moore, on choosing subjects for her poetry, quoted in Louis Untermeyer, “Five Famous Poetesses,” in Ladies’ Home Journal (May, 1964)
  • I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity. Marianne Moore, quoted in Louis Untermeyer, “Five Famous Poetesses,” in Ladies’ Home Journal (May, 1964)
  • I look at a finished poem of mine as a cobbler looks at a pair of boots: I sell for profit. Alexander Pushkin, in letter to Prince Petr Vyazemsky (March, 1823)

QUOTE NOTE: Vyazemsky was Pushkin’s closest friend. Both came from noble families, and both wrote poetry—but for different reasons. Pushkin began by writing: “Aristocratic prejudices are suitable for you but not for me.”

  • For me a true poem is on the way when I begin to be haunted, when it seems as if I were being asked an inescapable question by an angel with whom I must wrestle to get at the answer. May Sarton, “Revision as Creation,” in Sarton Selected (1991)
  • Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life. Giorgos Seferis, quoted in “A Greek Poet’s Odyssey,” Life magazine (Jan. 17, 1964)
  • I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings of his heels are in sight. Dylan Thomas, on William Blake, in undated letter (c. 1933), quoted in Constance FitzGibbon, Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (1966)
  • My poems are hymns of praise to the glory of life. Edith Sitwell, “Some Notes on My Poetry,” in /Collected Poems (1954)
  • I’ve been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It's a kind of pain I can’t do without. Robert Penn Warren, quoted in The National Observer (March 12, 1977)

In an interview broadcast on April 4, 1976 on WNET, New York City’s public radio station, host Bill Moyers asked Warren if the process of writing poems and novels was painful. Warren replied: “It’s a kind of pain I can’t do without. I can’t say I like it, but I can’t do without it. It’s the old thing of scratching where you itch.”

  • I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil. Walt Whitman, in an 1860 conversation, reported in John Townsend Trowbridge, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman (1902)
  • My ideas were completely immature. I was simply developing my poetic muscles. I swung alliterations, rhymes, and metaphors like Indian clubs. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, on his early years as a poet, in A Precocious Autobiography (1963)



  • His expression may often be called bald…but it is bald as the bare mountain tops are bald, with a baldness full of grandeur. Matthew Arnold, on William Wordsworth, in “Wordsworth” Essays in Criticism: Second Series (1888)
  • There are some poets, Kipling for example, whose relation to language reminds one of a drill sergeant: the words are taught to wash behind their ears, stand properly at attention and execute complicated maneuvers, but at the cost of never being allowed to think for themselves. W. H. Auden, on Rudyard Kipling, in “Prologue: Writing,” The Dyer’s Hand (1962)

Auden continued in a metaphorical vein, but this time about another British poet: Algernon Swinburne: “There are others, Swinburne, for example, who remind one more about Svengali: under their hypnotic suggestion, an extraordinary performance is put on, not by raw recruits, but by feeble-minded schoolchildren.”

  • If she speaks of a chair you can practically sit on it. Elizabeth Bishop, a circa 1934 remark about Marianne Moore; quoted in D. Kalstone, Becoming a Poet (1989)
  • If they had said that the sun or the moon had gone out of the heavens, it could not have struck me with the idea of a more awful and dreary blank in creation than the words: “Byron is dead!” Jane Welsh Carlyle, on Lord Byron, in a letter (May, 1824)
  • He was…a man of an immense head and great jaws like a crocodile’s, cast in a mold designed for prodigious work. Thomas Carlyle, on William Wordsworth, quoted in C. G. Duffy, “Carlyle in 1849,” in Conversations with Carlyle (1892)
  • Dryden’s genius was of that sort which catches fire by its own motion: his chariot-wheels got hot by driving fast. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on John Dryden, in Table Talk (Nov. 1, 1833)
  • Auden of the last years, when he had begun to resemble in his own person an ample, flopping, ambulatory volume of the OED in carpet slippers. Seamus Heaney, on W. H. Auden, in London Review of Books (June 4, 1987)
  • The poems were hypnotic…. They were unapologetically female. An Amazon wrote them riding bareback. She had cut off one breast and dipped her quill in blood. Erica Jong, on Sylvia Plath, in Seducing the Demon (2006)

Jong was referring to the appearance of seven Plath poems in an August 3, 1963 issue of The New Yorker. Jong wrote: “They were by a poet whose name was not yet familiar to readers but whose voice sounded like no other. Under these poems was the intriguing attribution: Sylvia Plath (1932–1963). Since there was no Contributor’s section in Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker, readers had no idea who the author of these astonishing poems might be. Her name was followed by the ominous double dates confirming that the author was no longer on this sad planet.”

  • He has plenty of music in him, but he cannot get it out. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on Robert Browning, quoted in Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1897)
  • I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings of his heels are in sight. Dylan Thomas, on William Blake, in undated letter (c. 1933), quoted in Constance FitzGibbon, Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (1966)
  • Wherever one cut him, with a little question, he poured, spurted fountains of ideas. Virginia Woolf, on William Butler Yeats, a diary entry (Nov., 1930)


(see (No) RETURN)



  • Average human nature is very coarse, and its ideals must necessarily be average. The world never loved perfect poise. Henry Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

Adams was describing how people with perfect poise—like great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams—are often misunderstood, and mistakenly viewed as cold or uncaring. He continued: “What the world does love is commonly absence of poise, for it has to be amused…but it is not amused by perfect balance.”

  • How few people we meet in life who are well-balanced, who have that exquisite poise which is characteristic of the finished character! James Allen, in As a Man Thinketh (1903)

Allen preceded the thought by writing: “It is a question whether the great majority of people do not ruin their lives and mar their happiness by lack of self-control.”

  • One woman's poise is another woman's poison. Katharine Brush, quoted in a 1941 issue of Reader’s Digest (specific issue undetermined)
  • Poise and indifference so often look the same. Sue Grafton, a reflection of protagonist Kinsey Millhone, in “J” is for Judgment (1993)
  • The Christian faith makes it possible for us nobly to accept that which cannot be changed, to meet disappointments and sorrow with an inner poise, and to absorb the most intense pain without abandoning our sense of hope. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Strength to Love (1963)
  • I have learned that one of the most important rules in politics is poise—which means looking like an owl after you have behaved like a jackass. Ronald Reagan, quoted in The Quotable Ronald Reagan (1975, Joseph R. Holmes, ed.)
  • In Paris you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise. Virgil Thomson, quoted in Steven Watson, Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avante Garde (1991)

Thomson preceded the thought by saying: “You will find that the great American hostesses all spent time in Florence.”

  • When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in his mind because he has lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. E.B. White, “An Approach to Style,” in Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (3rd ed., 1979)
  • Poise is the ability to be ill at ease inconspicuously. Earl Wilson, in his syndicated column (Jan, 1964); reprinted in many newspapers, including the Springfield Leader and Press (Jan. 8, 1964)

QUOTE NOTE In 1976, Reader’s Digest presented the observation with a slightly different phrasing (“Poise: the ability to be ill at ease inconspicuously”), and this latter version is the one that is best known today.


(see also TOXINS)


  • In every tyrant’s heart there springs in the end/This poison, that he cannot trust a friend. Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound (th c. B.C.)
  • Lampoons and satires that are written with wit and spirit are like poisoned darts, which not only inflict a wound, but make it incurable. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (March 27, 1711)
  • Learn this from me. Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. Mitch Albom, in The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003)
  • Resentment is like taking poison and hoping it‘ll kill someone else. Alan Brandt, quoted in Ashton Applewhite, Thinking Positive: Words of Inspiration, Encouragement, and Validation for People with AIDS and Those Who Care for Them (1995)

QUOTE NOTE: This saying, in pretty much this phrasing, went on to achieve great popularity after it was tweaked by others (see the entries below from Susan Cheever, Carrie Fisher, Anne Lamott, Malachy McCourt, and Neil Kinnock). Thanks to Barry Popik of The Big Apple website for his research. The underlying sentiment that negative emotions toward others are like a poison that can harm the person harboring them goes back more than a century. See the Bert Ghezzi entry for the earliest appearance of the specific resentment variation.

  • Anger repressed can poison a relationship as surely as the cruelest words. Dr. Joyce Brothers, “When Your Husband’s Affection Cools,” in Good Housekeeping (May, 1972)
  • Food, one assumes, provides nourishment; but Americans eat it fully aware that small amounts of poison have been added to improve its appearance and delay its putrefaction. John Cage, “Indeterminacy,” in Silence (1961)
  • Being resentful, they say, is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Susan Cheever, in A Woman’s Life: The Story of an Ordinary Woman and Her Extraordinary Generation (1995)
  • The surest poison is time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Old Age,” in Society and Solitude (1870)
  • Resentment is like drinking a poison and waiting for the other person to die. Carrie Fisher, citing something “I’ve learned” from her drinking and recovery experiences, in Wishful Drinking (2008)
  • A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort. Gillian Flynn, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Camille Preaker, in Sharp Objects (2006)
  • Resentment is like a poison we carry around inside us with the hope that when we get the chance we can deposit it where it will harm another who has injured us. The fact is that we carry this poison at extreme risk to ourselves. Bert Ghezzi, in The Angry Christian: How to Control & Use Your Anger (1980)

QUOTE NOTE: This appears to be the earliest version of a sentiment that has become almost proverbial under the phrasing Resentment is like taking a poison and waiting for the other person to die (see variations on the theme in entries in this section by Alan Brandt, Susan Cheever, Carrie Fisher, Anne Lamott, Malachy McCourt, and Neil Kinnock). Thanks to Garson O’Toole, the Quote Investigator, for his impressive research on this quotation (O'Toole’s informative 2017 post identifies even earlier sayings that compare hatred and other negative emotions to a poison).

  • Resentment is an extremely bitter diet, and eventually poisonous. I have no desire to make my own toxins. Neil Kinnock, quoted in Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes (1997)

QUOTE NOTE: While many Reader’s Digest quotations are of questionable authenticity, this one should be considered legitimate. In a personal communication to this compiler in February, 2016, Lord Kinnock recalled making the remark in an interview on ITV, an independent British television network, in 1993.

  • Charles had once remarked that holding onto a resentment was like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Anne Lamott, the protagonist Rosie Ferguson reflecting on her friend Charles, in Crooked Little Heart: A Novel (2011)
  • While information is the oxygen of the modern age, disinformation is the carbon monoxide that can poison generations. Newton Lee, in Counterterrorism and Cybersecurity: Total Information Awareness (2nd Edition; 2015)

In the book, Lee also wrote: “Information is power. Disinformation is abuse of power.”

  • What is food to one is to others bitter poison. Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura (1st c. B.C.)

QUOTE NOTE: This is regarded as the original observation that ultimately morphed into the proverb. “One man’s meat is another man's poison.”

  • Men are so imprudent that they take up a diet which, though it tastes sweet, is poisonous. Niccolo Machiavelli, in The Prince (1532)

QUOTE NOTE: Over the centuries, this passage has been translated in a variety of slightly varying ways:

“But men are so imprudent that they take up a diet which, as it tastes good to start with, they do not realize is poisonous.”

“But lack of prudence in men begins something in which, because it tastes good then, they do not perceive the poison that lies underneath.”

“The scanty wisdom of man, on entering into an affair which looks well at first, cannot discern the poison that is hidden in it.”

“But men have so little judgment and foresight that they initiate policies that seem attractive, without noticing any poison that is concealed.”

  • Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Malachy McCourt, quoted in Alex Witchel, “At Lunch with Malachy McCourt, The New York Times (July 29, 1998)
  • In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. Ayn Rand, the character John Galt speaking, in Atlas Shrugged (1957)
  • It doesn’t start as a story; it starts as an inflection of the voice, a question asked in a certain tone and not answered with “no”; a prolonged little silence, a twinkle in the eye, a long-drawn “w-e-e-ell—I don’t know.” These are the fine roots of the tree whose poisonous fruits are gossip and slander. Maria Augusta Trapp, in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1949)

* I am afraid of people/who cannot cry/Tears left unshed/turn to poison/in the ducts. Alice Walker, from the poem “S M” (1979), in Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful (1979)

QUOTE NOTE: Walker was clearly thinking about men when she wrote this. She went on to write: “People who do not cry/are victims/of soul mutilation/paid for in Marlboros/and trucks.”



  • If you sit in on a poker game and don’t see a sucker, get up. You’re the sucker. Author Unknown

ERROR ALERT: Variations of this saying have been attributed to Warren Buffett, the legendary poker player Amarillo Slim, and even Paul Newman. According to Garson O'Toole, aka The Quote Investigator, the saying first appeared in a 1979 Atlantic Monthly article, when author John D. Spooner attributed the saying to a mythical financial advisor named Whispering Saul.

In a 1988 letter to his shareholders, Warren Buffett offered a variant saying when he wrote: “As they say in poker, ‘If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.’”

  • People would be surprised to know how much I learned about prayer from playing poker. Mary Austin, in a 1934 issue of The Golden Book Magazine (specific date undetermined)
  • When you play poker, you aren't just trying to make “objectively good” plays. You are also trying to keep the nature of your plays concealed from your opponents, while simultaneously trying to figure out what they are doing, so you can counteract it. Dan Harrington, in Harrington on Hold 'Em, Volume I (2004; with Bill Robertie)
  • All serious poker players try to minimize their tells, obviously. There are a couple ways to go about this. One is the robotic approach: where your face becomes a mask and your voice a monotone, at least while the hand is being played. The other is the manic method, where you affect a whole bunch of tics, twitches, and expressions, and mix them up with a river of insane babble. The idea is to overwhelm your opponents with clues, so they can’t sort out what’s going on. Dan Harrington, in Harrington on Hold 'Em, Volume I (2004; with Bill Robertie)

Harrington continued: “This approach can be effective, but for normal people it's hard to pull off. (If you’ve spent part of your life in an institution, this method may come naturally.)”

  • I don’t gamble, if you will concede that poker is a game of skill. Robert A. Heinlein, a reflection of narrator and protagonist E. C. Gordon, in Glory Road (1963)
  • What I love about poker is the tension, not the actual winning or losing, but the tension between random chance and changeless numbers. Slap, slap, slap, slap, cards dealt and destiny beckons, two-and-a-half million different hands in a deck. Isabel Huggan, a reflection of the title character, in the short story “Jack of Hearts,” in The Elizabeth Stories (1987)
  • The game that defines dictators much better [than chess] is poker, because it’s about bluffs. It doesn’t matter whether you have a strong hand or weak hand. You can have a weak hand, but if you’re comfortable bluffing, raising stakes, and if you can read your opponent…no matter what kind of hand he has, the opposition…will fold the cards. Garry Kasparov, in Conversations with Bill Kristol (April 2016)
  • Poker rewards not “gambling,” but concentration, discipline and the ability to control emotions, even when the big hand finally hits. Nancy Shute, “Fake and Rake,” Smithsonian magazine (August 1997)


(including COPS; see also CRIME and JUSTICE and LAW ENFORCEMENT and LAW & ORDER)

  • There is no situation so bad that the cops can’t make it worse. Edward Abbey, a reflection of the narrator, in Hayduke Lives! (1990)
  • One policeman may be a friend, but two are the Law. Margery Allingham, in The Allingham Case-Book (1969)
  • Police serve by walking that hazardous line where civilization meets disorder. David Brooks, “The Cop Mind,” in The New York Times (Dec. 8, 2014)
  • Police work is two parts routine, one part common sense and one part luck. Margaret Erskine, in The Painted Mask (1939)
  • One of the things cops learn first is that everyone lies. Some people to hide things, some people just for the hell of it, but everyone lies. Assume that everyone is hiding something, it saves time. Laurell K. Hamilton, a reflection of protagonist and narrator Anita Blake, in The Killing Dance (1997)
  • I’m descended from a long line of preachers and policemen. Now, it’s common knowledge that cops are congenital liars, and evangelists spend their lives telling fantastic tales in such a way as to convince otherwise rational people that they’re factual. So, I guess I come by my narrative inclinations naturally. Tom Robbins, in an interview in High Times magazine (June 12, 2002)
  • Cop shops bred skeptics. Skeptics cherished few illusions about human nature, and therefore were seldom disappointed. Dana Stabenow, a reflection of the narrator, in Better to Rest: A Liam Campbell Mystery (2002)

He preceded the thought by writing: “Cops never took anything on faith, and disbelieved every story that was told them on principle until and unless they could confirm that the story was fact in all its essentials, and even then remained wary and unconvinced.”



  • Politeness is a guilt-edged investment that seldom misses a dividend. Minna Thomas Antrim, in Naked Truth and Veiled Allusions (1901)
  • There is a politeness so terrible, that rage beside it is balm. Minna Thomas Antrim, in At the Sign of the Golden Calf (1905)
  • Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Politeness is the cement that holds the social scheme together. It is the oil that eases the friction of daily life. It is the tune to which the hearts of the world vibrate in harmony. Lillian Eichler, in The New Book of Etiquette (1924)
  • A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot. Robert A. Heinlein, the boss of protagonist Friday Jones speaking, in Friday (1982)
  • Politeness, my dear, is sometimes a great tax upon sincerity. Charlotte Lennox, the character Lady Meadows speaking, in Henrietta (1758)
  • Politeness is one-half good nature and the other half good lying. Mary Wilson Little, in A Paragrapher’s Reveries (1904)
  • Now as to politeness…I would however venture to call it benevolence in trifles; or the preference of others to ourselves in little daily, hourly, occurrences in the commerce of life. William Pitt, in letter to his nephew, Thomas Pitt (Jan. 24, 1754)




  • We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose. Mario Cuomo, in speech at Yale University (Feb. 15, 1985)
  • Dating is like campaigning: you don’t reveal who you really are or what you’re really up to until you get elected. Jane Stanton Hitchcock, in Mortal Friends (2009)
  • Our political system has been thoroughly corrupted, and by the usual suspect—money, what else? The corruption is open, obscene, and unmistakable. The way campaigns are financed is a system of legalized bribery. Molly Ivins, in You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You (1998)

Ivins continued: “We have a government of special interests, by special interests, and for special interests. And that will not change until we change the way campaigns are financed.”

  • Increasingly, [political] campaigns have become narcotics that blur our awareness of problems long enough to elect the lawmakers who must deal with them. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in Dirty Politics (1992)
  • When I see a man’s wife listening to his campaign speech I always admire the self-control that keeps her from laughing. Philander Chase Johnson, in Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics (1906)
  • Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country—and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians. Charles Krauthammer, “Political Suicide,” in The Washington Post (Oct. 28, 1994)
  • I’d much rather lose a campaign than lose a war. John McCain, in interview with Larry King [Jan. 10, 2007]
  • The key to running a campaign on the cheap is to avoid spending money on anything other than projecting a message. Dick Morris, in The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century 2007)
  • Here and now, I am hereby publicly challenging all of the other leading candidates to debate on the issues of the campaign. I challenge Ronald Reagan to meet me on his home grounds, the back lot of Warner Brothers. And I challenge Herbert [sic] Humphrey to debate on his home grounds. I do have some reservations about meeting George Wallace on his home grounds, but I'm willing to meet him on a neutral site in Harlem. Pat Paulsen, in a 1968 press conference (specific date undetermined)
  • Political campaigns are designedly made into emotional orgies which endeavor to distract attention from the real issues involved, and they actually paralyze what slight powers of cerebration man can normally muster. James Harvey Robinson, in The Human Comedy (1937)
  • Campaign promises are, by long democratic tradition, the least binding form of human commitment. Antonin Scalia, in a majority opinion in Republican Party v. White (2002)
  • A presidential campaign is a character test. In fact, it is the greatest non-lethal competition on Earth. Steve Schmidt, “Nikki Haley Stands with MAGA. Chris Christie Stands with America,“ a Substack post (Jan. 5, 2024)

In his post, Schmidt continued: “The process destroys the weak and brittle. It exposes dilettantism in the most brutal manner possible. The process is a journey and most people don’t make it to the end because they fail the test.”

  • The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal—that you can gather votes like box tops—is, I think, the ultimate indignity of the political process. Adlai Stevenson, in speech at the Democratic National Convention (Aug. 18, 1956)
  • I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics. But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning. Adlai Stevenson, a 1956 remark, quoted in Herbert Joseph Muller, Adlai Stevenson: A Study in Values (1967)
  • We were told our campaign wasn’t sufficiently slick. We regard that as a compliment. Margaret Thatcher, in As I said to Denis—: The Margaret Thatcher Book of Quotations (1997)
  • Prosperity…is necessarily the first theme of a political campaign. Woodrow Wilson, in a 1912 campaign speech (specific date undetermined)


(see also EUPHEMISM)

  • We want to create a sort of linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism. Robert Hughes, on political correctness, in Culture of Complaint (1993)



  • If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in address at the 4th Annual Republican Women’s National Conference, Washington, D.C. (March, 6, 1956)
  • The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Conservative,” lecture at the Masonic Temple, Boston, MA (Dec. 9, 1841)
  • Third parties are like bees; once they have stung, they die. Richard Hofstadter, in The Age of Reform (1955)

Hofstadter preceded the thought by writing: “When a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears.”

  • The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Democrats let the poor be corrupt, too. Oscar Levant, quoted by Burt Prelutsky in “Oscar the Magnificent,” The Los Angeles Times (January 26, 1969)
  • Sometimes party loyalty asks too much. John F. Kennedy, quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1979)
  • In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace that, a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life. John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1859)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a famous observation about political life. What is less well known is a remarkable insight Mill went on to offer about it: “Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.”

  • The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it. P. J. O’Rourke, in Parliament of Whores (1991)
  • I am not a member of any organized party; I am a Democrat. Will Rogers, quoted in P. J. O’Brien, Will Rogers, Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom (1935)

In his book, O’Brien explained: “Rogers was a lifelong Democrat but he studiously avoided partisanship. He contributed to the Democratic campaign funds, but at the same time he frequently appeared on benefit programs to raise money for the Republican treasury. Republican leaders sought his counsel in their campaigns as often as did the Democrats.”

  • I have learned, by some experience, that virtue and patriotism, vice and selfishness, are found in all parties, and that they differ less in their motives than in the policies they pursue. William H. Seward, in speech in Rochester, New York (Oct. 25, 1858)



  • The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time. Franklin P. Adams, in Nods and Becks (1944)
  • In the era of imperialism, businessmen became politicians and were acclaimed as statesmen, while statesmen were taken seriously only if they talked the language of succcessful businessmen. Hannah Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
  • Politicians are like diapers. They should be changed frequently, and for the same reason. Author Unknown

QUOTE NOTE: There are a number of variations of this popular American sentiment, which first emerged in the early 1990s. The saying is often attributed to Robin Williams, or to screenwriter Barry Levinson, who gave the words to Williams’s character Tom Dobbs—the comic turned presidential candidate—in the 2006 film Man of the Year. For more on the history of the saying, see this post by quotation sleuth Barry Popik.

  • A group of politicians deciding to dump a President because his morals are bad is like the Mafia getting together to bump off the Godfather for not going to church on Sunday. Russell Baker, “The Morals Charge,” in The New York Times (May 14, 1974)

QUOTE NOTE: Many people think this analogy is about the attempt of House Republicans to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, but it was written almost a quarter of a century earlier in response to calls from House Democrats to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal.

  • All politicians are humble, and seldom let you forget it. They go around the country boasting about their humility. They are proud of their humility. Many are downright arrogant about their humility and insist that it qualifies them to be President. Russell Baker, “The Big Town,” in So This Is Depravity (1980)
  • Aaron Burr stands for those politicians who turn patriotism into shopkeeping and their own interest—men who care far more for who governs us than for how we are governed. Amelia E. Barr, the grandfather speaking, in The Maid of Maiden Lane (1900)

The grandfather continued: “And what will be the end of such ways? I will tell you. We shall have a Democracy that will be the reign of those who know the least and talk the loudest.”

  • The politician is an acrobat. He keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does. Maurice Barrès, in Mes Cahiers, 1896–1963 (1963)
  • Politician, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary (1911)
  • An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought. Simon Cameron, widely attributed, never fully authenticated (and one of my favorite examples of of Oxymoronica)

QUOTE NOTE: According to quotation researchers Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner, this saying has been attributed to Cameron since the 1850s. Cameron was a highly successful Pennsylvania businessman who turned to politics, winning a U. S. Senate seat as a Democrat in 1845. A staunch opponent of slavery, he became a Republican in 1856. President Lincoln named him as his Secretary of War in 1861.

  • No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections. Winston Churchill, in Great Contemporaries (1937)
  • There is a wide difference between the politician and the statesman. A politician, for example, is a man who thinks of the next election; while the statesman thinks of the next generation. James Freeman Clarke, “Wanted, A Statesman,” in Old and New magazine (Dec., 1870)

QUOTE NOTE: This looks like the first appearance of the now-popular next election/next generation distinction between politicians and statesmen. Clarke, a prominent Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and exponent of what went on to be called the Social Gospel, continued: “The politician thinks about the success of his party, the statesman of the good of his country. The politician wishes to carry this or that measure, the statesman to establish this or that principle. Finally, the statesman wishes to steer; while the politician is contented to drift.”

  • Convincing politicians to give up power is like trying to teach a dog to play a piano. Theoretically, it is possible, but I have never seen it done. Rob Christensen, “N.C. Elections Haven’t Been ‘Regular’ for a Long Time,” in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C., July 9, 2017)
  • a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man. e. e. cummings, in 1×1 (also known as One Times One; 1944)
  • Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word. Charles de Gaulle, quoted in Ernest Mignon, Le Mots du Général (1962)
  • In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant. Charles de Gaulle, a 1969 remark, quoted in Jonathon Green, Say Who? A Guide to the Quotations of the Century (1988)
  • In Mexico, an air conditioner is called a “politician” because it makes a lot of noise but doesn’t work very well. Len Deighton

ERROR ALERT: This is the way the quotation almost always appears, even showing up this way in Fodor’s 2007 Mexico travel guide. It's a rephrasing of the words Deighton originally used in his 1985 novel Mexico Set, where a character describes a marginally effective air conditioner. The original passage reads:

“It makes a lot of noise but doesn’t work very well, explained Werner. “The Mexicans call them ‘politicians.’”

The explanation for the faulty wording can be traced to a brief description of the novel in a 1985 issue of The New Yorker magazine. It reads in part: “We learn, among other things, that in Mexico an air-conditioner is called a ‘politician’: ‘It makes a lot of noise but doesn't work very well.’”

  • Politicians, like prostitutes, are held in contempt. But what man does not run to them when he needs their services? Brendan Francis (pseudonym of Edward F. Murphy), in Edward F. Murphy, The Crown Treasury of Relevant Quotations (1978)
  • Politicians generally form alliances and not friendships. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (2005)

Goodwin continued: “Individuals and institutions achieve their ends through continual barter. But deals are not bonds. Indeed, intense emotional involvement with anything—with issues, ideology, a woman, even a family—can be a handicap, not only consuming valuable time, but more importantly, reducing flexibility and the capacity for detached calculation needed to take maximum advantage of continually changing circumstances.”

  • Probably the most distinctive characteristic of the successful politician is selective cowardice. Richard Harris, the opening line of The Fear of Crime (1969; an expanded version of a 1968 New Yorker magazine article)
  • Politicians ask millions for hundreds, but only listen to hundreds with millions. John O. Huston, offering a perfect example of chiasmus, in a personal communication to the compiler (Nov. 25, 2019)
  • When politicians start talking about large groups of their fellow Americans as “enemies,” it’s time for a quiet stir of alertness. Polarizing people is a good way to win an election, and also a good way to wreck a country. Stay alert. Molly Ivins, “Stand By, America! Newt Alert,” in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Nov. 13, 1994); reprinted in You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You (1998)
  • I like politicians, which is sort of like confessing that you are into interspecies dating. I consider this a harmless perversion on my part, and besides, I discuss it only with consenting adults. Molly Ivins, in “Say So” column, Rosie magazine (2001; Vol. 128)
  • A politician is forced to make a habit of noble phrases and optimistic lies. In the end they infect himself. Storm Jameson, the title character speaking, in The Early Life of Stephen Hind (1966)
  • A true politician never forgets a favor; that is to say, if by chance he does someone else a favor, he never forgets it. Philander C. Johnson, a reflection of the title character, in Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics (1906)
  • We don’t expect them to tell the truth about power any more than we expect movie stars to tell the truth about love. Erica Jong, on politicians, in Seducing the Demon (2006)

Jong began by writing: “We expect them to lie to us. We grant them latitude to lie. We are lax about holding them to their word.”

  • They are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even when there is no river. Nikita Khrushchev, on politicians, in Aug. 21, 1963 remarks to reporters in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia); reported in The New York Herald Tribune (Aug. 22, 1963)
  • Rare is the citizen who will accept responsibility for the politician he voted into office. Doug Larson, in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (Oct. 3, 1962)
  • I once said cynically of a politician, “He’ll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it.” Oscar Levant, in The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965)
  • With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. Walter Lippmann, “The Decline of the West,” in Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955)

QUOTE NOTE: Not much was known of this now-famous observation by Lippmann until the following year when it was quoted in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage. In Lippmann’s original essay, he referred to the phenomenon he was describing as “The democratic malady.” He continued: “The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular—not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately. Politicians rationalize this servitude by saying that in a democracy public men are the servants of the people.”

  • Politicians are like monkeys. The higher they climb, the more revolting are the parts they expose. Gwilym Lloyd George (Lord Tenby), a 1954 remark, quoted in J. Graham Jones, “A Breach in the Family,” Journal of Liberal Democrat History (Winter, 1999–2000)

QUOTE NOTE: According to Jones, Lord Tenby, the youngest son of David Lloyd George (English Prime Minister from 1916–22), made this remark shortly after being appointed Home Secretary by Winston Churchill. Jones went on to add: “A strange remark from a Conservative Home Secretary and one who was the son of the arch-monkey himself.” Similar remarks about politicians and the rear ends of monkeys have been attributed to others, but this looks like the earliest appearance.

  • All this you should know by now,/The model has been clear:/It’s never what you say, but how/You make it sound sincere. Mary Mannes (1964), quatrain from “Controverse,” in But Will it Sell 1964)

QUOTE NOTE: “Controverse” is a satirical look at political handlers instructing politicians on how to come across to voters as sincere. It began: “Look the camera in the eye/Keep the chin line firm,/Sit with nonchalance and try/Not to shift or squirm.”

  • Natural politicians are skilled actors, recreating reality, adjusting and ad-libbing, synthesizing the words, ideas, and feelings of others, slipping into different roles in different scenes, saying the same thing over and over again and making it seem like they are saying it for the first time. It can be at once a creative art yet wholly derivative. David Maraniss, in First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton (1995)

When Bill Clinton began his political career, according to Maraniss, he studied and carefully copied the mannerisms of such successful Arkansas politicians as Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. Maraniss concluded about Clinton: “It is not a contradiction to say that he was both a natural politician and an artful imitator, for those two types may in fact be one and the same.”

  • A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar. H. L. Mencken, in Prejudices, 4th Series (1925)

QUOTE NOTE: Mencken might have been inspired by an oxymoronic observation long attributed—without verification—to the American politician Simon Cameron (1799–1889): “An honest politician is one who when he’s bought stays bought.”

  • A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office, he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker. H. L. Mencken, quoted in Roger Butterfield, “Mr. Mencken Sounds Off,” Life magazine (Aug. 5, 1946)
  • Nothing is so abject and pathetic as a politician who has lost his job, save only a retired stud-horse. H. L. Mencken, in Chrestomathy (1949)
  • One has to be a lowbrow, a bit of a murderer, to be a politician, ready and willing to see people sacrificed, slaughtered, for the sake of an idea, whether a good one or a bad one. I mean, those are the ones who flourish. Henry Miller, in Paris Review interview (Summer-Fall, 1962)

Miller preceded the observation by saying: “The idealists in politics lack a sense of reality. And a politician must be a realist above all. These people with ideals and principles, they’re all at sea, in my opinion.”

  • Old politicians, like old actors, revive in the limelight. Malcolm Muggeridge, in Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes (1966)
  • When it comes to television, the politician is severely handicapped. He is trained in the art of inexactitude. His words tend to be blunt or rounded, because if they have a cutting edge they may return later to wound him. Edward R. Murrow, in a speech in London (Oct. 19, 1945); reprinted in A. M. Sperber, Murrow, His Life and Times (1986)

Murrow was speaking at a BBC-sponsored conference on “Television and Politics.” He preceded the remark by saying about American politicians: “Most of them are men of undoubted charm, ability, and incredible energy, and yet too often they lack purpose or appetite for anything beyond their own careers. With few notable exceptions, they are simply men who want to be loved.”

  • A valuable qualification of a modern politician seems to be a capacity for concealing or explaining away the truth. Dorothy Nevill, in My Own Times (1912)
  • If more politicians in this country were thinking about the next generation instead of the next election, it might be better for the United States and the world. Claude Pepper, quoted by George H. W. Bush, in remarks to Peavey Electronics employees, Meridian, Mississippi (Dec. 3, 1991)
  • For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea. Enoch Powell, quoted in The Guardian (London; Dec. 3, 1984)

Powell is also widely credited with another popular—but so far unverified—observation about politicians: “No one is forced to be a politician. It can only be compared with fox hunting and writing poetry. These are two things that men do for sheer enjoyment, too.”

  • Everything is changing in America. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke, when it used to be visa [sic] versa. Will Rogers, in “Will Rogers’ Daily Telegram” (Nov. 22, 1932)
  • Politicians, after all, are not over a year behind public opinion. Will Rogers, in The Autobiography of Will Rogers (1949)
  • Politicians are doing the best they can according to the dictates of no conscience. Will Rogers, in The Wit and Wisdom of Will Rogers (1993)
  • Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them. Bertrand Russell, in New Hopes for a Changing World (1951)
  • The politician performs upon the stage; the historian looks behind the scenery. A. J. P. Taylor, in Englishmen and Others (1956)
  • The wisdom of hindsight, so useful to historians and indeed to authors of memoirs, is sadly denied to practicing politicians. Margaret Thatcher, in Downing Street Years (1993)
  • A politician’s words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience. George Will, quoted in Richard Reeves, A Ford, Not a Lincoln (1975)
  • Politicians make good company for a while, just as children do—their self-enjoyment is contagious. But they soon exhaust their favorite subjects—themselves. Garry Wills, “Politicians,” in Lead Time: A Journalist’s Education (1983)
  • I once heard Abraham Ribicoff say that the thing politicians live for after awhile is not the publicity, pictures in the newspapers, television and so forth, or power in the sense of having control over important matters, but personal deference—the way people hop to it when you come around or move when you say move. Tom Wolfe, “The Marvelous Mouth of Cassius Clay,” in Esquire magazine (Oct., 1963)



  • It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. Winston Churchill, in speech at London’s Westminster Hall (Nov. 30, 1954)

QUOTE NOTE: Churchill gave the speech at a special ceremony in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Just earlier, Labor Party leader Clement Attlee paid tribute to Churchill’s role in WWII by saying: “You offered us only blood and sweat and tears and we gladly took your offer.” When Churchill took the stage, he thanked Mr. Attlee but humbly suggested that he was merely expressing the resolve of freedom-loving people everywhere. He then preceded his famous give the roar quotation above with these words about the English people: “Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue.”

  • We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose. Mario Cuomo, in speech at Yale University (Feb. 15, 1985)
  • You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country. Thomas E. Dewey, quoted by Merle Miller, in Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S Truman (1974)
  • I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Benjamin Disraeli, remark to friends after becoming Prime Minister of England in 1868, quoted in William Fraser, Disraeli and His Day (1891)
  • I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. Gerald R. Ford, offering an enduring—and endearing—automobile metaphor in his remarks to Congress after his confirmation as vice president, replacing Spiro Agnew (Dec. 6, 1973)
  • I have the most reliable friend that you can have in American politics—ready money. Phil Gramm, on his plans to seek the presidential nomination, quoted in The New York Times (April 23, 1995)
  • I don’t want loyalty, I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket. Lyndon B. Johnson, in David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972)

QUOTE NOTE: When a White House staffer informed LBJ about a new hire, the president asked, “How loyal is that man?” When his aide replied, “Well, he seems quIte loyal,” LBJ replied as above.

  • The definition of happiness of the Greeks…is full use of your powers along lines of excellence. I find, therefore, the Presidency provides some happiness. John F. Kennedy, in White House press conference (Oct. 31, 1963)

QUOTE NOTE: For the full quotation, and the original observation that inspired it, see the Kennedy entry in HAPPINESS

  • I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out. Abraham Lincoln, quoted by Joshua F. Speed in a letter to William H. Herndon (Dec. 6, 1866); reprinted in W. H. Herndon, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (1889)
  • A Foreign Secretary. . .is always caught by a cruel dilemma—hovering between the cliché and the indiscretion. Harold Macmillan, in remarks to the House of Commons (July 17, 1955); reprinted in his memoir Tides of Fortune (1969)
  • I brought myself down. I gave them a sword. And they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish. Richard M. Nixon, in television interview with David Frost (May 4, 1977)

Nixon concluded: “And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”

  • I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking a higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my central mistake. Richard M. Nixon, in In the Arena (1990)
  • My role is that of a grain of sand to an oyster. We’ve got to irritate Washington a little bit. Ross Perot, in conference call with reporters (March 19, 1993)
  • I have learned that one of the most important rules in politics is poise—which means looking like an owl after you have behaved like a jackass. Ronald Reagan, quoted in The Quotable Ronald Reagan (1975, Joseph R. Holmes, ed.)
  • In my work, you get used to criticisms. Of course you do, because there are a lot of people trying to get you down, but I always cheer up immensely if one is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left. Margaret Thatcher, in interview with Enzo Biagi on the Italian television network RAI (March 18, 1986)

Thatcher continued: “That is why my father always taught me: never worry about anyone who attacks you personally; it means their arguments carry no weight and they know it.”

  • To wear your heart on your sleeve isn’t a very good plan. You should wear it inside, where it functions best. Margaret Thatcher, in interview on ABC-TV (March 18, 1987)
  • I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician. Margaret Thatcher, quoted in Iain Dale, Margaret Thatcher (2005)

QUOTE NOTE: While serving as the British prime minister, Thatcher had famously said: “Consensus is the negation of leadership.”

  • Politicians can forgive almost anything in the way of abuse; they can forgive subversion, revolution, being contradicted, exposed as liars, even ridiculed, but they can never forgive being ignored. Auberon Waugh, quoted in The Observer (London; Oct. 11, 1981)
  • I have no wish to lead a party of political zombies. Harold Wilson, in speech at a Labor Party conference (Sep. 30, 1975)

QUOTE NOTE: Wilson, who was serving as Prime Minister of England at the time, was warning Laborites about the danger of yielding to the demands of a dogmatic minority within their ranks. He preceded the remark by saying: “The party must protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion…having in common only their arrogant dogmatism.”

  • I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow.

Woodrow Wilson, a 1914 remark, quoted in Eugene C. Brooks, Woodrow Wilson as President (1916)



  • An extraordinary man. A real Centaur—part man, part horse’s ass. A rough appraisal, but curiously true. Dean Acheson, on President Lyndon Johnson, in a 1968 letter, in David S. McLellan & David C. Acheson, Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson (1980)
  • For twenty years he has had a season-ticket on the line of least resistance and has gone wherever the train of events has carried him, lucidly justifying his position at whatever point he has happened to find himself. Leo Amery, on British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, quoted in The Quarterly Review (July, 1914)
  • Entitlement spending—the politics of greed wrapped in the language of love. Dick Armey, on President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, quoted in U. S. News & World Report (Dec. 12, 1994)
  • He couldn’t see a belt without hitting below it. Margot Asquith, on British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, quoted by step-daughter Violet Bonham Carter in The Listener (London; June 11, 1953)
  • Aaron Burr stands for those politicians who turn patriotism into shopkeeping and their own interest—men who care far more for who governs us than for how we are governed. Amelia E. Barr, the grandfather speaking, in The Maid of Maiden Lane (1900)

The grandfather continued: “And what will be the end of such ways? I will tell you. We shall have a Democracy that will be the reign of those who know the least and talk the loudest.”

  • Beaverbrook is so pleased to be in the Government that he is like the town tart who has finally married the Mayor! Beverly Baxter, on the Canadian-born British publishing tycoon Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), recorded in the diary of Henry (“Chips”) Channon (June 12, 1940); in Anthony Jay, The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (1996)
  • A new star with a tremendous national appeal, the skill of a consummate showman. Russell Baker, on John F. Kennedy, after his first televised presidential press conference, in The New York Times (Jan. 26, 1961)
  • His mind had one compartment for right and one for wrong, but no middle chamber where the two could commingle. Howard K. Beale, on President Andrew Jackson, in The Critical Year: A Study of Andrew Jackson and Reconstruction (1930)
  • If I had to fault President Obama, I would say that sometimes he governs like a visitor from a morally superior civilization. David Brooks, on Meet the Press (Dec. 30, 2012)

QUOTE NOTE: This remark came during a discussion of the 2012 fiscal cliff debacle. Brooks assigned “most of the blame” to the Republican Party, stating that party leaders had a “brain freeze” since the election and “have no strategy.” He didn’t hold President Obama blameless, though, charging that he had not engaged with Republicans in a way that built trust.

  • Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. The difference between Bill Clinton and myself is that he has a walk-in closet. Pat Buchanan, quoted in The Sunday Times (London; Nov. 21, 1999)
  • He’s about a half a quart low. James Carville, on Ross Perot, a remark on NBC-TV’s Meet the Press (Sep. 27, 1998)
  • He is the only bull who brings his own china shop with him. Winston Churchill, on Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, quoted in William Manchester, The Last Lion (1983)
  • A hard dog to keep on the porch. Hillary Clinton, on Bill Clinton, quoted in The Guardian (London; Aug. 2, 1999)
  • In private conversation he tries on speeches like a man trying on ties in his bedroom to see how he would look in them. Lionel Curtis, on Winston Churchill, in 1912 letter to Nancy Astor (specific date undetermined)
  • I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk. Dwight Eisenhower, a 1953 remark about Sen. Joseph McCarthy, quoted in Piers Brendon, Ike: The Life and Times of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1986)
  • He looks like the guy in a science fiction movie who is the first one to see The Creature. David Frye, on President Gerald R. Ford, quoted in Frye’s New York Times obituary (Jan. 29, 2011)
  • Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in foreword to K. M. Kostyal, Abraham Lincoln’s Extraordinary Era: The Man and His Times (2009)
  • Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angle-worm. Ulysses S. Grant, on President James Garfield, quoted in John M. Taylor, Garfield of Ohio: The Available Man (1970)
  • Comrades, this man has a nice smile, but he’s got iron teeth. Andrei Gromyko, on Mikhail Gorbachev, in speech to Soviet Communist Party Central Committee (March 11, 1985)
  • A very weak-minded fellow I am afraid, and, like the feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat on him! Douglas Haig, on a contemporary politician, in letter to his wife (Jan. 14, 1918); quoted in R. Blake, Private Papers of Douglas Haig (1952)
  • Kissinger brought peace to Vietnam the same way Napoleon brought peace to Europe: by losing. Joseph Heller, on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in Good as Gold (1979)
  • Mr. Lincoln was a peculiar man; he was intensely thoughtful—persistent—fearless and tireless in thinking. When he got after a thought—fact—principle—question, he ran it down to the fibers of the tap root—dug it out; and held it up before him for an analysis; and when he thus formed an opinion no man could overthrow it; he was in this particular without an equal. William Herndon, in a letter to Jesse W. Weik (Nov. 12, 1885); in Herndon on Lincoln: Letters (D. L. Wilson & R. O. Davis, eds.)

QUOTE NOTE: Herndon was a former law partner of the 16th president.

  • George Bush was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Jim Hightower, on George H. W. Bush, quoted in James Fallows, “Rich Kids,” New York Review of Books (Oct. 27, 1988)
  • The trouble with Senator Long is that he is suffering from halitosis of the intellect. Harold Ickes, a 1935 remark about Huey Long of Louisiana, quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval (1960)
  • One of the things that concerns a lot of Americans lately is the increase in plain old nastiness in out political discussion. It comes from a number of sources, but Rush Limbaugh is a major carrier. Molly Ivins, “Lyin’ Bully,” in Mother Jones magazine (May/June 1995)

Ivins continued in the second paragraph: “I should explain that I am not without bias in this matter. I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.”

  • Donald Trump is a compulsive insulter. When faced with any criticism or opposition, he resorts instinctively to taunts and put-downs. His smears and invective are so unremitting that they no longer shock. It’s simply a given: If you spar with Trump, you’ll be slandered by Trump. Jeff Jacoby, “In Extolling 'Honorable' Tyrants, Trump Shames America,” in The Patriot Post (Jan 17, 2019)
  • Stevenson’s convictions were sometimes too complex for the binary political arena to which he devoted his life. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, on Adlai Stevenson, in The New York Times (July 31, 1989)
  • I think Jimmy Carter as President is like Truman Capote marrying Dolly Parton. The job is just too big for him. Rich Little, quoted in The Bedside Book of Celebrity Gossip (1984)
  • Neville has a retail mind in a wholesale business. David Lloyd George, a 1935 remark about Neville Chamberlain, quoted in David Dilks, Neville Chamberlain (1984)
  • Though I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr. Coolidge, I do wish he did not look as if he had been weaned on a pickle. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, quoting her physician on Calvin Coolidge, in Crowded Hours (1933)

QUOTE NOTE: Her physician, who had just heard the remark from another patient, said he couldn’t wait to pass it along to the sharp-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Often called “Washington’s other monument” for the larger-than-life role she played in the nation’s capital, Mrs. Longworth loved the line and went on to say about it: “Of course I shouted with pleasure and told everyone, always carefully giving credit to the unnamed originator, but in a very short time it was attributed to me.”

  • The little man on the wedding cake. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, describing Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican Party's presidential candidate in 1948; quoted in The Washington Post (May 22, 1951)
  • He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended. Edward R. Murrow, on Winston Churchill, in CBS broadcast to mark Churchill’s eightieth birthday (Nov. 30, 1954); reprinted in In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, 1938–1961 (1967)
  • The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain. Peggy Noonan, in What I Saw at the Revolution (1990)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation is often misinterpreted as a swipe at President Reagan’s intelligence, but Noonan (a Reagan speechwriter and great fan of the president) was in fact commenting on his disinterest in—and detachment from—the details of governance.

  • George Bush reminds every woman of her first husband. Jane O’Reilly, on George H. W. Bush, in GQ magazine (Nov., 1984)
  • The air currents of the world never ventilated his mind. Walter H. Page, on President Woodrow Wilson, in B. J. Hendrick, The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page (1930)
  • He is a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight. John Randolph, on Edward Livingston, quoted in W. Cabell Bruce, John Randolph of Roanoke (1923)

ERROR ALERT: Many books and web sites mistakenly report that Henry Clay was the target of this legendary metaphorical insult. John F. Kennedy even got it wrong in Profiles in Courage (1957), where he described the line as “the most memorable and malignant sentence in the history of personal abuse.” But Randolph, a Virginia congressman hailed by William Safire as a “master of American political invective,” said it about Edward Livingston, a former New York City mayor who had been elected to Congress. In 1998, Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, titled his first novel, Mackerel by Moonlight. Appropriately, it was a tale of political corruption.

  • He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them. James Reston, on President Richard M. Nixon, in Deadline: A Memoir (1991)
  • Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth. Ann Richards, on George H. W. Bush, in her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention (July 18, 1988)

Richards, the state treasurer of Texas at the time, stepped grandly on to the national stage when she delivered a rousing address. The remark, a clever blending of two popular idiomatic expressions, was a nifty two-fisted jab—referring both to the former president’s trouble talking as well as his privileged background.

  • He is attempting a great breakthrough in political technology—he has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency. He sees to it that nothing sticks to him. Patricia Schroeder, on President Ronald Reagan, in remarks in the U. S. House of Representatives (Aug. 2, 1983)

QUOTE NOTE: Early that morning, the congresswoman from Colorado was preparing scrambled eggs for her children’s breakfast when a thought popped into her mind: “He’s just like a Teflon frying pan. Nothing sticks to him.” For months, Shroeder had been mystified by President Reagan’s ability to remain unscathed after missteps and blunders by people in his administration. A few hours later, she unveiled the image to her congressional colleagues. Almost immediately, the metaphor began to take on a life of its own. And exactly one week later, The New York Times helped make the phrase a part of the political lexicon when it offered ”The Teflon Presidency” as a headline in its “Required Reading” feature.

  • The kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, and then mount the stump and make a speech on conservation. Adlai Stevenson, on Richard Nixon, quoted in Fawn M. Brodie, Richard Nixon (1983)
  • Johnson’s instinct for power is as primordial as a salmon’s going upstream to spawn. Theodore H. White, on President Lyndon Johnson, in The Making of the President (1964)
  • He has many good qualities, some of which lie hidden, and he has many bad ones, all of which are in the shop window. Henry Wilson, on Winston Churchill, in a letter to a colleague, quoted in Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (1994)



  • Women were trained to speak softly…and carry a lipstick. Now we demanded a bigger stick. We want to be everywhere, at every table. Bella Abzug, a 1960s remark about women in politics, quoted in Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom (eds.), Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad From the Bronx Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way (2007)
  • Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. Henry Brooks Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

QUOTE NOTE: The book, a classic in American literature, included two other observations that went on to achieve an almost legendary status in the political realm: “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts” and “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

  • A man must be excessively stupid, as well as uncharitable, who believes there is no virtue but on his own side, and that there are not men as honest as himself who may differ from him in political principles. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (Dec. 8, 1711)
  • What troubles me is not that movie stars run for office, but that they find it easy to get elected. It should be difficult. It should be difficult for millionaires, too. Shana Alexander, “It’s the Idea That Offends,” in Life magazine (July 8, 1966)
  • Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other. Oscar Ameringer, quoted in Ferdinand Lundberg, Scoundrels All (1968)
  • There aren’t many idealists in politics. Evelyn Anthony, the character John Kidson speaking, in The Avenue of the Dead (1982)
  • All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies. John Arbuthnot, quoted in Richard Garnett, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1888)
  • Entirely new concepts are very rare in politics. Hannah Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
  • Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” in Crises of the Republic (1972)
  • Man is by nature a political animal. Aristotle, in Politics (4th c. B.C.)
  • Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long,/Has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong. Richard Armour, quoted in Colin Jarman, The Book of Poisonous Quotes (1993)
  • Professional politics is a trade in which the sly outweigh the wise. Hilaire Belloc, in The Cruise of the “Nona” (1925)
  • Politics is a blood sport. Aneurin Bevan, quoted in Jennie Lee, My Life with Nye (1980)

AUTHOR NOTE: Bevan, whose nickname was “Nye,” was a Welsh miner and labor activist who used the great General Strike of 1926 to launch a highly successful political career. As England’s Minister of Health (1945-51), he played the key role in getting the National Health Service adopted, famously explaining that he got English doctors to go along with the program this way: “I stuffed their mouths with gold!”

  • Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Politics is not an exact science. Otto von Bismarck, in speech to Prussian legislature (Dec. 18, 1863)
  • Politics is the art of the possible. Otto von Bismarck, a remark to Meyer von Waldeck (Aug. 11, 1867), quoted in Heinz Amelung, Bismarck-Worte (1918)
  • Politics is not just about voting one day every four years. Politics is the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the road we walk on. Unita Blackwell, in Barefootin’: Life Lessons From the Road to Freedom (2006; with JoAnne Prichard Morris)
  • Politics are usually the executive expression of human immaturity. Vera Brittain, in The Rebel Passion (1964)
  • Politics is not really politics any more. It is run, for the most part, by Madison Avenue advertising firms, who sell politicians to the public the way they sell bars of soap or cans of beer. Helen Caldicott, in If You Love This Planet (1992)
  • Religion is organized to satisfy and guide the soul—politics does the same thing for the body. Joyce Cary, in Paris Review interview (Fall-Winter, 1954–1955)
  • The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcasses of old policies. Robert Cecil (Lord Cecil), in speech in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England (May 25, 1877)
  • My present attitude toward politics as it is practiced in the United States: it is a beautiful fraud that has been imposed on the people for years, whose practitioners exchange gilded promises for the most valuable thing their victims own, their votes.” Shirley Chisholm, in Unbought and Unbossed (1970)

In her book, Chisholm also wrote: “Political organizations are formed to keep the powerful in power.”

  • It would be a great reform in politics if wisdom could be made to spread as easily and rapidly as folly. Winston Churchill, in speech at the Guildhall (Sep. 10, 1947)
  • Politics is the womb in which war develops—where its outlines already exist in their hidden rudimentary form, like the characteristics of living creatures in their embryos. Karl von Clausewitz, in On War (1832-34)

QUOTE NOTE: See the Clausewitz entry in WAR for his even more famous observation on the connection between war and politics.

  • In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, journal entry (Oct. 5, 1830); reprinted in Table Talk (1835)
  • Patriotism is in political life what faith is in religion. John Dalberg (Lord Action), “Nationality,” in The Home and Foreign Review (July, 1862)
  • The pursuit of politics is religion, morality, and poetry all in one. Germaine de Staël, a 1790 remark, quoted in J. Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age (1958)
  • Finality is not the language of politics. Benjamin Disraeli, in House of Commons speech (Feb. 28, 1859)
  • Every man who takes a part in politics, especially in times when parties run high, must expect to be abused: they must bear it; and their friends must learn to bear it for them. Maria Edgeworth, a reflection of the title character, in Ormond (1817)
  • In politics, a mind can be a terrible thing to change. Marc Fisher, on political flip-flopping, playing off the famous slogan of the United Negro College Fund, in The Washington Post (May 28, 2012)
  • All politics is global. Thomas L. Friedman, playing off—and updating—the popular Tip O’Neill saying, “Get a Job,” in The New York Times (March 17, 1998)
  • Few things are as immutable as the addiction of political groups to the ideas by which they have won office. John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society (1958)
  • Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. John Kenneth Galbraith, tweaking a legendary observation (see the Bismarck entry above), in letter to President John F. Kennedy (March 2, 1962)
  • To me the function of politics is to make possible the desirable. Indira Gandhi, in Freedom is the Starting Point (1876)
  • If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake. Mohandas K. Gandhi, quoted in J. B. Kripalani, Gandhi the Statesman (1951)
  • To me the function of politics is to make possible the desirable. Indira Gandhi, in Freedom Is the Starting Point (1976)
  • We are making politics a spectator sport in which our only duty is to vote somebody into office and then retire to the grandstands. David Gergen, in U. S. News and World Report (May 10, 1993)
  • I can only say that politics, like misery, ‘bring a man acquainted with strange bedfellows.’” William Gifford, playing off the familiar Shakespeare quotation on misery, in The Baviad, and Maeviad (1797)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the original expression of a sentiment that ultimately evolved into politics makes strange bedfellows, a saying that went on to become so popular that it completely supplanted the Shakespeare observation that inspired it (see the Shakespeare entry in MISERY. The sentiment about politics making for strange bedfellows has been attributed to many other people, including Charles Dudley Warner, who wrote in My Summer in a Garden (1871): “I may mention here, since we are on politics…that politics makes strange bed-fellows.” Gifford, however, deserves credit as the person who first extended the concept from misery to politics.

  • In politics, being ridiculous is more damaging than being extreme. Roy Hattersley, a Labour Party MP, quoted in the Evening Standard (London; May 9, 1989)
  • Political genius consists in identifying oneself with a principle. Georg W. F. Hegel, in The German Constitution (1802)
  • Politics I would rather not be quoted on. All the contact I have had with it has left me feeling as though I had been drinking out of spittoons. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in Harvey Breit, “Talk with Mr. Hemingway”, The New York Times (Sep. 17, 1950)

ERROR ALERT: The quotation is often mistakenly presented: “All the contact I have had with politics has left me feeling as though I had been drinking out of spittoons.”

  • Politics is, among other things, the art of anticipating consequences, and even trying to anticipate unfamiliar consequences. Irving Howe, “The Agony of the Campus,” in Dissent magazine (Sep-Oct 1969)
  • Idealism is the noble toga that political gentlemen drape over their will to power. Aldous Huxley, quoted in his obituary in The New York Herald Tribune (Nov. 24, 1963)
  • There is no sea more dangerous than the ocean of practical politics—none in which there is more need of good pilotage and of a single, unfaltering purpose when the waves rise high. T. H. Huxley, “On the Natural Inequality of Men” (1890)), in Collected Essays, Vol. 1 (1893)
  • I believe politics is the finest form of entertainment in the state of Texas: better than the zoo, better than the circus, rougher than football, and even more aesthetically satisfying than baseball. Becoming a fan of this arcane art form will yield a body endless joy—besides, they make you pay for it whether you pay attention or not. Molly Ivins, “Good Morning, Fort Worth! Glad to be Here,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (March 1, 1992)
  • Politics in this country isn’t about left and right; it’s about up and down. The few are screwing the many. Molly Ivins, “Texas Liberals Ought to Come in Tablet Form,” in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Sep. 8, 1994); reprinted in You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You (1998)
  • Our political system has been thoroughly corrupted, and by the usual suspect—money, what else? The corruption is open, obscene, and unmistakable. The way campaigns are financed is a system of legalized bribery. We have a government of special interests, by special interests, and for special interests. And that will not change until we change the way campaigns are financed. Molly Ivins, in You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You (1998)

QUOTE NOTE: In her book, Ivins neatly summarized the situation this way: “We just need to get the hogs out of the creek so the water can clear up.”

  • Politics is like having diabetes. James Jones, in Paris Review interview (Autumn-Winter, 1958–59)

This was the conclusion of Jones’s answer to a question about whether his recent move from a home in Illinois to a flat in Paris was a political gesture. The author of From Here to Eternity (1951) said he didn’t like politics and didn’t make political gestures, adding: “I don’t even believe in politics. To me politics is like one of those annoying, and potentially dangerous (but generally just painful) chronic diseases that you just have to put up with in your life if you happen to have contracted it.”

  • Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything—high and low and, most especially, high—lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. Charles Krauthammer, in Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics (2013)

QUOTE NOTE: Krauthammer, who left a promising career in psychiatry to spend three decades covering politics as a journalist, was planning to title his career-reflecting book There’s More to Life Than Politics. But he simply couldn’t. He explained: “While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.”

  • I think that all of the various fields of human inquiry—theology and philosophy and morality and psychology—meet rather beautifully in politics. And sometimes I wonder if politics isn’t exactly that, it's the taking of all the sort of great ineffables and trying to make them have some meaning in the actual historical moment on earth in which we live. Tony Kushner, in interview with Bill Moyer on PBS-TV’s “Listening to America” (Dec. 21, 2012)
  • We must rid ourselves of the view that only logical ideas can be political weapons. Ideas in politics are much like poetry; they need no inner logical structure to be effective. Max Lerner, in Introduction to the Transaction Edition of Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1939; Transaction Publishers ed. in 1991)

QUOTE NOTE: Note also the metaphorical title of Lerner’s book.

  • A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion. C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (1949)
  • The first requirement of politics is not intellect or stamina but patience. Politics is a very long-run game and the tortoise will usually beat the hare. John Major, quoted in The Daily Express (London; July 25, 1989)
  • Politics is war without bloodshed; war is politics with bloodshed. Mao Zedong, in “On Protracted War,” a May, 1938 speech

QUOTE NOTE: This famous quotation is an example of the literary device known as chiasmus, but it may also be accurately viewed as a double metaphor.

  • Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it’s important. Eugene McCarthy, quoted in The Washington Post (Nov. 12, 1967)
  • The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H. L. Mencken, in In Defense of Women (1923)
  • On the whole, we need not hesitate to assert, that in the long course of events, nothing, that is morally wrong, can be politically right. Nothing, that is inequitable, can be finally successful. Hannah More, in Hints Toward Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1837)

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, William E. Gladstone is mistakenly credited with saying “Nothing, that is morally wrong, can be politically right.” He never said anything of the sort. More is the legitimate author of the sentiment.

  • Ideas are great arrows, but there has to be a bow. And politics is the bow of idealism. Bill Moyers, quoted in Time magazine (Oct. 29, 1965)
  • I’ve always thought that the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing. Bill Moyers, in 2005 speech at National Conference for Media Reform (St. Louis)

Moyers added: “The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included in the bargain. Both would keep the great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings, it’s no longer an eagle and it’s going to crash.”

  • Politics is the diversion of trivial men who, when they succeed at it, become important in the eyes of more trivial men. George Jean Nathan, quoted in Jonathon Green, Say Who? A Guide to the Quotations of the Century (1988)
  • The whole art of politics consists in directing rationally the irrationalities of man. Reinhold Niebuhr, quoted in his obituary in The New York Times (June 2, 1971)
  • Finishing second in the Olympics gets you silver. Finishing second in politics gets you oblivion. Richard M. Nixon, quoted in The Sunday Times (London; Nov. 13, 1988)
  • Beware the politically obsessed. They are often bright and interesting, but they have something missing in their natures; there is a hole, an empty place, and they use politics to fill it up. It leaves them somehow misshapen. Peggy Noonan, in What I Saw at the Revolution (1990)
  • The politics of our society are a conversation in which past, present, and future each has a voice; and though one or other of them may on occasion properly prevail none permanently dominates, and on this account we are free. Michael Oakeshott, in Rationalism in Politics (1962)
  • The nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction. Barack Obama, quoted in David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” The New Yorker magazine (Jan. 27, 2014)

President Obama continued the sailing metaphor by adding that those steering the ship of state “have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”

  • All politics is local. Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill,, a signature saying and the title of his 1994 book

QUOTE NOTE: see spin-off quotations by Thomas L. Friedman above and by Peggy Noonan in ECONOMICS.

  • Our own political life is predicated on openness. We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Encouragement of Science,” address at Science Talent Institute (March 6, 1950); reprinted in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Jan., 1951)

Oppenheimer added: “We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that the wages of secrecy are corruption. We know that in secrecy error, undetected, will flourish and subvert.”

  • In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” in Horizon magazine (April, 1946)
  • A narrow system of politics, like a narrow system of religion, is calculated only to sour the temper, and live at variance with mankind. Thomas Paine, in The American Crisis, No. 3 (April 19, 1777)
  • The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics. Emmeline Pankhurst, quoted in George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1936)
  • Politics is the skilled use of blunt objects. Lester B. Pearson, widely attributed

QUOTATION CAUTION: This is one of the Canadian prime minister’s most frequently quoted remarks, appearing in almost every anthology of political quotations. The sentiment wasn't original to Pearson, though, and he went out of his way to credit a former professor with authorship. Here’s what he said in a June 8, 1967 speech to the Canadian Political Science Association (note also his second oldest profession reference, which may have inspired Ronald Reagan’s more famous observation on the subject—to be seen below):

I beg you not to despise the profession of politics. It’s the second oldest in history, much more reputable even if less rewarding than the oldest, whether you define politics as the science and art of government, or, more originally, as one of my professors did at Toronto many years ago, as “the skillful use of blunt instruments.”

  • All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs. Enoch Powell, in Epilogue to Joseph Chamberlain (1977)
  • Politics is just like show business, you have a hell of an opening, coast for a while, and then have a hell of a close. Ronald Reagan, a 1966 remark to Stuart Spencer, quoted in Mark Green & Gail MacColl, There He Goes Again (1983)
  • Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. Ronald Reagan, in a press conference in Los Angeles (March 2, 1977)

QUOTE NOTE: President Reagan was famous for “borrowing” lines from other sources and casually passing them off as his own. This one was likely inspired by a similar politics/prostitution reference made by Lester B. Pearson in 1967—seen just above.

  • All politics are based on the indifference of the majority. James Reston, “New York,” in The New York Times (June 12, 1968)
  • If you ever injected truth into politics you’d have no politics. Will Rogers, “A Few Shots of Scopolamin,” in his “Weekly Article” syndicated column, Number 31 (July 15, 1923)
  • If it’s a man's game so decidedly that a woman would be soiled by entering it, then there is something radically wrong with the American game of politics. Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted in a 1924 issue of The New York Times
  • Among the wise and high-minded people who in self-respecting and genuine fashion strive earnestly for peace, there are the foolish fanatics always to be found in such a movement and always discrediting it—the men who form the lunatic fringe in all reform movements. Theodore Roosevelt, in An Autobiography (1923)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the first appearance of a phrase (“the lunatic fringe”) that has now become commonplace. While Roosevelt was thinking about crazies in the fringe elements of reform movements, his expression is now routinely used to describe fanatics and extremists who exist in all political undertakings.

  • Ceremony, circus, farce, melodrama, tragedy…nothing else offers all at once the whirl, the excitement, the gaiety, the intrigue, and the anguish. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., on national political conventions, in A Thousand Days (1965)
  • He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career. George Bernard Shaw, Undershaft speaking about Stephen, in Major Barbara (1905)
  • A political animal can be defined as a body that will go on circulating a petition even with its heart cut out. Wallace Stegner, in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954)
  • Politics in the middle of things that concern the imagination is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert. The noise is ear-splitting and yet lacks point. Stendhal (penname of Marie-Henri Beyle), the character Julien Sorel speaking, in The Red and the Black (1830)

I’ve also seen the passage translated this way: “Politics in a work of literature is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.”

  • As in economics, so to in G.O.P. politics; Gresham’s law applies. Bad money drives out good. Bad Republicans drive out good ones. When nastiness sells, the worst rise. Bret Stephens, “The Strange Impotence of the Republican Party,” in The New York Times (Sep. 29, 2017)
  • When political ammunition runs low, inevitably the rusty artillery of abuse is wheeled into action. Wallace Stevens, in a speech in New York City (Sep. 22, 1952)

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher might have had this observation in mind when she said about the political abuse heaped on her: “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because…it means that they have not a single political argument left” (quoted in London’s Daily Telegraph, March 21, 1986)

  • Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Yoshida-Torajiro,” in Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882)
  • In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman. Margaret Thatcher, address to National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds (London; May 20, 1965)
  • Political success is a good deal pleasanter than political failure, but it too brings its problems. Margaret Thatcher, in Downing Street Years (1993)
  • Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society—full of grit & gravel. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (Nov. 10, 1851)

Thoreau’s entry continued: “And the two political parties are its two opposite halves which grind on each other.”

  • The choice in politics isn’t usually between black and white. It is between two horrible shades of grey. Peter Thorneycroft (Baron Thorneycroft), quoted in The Sunday Telegraph (London; Feb. 11, 1979)
  • Criticizing a political satirist for being unfair is like criticizing a 260-pound noseguard for being physical. Garry Trudeau, in speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association (April 25, 1988)
  • The essential ingredient of politics is timing. Pierre Trudeau, quoted in Keith Davey, The Rainmaker: A Passion for Politics (1986)
  • Money is the mother’s milk of politics. Jesse Unruh, quoted in Time magazine (Dec. 14, 1962)

QUOTE NOTE: At the time, the 40-year-old Unruh (pronounced UN-rue) was a major force in California’s Democratic Party, Speaker of the State Assembly, and one of California's most colorful and flamboyant politicians (his 265-pound frame inspired Raquel Welch to give him the nickname “Big Daddy”). The remark, which captured the increasingly influential role of Big Money in politics, immediately caught fire, went on to become one of the most popular quotes of the era, and earned Unruh an entry in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. By the end of the century, as Unruh’s observation began to suffer from overexposure, another colorful state politician—Jim Hightower of Texas—stepped up to the plate with an updated version: “Money is the crack cocaine of politics.”

  • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them. Paul Valéry, “Rhumbs,” in Tel Quel 2 (1943)
  • Politics as lived and practiced day by day, has little to do with ideas, values, and imagination, with ideological visions—the ideal society we would like to create—and, to put it bluntly, little to do with generosity, solidarity, and idealism. Mario Vargas Llosa, in A Fish in the Water: A Memoir (1994)

Vargas Llosa continued: “It consists almost exclusively of maneuvers, intrigues, plots, paranoias, betrayals, a great deal of calculation, no little cynicism, and every variety of con game. Because what really gets the professional politician, whether of the center, the left, or the right, moving, what excites him and keeps him going is power, attaining it, remaining in it, or returning to it as soon as possible.”

  • Unless drastic reforms are made, we must accept the fact that every four years the United States will be up for sale, and the richest man or family will buy it. Gore Vidal, “Postscript: The Holy Family” (1968), in Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (1969)

Vidal preceded the thought by writing: “I think it is tragic that the poor man has almost no chance to rise unless he is willing to put himself in thrall to moneyed interests.”

  • I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and then wrap himself in the flag. Craig Washington, a Texas state representative, quoted by Molly Ivins in her column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (June 29, 1997)
  • Politics in America is the binding secular religion. Theodore H. White, in Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975)

White continued: “And that religion begins with the founding faith of the Declaration of Independence,

  • Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training-school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium. Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas (1871)
  • All politics takes place on a slippery slope. The most important four words in politics are “up to a point.” George F. Will, in Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (1984)
  • A friend of mine says that every man who takes office in Washington either grew or swelled, and when I give a man an office, I watch him carefully to see whether he is swelling or growing. Woodrow Wilson, in speech to the National Press Club, Washington, DC (May 15, 1916); reprinted in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 37 (1982; Arthur Link, ed.)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites and published quotation anthologies mistakenly present this quotation as if it were phrased either grows or swells. Thanks to Andrew Phillips of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library for providing the correct wording.

  • Politics is the entertainment branch of industry. Frank Zappa, a signature saying, in The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989)



  • Politics and religion in the United States work like the twin grips of a pair of pliers on a critical mass of the masses. Roseanne Barr, in Roseannearchy (2011)
  • Politics and religion mixed is the headiest cocktail ever invented. Norah Bentinck, in My Wandering and Memories (1924)
  • When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion, it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some. Harry A. Blackmun, in Lee v. Weisman (1992)

Blackmun introduced the thought by writing: “The mixing of government and religion can be a threat to free government, even if no one is forced to participate.”

  • God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed. Luis Buñuel, in The Last Sigh (1983)
  • Religion is organized to satisfy and guide the soul—politics does the same thing for the body. Joyce Cary, in Paris Review interview (Fall-Winter, 1954–55)
  • All religions, united with government, are more or less inimical to liberty. All, separated from government, are compatible with liberty. Henry Clay, in U. S. House of Representatives speech (March 24, 1818)
  • Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly? Sandra Day O’Connor, in U. S. Supreme Court decision known as “The Ten Commandments Ruling” (June 27, 2005)
  • We’ve reached a truly remarkable situation: a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe which is held by the vast majority of top American scientists, and probably the majority of the intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. Richard Dawkins, in “Militant Atheism,” a TED talk (February 2002)

In his talk, Dawkins continued:

“If I’m right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it—the intelligentsia—unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs. To put it bluntly American political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest.”

  • In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor, and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People. Eugene V. Debs, in Canton, Ohio anti-war speech (June 16, 1918), in Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs (1948)
  • The pursuit of politics is religion, morality, and poetry all in one. Germaine de Staël, a 1790 remark, quoted in J. Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age (1958)
  • Our great common challenge…is to free people from religion, get it out of our laws, our schools, our health systems, our government and, I would add, also our sporting events. I would really like to see some separation of church and stadium, if we could work on that. Barbara Ehrenreich, in Freethought Today (2012)
  • Politics and religion are dangerous subjects, for they may cause ill feeling even in the most cultivated company. Illness, death, and disaster are unpleasant, and consequently should be avoided. Lillian Eichler, in The Book of Conversation, Vol. 1 (1927)
  • The garb of religion is the best cloak for power. William Hazlitt, “On the Clerical Character,” Political Essays (1819)
  • It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. Robert A. Heinlein, “Concerning Stories Never Written,” in Revolt in 2100: The Prophets and the Triumph of Reason Over Superstition (1953)

Heinlein continued: “This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.”

  • When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Frank Herbert, the character Lady Jessica quoting a “Bene Gesserit” proverb in Dune (1965)

The proverb continued: “Their movement becomes headlong—faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”

  • Religious ideas, supposedly private matters between man and god, are in practice always political ideas. Christopher Hitchens, in The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favorite Fetish (1990)
  • Religious freedom should work two ways: we should be free to practice the religion of our choice, but we must also be free from having someone else’s religion practiced on us. John Irving, in My Movie Business (1999)
  • He said that was one of the things he deplored about the loss of religion, it meant that people elevated politics into a religious faith and that was dangerous. P. D. James, a character describing one of the beliefs of her father, in A Taste for Death (1986)
  • The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Strength to Love (1963)
  • Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, they less they are mixed together. James Madison, in letter to Edward Livingston (July 10, 1822)
  • When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow. Anaïs Nin, an April, 1944 entry, in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1944–47 (1971)
  • Persecution is not an original feature of any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of any law-religions, or religions established by law. Thomas Paine, in The Rights of Man (1791)
  • Politics is the science of domination, and the persons in the process of enlargement and illumination are notoriously difficult to control. Tom Robbins, the voice of the narrator, in Skinny Legs and All (1990)

Robbins continued: “Therefore, to protect its vested interests, politics usurped religion a very long time ago. Kings bought off priests with land and adornments. Together, they drained the shady ponds and replaced them with fish tanks. The walls of the tanks were constructed of ignorance and superstition, held together with fear. They called the tanks “synagogues” or “churches” or “mosques.”

  • The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately. Bertrand Russell, “Introduction: On the Value of Skepticism,” in Skeptical Essays (1928)
  • Politics is a game of compromise…faith isn’t. Cal Thomas, quoted in Lisa Miller, “An Evangelical Identity Crisis,” Newsweek (Nov.12, 2006)
  • How are we to disentangle religion from politics in a revolution? Religion may form the outlook of an individual. It may serve as an ideological intoxicant for a crowd. Hugh Trevor-Roper, in From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution (1992)
  • I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s. Mark Twain, a Sep. 12, 1907 dictation, in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 (U. of Cal. Press, 2015)
  • In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing. Mark Twain, a July 10, 1908 dictation, in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 (U. of Cal. Press, 2015)
  • Organized religion is making Christianity political rather than making politics Christian. Lauren Van der Post, quoted in The Observer (London; Nov. 9, 1986). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • Religions are manipulated in order to serve those who govern society and not the other way around. Gore Vidal, “Sex Is Politics“ (1979); in The Second American Revolution (1983)
  • Politics in America is the binding secular religion. Theodore H. White, in Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975)
  • Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passions. George F. Will, in Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (1984)



  • It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. Rachel Carson, in Preface to the revised edition of The Sea Around Us (1950)

Carson continued: “But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

  • Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. Rachel Carson, on the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment, in Silent Spring (1962)

Carson’s classic work also offered these other observations of the subject of pollution:

“As crude a weapon as a cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life.”

“Under the philosophy that now seems to guide our destinies, nothing must get in the way of the man with the spray gun.”

“As man proceeds toward his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him.”

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”



  • When friends and lovers are the same, things get more complicated still. The English artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group—who, in the old line, “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”—included some math whizzes, and they, too, struggled with the geometry of their loves and loyalties. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his regular “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times (April 23, 2023)
  • Higamous hogamous, woman’s monogamous./Hogamous higamous, man is polygamous. AUTHOR UNKNOWN

ERROR ALERT: For many years, this saying was attributed to William James, who reportedly said that the saying had come to him after an experiment with a psychedelic drug. This is now believed to be false.

  • The idea that some day another wife would be added to our household was ever present in my mind, but, somehow, when the fact was placed before me in so many unmistakable words, my heart sank within me, and I shrank from the realization that our home was at last to be desecrated by the foul presence of Polygamy. Fanny Stenhouse, in An Englishwoman in Utah: The Story of a Life’s Experience in Mormonism (1880)



  • Language is in decline. Not only has eloquence departed but simple, direct speech as well, though pomposity and banality have not. Edwin Newman, in Strictly Speaking (1974)




  • Dressing a pool player in a tuxedo is like putting whipped cream on a hot dog. Minnesota Fats [Rudolf Wanderone]], quoted in “Scorecard,” Sports Illustrated (April 4, 1966)

[The] POOR



  • Popularity? It is glory’s small change. Victor Hugo, the character Don Salluste speaking, in Ruy Blas (1838)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the most common current translation of Hugo’s famous observation, but earlier renditions of the thought are also memorable: “Popularity? The cheapest kind of glory.” and “Popularity—a piece of faded tinsel, that is out of date.”



  • The real weakness of all porn, it seems to me, is its necessary repetition. Since the body is finite…the pornographer must continually invent new sauces for old meats. Shana Alexander, in Talking Woman (1976)
  • Pornography aspires to nothing but getting the customer off. It is the massage parlor of literature. Erica Jong, in Seducing the Demon (2006)
  • Pornography is a cheat. It is an attempt to provide sexual experience by secondhand means. Now sex is a thing which has to be experienced firsthand, if you are really going to understand it, and pornography is rather like trying to find out about a Beethoven symphony by having somebody tell you about it and perhaps hum a few bars. It’s not the same thing. Robertson Davies, “Table Talk,” in The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1971)

Davis continued: “Sex is primarily a question of relationships. Pornography is a do-it-yourself kit—a twenty-second best.”

  • Pornography is literature designed to be read with one hand. Angela Lambert, quoted in Independent on Sunday (London, Feb. 18, 1990)
  • Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it. D. H. Lawrence, “Pornography and Obscenity” (1929) in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (1936; Edward D. McDonald, ed)
  • Men may buy pornography but women pay for it—in terms of exploitation, rape, violence, and a society that sees them as disposable sexual objects. Rosalie Maggio, in The Bias-Free Word Finder (1991)
  • Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice. Robin Morgan, “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape,” in Going Too Far (1977)



  • It seems to be a law of nature that no man, unless he has some obvious physical deformity, ever is loathe to sit for his portrait. Max Beerbohm, “Quia Imperfectum,” in And Even Now (1920)
  • A great portrait is always more a portrait of the painter than of the painted. Samuel Butler, in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me; otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it. Oliver Cromwell, a 1657 remark to portraitist Peter Lely, quoted in Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England (1764)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the origin of the expression warts and all to indicate that even unattractive or ugly aspects of something should not be—or have not been—ignored.

  • There are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk. Charles Dickens, the character Miss La Creevy speaking, in Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39)
  • When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form…through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait. Pablo Picasso, in Intransigeant (Paris; June 15, 1932). The observation is yet another example of Picasso’s use of the literary device of chiasmus.
  • Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend. John Singer Sargent, quoted in Evan Esar, A Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (1949)

QUOTATION CAUTION: Even though Sargent is regarded as one of history’s great portraitists, he grew to hate this aspect of his work as he grew older, once even saying to a friend: “I hate to paint portraits. I hope never to paint another portrait in my life.” The more popular quotation above about losing a friend whenever he painted a portrait is of questionable validity though. An original source has never been provided, and its first published appearance was in Esar’s 1949 book.

  • Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. Oscar Wilde, the character Basil Hallward speaking, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Hallward continued: “The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.”



  • High positions are like the summit of high, steep rocks: eagles and reptiles alone can reach them. Suzanne Curchod (Madame Necker), quoted in J. De Finod, A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness (1880)
  • Men have an extraordinarily erroneous opinion of their position in nature; and the error is ineradicable. W. Somerset Maugham, an 1896 journal entry, in A Writer’s Notebook (1949)


(see also CERTAINTY and CORRECT and RIGHT [as in CORRECT] and WRONG)

  • Positive, adj. Mistaken at the top of one’s voice. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • There are none so positive as those who are but half right; and, with this possession, it is almost impossible to convince them that they are wholly wrong. William McDonnell, a reflection of the narrator in Family Creeds (1879)

QUOTE NOTE: In this observation, McDonnell is playing off “None so blind as those that will not see,” a proverbial English saying popularized by Matthew Henry in his Commentary on the Whole Bible (1708)



  • Any positive thinker is compelled to see everything in the light of his own convictions. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, in The Sexes Throughout Nature (1875)
  • A whole industry has grown up to promote positive thinking, and the product of this industry, available at a wide range of prices, is called “motivation.” Barbara Ehrenreich, in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009)

In her scathing critique of the positive thinking movement in America, Ehrenreich also offered these thoughts:

“It’s a glorious universe the positive thinkers have come up with, a vast, shimmering aurora borealis in which desires mingle freely with their realizations.”

“The seeker who embraces positive theology finds … that you can have all that stuff in the mall, as well as the beautiful house and car, if only you believe that you can.”

“When our children are old enough, and if we can afford to, we send them to college, where…the point is to acquire the skills not of positive thinking but of critical thinking.”

“How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in? Positive thinking seeks to convince us that such external factors are incidental compared with one’ s internal state or attitude or mood.”

  • You’ve got to/Accent-tchu-ate the positive,/E-lim-my-nate the negative,/Latch on to the affirmative,/Don’t mess with Mister In-between. Johnny Mercer, lyrics to the song “Accentuate the Positive” (1944)
  • The Power of Positive Thinking. Norman Vincent Peale, title of 1952 book
  • Prayer is a concentration of positive thoughts. Peace Pilgrim, in Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words (1991)
  • One positive statement of good is more powerful than 1,000 negative thoughts; and two positive statements of good are more powerful than 10,000 negative thoughts. Catherine Ponder, in The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity (1962)

In her book, Ponder also wrote: “If you speak of things, people, and conditions in a positive, prosperous way, you gain their subconscious cooperation. Whereas, if you criticize your world, you repel its blessings and attract only negative, limited conditions into your life.”




  • When I behold what pleasure is pursuit,/What life, what glorious eagerness it is,/Then mark how full possession falls from this,/How fairer seems the blossom than the fruit. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in “Pursuit and Possession,”, in The Poems (1897)
  • Possessions are mere transient effects that come when they are required, and after their purpose has been served, pass away. James Allen, in Entering the Kingdom (1908)
  • People who have few possessions cling tightly to those they have. That is one of the facts that make life so discouraging. Sherwood Anderson, the narrator of the short story “The Egg,” in The Triumph of the Egg (1921)
  • If one’s reputation is a possession, then of all my possessions, my reputation means most to me. Nothing comes even close to it in importance. Arthur Ashe, the opening words of Days of Grace: A Memoir (1993; with Arnold Rampersad)

Ashe continued: “Now and then, I have wondered whether my reputation matters too much to me; but I can no more easily renounce my concern with what other people think of me than I can will myself to stop breathing. No matter what I do, or where or when I do it, I feel the eyes of others on me, judging me.”

  • Why grab possessions like thieves, or divide them like socialists, when you can ignore them like wise men? Natalie Clifford Barney, “My Country ’tis of Thee,” in Adam magazine (London, 1962; No. 299)
  • Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship (1959)

Bonhoeffer continued: “Anxiety creates its own treasures, and they in turn beget further care. When we seek for security in possessions, we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the precise opposite of our anticipations. The fetters that bind us to our possessions prove to be the cares themselves.”

  • Possessions delude the human heart into believing that they provide security and a worry-free existence, but in truth they are the very cause of worry. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions (2005; O. C. Dean, trans.)

Bonhoeffer continued: “For the heart that is fixed on possessions, they come with a suffocating burden of worry.”

  • The creative impulses of men are always at war with their possessive impulses. Van Wyck Brooks, in Letters and Leadership (1918)
  • A man that simply loads himself down with possessions of which he has no actual need, when he dies slips out of them—as a little insect might slip out of some parasite shell into which it has ensconced itself—into the grave, and is forgotten. E. H. Chapin, in Living Words (1860)
  • How many men you see in this world who have become merely the pack-horses of their own possessions; who go through life the veriest slaves to that which they toil for, wasting their health and strength, and, it may be, their higher powers—even their consciences and souls—in the mere effort to accumulate! E. H. Chapin, in Living Words (1860)

Chapin continued: “How many men of this sort you see stumbling along in life like a camel with his load! In fact you do not see the man himself—only the pack of his possessions on his back. He finds it hard work to squeeze through the needle’s eye; and when he dies he is hardly missed; for that by which he was known—that of which he was the slave, and not the master—remains behind.”

  • He who possesses most must be most afraid of loss. Leonardo da Vinci, in Notebooks (c. 1500; tr. by Johann Paul Richter)
  • The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them up. Dorothy Day, quoted in “Saints Among Us,” Time magazine (Dec. 29, 1975)
  • Possessions possess. Paul Eldridge, in Maxims for a Modern Man (1965)
  • Most people seek after what they do not possess and are thus enslaved by the very things they want to acquire. Anwar El-Sadat, in In Search of Identity (1977)
  • Things are in the saddle,/And ride mankind. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing,” in Poems (1847)
  • Complete possession is proved only by giving. André Gide, in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality (1959)
  • Possessions, for the terminally frightened, bring peace of mind. Cynthia Heimel, in But Enough About You (1988)

QUOTE NOTE: Heimel was referring to materialism among shallow people. She introduced the thought by writing: “Things make yuppies feel better, more secure. Who cares about nuclear proliferation if we’ve just bought a new Cuisinart attachment? And isn’t shopping a lot safer than Valium?”

  • If you possess/more than just eight things/then you/are possessed by them. Piet Hein, “The Tyranny of Things,” in Grooks (1966)
  • It is a curious fact that personal possessions take on fictitious values and exceptional charms when the owner, no matter how generous, is faced with giving them away or even selling them (which usually amounts to the same thing). Marjorie Hillis, in Orchids on Your Budget: Live Smartly on What You Have (1937)
  • Nothing can be so perfect while we possess it as it will seem when remembered. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872)
  • In our rich consumers’ civilization we spin cocoons around ourselves and get possessed by our possessions. Max Lerner, “What Shall I Save?” in The New York Post (Sep. 10, 1952); reprinted in The Unfinished Country (1959)
  • Dependence upon material possessions inevitably results in the destruction of human character. Agnes E. Meyer, in Out of These Roots: The Autobiography of an American Woman (1953)
  • If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having. Henry Miller, title essay, in The Wisdom of the Heart (1941)
  • Expectation…quickens desire, while possession deadens it. Hannah More, the character Mr. Stanley speaking, in Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809)
  • It is not permissible to add to one’s possessions if these things can only be done at the cost of other men. Such development has only one true name, and that is exploitation. Alan Paton, a passage from a private essay written by the character Arthur Jarvis, in Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

QUOTE NOTE: In the novel, Jarvis is a white South African who serves as something of a spokesperson for Paton (he’s been raised in comfortable, even sheltered, White neighborhood, and only begins to question the racist underpinnings of South African society when he matures spiritually and religiously (he expresses his views in his “Private Essay on the Evolution of a South African”). In the essay, Jarvis continues: “It might have been permissible in the early days of our country, before we became aware of its cost, in the disintegration of native community life, in the deterioration of native family life, in poverty slums, and crime. But now that the cost is known, it os no longer permissible.”

  • An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit. Pliny the Younger, in Letters (1st. c. A.D.)
  • I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity an obligation; every possession a duty. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in “I Believe” radio broadcast for the USO and National War Fund (July 8, 1941)
  • Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness. John Ruskin, in The Eagle’s Nest (1872)
  • It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly. Bertrand Russell, in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916)
  • Many possessions, if they do not make a man better, are at least expected to make his children happier; and this pathetic hope is behind many exertions. George Santayana, “Reason in Society,” in The Life of Reason (1905–06)
  • I like to walk about amidst the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty. George Santayana, “The Irony of Liberalism,” in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)
  • People who know their worth can live austerely; it’s the people nagged by the gnawing knowledge of their own cheapness who have that eternal necessity for submerging themselves in what they feel is superlative in material things, as if fine possessions could make them fine. Mabel Seeley, in The Whispering Cup (1940)
  • False values begin with the worship of things. Susan Sontag, the character Frau Anders, in a letter to her daughter, in The Benefactor (1963)
  • Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions. Frank Lloyd Wright, in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture: Selected Writings, 1894–1940 (1941)
  • Possession of material riches, without inner peace, is like dying of thirst while bathing in a lake. Paramhansa Yogananda, in The Essence of Self-Realization: The Wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda (1990)



  • I dwell in Possibility—/A fairer house than Prose—/More numerous of Windows—/Superior—for Doors—. Emily Dickinson, Poem No. 657 (c. 1865)
  • Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility! Søren Kierkegaard, “Diapsalmata,” in Either/Or (1843)

Kierkegaard preceded the thought by writing: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”

  • I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist. Max Lerner, describing himself in Who’s Who in America (1992)
  • If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities. Abraham H. Maslow, “Neurosis as a Failure of Personal Growth,” in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971)
  • Even a thought, even a possibility, can shatter us and transform us. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Eternal Recurrence,” in The Antichrist (1888)
  • Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness. George Santayana, “Industrial Idealism,” in Little Essays: Drawn from the Writings of George Santayana (1920)



  • The educator must believe in the potential power of his pupil, and he must employ all his art in seeking to bring his pupil to experience this power. Alfred Adler, quoted in Phyllis Bottome, Alfred Adler: A Biography (1939)
  • True success is reaching our potential without compromising our values. Muhammad Ali, in The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey (2013, with Hana Yasmeen Ali)
  • The seeds of godlike power are in us still:/Gods we are, bards, saints, heroes, if we will! Matthew Arnold, “Written in Emerson’s Essays” (1849), in Poems by Matthew Arnold, Vol. I (1877)
  • Potential has a shelf-life. Margaret Atwood, the voice of the protagonist Elaine Risley, in Cat’s Eye: A Novel (1988)

QUOTE NOTE: Elaine, an artist, is having lunch with former husband Jon, a filmmaker. They are middle-aged and successful, but success for both has been won by selling out on some early dreams. Here’s the full passage containing the shelf-life metaphor, which comes during a lull in their conversation: “We are silent, considering shortfalls. There’s not much time left, for us to become what we once intended. Jon had potential, but it’s not a word that can be used comfortably any more. Potential has a shelf-life.”

  • Every man is a potential genius until he does something. Herbert Beerbohm Tree, quoted in Hesketh Pearson, Beerbohm Tree (1956)
  • There is power in thinking. And you can use that power to enhance your success potential if you spend some time every day thinking of yourself as a success. Joyce Brothers, in How to Get Whatever You Want Out of Life (1978)
  • All things are possible until they are proved impossible—and even the impossible may only be so, as of now. Pearl Buck, in A Bridge for Passing (1962)
  • Few men during their lifetime come anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them. There are deep wells of strength that are never used. Richard E. Byrd, in Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure (1938)
  • You are more than you think you are. There are dimensions of your being and a potential for realization and consciousness that are not included in your concept of yourself. Your life is much deeper and broader than you conceive it to be here. What you are living is but a fractional inkling of what is really within you, what gives you life, breadth, and depth. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth (1988; with Bill Moyers)
  • You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential. Joseph Campbell, in Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004)
  • Leadership is communicating people’s worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves. Stephen R. Covey, in The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (2004)
  • It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God. Mary Daly, in Beyond God the Father (1973)
  • The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. Charles Du Bos, in Approximations (1922)
  • Whatever the cost in personal relationships, we discover that our highest responsibility, finally, unavoidably is the stewardship of our potential—being all that we can be. Marilyn Ferguson, in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980)
  • Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality. Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics (1947)

Fromm went on to add: “One can judge objectively to what extent a person has succeeded in his task, to what degree he has realized his potentialities. If he has failed in his task, one can recognize this failure and judge it for what it is—a moral failure.”

  • As free human beings we can use our unique intelligence to try to understand ourselves and our world. But if we are prevented from using our creative potential, we are deprived of one of the basic characteristics of a human being. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in The Political Philosophy of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama: Selected Speeches and Writings (1988; A. A. Shiromany, ed.)
  • Perhaps the most devastating and damaging thing that can happen to someone is to fail to fulfill his potential. A kind of gnawing emptiness, longing, frustration, and displaced anger overwhelms people when this occurs. Edward T. Hall, in Beyond Culture (1976)

Hall continued: “Whether the anger is turned inward on the self, or outward towards others, dreadful destruction results.”

  • Where much is expected from an individual, he may rise to the level of events and make the dream come true. Elbert Hubbard, in The Note Book of Elbert Hubbard (1927)
  • I have no doubt whatever that most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger. William James, in letter to Wincenty Lutoslawski (May 6, 1906)

James added: “Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.”

  • If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Søren Kierkegaard, “Diapsalmata,” in Either/Or (1843)

Kierkegaard continued: “Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

  • Every fellow is really two men—what he is and what he might be; and you’re never absolutely sure which you’re going to bury till he’s dead. George Horace Lorimer, the title character writing in a letter to his son, in Old Gorgon Graham: More Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son (1903)
  • If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities. Abraham H. Maslow, “Neurosis as a Failure of Personal Growth,” in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971)
  • A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life. A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential. John C. Maxwell, in Encouragement Changes Everything (2008)
  • If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick, just as your legs would wither if you never walked. But the power of your legs is not all you would lose. The flowing of your blood, your heart action, your whole organism would be the weaker. Rollo May, in Man’s Search for Himself (1953)

May continued: “And in the same way if a man does not fulfill his potentialities as a person, he becomes to that extent constricted and ill. This is the essence of neurosis—the person’s unused potentialities…turn inward and cause morbidity.”

  • It’s awesome to realize that if your greatest potential talent is for riding a bicycle upside down on a high wire, you will somehow discover it. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)
  • We are all such a waste of our potential, like three-way lamps using one-way bulbs. Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook (1981)
  • The struggle is to synchronize the potential being with the actual being, to make a fruitful liaison between the man of yesterday and the man of tomorrow. Henry Miller, in The Cosmological Eye (1939)

Miller continued: “It is the process of growth which is painful, but unavoidable. We either grow or we die, and to die while alive is a thousand times worse than to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil.’”

  • It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential. Barack Obama, in Knox College Commencement Address (June 4, 2005)

President Obama introduced the thought by saying: “Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself.”

  • There are so many things we are capable of, that we could be or do. The potentialities are so great that we never, any of us, are more than one-fourth fulfilled. Katherine Anne Porter, in Paris Review interview (Winter–Spring, 1963)
  • The word “educate” is closely related to the word “educe.” In the oldest pedagogic sense of the term, this meant a drawing out of a person something potential or latent. Neil Postman, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
  • True happiness for human beings is possible only to those who develop their godlike potentialities to the utmost. Bertrand Russell, in Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1962)
  • Man is as full of potentiality as he is of impotence. George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905–06)
  • Man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have. Jean-Paul Sartre, in Situations (1947-49)
  • There’s no heavier burden than a great potential! Charles M. Schulz, the character Linus Van Pelt speaking, in Peanuts cartoon strip (March 22, 1963). To see the original cartoon, go to 1963 Peanuts Cartoon
  • Life is like a ten-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears that we never use. Charles M. Schulz, from the character Linus, in Peanuts cartoon strip (May 29, 1981)

QUOTE NOTE: The strip was later reprinted in Life is Like a Ten-Speed Bicycle, a 1998 book devoted exclusively to Linus’s philosophical reflections. To see the original cartoon, go to: 1981 Peanuts Cartoon.

  • We know what we are, but know not what we may be. William Shakespeare, the character Ophelia speaking, in Hamlet (1601)
  • To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Henry David Thoreau,” in Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882)
  • To uncover your true potential you must first find your own limits and then you have to have the courage to blow past them. Picabo Street, quoted in John Yacenda, High-Performance Skiing (1998)
  • We are not what we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such, but for what we are capable of being. Henry David Thoreau, in letter to Mrs. Lucy Brown (March 2, 1842)
  • The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good. Brian Tracy, in Focal Point (2001)
  • Self-doubt does more to sabotage individual potential than all external limitations put together. Brian Tracy, in a FaceBook post (Nov. 18, 2012)
  • A sobering thought, Eileen: What if, right at this very moment, I am living up to my full potential? Jane Wagner, in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1985; line delivered by Lily Tomlin in the Broadway play)
  • Men are often capable of greater things than they perform. They are sent into the world with bills of credit, and seldom draw to their full extent. Horace Walpole, “Detached Thoughts,” in The Works of Horatio Walpole, Vol. IV (1798)



  • Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. Aristotle, in Politics (4th c. B.C.)
  • A poverty that is universal may be cheerfully borne; it is an individual poverty that is painful and humiliating. Amelia E. Barr, in All the Days of My Life (1913)
  • Those who have some means think that the most important thing in the world is love. The poor know that it is money. Gerald Brenan, in Thoughts in a Dry Season (1978)
  • When I give food to the poor, they call me a Saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist. Hélder Câmara, quoted in The Guardian (London; Jan. 21, 1985)

QUOTE NOTE: A very similar saying is widely attributed to the American social justice advocate Dorothy Day. It’s possible that Day said something similar, but no specific source information has ever been provided. Father Câmara, a Brazilian priest who rose to the position of archbishop in his country, is the original author of the sentiment. His remark has also been translated this way: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist.”

  • We think of poverty as a condition simply meaning a lack of funds, no money, but when one sees fifth, sixth, and seventh generation poor, it is clear that poverty is as complicated as high finance. Alice Childress, in A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1973)
  • If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. Charles Darwin, “Mauritius to England,” in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)
  • We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it. Dorothy Day, in By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day (1983; Robert Ellsberg, ed.)

Day began by writing: “We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us.”

  • To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  • It is a spiritually impoverished nation that permits infants and children to be the poorest Americans. Marian Wright Edelman, in The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (1992)
  • There is no scandal like rags, nor any crime so shameful as poverty. George Farquhar, in The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707)
  • Democracy no longer works for the poor if politicians treat them as a separate race. Frank Field, quoted in the Independent (London; Oct. 29, 1994)
  • Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him. Benjamin Franklin, in The Way to Wealth (1758)
  • For every talent that poverty has stimulated, it has blighted a hundred. John W. Gardner, in Excellence: Can We be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961)
  • America has the best-dressed poverty the world has ever known. Michael Harrington, in The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962)
  • There is something about poverty that smells like death. Zora Neale Hurston, in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)

Hurston added: “Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves.”

  • It is not poverty so much as pretense that harasses a ruined man—the struggle between a proud mind and an empty purse—the keeping up of a hollow show that must soon come to an end. Washington Irving, “The Wife,” in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20)
  • Poverty has many roots, but the tap root is ignorance. Lyndon B. Johnson, in address to Congress (Jan. 12, 1965)
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. Samuel Johnson, a 1770 remark, in James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
  • To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is. Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of welfare [recipients]. Norman Mailer, “Searching for Deliverance,” in Esquire magazine (Aug., 1996)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all Internet sites mistakenly present the quotation as if it ended with the phrase “among the ranks of the disadvantaged.”

  • The poverty of goods is easily cured; the poverty of the soul is irreparable. Michel de Montaigne, in Essays (1580-88)
  • The greatest step forward in human evolution was made when society began to help the weak and the poor, instead of oppressing and despising them. Maria Montessori, in The Absorbent Mind (1949)
  • It is a kind of blindness—poverty. We can only grope through life when we are poor, hitting and maiming ourselves against every angle. Ouida (pen name of Maria Louise Ramé), the narrator Speronella speaking, in Pascarèl (1873)
  • Short of genius, a rich man cannot imagine poverty. Charles Péguy, “Socialism and the Modern World,” in Basic Verities (1943)
  • When I am asked, “What, in your view, is the worst human rights problem in the world today?” I reply: “Absolute poverty.” This is not the answer most journalists expect. It is neither sexy nor legalistic. But it is true. Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland), in OpenDemocracy interview (Dec. 9, 2003)
  • The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his second inaugural address (Jan. 20, 1937)
  • The man with toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound. The poverty stricken man makes the same mistake about the rich man. George Bernard Shaw, “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” in Man and Superman (1903)
  • There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty. Mother Teresa, in A Gift for God (1975)
  • How many times have we picked up in the streets human beings who had been living like animals and were longing to die like angels! Mother Teresa, written in 1976, in Heart of Joy (1987)



  • Money is power. I would expand the Biblical aphorism, therefore, in this fashion: the root of all evil is the love of power. Edward Abbey, in One Life at a Time, Please (1978)

QUOTE NOTE: The biblical aphorism, of course, is from 1 Timothy 6:10: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Abbey continued: “And power attracts the worst and corrupts the best among men.”

* Truth is always the enemy of power. And power the enemy of truth. Edward Abbey, in A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989)

  • Power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and like the grave, cries, “Give, Give.” Abigail Adams, in letter to John Adams (Nov. 27, 1775)

Mrs. Adams, an important political advisor to her husband, preceded the thought by writing: “I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature.”

  • The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies. Henry Brooks Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

Adam’s description of the effects continued in a memorable way: “A diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes; one can scarcely use expressions too strong to describe the violence of egotism it stimulates.”

  • A friend in power is a friend lost. Henry Brooks Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
  • The jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. John Adams, in A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765)
  • Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service, when it is violating all His laws. John Adams, in letter to Thomas Jefferson (Feb. 2, 1816)
  • The lust for power never dies—men cannot have enough. Aeschylus, in Agamemnon (5th c. B.C.)
  • Real power begins where secrecy begins. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
  • The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. Hannah Arendt, in On Violence (1970). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • Revolutionaries do not make revolutions! The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up. Hannah Arendt, “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution: A Commentary,” a 1970 interview with Adelbert Reif; reported in The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (2013)
  • For also knowledge itself is power. Francis Bacon, “Of Heresies,” in Religious Meditations (1597)

QUOTE NOTE: This passage is regarded as the origin of the popular expression knowledge is power. In Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques (1876), the French writer Ernest Renan wrote: “‘Knowledge is power’ is the finest idea ever put into words.”

  • The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall. Francis Bacon, “Of Goodness and Good Nature,” in Essays 1625)

Bacon continued: “The desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall; but in charity there is no excess: neither can angel or man come into danger by it.”

  • Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have. James Baldwin, in No Name in the Street (1972)
  • Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true. Honoré de Balzac, quoted in W. H. Auden & Louis Kronenberger, The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection (1962)

QUOTATION CAUTION: A original source for this quotation, which became popular after Auden and Kronenberger selected it for their anthology, has never been provided.

  • It’s said that “power corrupts,” but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. David Brin, Benjamin Franklin speaking, in a dream of protagonist Gordon Krantz, in The Postman (1985)

In the dream, Franklin continued: “When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable.”

  • Those who have been once intoxicated with power…can never willingly abandon it. Edmund Burke, in “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way the quotation is typically presented. The full passage was: “Those who have been once intoxicated with power, and who have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though for but one year, can never willingly abandon it.”

  • Power intoxicates men. It is never voluntarily surrendered. It must be taken from them. James F. Byrnes, quoted in The New York Times (May 15, 1956)
  • Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. Peter Carr, an American Teamster’s Union official, quoted in Newsweek (Sep. 27, 1976)

ERROR ALERT: Many internet sites mistakenly attribute this observation to Margaret Thatcher (see her entry above).

  • Convincing politicians to give up power is like trying to teach a dog to play a piano. Theoretically, it is possible, but I have never seen it done. Rob Christensen, “N.C. Elections Haven’t Been ‘Regular’ for a Long Time,” in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C., July 9, 2017)
  • To know the pains of power, we must go to those who have it; to know its pleasure, we must go to those who are seeking it. Charles Caleb Colton, in Lacon (1820)
  • Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. John Dalberg (Lord Acton), in letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton (April 3, 1887); reprinted in Acton’s Life of Mandell Creighton, Vol I (1904)

QUOTE NOTE: Lord Acton continued: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Lord Action’s dictum, as it is called, may be history’s most famous observation on the subject of power, but it’s not the first one on the power corrupts theme (see the William Pitt entry below). The full text of Acton’s letter may be seen at Lord Acton 1887 Letter.

Regarding Acton’s legendary saying, my friend John Hudson recently told me an engaging story about the long-serving Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau. In an appearance on the CBC-Radio program “As It Happens,” interviewer Barbara Frum (mother of political analyst David Frum), asked Drapeau for his opinion about Lord Acton’s famous dictum. He replied: “It’s true Barbara, but it’s not absolutely true!”

  • The real cause, the effective one, that makes men lose power is that they have become unworthy to exercise it. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 (pub. posthumously in 1893)
  • Power dements even more than it corrupts. Will & Ariel Durant, in The Age of Napoleon, Volume 11 of The Story of Civilization (1975)
  • Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. Amelia Earhart, in letter to her sister Muriel (Jan. 31, 1937), in Letters From Amelia: 1901-1937 (1982; Jean L. Backus, ed.)
  • The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful, and then only for a short while. Albert Einstein, in Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday (1954); reported in The Einstein Encyclopedia (2015; Alice Calaprice, et. al, eds.)
  • There’s a power to do mischief—to undo what has been done with great expense and labor, to waste and destroy, to be cruel to the weak, to lie and quarrel, and to talk poisonous nonsense. George Eliot, the title character speaking, in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)

Holt went on to add: “Do you think it’s likely to do much toward governing a great country, and making wise laws, and giving shelter, food, and clothes to millions of men? Ignorant power comes in the end to the same thing as wicked power; it makes misery”

  • Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it. Ralph Ellison, a reflection of the unnamed narrator and protagonist, in Invisible Man (1952)
  • You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both. Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry (Oct., 1842)
  • Life is a search after power. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Power,” in The Conduct of Life (1860)

Emerson added: “And this is an element with which the world is so saturated—there is no chink or crevice in which it is not lodged—that no honest seeking goes unrewarded.”

  • Before we acquire great power we must acquire wisdom to use it well. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Demonology,” in Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1883)
  • Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth. Louise Erdrich, a reflection of the character Nannapush, in Tracks (1988)
  • As soon as people have power they go crooked and sometimes dotty as well, because the possession of power lifts them into a region where normal honesty never pays. E. M. Forster, “What I Believe,” in The Nation (July 16, 1938)
  • People who have never really wielded power always have illusions about how much those who have power can really do. Thomas Friedman, in From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989)
  • Love is man’s natural endowment, but he doesn’t know how to use it. He refuses to recognize the power of love because of his love of power. Dick Gregory, in The Shadow That Scares Me (1968). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • Power may justly be compar'd to a great River, while kept within its due bounds, is both beautiful and useful; but when it overflows its banks, it is then too impetuous to be stemmed, it bears down all before it, and brings destruction and desolation whenever it comes. Alexander Hamilton, in remarks to the jury in the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger.
  • Goethe was wrong; there is one thing more terrible than imagination without taste, and that is power without intelligence. Sydney J. Harris, in For the Time Being (1972)
  • The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves. William Hazlitt, “The Times Newspaper,” in The Examiner (Jan. 12, 1817); reprinted in Political Essays (1819)
  • The garb of religion is the best cloak for power. William Hazlitt, “On the Clerical Character,” Political Essays (1819)
  • Power is pleasure; and pleasure sweetens pain. William Hazlitt, “On Application for Study,” in The Plain Speaker (1826)
  • All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Frank Herbert, epigraph containing a passage from the Missionaria Protectiva, in Chapterhouse: Dune (1985; Book Six of the Dune chronicles)

The passage continued: “Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.”

  • This is the bitterest pain among men, to have much knowledge, but no power. Herodotus, in The Histories of Herodotus (5th c. B.C.)
  • It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak. Eric Hoffer, in The Passionate State of Mind (1955)
  • Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test. Robert G. Ingersoll, from an essay on Abraham Lincoln, in Allen Thorndike Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time (1885)

QUOTE NOTE: Ingersoll added: “It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never abused it, except upon the side of mercy.” Thanks to Dave Hill of the “Wish I Said That” website, I recently learned that Ingersoll had, in an 1877 lecture, suggested the following words as an inscription for Lincoln’s monument: “Here sleeps the only man in the history of the world, who, having been clothed with almost absolute power, never abused it, except on the side of mercy.”

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, Abraham Lincoln is mistakenly quoted as the author of the saying: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” The erroneous Lincoln quotation, which has been in wide circulation since the mid-1970s, was clearly based on Ingersoll’s observation.

  • Power makes you attractive; it even makes women love old men. Joseph Joubert, in Pensées (1842)
  • Power is the great aphrodisiac. Henry Kissinger, quoted in the New York Times (Jan 19, 1971)

QUOTE NOTE: This became something of a signature line for Kissinger, a dweeb who considered himself a ladies' man (he sometimes phrased the observation: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”). Kissinger, a great student of history, was almost certainly aware of a similar observation attributed to Napoleon by his personal valet, Louis Constant Wairy. In a remark about women, the French emperor said to his valet: “Power is what they like—it is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs.” The attribution occurred in Wairy’s memoirs, first published in Paris in 1830.

  • Great power constitutes its own argument, and it never has much trouble drumming up friends, applause, sympathetic exegesis, and a band. Lewis H. Lapham, in Imperial Masquerade (1990)
  • To be, the will to power must increase with each fulfillment, making the fulfillment only a step to a further one. The vaster the power gained the vaster the appetite for more. Ursula K. Le Guin, the voice of the narrator, in The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
  • Those who have more power are liable to sin more; no theorem in geometry is more certain than this. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, quoted by John Dalberg (Lord Acton), in his inaugural lecture on The Study of History (University of Cambridge; June 11, 1895); reprinted in Lectures in Modern History (1906)
  • The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. James Madison, in speech at the Virginia Convention (Dec. 2, 1829)

After mentioning abuses of power in Monarchies and Aristocracies, Madison went on to write: “In Republics, the great danger is that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.”

  • The real power, the real influence, is not what people do when you are with them; it is what they do when you are not. Marvin Marshall, in Discipline Without Stress (2007)
  • Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less. George R. R. Martin, the character Varys speaking, in A Clash of Kings (1998)
  • Power has to be insecure to be responsive. It’s got to have something to lose. Ralph Nader, in interview with Joe Klein, Rolling Stone magazine (Nov. 20, 1975)

Nader continued: “And the definition of perfect tyranny is an institution that really has nothing to lose. And that’s the problem with a government bureaucracy—it has nothing to lose.”

  • Power is a place as well as a verb; it is inside the information tent. Lynda Obst, in Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches (1996)

QUOTE NOTE: This came in a section of the book in which Obst—the producer of such films as The Fisher King and Sleepless in Seattle—was exploring the metaphor that “Information is currency.”

  • Power is sweet, and when you are a little clerk you love its sweetness quite as much as if you were an emperor, and maybe you love it a good deal more. Ouida (pen name of Maria Louise Ramé), the voice of the narrator, in A Village Commune (1881)
  • God must have loved the people in power, for he made them so much like their own image of him. Kenneth Patchen, in Some Little Sayings and Observations (1956)
  • Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. William Pitt (Lord Chatham), in House of Commons speech (Jan. 9, 1770)
  • Power-lust is a weed that grows only in the vacant lots of an abandoned mind. Ayn Rand, the character John Galt Speaking, in Atlas Shrugged (1957)
  • The power to define the situation is the ultimate power. Jerry Rubin, in Growing (Up) at 37 (1976)
  • Power is so apt to be insolent and Liberty to be saucy, that they are very seldom upon good terms. George Savile (Lord Halifax), in Political, Moral, and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections (1750)

A half-century earlier, in his Maxims of State (1700), Lord Halifax offered this additional thought about power and liberty: “Power and Liberty are like Heat and Moisture: where they are well mixed, everything prospers; where they are single, they are destructive.”

  • You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother’s milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes. George Bernard Shaw, the character Cusins speaking, in Major Barbara (1905)
  • Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power. George Bernard Shaw, quoted in Stephen Winsten, Days with Bernard Shaw (1949)
  • Power, like a desolating pestilence,/Pollutes whate’er it touches. Percy Bysshe Shelley, in “Queen Mab” (1813)
  • Power takes as ingratitude the writhing of its victims. Rabindrnath Tagore, in Stray Birds (1916)
  • You see what power is—holding someone else’s fear in your hand and showing it to them! Amy Tan, the character Auntie Du speaking, in The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)
  • Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. Margaret Thatcher, quoted in The Margaret Thatcher Book of Quotations (2012; Iain Dale and Grant Tucker, eds.)

ERROR ALERT: This observation is widely attributed to Thatcher, but there is no evidence she ever said anything like it. The original author of the saying is Peter Carr, an American Teamster's Union official (see his entry above).

  • Knowledge is the most democratic source of power. Alvin Toffler, “The Democratic Difference,” in Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (1990)
  • Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all the passions.” Barbara W. Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

Tuchman continued: “Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. Business offers a kind of power, but only to the very successful at the top, and without the dominion and titles and red carpets and motorcycle escorts of public office.”

  • Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others—only to lose it over themselves. Barbara W. Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
  • Folly is a child of power. We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less less aware that it breeds folly: that the power to command frequently causes failure to think. Barbara W. Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
  • The appetite for power is old and irrepressible in humankind, and in its action almost always destructive. Barbara W. Tuchman, in The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988)
  • We have, I fear, confused power with greatness. Stewart Udall, in 1965 commencement speech at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire)
  • Nobody’s as powerful as we make them out to be. Alice Walker, the title character speaking, in The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)
  • For power, you know, is a fickle thing and always has its wings spread for flight. Lew Wallace, the character Simonides, speaking to his daughter Esther, in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880)
  • Power is no more to be committed to men without discipline and restriction than alcohol. H. G. Wells, the voice of the narrator, in The Time Machine (1905)
  • Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself. Elie Wiesel, in All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (1995)



  • There is no such whetstone, to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning, as is praise. Roger Ascham, in The Scholemaster (1570)
  • I believe that you should praise people whenever you can; it causes them to respond as a thirsty plant responds to water. Mary Kay Ash, quoted in William A. Cohen, The Art of the Leader (1990); reprinted in The Mary Kay Way (2008)
  • Boldly sound your own praises, and some of them will stick. Francis Bacon, in De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way the observation is commonly presented, but it was initially offered as the concluding line of a longer passage: “For as it is said of calumny, ‘calumniate boldly, for some of it will stick’ so it may be said of ostentation (except it be in a ridiculous degree of deformity), ‘boldly sound your own praises, and some of them will stick.’” De Augmentis Scientiarum, originally written in Latin, was an expanded version of Bacon’s 1605 classic The Advancement of Learning.

  • Praise is the only thing that brings to life again a man that’s been destroyed. Enid Bagnold, the butler Maitland speaking, in The Chalk Garden (1955)
  • The meanest, most contemptible kind of praise is that which first speaks well of a man, and then qualifies it with a “but.” Henry Ward Beecher, quoted in Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (1891)

QUOTATION CAUTION: This observation, now quite popular, has not been found in any of Beecher’s published works. Its inclusion in Edwards’ 1908 anthology looks like the earliest appearance of the quotation.

  • Accepting praise that is not our due is not much better than to be a receiver of stolen goods. Josh Billings (pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw), “Stray Children,” in Everybody’s Friend, or: Josh Billing’s [sic] Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor (1873)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation was originally presented in the phonetic style favored by Billings and other humorists of the era: “Accepting praize that iz not our due iz not mutch better than tew be a receiver of stolen goods.”

  • Judicious praise is to children what the sun is to flowers. Christian Nestell Bovee, in Intuitions and Summaries of Thought (1862)

Bovee preceded the thought by writing: “A lad who is often told that he is a good boy will in time grow ashamed to exhibit the qualities of a bad one. Words of praise, indeed, are almost as necessary to warm a child into a genial life as acts of kindness and affection.”

  • Make a great deal more of your right to praise the good than of your right to blame the bad. Never let a brave and serious struggle after truth and goodness, however weak it may be, pass unrecognized. Phillips Brooks, “Destruction and Fulfilment,” in Twenty Sermons (4th Series; 1887)

QUOTE NOTE: Brooks felt his admonition was especially relevant to those leadership and management positions. He preceded the thought by writing: “I beg you to think of this, you who are set in positions of superintendence and authority.”

  • Praise is a debt we owe unto the Virtue of others. Sir Thomas Browne, in Christian Morals (1716)
  • Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame. Pearl S. Buck, “First Meeting,” in To My Daughters, With Love (1967)
  • The advantage of doing one’s praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places. Samuel Butler, in The Way of All Flesh (1903)
  • I praise loudly; I blame softly. Catherine the Great (Catherine II), quoted in A. Lentin, Voltaire and Catherine the Great: Selected Correspondence (1974)
  • If I do not praise myself, it is because, as is commonly said, self-praise depreciates. Miguel de Cervantes, the title character speaking, in Don Quixote (1605)
  • If each of us were to confess his most secret desire, the one that inspires all his deeds and designs, he would say, “I want to be praised.” E. M. Cioran, “Fame: Hopes and Horrors” (a 1964 essay); quoted in Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self (1984)

Cioran continued: “Yet none will bring himself to confess, for it is less dishonorable to commit a crime than to announce such a pitiful and humiliating weakness arising from a sense of loneliness and insecurity, a feeling that afflicts both the fortunate, with equal intensity.”

  • It is a great sign of mediocrity to praise always moderately. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)

In yet another observation from his personal writings, the Marquis wrote: “Men sometimes feel injured by praise because it assigns a limit to their merit.”

  • It isn’t difficult, you know, to be witty or amusing when one has something to say that is destructive, but damned hard to be clever and quotable when you are singing someone’s praises. Noël Coward, in William Marchant, The Privilege of His Company: Noël Coward Remembered (1981)
  • Nothing so soon the drooping spirits can raise,/As praises from the men, whom all men praise. Abraham Cowley, “Ode” in Verses Written Upon Several Occasions (1663)
  • Too much praise makes you feel you must be doing something terribly wrong. Dorothy Day, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, in By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day (1983). Also an example of Oxymoronica.
  • The house praises the carpenter. Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry (Sep. 28, 1836)
  • If you would reap praise you must sow the seeds,/Gentle words and useful deeds. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (May, 1753)
  • The praise you take, altho’ it be your due,/Will be suspected if it come from you. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (Sep., 1757)
  • Praises from an enemy imply real merit. Thomas Fuller, M.D., in Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs (1732)
  • To overpraise is a subtle form of disrespect—and everybody knows it. Mary Gaitskill, quoted in Dwight Garner, “The Cosmic, Outrageous, Ecstatic Truths of Werner Herzog,” in The New York Times (October 9, 2023)
  • Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. Haim Ginott, in Between Parent and Child (1965)

Ginott continued: “There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines—rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine as well. The single most important rule is that praise deal only with children’s efforts and accomplishments, not with their character and personality.”

  • Who praised the Bad work falsely, is the one/To blame for Future Work as badly done. Arthur Guiterman, in A Poet’s Proverbs (1924)
  • Praise requires constant renewal and expansion. Doris Grumbach, in Coming Into the End Zone (1991)
  • Find the good and praise it. Alex Haley, a signature saying

QUOTE NOTE: Haley offered this thought in a number of slightly different variations over the years, and he did it with such frequency that it became his signature saying (the earliest published version has never been found, however). The words are inscribed on Haley’s gravestone in Henning, Tennessee, and the saying became the official slogan of a U.S. Coast Guard ship in honor of Haley, who served in the USCG from 1939 to 1959. Haley’s biographer Robert J. Norrell believes the first version of the saying was “Find something good and praise it,” and that it first emerged when Haley worked for Reader’s Digest in the early 1960s.

  • What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise—although the philosophers generally call it “recognition.” William James, in letter to Henri Bergson (June 13, 1907)
  • Praise, like gold and diamonds, owes its value only to its scarcity. Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler (July 6, 1751)
  • The applause of a single human being is of a great consequence. Samuel Johnson, a 1780 remark, quoted by James Boswell, in Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
  • Praise is like sunlight to the warm human spirit; we cannot flower and grow without it. Jess Lair, in I Ain’t Much, Baby—But I’m All I Got (1976)

Lair continued: “And yet, while most of us are only too ready to apply to others the cold wind of criticism, we are somehow reluctant to give our fellows the warm sunshine of praise.”

  • A child is fed with milk and praise. Mary Ann Lamb, “The First Tooth,” in Poetry for Children (1809)
  • Refusal of praise reveals a desire to be praised twice over. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • We never praise except for profit. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • We seldom praise except to get praise back. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • Flattery is praise without foundation. Eliza Leslie, in Miss Leslie’s Behavior Book: A Guide and Manual for Ladies (1859)
  • Consider carefully before you say a hard word to a man, but never let a chance to say a good one go by. Praise judiciously bestowed is money invested. George Horace Lorimer, the character John Graham writing in a letter to his son, in Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son (1903)
  • People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise. W. Somerset Maugham, the character Mr. Clutton speaking, in Of Human Bondage (1915)

QUOTE NOTE: In the novel, Clutton is responding to protagonist Philip Carey’s request to have him evaluate one of his paintings. Clutton goes on: “Besides, what’s the good of criticism? What does it matter if your picture is good or bad?” When Carey replies, “It matters to me,” Clutton continues:

“No. The only reason that one paints is that one can’t help it. It’s a function like any of the other functions of the body, only comparatively few people have got it. One paints for oneself: otherwise one would commit suicide.”

  • Praise is warming and desirable and it is what the human race lives on like bread. But praise is an earned thing. It has to be deserved like an honorary degree or a hug from a child. Phyllis McGinley, in a 1962 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (specific issue undetermined)

McGinley went on to write: “As a writer it delights me to find fan notes in the morning mail even when they are addressed, as they have been on occasion, variously to Mister McGinley, Miss McGill, or Phyllis McGinkley. My ego is repaired, my disposition softened, and I grow more agreeable to my near and dear.”

  • There’s no weapon that slays/Its victim so surely (if well aim’d) as praise. Owen Meredith (pen name of Robert Bulwer-Lytton), in Lucile (1860)

ERROR ALERT: This quotation is often misattributed to the prolific English novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the father of Robert Bulwer-Lytton.

  • Recently, while criticizing my husband for something flawed in his person, like how he laces his boots or something, I was struck by a realization. Either I am perfect or my husband enjoys the relative peace that reigns when we both pretend I am. Ammi Midstokke, a reflection after being praised by her husband, “How to Build a Pedestal,” in Spokane, Washington’s The Spokesman-Review (Feb. 22, 2024)

QUOTE NOTE: In the article, Midstokke was talking about the importance of compliments, praise, acknowledgments, and other affirmations of our personal worth. Later in the column, she wrote:

“Which brings me to the importance of the pedestal. I am told they are topple-tippy things, a precarious risk to be stood upon. Once placed up there, the only place we can go is down. I disagree. We should be put on pedestals all the time, preferably for the most mundane things. I know this because my husband has healed a thousands wounds of my inner child by doing just that. He literally told me he was proud of me for taking a nap the other day. This is brilliant because I’m really good at taking naps. What I’m learning is that it is often these nearly microscopic acknowledgements, the tiny affirmations of our choices, the nods of empathy when we wrestle with our mistakes, that give us our sense of place, belonging, worth.”

  • People can be induced to swallow anything, provided it is sufficiently seasoned with praise. Molière, the character Valère speaking, in The Miser (1668)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a modern translation, from John Wood in 1959. Traditional translations presented the passage this way: “However gross the flattery, the most cunning are easily duped; there is nothing so impertinent or ridiculous which they will not believe, provided it be seasoned with praise.”

  • So long as you are praised think only that you are not yet on your own path but on that of another. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Assorted Opinions and Maxims (1879)
  • It is easier and handier for men to flatter than to praise. Jean Paul (pen name of Johann Paul Richter), in Titan: A Romance (1803)

QUOTE NOTE: This passage has also been translated: “It is easy to flatter; it is harder to praise.”

  • The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved with criticism. Norman Vincent Peale, quoted in The Indianapolis Star (Sep. 25, 1958)
  • We are too apt to love praise, but not to deserve it. William Penn, in More Fruits of Solitude (1702).
  • Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it, and by snatches, is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to your nose, it is a stink, and strikes you down. Alexander Pope, in Thoughts on Various Subjects (1727)

QUOTE NOTE: Ambergris is no longer a familiar word, but it was widely known in the eighteenth century when it was highly prized by perfumers as a fixative in the preparation of perfumes. This is the sense of the word in Pope’s observation. For more on the nature of ambergris—a super-expensive product which originates in the dung of sperm whales—see this wonderful excerpt from Christopher Kemp’s 2012 book on the subject: Floating Gold.

  • A little praise is not only the merest justice but is beyond the purse of no one. Emily Post, in Etiquette (1922)
  • You can tell the character of every man when you see how he gives and receives praise. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), in Letters to Lucilius (c. 65 A.D.)
  • There’s not one wise man among twenty will praise himself. William Shakespeare, the character Beatrice speaking, in Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
  • They are the most frivolous and superficial of mankind only who can be much delighted with that praise which they themselves know to be altogether unmerited. Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
  • Praise is the best diet for us, after all. Sydney Smith, quoted in Lady Holland (Saba Smith), A Memoir of The Reverend Sydney Smith: by His Daughter (1855)
  • Modesty is the only sure bait when you angle for praise. Philip Dormer Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield), in letter to his son (May 17, 1750)
  • I can eat it with a spoon or with a soup ladle or anything and I like it. Gertrude Stein, on praise for her work, quoted in Elizabeth Sprigg, Gertrude Stein (1957)
  • Praise is sunshine; it warms, it inspires, it promotes growth. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the voice of the narrator, in We and Our Neighbors, or The Records of an Unfashionable Street (1875)

Stowe added: “Blame and rebuke are rain and hail; they beat down and bedraggle, even though they may at times be necessary.”

  • Praise shames me, for I secretly beg for it. Rabindranath Tagore, in Stray Birds (1916)
  • We begin to praise when we begin to see a thing needs our assistance. Henry David Thoreau, a journal entry (June 20, 1840)
  • Even in the best, most friendly, and simple relations of life, praise and commendation are essential, just as grease is necessary to wheels that they may run smoothly. Leo Tolstoy, the voice of the narrator, in War and Peace (1860)
  • One cares so little for the style in which one’s praises are written. Edith Wharton, the character Isabel speaking, in “The Twilight of the God”; orig. pub. in The Greater Inclination (1899), reprinted in Collected Stories 1891-1910 (2001)
  • The love of praise, howe’er conceal’d by art,/Reigns more or less, and glows in ev’ry heart. Edward Young, in Love of Fame (1725–28)



  • If wit is the most sophisticated form of humor, pranks are the most juvenile. Maureen Dowd, “Mitt, Is This Wit?” in The New York Times (Jan. 25, 2012)



  • It is in vain to expect our prayers to be heard, if we do not strive as well as pray. Aesop, “Hercules and the Wagoner,” in Fables (6th c. B.C.)
  • If you pray for rain long enough, it eventually does fall. If you pray for floodwaters to abate, they eventually do. The same happens in the absence of prayers. Steve Allen, in Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Mortality (1990)
  • Prayer begins where human capacity ends. Marian Anderson, in My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography (1956)
  • My wish for you/Is that you continue/To let gratitude be the pillow/upon which you kneel to/say your nightly prayer/And let faith be the bridge/You build to overcome evil/And welcome good. Maya Angelou, in Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer (2006)

QUOTE NOTE: Angelou wrote this to Oprah Winfrey on her 50th birthday.

  • When I am alone in the forest I always say my prayers; and that occasional solitary communion with God is surely the only true religion for intelligent beings. Gertrude Atherton in a letter written by Lady Helen Pole, in The Aristocrats (1901)
  • To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. W. H. Auden, “Prayer, Nature of,” in The Dyer’s Hand (1970)

Auden continued: “Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the true God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying.”

  • Courage is Fear/That has said its prayers. Karle Wilson Baker, in The Burning Bush (1922)
  • When life knocks you to your knees, which it always does and always will—well, that’s the best position in which to pray, isn’t it? Ethel Barrymore, in Adela Rogers St. Johns, “Ethel Barrymore—Queen Once More,” Reader’s Digest (Nov., 1943)
  • The man who says his evening prayer is a captain posting his sentinels. He can sleep. Charles Baudelaire, in My Heart Laid Bare (1865)
  • It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk. Henry Ward Beecher, in Proverbs From Plymouth Pulpit (1887)
  • Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. Saul Bellow, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1996)

Bellow continued: “I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

  • The wish to pray is a prayer in itself. Georges Bernanos, in The Diary of a Country Priest (1936)
  • The man who says his evening prayer is a captain posting his sentinels. He can sleep. Charles Baudelaire, an 1887 entry in his Intimate Journals
  • Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a January 1928 diary entry
  • A prayer in its simplest definition is merely a wish turned Godward. Phillips Brooks, “Christ’s Wish for Man,” in Sermons (1885)

ERROR ALERT: This observation is often mistakenly presented as: “A prayer, in its simplest definition, is merely a wish turned heavenward.” This slightly altered version appeared in a popular 1886 quotation anthology (Edge-Tools of Speech by Maturin M. Ballou), and the error has been perpetuated to the present day.

  • Every wish/Is like a prayer—with God. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Aurora Leigh (1857)
  • God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,/And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face,/A gauntlet with a gift in’t. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Aurora Leigh (1857)
  • All my life I have prayed, and all my life I have been refused answer. I scarcely believed in the gods anymore, or if I did, it was only to curse them for their indifference. Lois McMaster Bujold, the character Ijada speaking, in The Hallowed Hunt (2005),

Ijada continued: “They betrayed my father, who had served Them loyally all his life. They betrayed my mother, or They were powerless to save her, which was as bad or worse. If a god has come to me, He certainly hasn’t come for me!”

  • When thou prayest, rather let thy heart be without words, than thy words without a heart. John Bunyan, “Mr. John Bunyan’s Dying Sayings” (originally collected and published in 1737); reprinted in The Whole Works of John Bunyan, Vol. 1 (1862; George Offer, ed.)

ERROR ALERT: This is the way the saying was originally phrased, but almost all internet sites and many published quotation anthologies now present a modernized version of the thought: “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

  • Prayer will make a man cease from sin, or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer. John Bunyan, “Mr. John Bunyan’s Dying Sayings” (originally collected and published in 1737); reprinted in The Whole Works of John Bunyan, Vol. 1 (1862; George Offer, ed.)
  • Prayers are to men as dolls are to children. They are not without use and comfort, but it is not easy to take them very seriously. Samuel Butler, in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • Suppose your prayers aren’t answered. What do you say? “Well, it’s God’s will.” “Thy will be done.” Fine, but if it’s God's will, and He’s going to do what He wants to anyway, why the fuck bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go right to His will? It's all very confusing. George Carlin, in his “You Are All Diseased” stand-up routine (1999).

In that same routine, Carlin said: “I noticed that all the prayers I used to offer to God, and all the prayers I now offer to Joe Pesci, are being answered at about the same 50% rate. Half the time I get what I want, half the time I don't. Same as God, 50-50. Same as the four-leaf clover and the horseshoe, the wishing well and the rabbit's foot, same as the Mojo Man, same as the Voodoo Lady who tells you your fortune by squeezing the goat's testicles, it's all the same: 50-50. So just pick your superstition, sit back, make a wish, and enjoy yourself.”

  • Prayer is a force as real as terrestrial gravity. As a physician, I have seen men, after all other therapy had failed, lifted out of disease and melancholy by the serene effort of prayer. Alexis Carrel, in a 1941 issue of Reader’s Digest (specific date undetermined)
  • I have had prayers answered—most strangely so sometimes—but I think our heavenly Father's loving-kindness has been even more evident in what He has refused me. Lewis Carroll, in a November 1885 letter “To an Invalid”
  • Prayer can be an easy substitute for real spirituality. It would be impossible to have spirituality without prayer, of course, but it is certainly possible to pray without having a spirituality at all. How do you know? “Am I becoming kinder?' is a good place to start.” Joan Chittister, in In a High Spiritual Season (1995)

Note the lovely chiastic reversal in the middle of the observation. In her book, Chittister also wrote on the subject:

“A spirituality without a prayer life is no spirituality at all, and it will not last beyond the first defeat. Prayer is an opening of the self so that the Word of God can break in and make us new. Prayer unmasks. Prayer converts. Prayer impels. Prayer sustains us on the way.”

  • He prayeth best, who loveth best/All things, both great and small. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in Lyrical Ballads (1798)

QUOTE NOTE: The poem also contains this related couplet: “He prayeth well who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast.”

  • With prayer, one can go on cheerfully and even happily. Without prayer, how grim a journey! Dorothy Day, in Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement (1963)
  • Of Course—I prayed—/And did God Care? Emily Dickinson, a circa 1862 poem fragment, quoted in Thomas H. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960)
  • Every third-grader knows that prayer is the lifting up of one’s mind and heart to God. But there are many ways of lifting. Catherine Doherty, in The Gospel Without Compromise (1976)

Doherty continued: “It begins with vocal prayer, the one all of us are so familiar with. It goes on to mental prayer and meditation, a prayer that all too many people are unfamiliar with. This ‘lifting’ also includes the prayer of silence, the prayer of the heart, contemplative prayer, unknown to still more people.”

  • If the only prayer you say in your entire life is “Thank You,” that would suffice. Meister Eckhart, quoted in Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart (1983)
  • Consistent prayer is the desire to do right.” Mary Baker Eddy, in Science and Health (1875)

Her book also contained these other observations on the subject:

“The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God.”

“True prayer is not asking God for love; it is learning to love, and to include all mankind in one affection.”

  • The sexual embrace, worthily understood, can only be compared with music and with prayer. Havelock Ellis, in On Life and Sex (1937)
  • Prayer that craves a particular commodity—any thing less than all good—is vicious. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance” sermon (September, 1830)
  • Beware, my Lord! Beware lest stern Heaven hate you enough to hear your prayers! Anatole France, in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881)
  • Prayer is not an asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one’s weakness. Mohandas K. Gandhi, in Young India (September 23, 1926)
  • In spite of despair staring me in the face on the political horizon, I have never lost my peace. In fact, I have found people who envy my peace. That peace, I tell you, comes from prayer. Mohandas K. Gandhi, in Young India (September 24, 1931)

In the piece, Gandhi continued: “I am not a man of learning, but I humbly claim to be a man of prayer. I am indifferent as to the form. Every one is a law unto himself in that respect. But there are some well-marked roads, and it is safe to walk along the beaten tracks, trod by the ancient teachers. Well, I have given my personal testimony. Let every one try and find that as a result of daily prayer, he adds some thing new to his life, something which nothing can be compared.”

  • Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them. Dag Hammarskjöld, “The Middle Years” (written in 1941), in Markings (1963)
  • Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (1954)
  • Life may be brimming over with experiences, but somewhere, deep inside, all of us carry a vast and fruitful loneliness wherever we go. And sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes. Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life (1983)
  • There are thoughts which are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees. Victor Hugo, the character Marius speaking, in Les Misérables (1862)
  • I have lived to thank God that all my prayers have not been answered. Jean Ingelow, the voice of the narrator, in Off the Skelligs (1872)
  • Every child should be taught that useful work is worship and that intelligent labor is the highest form of prayer. Robert G. Ingersoll, in “How to Reform Mankind,” an address at Chicago’s Columbia Theatre (April 12, 1896)
  • Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Anne Lamott, title of 2012 book
  • One single grateful thought raised to heaven is the most perfect prayer. G. E. Lessing, in Minna von Barnhelm (1767)

ERROR ALERT: On hundreds of internet sites, this beautiful sentiment is mistakenly attributed to the writer Doris Lessing, usually in the following phrasing: “A simple grateful thought turned heavenwards is the most perfect prayer.”

  • Often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address. C. S. Lewis, in letter to Arthur Greeves (Dec. 24, 1930)
  • Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day—like writing a poem, or saying a prayer. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in Gift From the Sea (1955)
  • As Kierkegaard was the first to suggest, we can never know where our prayers are likely to go, nor from whom the answers will come. When we think we are nearest to God, we could be assisting the Devil. Norman Mailer, in Why Are We At War? (2003)
  • No sincere prayer leaves us where it finds us. Stella Terrill Mann, in Change Your Life Through Prayer (1945)
  • Who rises from Prayer a better man, his prayer is answered. George Meredith, the character Sir Austin Feverel quoting from a book of maxims titled “The Pilgrim’s Scrip,” in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)
  • All honest thought is a form of prayer. Lance Morrow, “The Best Refuge for Insomniacs,” in Time magazine (April 29, 1991)

QUOTE NOTE: Morrow’s essay was about how reading and other forms of thoughtful contemplation can help people through tough times. He concluded the essay this way: “The contemplation of anything intelligent—it need not be writing—helps the mind through the black hours. Mozart, for example; music like bright ice water, or say, the memory of the serene Palladian lines of Jefferson’s Monticello. These things realign the mind and teach it not to be petty. All honest thought is a form of prayer.”

  • I find that my life constantly threatens to become complex and divisive. A life of prayer is basically a very simple life. This simplicity, however, is the result of asceticism and effort: it is not a spontaneous simplicity. Henri J. M. Nouwen, in The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery (1989)

ERROR ALERT: Many internet sites mistakenly attribute this quotation to Thomas Merton.

  • Prayer is a concentration of positive thoughts. Peace Pilgrim, in Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words (1991)
  • When you teach religion to little girls, never make it gloomy or tiresome, never make it a task or a duty, and therefore never give them anything to learn by heart, not even their prayers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the voice of the narrator, in Emile, or On Education (1762)
  • You can’t defeat a praying man. He finds his answers everywhere he looks. Margaret Lee Runbeck, in A Hungry Man Dreams (1952)
  • Prayer is a long rope with a strong hold. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the character Zephaniah speaking, in The Pearl of Orr's Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine (1862)
  • If a care is too small to be turned into a prayer, it is too small to be made into a burden. Corrie ten Boom, in Each New Day (1977)
  • Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire? Corrie ten Boom, in Don’t Wrestle, Just Nestle (1978)

In that same work, ten Boom also wrote on the subject: “To pray only when in peril is to use safety belts only in heavy traffic.”

  • Prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends. St. Teresa of Avila, in Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611)
  • Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God. St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in St. Teresa of Avila: Life of Prayer (1983; James M. Houston, ed.)
  • More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. St. Teresa of Avila, quoted by Truman Capote in “Go Ahead and Ask Me Anything. (And So She Did): An Interview with Truman Capote” by Gloria Steinem, McCall’s magazine (November 1967)

ERROR ALERT: Capote told Steinem that this quotation was the inspiration for a novel he was writing, tentatively titled Answered Prayers. The quotation has never been found in St. Teresa’s writings.

  • Prayer is not escape from reality and from action; it is the source of strength and insight for action. It is the only preparation for sound action. Rose Terlin, “Prayer and Christian Living,” in Dorothy B. Phillips, The Choice Is Always Ours (1948)
  • Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: “Great God, grant that twice two be not four.” Ivan Turgenev, “Prayer,” in Poems in Prose (1881)
  • You can’t pray a lie. Mark Twain, the title character speaking, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
  • When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers. Oscar Wilde, the character Sir Robert Chiltern speaking, in An Ideal Husband (1895)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way the quotation appears in almost all quotation anthologies, but Sir Robert's fuller words in the play went like this: “In all things connected with money I have had a luck so extraordinary that sometimes it has made me almost afraid. I remember having read somewhere in some strange book, that when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.”

  • To pray is to think about the meaning of life. Ludwig Wittgenstein, notebook entry (June 11, 1916), in Notebooks, 1914-16 (1916)
  • The best form of prayer is work. Israel Zangwill in The East Africa Offer (1905)

[School] PRAYER


  • Prayer in school is quite, perfectly legal, and is especially common before algebra exams. Mandatory prayer organized by, led by, and broadcast over the public address system by paid agents of the state is unconstitutional. Molly Ivins, in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Oct. 23, 2001)



  • Preaching is personal counseling on a group basis. Harry Emerson Fosdick, quoted in Edmund Holt Linn, Preaching as Counseling: The Unique Method of Harry Emerson Fosdick (1966)
  • None preaches better than the ant, and she says nothing. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (July, 1736)
  • A powerful preacher is open to the same sense of enjoyment—an awful, tremulous, goose-flesh sort of state, but still enjoyment—that a great tragedian feels when he curdles the blood of his audience. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in The Guardian Angel (1867; originally serialized in The Atlantic)

QUOTE NOTE: The observation comes in a description of Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker, a mesmerizing orator. The narrator preceded the thought by writing: “He delighted in the reflex stimulus of the excitement he produced in others by working on their feelings.”



  • All bad precedents began as justifiable measures. Julius Caesar, quoted in Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline (1st. c. B.C.)
  • The rule of adherence to precedent, though it ought not to be abandoned, ought to be in some degree relaxed. I think that when a rule, after it has been duly tested by experience, has been found to be inconsistent with the sense of justice or with the social welfare, there should be less hesitation in frank avowal and full abandonment. Benjamin Cardozo, in The Nature of the Judicial Process (1921)

Cardozo went on to write: “That court best serves the law which recognizes that the rules of law which grew up in a remote generation may, in the fullness of experience, be found to serve another generation badly, and which discards the old rule when it finds that another rule of law represents what should be.”

  • What has once been settled by a precedent will not be unsettled overnight. Benjamin Cardozo, in The Paradoxes of Legal Science (1928)
  • Precedents are not mere dusty phrases, which do not substantially affect the question before us. A precedent embalms a principle. Benjamin Disraeli, in House of Commons speech (Feb. 22, 1848)

Disraeli added: “The principle may be right or may be wrong—that is a question for discussion; but at the first glance it is right to conclude that it is a principle that has been acted upon and recognized by those who preceded it.”

QUOTE NOTE: Disraeli was a member of the opposition when he said this in a speech critical of recent monetary policy decisions made by the British government. The government, according to Disraeli, had been selectively defending their decisions, sometimes appealing to precedent and at other times arguing for their discarding.

ERROR ALERT: Some respected quotation anthologies attribute the saying “A precedent embalms a principle” to William Scott (the 1st Baron Stowell) and say he was being quoted by Disraeli in the 1848 speech. I’ve examined the text of the speech, and Disraeli makes no mention of Lord Stowell. He clearly appears to be offering the thoughts as his own.

  • If you’re strong enough, there are no precedents. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Notebook O,” in The Crack-Up (1945; Edmund Wilson, ed.)
  • This is the danger, when vice becomes a precedent. Ben Jonson, “Of the Diversity of Wits,” in Timber: Or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter (1640)
  • The glory of each generation is to make its own precedents. Belva Lockwood, in speech at National Convention of Women Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C. (Jan. 16, 1877)



  • For precocity some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life. Margaret Fuller, from review of The Life of Sir James Mackintosh, by his son Robert James Mackintoish, in Papers on Literature and Art (1846)

Fuller continued: “Nature intended the years of childhood to be spent in perceiving and playing, not in reflecting and acting; and when her processes are hurried or disturbed, she is sure to exact a penalty.”



  • We want the facts to fit the preconceptions. When they don’t, it is easier to ignore the facts than to change the preconceptions. Jessamyn West, in South of the Angels (1960)


(see also BOOKS and PLAYS and PROLOGUE)

  • A preface being the porch, or the entrance to a book, should be perfectly beautiful. The elegance of a porch announces the splendor of an edifice. Isaac D’Israeli, “Prefaces,” in Curiosities of Literature, fourth ed. (1817)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation did not appear in any of the earlier editions of the book. D’Israeli went on to write: “A good preface is as essential to pat the reader into a good humor, as a good prologue is to a play, to sooth the auditors into candor, and even into partiality. The Italians call the preface La salsa del libro, the sauce of the book.”

ERROR ALERT: D’israeli’s observation is often mistakenly presented as: “A preface, being the entrance of a book, should invite by its beauty. An elegant porch announces the splendor of the interior.”



  • If God were a woman, She would have installed one of those turkey thermometers in our belly buttons. When we were done, the thermometer pops up, the doctors reaches for the zipper conveniently located beneath our bikini lines and out comes a smiling, fully diapered baby. Candice Bergen, in a 1992 Woman’s Day magazine article; reprinted in Weekly World News (June 16, 1992)
  • Like a baby nursing at a mother’s breast, birth is an undeniable affirmation of our rootedness in nature. During pregnancy and delivery, all the evolutionary programming in a woman's body takes over. David Suzuki, in Time to Change (1994)



  • A prejudice, unlike a simple misconception, is actively resistant to all evidence that would unseat it. Gordon W. Allport, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954)
  • Prejudice is a great time-saver; it enables one to form opinions without bothering to get the facts. Author Unknown, the first appearance in The [Danville, Virginia] Bee (Nov. 25, 1941)

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, this sentiment is mistakenly attributed to E. B. White

  • Prejudice is the psoriasis of the human condition: it’s unsightly and it never completely vanishes, but with a little care we can keep it under control. Rick Bayan, in “The Cynic’s Inaugural Address,” a blog post (Jan., 2001)
  • Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow there, firm as weeds among stones. Charlotte Brontë, a reflection of the title character and protagonist, in Jane Eyre (1847)
  • Prejudice is the glass through which most things are seen and judged. Edward Counsel, in Maxims: Political, Philosophical, and Moral (2nd ed., 1892)
  • Do you know what we call opinion in the absence of evidence? We call it prejudice. Michael Crichton, in State of Fear (2004)
  • To lose your prejudices you must travel. Marlene Dietrich, in Marlene Dietrich’s ABC (1962)

See the related thought by Mark Twain below.

  • We are all apt to think that an opinion that differs from our own is a prejudice. Maria Edgeworth, the character Margaret Delacour speaking, in Belinda (1811)
  • Prejudices are rarely overcome by argument; not being founded in reason they cannot be destroyed by logic. Tryon Edwards, in A Dictionary of Thoughts (1891)
  • I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally. W. C. Fields, quoted in The Saturday Review (Jan, 28, 1967)
  • Prejudice is the child of ignorance. William Hazlitt, in Sketches and Essays (1839)
  • Prejudice is a raft onto which the shipwrecked mind clambers and paddles to safety. Ben Hecht, in A Guide to the Bedevilled (1944)
  • A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. William James, quoted in Clifton Fadiman, The American Treasury, 1455–1955 (1955)

ERROR ALERT: After appearing in Fadiman’s book, this quotation became quite popular, but it has never been found in any of James’s writings or speeches. Clare Booth Luce is, in fact, the original author of the sentiment. In an April, 1946 issue of Today’s Woman magazine, she wrote: “What generally passes for ‘thought’ among the majority of mankind is the time one takes out to rearrange one’s prejudices.”

  • Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends. Harper Lee, the character Dr. Finch speaking, in Go Set a Watchman (2015)
  • What generally passes for “thought” among the majority of mankind is the time one takes out to rearrange one’s prejudices. Clare Boothe Luce, in Today’s Woman magazine (April, 1946)

ERROR ALERT: For many years, a very similar quotation has been attributed to William James: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Clifton Fadiman attributed this saying to James in his 1955 book, The American Treasury, 1455–1955. Nothing like it has ever been found in James’s writings or speeches, though, and it now appears that Fadiman simply got this one wrong.

  • Willingness to explore everything is a sign of strength. The weak ones have prejudices. Prejudices are a protection. Anaïs Nin, a 1933 diary entry, in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1 (1966)
  • It is never too late to give up our prejudices. Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” in Walden (1854)
  • Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so. Barbara Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
  • Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Mark Twain, “Conclusion,” in The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Twain continued: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

  • The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. Mark Twain, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar,” in Following the Equator (1897)
  • Prejudices are what fools use for reason. Voltaire, in Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
  • Passion and prejudice govern the world; only under the name of reason. John Wesley, in letter to Joseph Benson (Oct. 5, 1770)
  • When any prevailing prejudice is attacked, the wise will consider, and leave the narrow-minded to rail with thoughtless vehemence at innovation. Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)




  • It is not dying, but living, that is a preparation for Death. Margot Asquith, in More or Less About Myself (1934)
  • Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation! Jane Austen, the character Frank Churchill speaking, in Emma (1815)
  • He is lucky who realizes that “luck” is the point where preparation meets opportunity. Author Unknown, a “sagacious saying“ reprinted in “Fact and Comment,” The Youth's Companion (April 25, 1912)

QUOTE NOTE: According to The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012), this is the earliest appearance in print of a sentiment that evolved into the modern proverb “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” The saying has been attributed to many people—including Darryl Royal, Oprah Winfrey—but all who have advanced the idea were borrowing from the 1912 saying above.

  • The scouts' motto is founded upon my initials, it is: BE PREPARED. Robert S. Baden-Powell, in Scouting for Boys (1908)
  • Life requires thorough preparation. Veneer isn’t worth anything; we must disabuse our people of the idea that there is a short cut to achievement. George Washington Carver, quoted in Raleigh H. Merritt, From Captivity to Fame: Or The Life of George Washington Carver (1929)
  • I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. Winston Churchill, in The Second World War, Vol. 1 (1948)
  • Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Jane Dentinger, a reflection of the character Ruth, in First Hit of the Season (1984)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation is not original to Dentinger; she was only putting an established saying into the mouth of one of her fictional characters. In the book, narrator and protagonist Jocelyn O’Roarke puts it this way: “Well, my friend, Ruth, who's a great opponent of what she calls ‘magic thinking,’ says luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”

  • Achievement is talent plus preparation. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success (2008)
  • It’s impossible to conquer all fear and loss by preparation. There are always sources of desolation that aren’t taken into account because no one knows what they will be. Nadine Gordimer, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Rosa Burger, in Burger’s Daughter (1979)
  • The spectacular is always preceded by a long period of unspectacular preparation. Kenneth McFarland, quoted in “Youth Should Be Told Truths,” The Decatur [Illinois] Daily Review (Oct. 13, 1944)

QUOTE NOTE: While the phrase unspectacular preparation had been used before, this appears to be the earliest appearance of a quotable sentiment that went on to be borrowed by Robert Schuller, Harvey Mackay, and others. Dr. McFarland, the Topeka, Kansas superintendent of schools, offered the observation in a speech at an annual meeting of teachers in Macon County, Illinois, on Oct. 12, 1944.

  • Life is the only art that we are required to practice without preparation, and without being allowed the preliminary trials, the failures and botches, that are essential for the training of a mere beginner. Lewis Mumford, in The Conduct of Life (1951)

QUOTE NOTE: Mumford continued in a fascinating way. It’s a bit longer than most of the quotations featured here, but the metaphor is so beautiful I think you will appreciate it:

“In life, we must begin to give a public performance before we have acquired even a novice’s skill; and often our moments of seeming mastery are upset by new demands, for which we have acquired no preparatory facility. Life is a score that we play at sight, not merely before we have divined the intentions of the composer, but even before we have mastered our instruments; even worse, a large part of the score has been only roughly indicated, and we must improvise the music for our particular instrument, over long passages. On these terms, the whole operation seems one of endless difficulty and frustration; and indeed, were it not for the fact that some of the passages have been played so often by our predecessors that, when we come to them, we seem to recall some of the score and can anticipate the natural sequence of the notes, we might often give up in sheer despair.”

  • Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur, in speech at University of Lille, Lille, France (Dec. 7, 1854)
  • Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Darryl Royal, quoted in James A. Michener, Sports in America (1976)

QUOTE NOTE: Several decades ago, it was common to see Royal described as the author of this saying, but the original idea first appeared in print an 1912 (see the Author Unknown entry above). Royal was one of America’s most successful college football coaches, most famously with the University of Texas (1957–76). In a coaching career that spanned twenty-two years, he won three national championships and never had a losing season.

  • There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure. Colin Powell, quoted in Oren Harari, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell (2003)
  • The sweet reward for preparation often does not come in the youthful twenties or staid thirties. It arrives—with accrued interest—in the mature years. Mary Ellen Snodgrass, in Late Achievers (1992)
  • Prayer is not escape from reality and from action; it is the source of strength and insight for action. It is the only preparation for sound action. Rose Terlin, “Prayer and Christian Living,” in Dorothy B. Phillips, The Choice Is Always Ours (1948)
  • There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy. George Washington, in letter to Elbridge Geary (Jan. 29, 1780)
  • Remember, if you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail. H. K. Williams, in The Young People’s Service (n.d.), quoted The Biblical World (Jan., 1919). Also an example of chiasmus.

QUOTE NOTE: According to the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012), this is the earliest appearance of a sentiment that has evolved into a modern proverb. The saying has been attributed to many legendary figures, including Benjamin Franklin, but the original author appears to be Williams, a virtually unknown American Protestant minister. You’ll also see several other variations on the theme in this section. For a fuller discussion, seethis post from Garson O’Toole, better known as The Quote Investigator.

  • Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. John Wooden, in Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court (1997; with Steve Jamison)
  • Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. Many times it is just over the hill or around the corner. Sometimes it takes that extra push to climb that hill or round that curve. Zig Ziglar, in See You at the Top (1975)

QUOTE NOTE: The opportunity meets preparation phrase was already well established when Ziglar wrote these words. For more, go to Luck.



  • The only valid tense is the present, the Now. Hannah Arendt, in Love and Saint Augustine (1929)

A moment later in the book, Arendt further explained: “The Now is what measures time backwards and forwards, because the Now, strictly speaking, is not time but outside time. In the Now, past and future meet.”

  • The past is history./The future is a mystery./Today is a gift./That’s why it’s called the present. Author Unknown
  • Now thyself is more important than Know thyself. Mel Brooks, quoted in William Safire and Leonard Safir, Good Advice (1992)
  • All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is. Frederick Buechner, in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (1988)

Buechner preceded the thought by writing: “The point is to see it for what it is, because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you’re wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you’ve been waiting for always that you’re missing.”

  • Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present. Albert Camus, “Beyond Nihilism,” in The Rebel (1951)
  • Why do they not teach you that time is a finger snap and an eye blink, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit? Pat Conroy, in My Losing Season: A Memoir (2002)
  • The older one gets, the more one feels that the present moment must be enjoyed, comparable to a state of grace. Marie Curie, a 1928 remark, quoted in Eve Curie, Madame Curie (1928)
  • There is only one moment in which you can experience anything, and that is now, yet a great deal of time is thrown away by dwelling on past or future experiences. Wayne W. Dyer, in Your Erroneous Zones (1976)
  • With the Past, as past, I have nothing to do; nor with the Future as future. I live now. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an 1839 journal entry
  • We cannot overstate our debt to the Past, but the [present] moment has the supreme claim. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Quotation and Originality,” in Letters and Social Names (1876)
  • The present was enough, though my work in the cemetery told me every day what happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough: it becomes your entire history. Louise Erdrich, a reflection of the narrator and protagonist Evelina Harp, in The Plague of Doves (2008)

ERROR ALERT: On most internet sites, the observation is mistakenly presented as if it were written: “What happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough? It becomes your entire history.”

  • No mind is much employed upon the present: recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments. Samuel Johnson, in Rasselas (1759)
  • Love the moment/and the energy/of that moment/will spread/beyond all/boundaries. Corita Kent, in Moments (1982)
  • The past is dead, the future is imaginary; happiness can only be in the Eternal Now Moment. Ken Kesey, in Handbook to Higher Consciousness (1975)
  • We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. Martin Luther King Jr., in the speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” (April 4, 1967)

QUOTE NOTE: This historic speech, delivered at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was Dr. King’s first major speech in opposition to the Vietnam War.

  • If you can fill the unforgiving minuteWith sixty seconds’ worth of distance ran,/Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/And more, much more, my friend―you are a Man! Rudyard Kipling, the last stanza of the poem “If,” in Rewards and Fairies (1910)
  • I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges or scrub the floor. D. H. Lawrence, in a letter to Arthur McLeod (Jan. 17, 1913)
  • We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. D. H. Lawrence, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation (1980)

ERROR ALERT: This observation is often mistakenly presented as if it read that we might be alive.

QUOTE NOTE: This was Lawrence’s way of describing the importance of living fully in the present moment. He began by writing: “For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time.”

  • There is no such thing as the future. The future is an illusion. What we have is a now, followed by a now, followed by a series of nows. Mary J. Lore, opening words of Managing Thought: Think Differently. Think Powerful. Achieve New Levels of Success (2008)
  • Each day the world is born anew/For him who takes it rightly. James Russell Lowell, “Gold Egg: A Dream-Fantasy,” in Under the Willows and Other Poems (1868)
  • Hold every moment sacred. Give each clarity and meaning, each the weight of thine awareness, each its true and due fulfillment. Thomas Mann, in The Beloved Returns (1939)
  • The first thing necessary for a constructive dealing with time is to learn to live in the reality of the present moment. For psychologically speaking, this present moment is all we have. Rollo May, in Man’s Search for Himself (1953)
  • We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine. H. L. Mencken, in A Mencken Chrestomathy 1949)
  • You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope. Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)
  • The word “now” is like a bomb through the window, and it ticks. Arthur Miller, the character Quentin speaking, in After the Fall (1946)
  • The present may be as much determined by the future as by the past. Lewis Mumford, in The Conduct of Life (1951)
  • Let others worship the past: I much prefer the present. Am delighted to be alive today. Ovid, in The Art of Love (1st c. A.D.)
  • The past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays, nor just for tomorrow, but in the here and now. Carl Sandburg, quoted in J. B. Braude, Remarks of Famous People (1965)
  • There is one respect in which brutes show real wisdom when compared with us—I mean their quiet, placid enjoyment of the present moment. Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Suffering of the World,” in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851)
  • Happiness is a thing of now. Gladys Taber, in The Book of Stillmeadow (1948)
  • I’m in the Now a lot more now/And here’s what’s even greater/I never ever can run out/There’s always more Now later. Greg Tamblyn, refrain from the song “More Now Later,” on the album Analog Brain in a Digital World (2009)
  • We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. Henry David Thoreau, “Spring,” in Walden (1854)
  • You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Henry David Thoreau, a journal entry (April 23, 1859)
  • Ask yourself what “problem” you have right now, not next year, tomorrow, or five minutes from now. What is wrong with this moment? Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now (1997)
  • Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now (1997)
  • Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life. Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now (1997)

Tolle continued: “Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation.”

  • The present is the future of the past. Karl R. Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945)

ERROR ALERT: This saying is sometimes attributed to John Updike, who offered the same expression in his Introduction to the 1977 edition of The Poorhouse Fair (1958)

  • The present is a fulcrum on which the future and the past lie balanced. Jonathan Schell, in The Fate of the Earth (1982)
  • Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Henry David Thoreau, a diary entry (April 24, 1859)
  • Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why. Kurt Vonnegut, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a lovely metaphorical observation, relating the lives of human being to an insect trapped in amber, and thus forever preserved in time.

  • You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Henry David Thoreau, an entry in his journal, (April 24, 1859)

Thoreau went on to add: “Fools stand on their island [of] opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this.”

  • No longer forward nor behind/I look in hope or fear;/But, grateful, take the good I find,/The best of now and here. John Greenleaf Whittier, in the poem “My Psalm” (1859)

QUOTE NOTE: I believe Whittier’s “now and here” phrasing is the likely progenitor of all later sayings about living in the “here and now.”

  • Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute? Thornton Wilder, the character Emily Webb speaking, in Our Town (1938)
  • Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going. Tennessee Williams, the character Mrs. Goforth speaking, in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963)





  • In Britain the government has to come down in front of Parliament every day to explain its actions, but here the President never answers directly to Congress. Bella Abzug, in Bella!: Ms. Abzug goes to Washington (1972)
  • The office of President has ever been stuck with thorns. It daily becomes a more difficult one to wield. A wise Man would find it a Herculean Task. Abigail Adams, in an 1808 letter; reprinted in John P. Kaminski, The Quotable Abigail Adams (2009)
  • The President may indeed in one respect resemble the commander of an army in peace, but in another and more essential sense he resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek. Henry Brooks Adams, in Historical Essays (1891)

Adams continued: “He must sooner or later be convinced that a perpetual calm is as little to his purpose as a perpetual hurricane, and that without headway the ship can arrive nowhere.”

  • Power is poison. Its effect on Presidents had always been tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards. Henry Brooks Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
  • A group of politicians deciding to dump a President because his morals are bad is like the mafia getting together to bump off the Godfather for not going to church on Sunday. Russell Baker, “The Morals Charge,” in The New York Times (May 14, 1974)

QUOTE NOTE: Many people think this analogy is about the attempt of House Republicans to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, but it came in 1974 in response to calls from House Democrats to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal.

  • The president of the United States bears about as much relationship to the real business of running America as does Colonel Sanders to the business of frying chicken. J. G. Ballard, in J. G. Ballard: Quotes (2004; V. Vale & M. Ryan, eds.)
  • The President is expected to personify our betterness in an inspiring way, to express in what he does and is (not just what he says) a moral idealism which, in much of the public mind, is the very opposite of “politics.” David Barber quoted in Hugh Sidey, “Demand for ‘Moral Leadership,’” Life magazine (Oct. 23, 1970)
  • The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of clichés the first prize. Saul Bellow, quoted in Jon Winokur, The Portable Curmudgeon (1987)

Bellow preceded the thought by writing: “Take our politicians: they’re a bunch of yo-yos.”

  • Presidency, n. The greased pig in the field game of American politics. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • President, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom— and of whom only—it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • The Office of President is such a bastardized thing, half royalty and half democracy, that nobody knows whether to genuflect or spit. Jimmy Breslin, in How the Good Guys Finally Won (1975)

ERROR ALERT: A number of books mistakenly present the observation as if it began The office of the President is such a bastardizing thing.

  • Anybody that wants the presidency so much that he’ll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office. David S. Broder, “The Qualities We Want in a President,” The Washington Post (July 18, 1973)
  • Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. (Pause) And I wish him well. Barbara Bush, in commencement address at Wellesley College (June 1, 1990)
  • Those programs which affect strong group interests must sometimes make a President feel as though he is leading a heavy wagon down a steep hill—not so much pulling as hurrying to keep from being run over. Douglass Cater, in Power in Washington: A Critical Look at Today’s Struggle to Govern in the Nation's Capital (1964)
  • The character of a President colors his entire administration. Clark Clifford, “The Presidency As I Have Seen It,” in Emmet John Hughes, The Living Presidency (1972)
  • All presidents start out to run a crusade but after a couple of years they find they are running something less heroic and much more intractable: namely the presidency. Alistair Cooke, in Talk About America (1968)

Cooke added: “The people are well cured by then of election fever, during which they think they are choosing Moses. In the third year, they look on the man as a sinner and a bumbler and begin to poke around for rumors of another Messiah.”

  • When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President. I’m beginning to believe it. Clarence Darrow, quoted in Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941)
  • The president we get is the country we get. With each new president the nation is conformed spiritually. E. L. Doctorow, “The Character of Presidents,” in The Nation (Nov. 9, 1992); reprinted in Citizen Doctorow: Notes on Art & Politics (2015)

Doctorow continued: “He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that governs our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into, and get us into, is his characteristic trouble. Finally, the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail. One four-year-term may find us at reasonable peace with one another, working things out, and the next, trampling on each other for our scraps of bread.”

  • I thought it completely absurd to mention my name in the same breath as the presidency. Dwight D. Eisenhower, inThe White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956 (1963
  • American democracy has revived the oldest political institution of the race, the elective kingship. Henry Jones Ford, in The Rise and Growth of American Politics (1898)
  • As Mr. Wilson observes, the President is at liberty both in law and in conscience to be as big a man as he can, his own capacity being the limit. James W. Garner, summarizing a belief of President Woodrow Wilson, in “Woodrow Wilson’s Ideas of the Presidency,” in The American Review of Reviews (Jan., 1913)
  • Once a President gets to the White House, the only audience that is left that really matters is history. Doris Kearns Goodwin, quoted in a 1985 issue of The New York Times (specific issue undetermined)
  • The President is the people’s lobbyist. Hubert H. Humphrey, in speech at Rockefeller Public Service Awards, Washington, D.C. (Dec. 8, 1965)

QUOTE NOTE: Vice-President Humphrey may have been inspired by a similar observation from former President Truman, offered in a speech at Columbia University (April 27, 1959): “The President is the representative of the whole nation and he’s the only lobbyist that all of the 160 million people in this country have.”

  • The President of the United States is both more and less than a king; he is, also, both more and less than a prime minister. Harold Laski, in The American Presidency: An Interpretation (1940)

QUOTE NOTE: Laski, a British historian and Labour Party leader, viewed the American presidency as something unique in history, writing “there is no comparable foreign institution.” Later in his book, he wrote: “In England, we blame an anonymous entity ‘the Government’ if things go wrong, or a mistake is made; in the United States it is the president who is blamed.”

  • A President is best judged by the enemies he makes when he has really hit his stride. Max Lerner, “The Education of Harry Truman,” in The New York Star (Jan. 9, 1949); reprinted in The Unfinished Country (1959)
  • You don’t run for the Presidency out of nostalgia. George McGovern, in a debate of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dartmouth College (Jan. 15, 1984)
  • As democracy is perfected, the office [of U. S. President] represents more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. H. L. Mencken, “Bayard v. Lionheart,” in The Baltimore Evening Sun (July 26, 1920)

ERROR ALERT: This observation has been faithfully and accurately reported for many years, but after the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as U. S. President, an erroneous version began to show up in internet postings all around the world. Almost all of the incorrect versions change the final portion of Mencken’s observation to read will be adorned by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron. Given the lightning speed with which errors get repeated on the internet, this mistaken version will likely supplant the correct original observation in the popular mind.

  • You can’t have one kind of man and another kind of President. Lynn Morley Martin, in speech at Republican National Convention (Aug. 18, 1992)

QUOTE NOTE: Morley, a Republican congresswoman from Illinois (1981-91) succeeded Elizabeth Dole as Secretary of Labor in the George H. W. Bush administration.

  • The president is relentlessly becoming the celebrity-in-chief. Peter A. Olsson, M.D., in a personal communication to the compiler (Oct. 13, 2018)
  • When I go into the voting booth, do I vote for the person who is the best president? Or the slime bucket who will make my life as a cartoonist wonderful? Mike Peters, in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 20, 1993)
  • Although in our country the Chief Magistrate must almost of necessity be chosen by a party and stand pledged to its principles and measures, yet in his official action he should not be the President of a part only, but of the whole people of the United States. James K. Polk in his Inaugural Address as 11th U.S. President (March 4, 1845)

Polk continued: “While he executes the laws with an impartial hand, shrinks from no proper responsibility, and faithfully carries out in the executive department of the Government the principles and policy of those who have chosen him, he should not be unmindful that our fellow-citizens who have differed with him in opinion are entitled to the full and free exercise of their opinions and judgments, and that the rights of all are entitled to respect and regard.”

  • An election marks the end of the affair; it puts paid to the seduction of the many by the few. Pretty words, fulsome promises. We wind up married, but to whom, to what? We cannot always predict with certainty the future leader from the winning candidate. Some men grow in the job; others are diminished by its demands and its grandeur. Anna Quindlen, “The Longest Election Day,” Newsweek magazine (Nov. 19, 2000)
  • He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them. James Reston, on President Richard M. Nixon, in Deadline: A Memoir (1991)
  • The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. Franklin D. Roosevelt, quoted in The New York Times (Sep. 11, 1932)

QUOTE NOTE: Roosevelt said this in a speech shortly before his first presidential election victory. He continued: “All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”

  • To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else. Theodore Roosevelt, “Sedition, A Free Press, and Personal Rule,” a guest column in The Kansas City Star (May 7, 1918)

QUOTE NOTE: Roosevelt was only forty-two when he assumed the Presidency in 1901, so it was not surprising that he would remain politically active after leaving the office in 1909. In addition to his many speeches and addresses, he also became a regular guest columnist for The Kansas City Star (owned by his close friend William Rockhill Nelson). In the closing years of WWI, Roosevelt was deeply concerned about what he regarded as President Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to quickly and fully engage in wartime efforts against Germany. Challenging the view that the nation should rally around a President simply because he is the President, Roosevelt preceded the thought above by writing: “The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.”

  • A President has a great chance; his position is almost that of a king and a prime minister rolled into one. Theodore Roosevelt, in Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia (1941; A. Hart & H. Ferleger, eds.)

Roosevelt continued: “Once he has left office he cannot do very much; and he is a fool if he fails to realize it all and to be profoundly thankful for having had the great chance.”

  • What higher obligation does a president have than to explain his intentions to the people and persuade them that the direction he wishes to go is right? Arthur M. Schlesinger, quoted in The New York Times (April 15, 1993)
  • The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. John Steinbeck, in America and Americans(1966)

Steinbeck continued: “We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment—social, political, or ethical—can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.”

  • All presidents rail against the press. It goes with the turf. Helen Thomas, in her syndicated newspaper column (Oct. 15, 2003)
  • Within the first few months I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed. Harry S Truman, the opening words of Memoirs: Years of Trial and Hope (1956)

Truman, who ascended to the Presidency after the sudden death of FDR at age 63 on April 12, 1945, continued: “The fantastically crowded nine months of 1945 taught me that a President either is constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him. I never felt I could let up for a single moment.” NOTE: I hope you caught the nice example of chiasmus in the penultimate sentence.

  • When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the Presidency. Harry S Truman, quoted in Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1973)
  • To be President of the United States, sir, is to act as advocate for a blind, venomous, and ungrateful client. John Updike, the character President James Polk speaking, in Buchanan Dying (1974)

Polk continued: “Still, one must make the best of the case, for the purposes of Providence.”

  • That peculiarly American religion, President-worship. Gore Vidal, “President and Mrs. Grant” (1975), in Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays 1973-1976 (1978)
  • Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so. Gore Vidal, quoted in Martin Amis, “Gore and Jerry (and the lesson of Lynchburg),” The Observer (London; Feb. 7, 1982)
  • Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President—the same half? Gore Vidal, “The Prince and the Pauper,” in Screening History (1992)
  • There never has been a great inarticulate President. George Will, “Democracy as Vaudeville,” in Newsweek (April 20, 1975); reprinted in The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Sobering Thoughts (1978)

Will was talking about Gerald Ford, who he described as “the most inarticulate President since the invention of broadcasting.” Will introduced the thought by writing: “Rhetorical skills are not peripheral to the political enterprise, and they are among the most important skills a person can bring to the Presidency.” His essay also included a memorable metaphor that many regard as appropriate in the current era: “An inarticulate President is like a motorcycle motor installed in a Mack truck.”

  • Most presidents come to Washington bright as freshly minted dimes and leave much diminished. George F. Will, “Ronald Reagan: The Captain Who Calmed the Sea,” in Suddenly: The American Idea Abroad and At Home (1990)



  • No easy problems ever come to the President of the United States. If they are easy to solve, somebody else has solved them. Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted by John F. Kennedy in Parade magazine (April 8, 1962)
  • The President is not only the leader of a party, he is the President of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America. He must guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. Herbert Hoover, quoted in Anne Emery, American Friend: Herbert Hoover ((1967)
  • The second office of this government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery. Thomas Jefferson, in letter to Elbridge Gerry (May 13, 1797)
  • A President’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right. Lyndon B. Johnson, in State of the Union Address (Jan. 4, 1965)
  • The function and responsibility of the President is to set before the American public the unfinished business, the things we must do if we are going to succeed as a nation. John F. Kennedy, in presidential campaign speech (Crestwood, Missouri; Oct. 22, 1960)
  • Whatever the political affiliation of our next President, whatever his views may be on all the issues and problems that rush in upon us, he must above all be the chief executive in every sense of the word. John F. Kennedy, quoted in Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ (1968)
  • I think the presidency is an institution over which you have temporary custody. Ronald Reagan, quoted in Time magazine (April 7, 1986)
  • I don’t know what I expected, but my first morning in the Oval Office had a surprising ring of familiarity to it. It reminded me a lot of my job as governor. Ronald Reagan, in An American Life (1990)
  • The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. Franklin D. Roosevelt, quoted in The New York Times (Sep. 11, 1932)

QUOTE NOTE: FDR said this in a speech shortly before winning his first presidential election. A bit later, he went on to add: “That’s what the office is—a superb opportunity for reapplying, applying to new conditions, the simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back. Without leadership alert and sensitive to change, we are all bogged up or lose our way.”

  • I want the people to love me, but I suppose they never will. Woodrow Wilson, quoted in Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (1948)
  • The main problem with being president is the constant sense that you are inside a glass bowl for everyone to see, or in a kind of barometric chamber with an artificial atmosphere where you must stay all the time. Boris Yeltsin, in The Struggle for Russia (1994)



  • The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? Hannah Arendt, from 1974 interview with Roger Errera, in The New York Review of Books (Oct. 26, 1978)
  • The press, like fire, is an excellent servant, but a terrible master. James Fenimore Cooper, “On the Press,” in The American Democrat (1838)

QUOTE NOTE: In the centuries before Cooper offered this thought, fire had been described as a bad master a cruel master and even a fearful master, but this 1838 essay looks like the earliest appearance in print of the phrase terrible master (see the FIRE section for those quotations). See also the MONEY section, where P. T. Barnum applied the phrase to money.

  • Wooing the press…is an exercise roughly akin to picnicking with a tiger. You might enjoy the meal, but the tiger always eats last. Maureen Dowd, “On Washington; Up Close and Personal,” in The New York Times Magazine (Jan 2, 1994)
  • In Czechoslovakia there is no such thing as freedom of the press. In the United States there is no such thing as freedom from the press. Martina Navratilova, quoted in Lee Green, Sportswit (1984)
  • The press is the enemy. Richard M. Nixon, remark during his presidency, quoted by William Safire, in Before the Fall (1975)
  • The press is too often a distorting mirror, which deforms the people and events it represents, making them seem bigger or smaller than they really are. Marguerite Yourcenar, in With Open Eyes: Conversations With Matthieu Galey (1980)



  • No woman ought to pretend she’s intelligent. And if she is she ought to have the intelligence to pretend she isn’t. Edna Ferber, The character Yancy speaking in Cimarron (1930)
  • No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the narrator describing the hypocritical Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter (1850)
  • Nothing can be more true than that the greatest Boasters have the least of what they pretend to. Eliza Haywood, in Love-Letters on All Occasions (1730)
  • You are what you are. It is my opinion that trouble in the world comes from people who do not know what they are, and pretend to be something they’re not. Lillian Hellman, in The North Star: A Movie About Some Russian People (1942)
  • Once you have discovered what is happening, you can’t pretend not to know, you can’t abdicate responsibility. Knowledge always brings responsibility. P. D. James, quoted by Molly Ivins in a Dallas Times Herald column (May 3, 1992); reprinted in Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead (1993)
  • Man is the only animal that learns by being hypocritical. He pretends to be polite and then, eventually, he becomes polite. Jean Kerr, in Finishing Touches (1973)
  • The most terribly human moments—the ones we want to pretend never happened—are the very moments that make us who we are today. Jenny Lawson, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) (2012)

Lawson went on to add: “You are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them.”

  • Pretending can be a bold form of experimentation and inventiveness. In pretending joy or happiness, we may discover or enhance our capacity for it. Harriet Lerner, in a 1994 issue of New Woman magazine; later reprinted in Life Preservers: Staying Afloat in Love and Life (1996)
  • What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. Doris Lessing, in The Golden Notebook (1962)

QUOTE NOTE: The words come from the protagonist Anna Wulf, who is describing one of the great themes in her life as a writer and a woman. Later in the novel, she returns to the same topic, reflecting: “There’s only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself that the second-best is anything but the second-best.”

  • In our society to admit inferiority is to be a fool, and to admit superiority is to be an outcast. Those who are in reality superior in intelligence can be accepted by their fellows only if they pretend they are not. Marya Mannes, in More in Anger (1958)
  • When one is pretending the entire body revolts. Anaïs Nin, the voice of the narrator, in Winter of Artifice (1939)
  • You can’t have a tin can tied to your tail and go through life pretending it isn’t there. Josephine Tey, the protagonist Robert Blair speaking, in The Franchise Affair (1948)
  • We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Kurt Vonnegut, in the Introduction to Mother Night (1961)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the observation is usually presented, but it was originally part of this larger observation (the opening paragraph of the Introduction): “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think its a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

  • Half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any. Edith Wharton, the character Carrie Fisher speaking to protagonist Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth (1905)



  • Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike. Margot Fonteyn, in Margot Fonteyn: Autobiography (1976)
  • No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the narrator describing the hypocritical Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter (1850)
  • You are what you are. It is my opinion that trouble in the world comes from people who do not know what they are, and pretend to be something they’re not. Lillian Hellman, in The North Star: A Movie About Some Russian People (1942)
  • It is not poverty so much as pretense that harasses a ruined man—the struggle between a proud mind and an empty purse—the keeping up of a hollow show that must soon come to an end. Washington Irving, “The Wife,” The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20)
  • Ambition’s ugly twin, pretentiousness. Tony Kushner, “Afterword,” in Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (1992)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation came as Kushner explained his motivation for writing his 1991 hit play Angels in America. Here’s the fuller quotation: “I wanted to attempt something of ambition and size even if that meant I might be accused of straying too close to ambition’s ugly twin, pretentiousness.”

  • When one is pretending the entire body revolts. Anaïs Nin, the voice of the narrator, in Winter of Artifice (1939)


(see also BEAUTY and CHARM and GRACE and UGLINESS)

  • It has been said that a pretty face is a passport. But it’s not, it’s a visa, and it runs out fast. Julie Burchill, in Sex and Sensibility (1992)
  • Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”. Erin McKean, “You Don’t Have to Be Pretty,” a blog post from A Dress a Day (Oct. 20, 2006)

McKean, who is best known as an American lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com, is also something of a walking oxymoron: a fashion aficionado with feminist leanings. She preceded the foregoing thought by writing: “Now, this may seem strange from someone who writes about pretty dresses (mostly) every day, but: You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general.” McKean’s piece, which contained other memorable metaphorical reflections on the subject, may be seen in full at McKean on Prettiness.



  • ’Tis an old saying: That an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Benjamin Franklin, in letter to Rev. Samuel Johnson (Sep. 13, 1750); reprinted in E. Edwards Beardsley, Life and Correspondence of Samuel Johnson, D.D. (1874)

ERROR ALERT: Many respected reference works date the origin of this American proverb as much later, some to 1795. Franklin’s letter to Johnson, however, suggests that it was already familiar by the middle of the century (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations traces a forerunner saying—prevention is better than cure—to the early seventeenth century). Some works have also mistakenly reported that Franklin offered the observation to the English man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson. In fact, he was writing to a similarly named Connecticut clergyman who went on to become president of King’s College, later Columbia College. Franklin’s full letter may be seen at: Ounce of Prevention.

  • It is much easier at all times to prevent an evil than to rectify mistakes. George Washington, in letter to James McHenry (Aug. 10, 1798)


(see also BARGAINS and COST and MONEY and VALUE)

  • The price of shallow sex may be a corresponding loss of capacity for deep love. Shana Alexander, in Talking Woman (1976)
  • You can have anything in this world you want, if you want it badly enough and you’re willing to pay the price. Mary Kay Ash, in Mary Kay on People Management (1984)
  • In this world people have to pay an extortionate price for any exceptional gift whatever. Willa Cather, a reflection of the character Henry Seabury, in the title story, The Old Beauty and Others (1948)
  • Surely for everything you love you have to pay some price? Agatha Christie, in An Autobiography (1977)
  • Grief is the price Love pays for being in the same world with Death. Margaret Deland, in Golden Yesterdays (1941)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a beautiful sentiment, but it is not completely original. Ueland might have been inspired by an earlier observation by Mary Ridpath-Mann, to be seen below.

  • Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace./The soul that knows it not, knows no release/From little things/Knows not the livid loneliness of fear. Amelia Earhart, from the poem “Courage” (1927), quoted in Mary S. Lovell, The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart (1989)
  • The world never puts a price on you higher than the one you put on yourself. Sonja Henie, in Wings on My Feet (1940)
  • Price is not an answer to a math problem; it’s an expression of desire or a guess about what other human beings will do (accept your offer or turn it down). William Poundstone, in Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of it) (2010)
  • Grief is the price we pay for Love. Mary Ridpath-Mann, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Virginia Leith, in The Unofficial Secretary (1912)

QUOTE NOTE: This appears to be the first appearance of a sentiment that evolved into a modern proverb. In a 2001 memorial service to honor British victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack, Queen Elizabeth said: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

  • The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (1776)
  • A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Oscar Wilde, the character Lord Darlington answering the question, “œWhat is a cynic?” in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)



  • A proud man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves. Henry Ward Beecher, in Life Thoughts (1858)
  • The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun. Ludwig van Beethoven, in letter to a young girl (July 17, 1812); quoted in Michael Hamburger, Beethoven: Letters, Journals, and Conversations (1978)

QUOTE NOTE: Beethoven was replying to a young aspiring pianist named Emilie, who had recently sent him a fan letter and a hand-embroidered gift. He preceded the thought above by writing: “Do not only practice art, but get at the very heart of it; this it deserves, for only art and science raise men to the God-head.”

  • Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The Bible—Book of Proverbs 16:19
  • The truest characters of ignorance/Are vanity, and pride, and arrogance. Samuel Butler (1613–1680), “Miscellaneous Thoughts,” in The Genuine Poetical Remains of Samuel Butler (Rev. ed., 1827; Robert Thyer, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the portion of the couplet that is routinely presented these days, but it formally ended this way: “As blind men use to bear their noses higher/Than those that have their eyes and sight entire.”

  • The sad rhyme of the men who proudly clung/To their first fault, and withered in their pride. Robert Browning, in the poem “Paracelsus” (1835)
  • All the vices are seasoned with pride just as the virtues are seasoned and enlivened by charity. Catherine of Siena, quoted in The Dialogue (1378; Suzanne Noffke, trans.)
  • The humble stumble, the proud fall. Jim DeKornfeld, in a personal communication to the compiler (May 28, 2018)
  • The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)
  • Refuse not to be informed: for that shows pride or stupidity. William Penn, in Some Fruits of Solitude (1693)
  • Of all the causes which conspire to blind/Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,/What the weak head with strongest bias rules/Is Pride, the never-failing vice of fools. Alexander Pope, in An Essay on Criticism (1711)
  • There is false modesty, but there is no false pride. Jules Renard, a March 1909 journal entry, in The Journal of Jules Renard (1964; L. Bogan & E. Roget, eds.)
  • In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes. John Ruskin, in Modern Painters (1856)
  • There is a very strong connection between pride and giving, and those who do the giving get to feel that they are worthy, while those who are given to often feel that they are not. Merle Shain, in When Lovers Are Friends (1978)

Shain preceded the thought by writing: “It can be much harder to be on the receiving end of a transaction than to be the one who gets to give. In fact, being given to can mean being taken from.”

  • Pride is not a wise counselor. People who believe themselves to be the incarnation of good have a distorted view of the world. The absence of any obstacle to the deployment of strength is dangerous for the strong themselves: passion takes precedence over reason. Tzvetan Todorov, in Hope and Memory: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (2003)




  • Any priest or shaman must be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Robert A. Heinlein, an entry in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long,” in Time Enough For Love (1973)
  • It is not Christianity but priestcraft that has subjected woman as we find her. Lucretia Mott, an 1853 remark, in Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons (1980; Dana Greene, ed.)
  • Psychoanalysis in the hands of the physician is what confession is in the hands of the Catholic priest. It depends on its user and its use, whether it becomes a beneficial tool or a two-edged sword. Bertha Pappenheim, quoted in D. Edinger, Bertha Pappenheim (1963)
  • It has always seemed very odd to me that this particular sphere of activity should remain a male closed shop, seeing that, to judge from church attendance, women are the more religious sex— while our criminal statistics make quite clear that they are the least wicked. Mary Stocks, on the priesthood and women serving as priests, in Still More Commonplace (1973)
  • Perhaps society should give actors the same sort of protection it gives to those who follow a religious life. Actor/priest was originally the same job. The theater is left wing magic and theology is right wing magic. Jennifer Stone, “Loners and Losers,” in Mind Over Media (1988)



  • There are no prima donnas in engineering. Freeman Dyson, in Disturbing the Universe (1979)

QUOTE NOTE: Dyson offered this thought in an observation in which he contrasted scientists and engineers. He preceded the thought by writing: “A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible.”

  • Beauty ought to look a little surprised: it is the emotion that best suits her face. E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (1927)

Forster continued: “The beauty who does not look surprised, who accepts her position as her due-she reminds us too much of a prima donna.”

  • It's hard for me to deal with other prima donnas. Diana Ross, quoted in David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (1985)
  • Success can make you go one of two ways. It can make you a prima donna, or it can smooth the edges, take away the insecurities, let the nice things come out. Barbara Walters, quoted in Newsweek magazine (May 6, 1974)





  • One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert, to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full. Muriel Spark, the title character, speaking to her students, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)


(see also KINGS and QUEENS and ROYALTY)

  • A prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice. Niccolo Machiavelli, in The Prince (1532)



  • It is always easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them. Alfred Adler, quoted in Phyllis Bottome, Alfred Adler: A Biography (1939)
  • In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Author Unknown

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites attribute this observation to Thomas Jefferson, but there is no evidence he ever said anything like it. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation includes the saying in a section of “Spurious Quotations” on its official website.

  • Expedients are for the hour, but principles are for the ages. Henry Ward Beecher, in Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)
  • No good society can be unprincipled; and no viable society can be principle-ridden. Alexander M. Bickel, in The Least Dangerous Branch (1962)

Bickel introduced the thought by writing: “No society, certainly not a large and heterogeneous one, can fail in time to explode if it is deprived of the arts of compromise, if it knows no way of muddling through.”

  • A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in first inaugural address (Jan. 20, 1953)
  • Principles do not mainly influence even the principled; we talk on principle, but we act on interest. Walter Savage Landor, Lopez Baños speaking, in “Baños and Alpuente,” Imaginary Conversations, Fourth Series (1829)
  • Important principles may, and must, be inflexible. Abraham Lincoln, in his last public address in Washington, D.C. (April 11, 1865)
  • You can’t learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency. W. Somerset Maugham, the character Champion-Cheney speaking, in The Circle (1921)
  • An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Thomas Paine, in the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” (Spring, 1797)
  • The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody. Dorothy L Sayers, the character Harriet Vane quoting Lord Peter Wimsey, in Gaudy Night (1935)
  • It is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to put one principle into practice. Leo Tolstoy, quoted in Stefan Zweig, “Tolstoy: Struggle for Realization,” in Master Builders: A Typology of the Spirit (1939)
  • Circumstances should never alter principles! Oscar Wilde, Lady Chiltern speaking, in An Ideal Husband (1895)



(see also [Right of] PRIVACY and SPYING and SURVEILLANCE)

  • Love of privacy—perhaps because of the increasing exactions of society—has become in many people almost pathological. Elizabeth Bowen, “Manners,” in Collected Impressions (1950)
  • What a man does in his own house cannot concern the nation. Pearl S. Buck, in All Under Heaven (1973)
  • I made myself into an envelope into which I could thrust my work deep, lick the flap, seal it from everybody. Emily Carr, in Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr (1946)
  • Without privacy there was no point in being an individual. Jonathan Franzen, a reflection of the character Alfred Lambert, in The Corrections (2001)
  • All violations of essential privacy are brutalizing. Katharine Fullerton Gerould, in Modes and Morals (1920)
  • Noticed, studied, commented on, and incessantly interfered with; forced into miserable self-consciousness by this unremitting glare; our little ones grow up permanently injured in character by this lack of one of humanity’s most precious rights—privacy. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Two Callings,” in The Home (1910)
  • There are only two occasions when Americans respect privacy, especially in Presidents. Those are prayer and fishing. Herbert Hoover, quoted in New York Herald Tribune May 19, 1947)
  • There are public lives, personal lives, and private lives. The public life is the one everyone sees in your daily routine, the personal one you reveal to your family and closest friends, but your private life, that’s just what you know about yourself, what you hide from everyone else. Lisa Jackson, in Deep Freeze (2005)
  • Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Margaret Laurence, a reflection of protagonist and narrator Hagar Shipley, in The Stone Angel (1964)
  • The human animal needs a freedom seldom mentioned, freedom from intrusion. He needs a little privacy quite as much as he wants understanding or vitamins or exercise or praise. Phyllis McGinley, “A Lost Privilege,” in The Province of the Heart (1959)
  • Who could deny that privacy is a jewel? I has always been the mark of privilege, the distinguishing feature of a truly urbane culture. Out of the cave, the tribal teepee, the pueblo, the community fortress, man emerged to build himself a house of his own with a shelter in it for himself and his diversions. Phyllis McGinley, “A Lost Privilege,” in The Province of the Heart (1959)

McGinley added: “Every age has seen it so. The poor might have to huddle together in cities for need’s sake, and the frontiersman cling to his neighbors for the sake of protection. But in each civilization, as it advanced, those who could afford it chose the luxury of a withdrawing-place.”

  • Privacy is a reservation of civilized life which Americans do not cherish. Ashley Montagu, in The American Way of Life (1967)
  • You never understand how dear your privacy is until you lose it. Rosie Perez, quoted in Joey Berlin, in Toxic Fame (1996)
  • Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is in public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men. Ayn Rand, the voice of the narrator, in The Fountainhead (1943)
  • Privacy is absolutely essential to maintaining a free society. The idea that is at the foundation of the notion of privacy is that the citizen is not the tool or the instrument of government—but the reverse. Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., quoted in The Christian Science Monitor (Dec. 5, 1986)
  • A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be. Edward Snowden, “Edward Snowden, After Months of NSA revelations, Says His Mission’s Accomplished,” in the Washington Post (Dec. 23, 2013)
  • Always there remain portions of our heart into which no one is able to enter, invite them as we may. Mary Dixon Thayer, “Things to Live By,” in Sonnets (1933)

[Right of] PRIVACY


  • The right of privacy…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Harry A. Blackmun, in Roe v. Wade (1973)
  • If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. William J. Brennan, in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)



  • Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege. William Henry Beveridge, in “Sayings of the Week,” The Observer (London; Dec. 17, 1943)
  • The vicious result of privilege is that the creature who receives it becomes incapacitated by it as by a disease. Pearl S. Buck, “America’s Gunpowder Women,” in Harper’s magazine (July, 1939); reprinted in Of Men and Women (1941)

Buck continued: “Privilege is a serious misfortune anywhere, and the more serious because American women do not realize that the privilege they boast is really their handicap and not their blessing.”

  • The Privileged and the People formed Two Nations. Benjamin Disraeli, the character Charles Egremont speaking, in Sybil: or, The Two Nations (1845)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation is typically presented, but it came in a larger set of remarks Egremont made to the title character. Here’s the complete passage: “I was told,” continued Egremont, “that an impassable gulf divided the Rich from the Poor; I was told that the Privileged and the People formed Two Nations, governed by different laws, influenced by different manners, with no thoughts or sympathies in common; with an innate inability of mutual comprehension.” Egremont rejects all of this, he says, in an attempt to explain himself and his beliefs to Sybil.

  • Privilege is the greatest enemy of justice. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880–93)
  • A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his first inaugural address as U.S. President (January 20, 1953)

Eisenhower preceded this thought by saying: “We must be willing, individually and as a Nation, to accept whatever sacrifices may be required of us.”

  • In theory we are all equal before the law. In practice, there are overwhelming privileges that come with winning the birth lottery. Arianna Huffington, in Fanatics & Fools: How Politicians are Betraying the American People (2004)
  • Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged. Helen Keller, in We Bereaved (1920)
  • The history of the world is the history of a privileged few. Even in its grandeur it stinks. Henry Miller, “Of Art and the Future,” in Sunday After the War (1944)

Miller preceded the thought by writing: “History was never written for the common man but for those in power.”

  • Privilege, almost by definition, requires that someone else pay the price for its enjoyment. Paula Ross, “Women, Oppression, Privilege, and Competition,” in Valerie Miner and Helen E. Longino, Competition (1987)
  • Everyone has a responsibility towards this larger family of man, but especially if you’re privileged, that increases your responsibility. Susan Sarandon, “The Power of One” (interview with Laura Sheahen), Beliefnet.com
  • Privilege begets privilege. Tony Schwartz, “Privilege Is a Privilege, and a Responsibility,” in The New York Times (Jan. 23, 2015)
  • There is nothing to which men cling more tenaciously than the privileges of class. Leonard Woolf, in Barbarians At The Gate (1939; pub. same year in U. S. under the title Barbarians Within and Without)



  • I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, in Peace and Freedom Magazine (July/August, 1989)

QUOTE NOTE: McIntosh, of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, may not have invented the concept of white privilege, but she has given us the most memorable words ever written on the subject. She preceded the observation by writing: “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege.”



  • A reasonable probability is the only certainty. Edgar Watson Howe, in Country Town Sayings (1911). Also an example of Oxymoronica.



  • Complex problems do not have simple solutions. R. L. Ackoff, “Case Histories Five Years After—A Symposium,” in Operations Research (March–April, 1960)

Ackoff preceded the observation by writing: “The only problems that have simple solutions are simple problems. The only managers that have simple problems have simple minds. Problems that arise in organizations are almost always the product of interactions of parts, never the action of a single part.”

  • I have spent a lifetime looking for remedies to all manner of life's problems—personal, social, political, global. I am deeply suspicious of those who offer simple solutions and statements of absolute certainty or who claim full possession of the truth. Madeleine Albright, in Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012/
  • Problems rarely exist at the level at which they are expressed. If you are arguing for more than ten minutes then you are probably not discussing the real conflict. Kare Anderson, in Mutuality Matters (2014)
  • I’ve yet to see any problem, however complicated, which when you looked at it the right way didn’t become still more complicated. Poul Anderson, the character Arne Vicken speaking, from the novelette “Call Me Joe,” in Astounding Science Fiction (April, 1957)

QUOTE NOTE: In his 1967 work The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler brought this quotation out of obscurity when he used a slightly altered version of the saying as an epigraph to one of his chapters. While Koestler properly credited Anderson, some later quotation anthologies mistakenly credited Koestler with authorship—a mistake that continues to the present day on the many error-plagued internet quotation sites. For more, see this informative post by Garson O’Toole, the Quote Investigator.

PLAGIARISM ALERT: In A Window Over the Kitchen Sink (1981), the popular humorous writer Peg Bracken was thinking about a problem she recently faced when she wrote: “I have reflected, since then, that there is hardly a problem, no matter how complicated it is, that when looked at in the right way doesn’t become still more complicated.”

  • Each year brings new problems of Form and Content,/new foes to tug with: at twenty I tried to/vex my elders, past Sixty it’s the young whom I hope to bother. W. H. Auden, in “Shorts I” (May, 1969)
  • There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. Richard Bach, in Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (1977)
  • The way we see the problem is the problem. Stephen R. Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989)
  • It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved. John Dewey, “The Pattern of Inquiry,” in Logic: Theory of Inquiry (1938)
  • Most people will spend more time and energy in going around problems than in trying to solve them. Henry Ford, “Success,” in The Forum (Oct. 1, 1928)

Ford continued: “A problem is a challenge to your intelligence. Problems are only problems until they are solved, and the solution confers a reward upon the solver. Instead of avoiding problems we should welcome them and through right thinking make them pay us profits.”

  • It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem. Malcolm Forbes, in The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm: The Capitalist’s Handbook (1978)
  • If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. Robert Fulghum, quoting Auschwitz survivor Sigmund Wollman, in Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door (1991)

ERROR ALERT: All over the Internet, these words are mistakenly attributed directly to Fulghum, but he was in fact quoting something that had made a deep impression on him. In 1959, Fulghum was a recent college graduate working at The Feather River Inn in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. One night, deeply frustrated over working conditions at the Inn, Fulghum found himself complaining to the night auditor, an elderly Auschwitz survivor named Sigmund Wollman. Fulghum carried on for about twenty minutes in an emotional, profanity-laced tirade when Wollman asked him if he was finished. When the old man spoke, the first words out of his mouth were the ones quoted above (Wollman then concluded his remarks by adding dismissively, “And will not annoy people like me so much. Good night”).

Fulghum described it as a moment of enlightenment, writing, “Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with truth so hard.” Over the subsequent decades, Fulghum found himself recalling the story every time he was trying to put things into a proper perspective, and in his Uh-Oh book, he wrote: “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

  • We are all faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems. John W. Gardner, quoted in Reader’s Digest (March, 1966)

QUOTATION CAUTION: No original source for this quotation has been found. Another popular phrasing is: “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

  • At the bottom of every social problem we will find a social wrong. Henry George, in Social Problems (1883)
  • To see a problem clearly is three parts of the way to solving it. J. A. Hadfield, in Dreams and Nightmares (1954)
  • Problems worthy/of attack/prove their worth/by hitting back. Piet Hein, “Problems,” in Grooks (1966)
  • The second assault on the same problem should come from a totally different direction. Tom Hirshfield, quoted in Roger Von Oech, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (1986)

QUOTE NOTE: Shortly after the publication of his 1983 creativity classic A Whack on the Side of the Head, von Oech got a personal letter from Tom Hirshfield, a research physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Hirshfield shared ten “Rules of Thumb” he had found helpful in his work as a physicist, including the one featured above. To see the complete list, see von Oech’s 2006 blog post, ”Tom Hirshfield’s Rules of Thumb”.

  • A problem that presents itself as a dilemma carries an unfortunate prescription: to argue instead of act. Elizabeth Janeway, in Improper Behavior (1987)
  • You can get so anesthetized by your own pain or your own problem that you don’t quite fully share the hell of someone close to you. Lady Bird Johnson, in White House Diary (1970)
  • Problems are only opportunities in work clothes. Henry J. Kaiser, a signature saying, quoted in his obituary in The New York Times (August 24, 1967)
  • There is no problem that is not actually a gift. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying (1997)
  • If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered. Stanley Kubrick, quoted in Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs (1972)
  • There is at bottom only one problem in the world, and this is its name. How does one break through? How does one get into the open? How does one burst the cocoon and become a butterfly? Thomas Mann, the character Adrian Leverkühn speaking, in Dr. Faustus (1947)
  • Explanations exist, they have existed for all times, for there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. H. L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus” in New York Evening Mail (Nov. 16, 1917); later published in Prejudices: Second Series (1920), and again in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)

ERROR ALERT: Nearly all internet quotation sites present mistakenly-phrased versions of the second portion of this quotation, most commonly in these two forms: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” and “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

  • One never knows how hard a problem is until it has been solved. Linus Pauling, in interview with Neil A/ Campbell, “Crossing the Boundaries of Science,” BioScience (Dec., 1986)

Pauling continued: “You don’t necessarily know that you will succeed if you work harder or longer.”

  • Problems are to the mind what exercise is to the muscles, they toughen and make strong. Problems make one better able to cope with life. Norman Vincent Peale, in The Tough-Minded Optimist (1961)
  • Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled (1974)

Peck continued: “When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve.”

  • Wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems. M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled (1974)

QUOTE NOTE: Peck’s observation came in a discussion of Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “things that hurt, instruct.” His full observation was as follows: “It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems.”

  • If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time. Shimon Peres, quoted in The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 7, 2001)

In his 2011 memoir Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld said that Peres once made the following observation, similarly phrased, to him: “If a problem has no solution, it is not a problem to be solved but a fact to be coped with over time.”

  • Problems, unfortunately, can be addicting. Like it or not, we take a certain amount of pride in the very problems that distress us. Eloise Ristad, in A Soprano on Her head (1982)
  • The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem. Theodore Isaac Rubin, in One to One: Understanding Personal Relationships (1983); quoted in his New York Times obituary
  • There is no problem that doesn’t have within it the seeds for its solution. Alexandra Stoddard, in Gracious Living in a New World: Finding Joy in Changing Times (1996)
  • Problems are universal. It’s facing them that is individual. Gladys Taber, the character Mark speaking, in Spring Harvest (1959)
  • Ask yourself what “problem” you have right now, not next year, tomorrow, or five minutes from now. What is wrong with this moment? Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now (1997)
  • Life is a series of problems. Every time you solve one, another is waiting to take its place. Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life (2002)

Warren added: “Not all of them are big, but all are significant in God’s growth process for you.”

  • Some problems are just too complicated for rational, logical solutions. They admit of insights, not answers. Jerome Wiesner, quoted in D. Lang, “Profiles: A Scientist’s Advice II,” The New Yorker magazine (Jan. 26, 1963)
  • Don’t get involved in partial problems, but always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one. Ludwig Wittgenstein, journal entry (Nov. 1, 1914) in Notebooks, 1914–1916 (1961)



  • Successful problem solving requires finding the right solution to the right problem. We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem. Russell L. Ackoff, in Redesigning the Future (1974)
  • The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it. Brendan Francis (pseudonym of Edward F. Murphy), in Edward F. Murphy, The Crown Treasury of Relevant Quotations (1978)
  • A problem is a challenge to your intelligence. Problems are only problems until they are solved, and the solution confers a reward upon the solver. Instead of avoiding problems we should welcome them and through right thinking make them pay us profits. Henry Ford, “Success,” in The Forum (Oct. 1, 1928)

Ford preceded the observation by writing: “Most people will spend more time and energy in going around problems than in trying to solve them.”

  • To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem. Carl Jung, in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959)
  • When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. A. H. Maslow, in Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)

ERROR ALERT: This is one of Maslow’s most famous observations, offered in slightly different ways in his various writings. None of his works, though, contain the phrase every problem as a nail, which appears all over the internet as well as in many published books.

  • It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it. John Steinbeck, in Sweet Thursday (1954)
  • Life is a series of problems. Every time you solve one, another is waiting to take its place. Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life (2002)

Warren added: “Not all of them are big, but all are significant in God’s growth process for you.”



  • Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried. Author Unknown
  • The greatest thief this world has ever produced is procrastination, and he is still at large. Josh Billings (penname of Henry Wheeler Shaw), “Affurisms,” in Josh Billings: His Sayings (1865)

QUOTE NOTE: Billings originally expressed the thought in his distinctive, dialect style: “The greatest thief this world haz ever produced is Procrastination, and he is still at large.”

  • Procrastination is opportunity’s natural assassin. Victor Kiam, in Going for It! How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur (1986)

ERROR ALERT: Many internet sites omit the word natural when presenting Kiam’s observation.

QUOTE NOTE: Kiam offered the thought in connection with his 1979 decision to purchase Remington Products shortly after his wife had given him his first electric shaver as a gift (in later television commercials, he would famously say, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company”). In his Going for It! book, Kiam put the complete procrastination thought in italics in the following passage: “An entrepreneur must be decisive and must also be prepared to grasp opportunity. Procrastination is opportunity's natural assassin. I wasted no time in finding out the particulars of Remington’s situation.” Thanks to Garson O’Toole for his assistance on this quotation.

  • procrastination is the/art of keeping/up with yesterday. Don Marquis, “certain maxims of archy,” in archy and mehitabel (1927)
  • Procrastination is the thief of time;/Year after year it steals, till all are fled. Edward Young, in Night Thoughts (1742-45)

QUOTE NOTE: In almost all current quotation anthologies—published as well as online—only the first portion of this couplet is presented.



  • Every parent is at some time the father of the unreturned prodigal, with nothing to do but keep his house open to hope. John Ciardi, in “Of Time and Chances: A Parental Reverie,” the title of his regular “Manner of Speaking” column, Saturday Review (March 18, 1972)



  • You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly, and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart. Fred Allen, quoted in J. R. Colombo, Wit and Wisdom of the Moviemakers (1979)


(includes CURSING and CUSSING and SWEARING; see also OBSCENITY)

  • Someone we didn’t know asked how it was that everything goes so well with the Americans, though they swear at every second word. Franz Kafka, diary entry (July 12, 1912), in The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910–1923 (1948; Max Brod, ed.)
  • It is hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist. Ursula K. Le Guin, the character Shevek speaking, in The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)
  • “The English language was Designed for Profanity,” James Marriott, the title of an article in The Times (London; Dec. 13, 2023)

In his homage to profanity in the English language, Marriott, the deputy books editor of the newspaper, wrote, “Consider the force and versatility of ‘the f-word,’” adding a bit later: “Shouting it has been shown to reduce pain. It can be used as a verb, an adverb, a noun, an adjective, a modifier, an intensifier and an interjection. It is a valid exclamation of love, dismay, rage, astonishment, happiness, agony and grief. We are likely to hear it or to utter it at the greatest and the most tragic moments of our lives. A vulgar one-word sonnet.”

  • Good swearing is used as a form of punctuation, not necessarily as a response to pain or insult, and is utilized by experts to lend a sentence a certain zest, like a sprinkling of paprika. George Plimpton, on swearing in football, in Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback (1965)
  • In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer. Mark Twain, quoted in Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)



  • All professions are conspiracies against the laity. George Bernard Shaw, “Preface on Doctors,” in The Doctor’s Dilemma (1911)



  • The new growth in the plant swelling against the sheath, which at the same time imprisons and protects it, must still be the truest type of progress. Jane Addams, in Democracy and Social Ethics (1902)
  • A thousand things advance, nine hundred and ninety-eight retreat: this is progress. Henri-Frédéric Amiel, entry in Journal Intime (Oct. 4, 1873)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites mistakenly say “nine-hundred and ninety-nine.”

  • The march of social progress is like a long and struggling parade, with the seers and prophets at its head and a smug minority bringing up the rear. Pierre Berton, in The Smug Minority (1968)
  • The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Daniel J. Boorstin, “The Age of Negative Discovery,” in Cleopatra’s Nose (1995)

ERROR ALERT: On virtually all web sites and in scores of books, this quotation is mistakenly presented as: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.”

  • Progress is /The law of life: man is not Man as yet. Robert Browning, in Paracelsus (1835)
  • All progress is based upon a universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its income. Samuel Butler (1835-1902), in The Notebooks of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us. G. K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Thyme,” in Fancies Versus Fads (1923)
  • Progress is the mother of Problems. G. K. Chesterton, “On Our Traffic Problems and Progress,” in The Illustrated London News (April 6, 1935); reprinted as “About Traffic” in As I Was Saying: A Book of Essays (1936)

Chesterton continued: “I do not say that Progress is therefore undesirable; or that the problems are therefore insoluble. I only say there will be numberless new problems to solve.”

  • Progress is a comfortable disease. e. e. cummings, in 1×1 (also known as One Times One); (1944)
  • Nothing recedes like progress. e. e. cummings, tweaking the familiar success saying, from “Jottings,” in the Harvard College magazine Wake (1951; no. 10); reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany (1958; George J. Firmage, ed.)
  • Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened. Germaine de Staël, in The Influence of Literature Upon Society (1800)
  • Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things “as they are,” or in the most universally comprehensive way, and not as projections of our own emotions. Barbara Ehrenreich, in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009)

Ehrenreich continued: “Thunder is not a tantrum in the sky, disease is not a divine punishment, and not every death or accident results from witchcraft.”

  • All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You first have an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Intellect,” in Essays, First Series (1841)

Emerson continued: “Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.”

  • There is a subtle danger in a man thinking that he is “fixed” for life. It indicates that the next jolt of the wheel of progress is going to fling him off. Henry Ford, in My Life and Work (1922)
  • All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance. Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI (1788)
  • No progress in humanity is possible unless it shakes off the yoke of authority and tradition. André Gide, journal entry (March 17, 1931)
  • It is the duty of youth to bring its fresh new powers to bear on social progress. Each generation of young people should be to the world like a vast reserve force to a tired army. They should lift the world forward. That is what they are for. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “What Young People Are For,” in The Forerunner: A Monthly Magazine (Jan., 1912)
  • The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul. Emma Goldman, “What I Believe,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader (1972; Alix Kates Shulman, ed.)
  • Progress everywhere today does seem to come so very heavily disguised as Chaos. Joyce Grenfell, “English Lit,” in Stately as a Galleon (1978)
  • The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future. Frank Herbert, one of the “Collected Sayings of Muab’Dib,” in Dune (1965)
  • Progress is the life-style of man. The general life of the human race is called Progress, and so is its collective march. Victor Hugo, the voice of the narrator, in Les Miserables (1862)

The narrator continued: “Progress advances, it makes the great human and earthly journey towards what is heavenly and divine; it has its pauses, when it rallies the stragglers, its stopping places when it meditates, contemplating some new and splendid promised land that has suddenly appeared on the horizon.”

  • The brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over we realize this: that the human race has been roughly handled, but that it has advanced. Victor Hugo, the old revolutionary speaking, in Les Misérables (1862)
  • Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards. Aldous Huxley, in Ends and Means (1937)
  • Belief in progress doesn’t mean belief in progress that has already occurred. Franz Kafka, a circa 1918 notebook entry, in The Zürau Aphorisms (original published posthumously in 1931 by Kafka friend Max Brod under the title Reflections of Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation is now more commonly presented in the following translation: “Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.”

  • All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Strength to Love (1963)
  • Is it progress if a cannibal uses knife and a fork? Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, in Unkempt Thoughts (1957)
  • Under the sublime law of progress, the present outgrows the past. The great heart of humanity is heaving with the hopes of a brighter day. Horace Mann, in A Few Thoughts for a Young Man (1850)

Mann continued: “All the higher instincts of our nature prophesy its approach; and the best intellects of the race are struggling to turn that prophecy into fulfillment.”

  • All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on “I am not too sure.” H. L. Mencken, in Minority Report (1956)

Mencken preceded the thought by writing: “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong.”

  • Whatever there be of progress in life comes not through adaptation but through daring, through obeying the blind urge. Henry Miller, “Reflections on Writing,” in The Wisdom of the Heart (1947)
  • The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his second inaugural address (Jan. 20, 1937)
  • Take time to look back. Looking back teaches you how far you have come, and reinforces your belief in your abilities. Rosemarie Rossetti, in Take Back Your Life! Regaining Your Footing After Life Throws You a Curve (2003)

In the same book Rossetti also wrote on the theme: “It is important to recognize your progress and take pride in your accomplishments. Share your achievements with others. Brag a little, and allow the recognition and support of those around you to nurture you.”

  • Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When…experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. George Santayana, “Flux and Constancy,” in The Life of Reason (1905–06)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation is interesting in its own right, but it has been completely overshadowed the passage’s next line: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  • The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. George Bernard Shaw, “Maxims for Revolutionists,” in Man and Superman (1903)
  • The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. Alfred North Whitehead, in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • Error is the price we pay for progress. Alfred North Whitehead, in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929)
  • And, step by step, since time began,/I see the steady gain of man. John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Chapel of the Hermits” (1851), in The Chapel of the Hermits and Other Poems (1853)
  • And from the discontent of man/The world’s best progress springs. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Discontent,” in The Cosmopolitan magazine (Feb., 1900); reprinted in Poems of Power (1901)

QUOTE NOTE: Wilcox began the poem by linking man’s discontent with God’s, writing, “The splendid discontent of God/With chaos made the world.” The full poem may be seen at: “Discontent”.

  • The very thing that seems to impede your progress can often be turned to account for you. Margery Wilson, in The Woman You Want to Be (1928)

PROJECTION (Psychological)


  • A man has generally the good or ill qualities which he attributes to mankind. William Shenstone, in Essays on Men and Manners (1804)


(see also SEX and SEX & LOVE and LOVERS)

  • Promiscuous…was a word I had never applied to myself. Possibly no one ever does, for it is a sordid word, reducing many valuable moments to nothing more than doglike copulation. Marya Mannes, in Message From a Stranger (1948)



  • Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising. Cyril Connolly, tweaking the famous MADNESS line from Euripides, in Enemies of Promise (1938)


(see also OATHS and PLEDGES and VOWS [Giving Ones's] WORD)

  • Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future. Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic (1972)
  • Promises are not to be kept if the keeping of them would prove harmful to those to whom you have made them. Marcus Tullius Cicero, in De Officiis (1st. c. B.C.)
  • We promise much to avoid giving little. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)
  • What could be more absurd than to assemble a crowd to witness a man and a woman promising to love each other for the rest of their lives, when we know what human creatures are—men so thoroughly selfish and unprincipled, women so vain and frivolous. Emily Eden, in The Semi-Attached Couple (1830)
  • Promises are dangerous things to ask or to give. Maria Edgeworth, the character Grace Nugent speaking, in The Absentee (1812)

She continued: “Men and naughty children never make promises, especially promises to be good, without longing to break them the next minute.”

  • I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice. Hannah Green, the character Furii speaking, in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964)
  • Promises that you make to yourself are often like the Japanese plum tree—they bear no fruit. Frances Marion, Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood (1972)
  • Promises and pie-crust are made to be broken. Janathan Swift, in Polite Conversation (1738)
  • Now he found out a new thing—to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. Mark Twain, the narrator describing the title character, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

QUOTE NOTE: What had Tom promised? The narrator introduced the thought this way: “Tom joined the new order of Cadets of Temperance, being attracted by the showy character of their ‘regalia.’ He promised to abstain from smoking, chewing, and profanity as long as he remained a member.”



  • Propaganda is a soft weapon: hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way. Jean Anouilh, the character Warwick speaking, in The Lark (1955)
  • Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. Hannah Arendt, “The Totalitarian Movement,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

Arendt continued: “The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

  • The insight that peace is the end of war, and that therefore a war is the preparation for peace, is at least as old as Aristotle, and the pretense that the aim of an armament race is to guard the peace is even older, namely as old as the discovery of propaganda lies. Hannah Arendt, in On Revolution (1963)
  • Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television. Rita Mae Brown, in Starting From Scratch (1988)
  • Pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda. Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975)
  • The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda. Martin Buber, quoted in Aubrey Hodes, Encounter with Martin Buber (1972)
  • Propaganda itself, pretending to be truth, does not rest solely on people's love of truth. It is more subtle. It is aimed partly at their love of wish-fulfillment–to make them feel safe, proud, and strong. Joyce Cary, in Power in Men (1939)
  • The propaganda arm of the American Dream machine, Hollywood. Molly Haskell, in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974)
  • The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. “Great is the truth,” but still greater from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. Aldous Huxley, in the Foreword to Brave New World (1932)
  • Propaganda rarely makes good art. Susan Isaacs, in Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen (1999)
  • All our advertising is propaganda, of course, but it has become so much a part of our life, is so pervasive, that we just don't know what it is propaganda for. Pauline Kael, in I Lost It at the Movies (1965)
  • The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth. Garry Kasparov, in a Tweet (Dec. 13, 2016)
  • Propaganda is that branch of lying which nearly deceives your friends without ever deceiving your enemies. Walter Lippmann, quoted in a 1945 issue of Esquire magazine (specific issue undetermined)
  • Why is propaganda so much more successful when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to stir up friendly feeling? Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness (1936)
  • When the German propaganda tries to be winsome it is like a clown with homicidal mania—ludicrous and terrifying both at once. Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a 1941 letter, in Letters: Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982/ William Maxwell, ed.)



  • When the rich plunder the poor of his rights, it becomes an example of the poor to plunder the rich of his property, for the rights of the one are as much property to him as wealth is property to the other and the little all is as dear as the much. It is only by setting out on just principles that men are trained to be just to each other; and it will always be found, that when the rich protect the rights of the poor, the poor will protect the property of the rich. Thomas Paine, in Letter to the Addressers of the Late Proclamation (1792). Also an example of double chiasmus.

[Private] PROPERTY


  • The first man to fence in a piece of land, saying “This is mine,” and who found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Discourse On the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind (1754)
  • If historical experience could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization. Ludwig von Mises, in Human Action (1949)

QUOTE NOTE: Von Mises was likely influenced by the earlier Rousseau quotation.



  • Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. Walter Benjamin, in One-Way Street (1928)
  • The best prose is written by authors who see their universe with a poet’s eyes. Vera Brittain, in On Becoming a Writer (1947)
  • Any man who can write a page of living prose adds something to our life, and the man who can, as I can, is surely the last to resent someone who can do it even better. Raymond Chandler, quoted in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976)

Chandler continued: “An artist cannot deny art, nor would he want to. A lover cannot deny love. If you believe in an ideal, you don’t own it—it owns you.”

  • Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. Ernest Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon (1932)

QUOTE NOTE: Hemingway, a proponent of sparse, unadorned writing, believed that the meaning and significance of a novel came not from fancy writing or frilly decoration, but rather from its deep internal structure—its architecture (see his famous “iceberg” writing analogy in Writers—on Themselves).

  • The poet Carolyn Kizer said to me recently, “Poets are interested mostly in death and commas,” and I agreed. Now I add: Prose writers are interested mostly in life and commas. Ursula Le Guin, in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (1998)
  • Good prose is like a windowpane. George Orwell, “Why I Write”, in Gangrel magazine (Summer, 1946)

Orwell preceded the thought by writing: “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality.”

  • Writing prose for a living is a life sentence. Hart Pomerantz, in a personal communication to the compiler (Nov. 2, 2017)
  • My model for prose is poet’s prose; many of the writers I most admire were poets when young or could have been poets. Susan Sintag, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1995)
  • The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day. E. B. White, in William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style (1959)
  • Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. P. G. Wodehouse, advice to writers of humorous fiction, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1975)

QUOTE NOTE: Wodehouse continued: “I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes? and then get every drop of juice out of them.”



  • Those who prosper take on airs of vanity. Aeschylus, in Agamemnon (5th c. B.C.)
  • Happiness seems to require a modicum of external prosperity. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics (4th c. B.C.)
  • If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. G. K. Chesterton, “The Book of Job,” in G. K. C. as M. C. 1929)
  • Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshiped. Calvin Coolidge, in speech in Boston, Massachusetts (June 11, 1928)
  • Prosperity has damned more Souls than all the Devils together. Thomas Fuller, M.D., in Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs (1732)
  • Few of us can stand prosperity. Another man’s I mean. Mark Twain, epigraph to Following the Equator:A Journey Around the World (1897)



  • In the day of prosperity, adversity is forgotten and in the day of adversity, prosperity is not remembered. Apocrypha—Ecclesiasticus 11:25 (RSV)
  • The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired. Francis Bacon, citing “an high speech” of the stoic philosopher Seneca, “Of Adversity,” in Essays (1625)
  • If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome. Anne Bradstreet, in Meditations Divine and Moral (1664)

Bradstreet was the first published poet (of either gender) in the American colonies. She wrote the book for her son Simon, writing in the dedication: “You once desired me to leave something for you in writing that you might look upon when you should see me no more.” In 1630, the teenage Bradstreet, her parents, and her new husband set sail on the ship Arbella for the New World (the captain was John Winthrop). While her husband went on to become the colony’s governor, she raised eight children and privately wrote poetry.

  • Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity. Thomas Carlyle, in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841)



  • The grocer, the butcher, the baker, the merchant, the landlord, the druggist, the liquor dealer, the policeman, the doctor, the city father and the politician—these are the people who make money out of prostitution. Polly Adler, in A House Is Not a Home (1953)
  • Men will pay larges sums to whores/For telling them they are not bores. W. H. Auden, in the poem “New Year Letter” (1940)
  • The worst part about prostitution is that you’re obliged not to sell sex only, but your humanity. That’s the worst part of it: that what you’re selling is your human dignity. Not really so much in bed, but in accepting the agreement—in becoming a bought person. Author Unknown, an unnamed prostitute quoted by Kate Millett in “Prostitution: A Quartet for Female Voices,” in Vivian Cornick and Barbara K. Moran, Woman in Sexist Society (1971)
  • Here is my personal opinion about prostitution. If men knew how to do it, they wouldn’t have to pay for it. Roseanne Barr, quoted in Geraldine Barr, My Sister Roseanne (1994; with Ted Schwarz)
  • Society has no qualms about a masseuse who is paid for touching people, or about laborers, or professional athletes or dancers, all of whom make a living with their bodies. Why should we make an exception for sex? Sydney Biddle Barrows, in Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows (1986)
  • A call girl is simply someone who hates poverty more than she hates sin. Sydney Biddle Barrows, in Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows (1986)
  • Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion. William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell,” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)
  • A country without bordels [sic] is like a house without bathrooms. Marlene Dietrich, in Marlene Dietrich’s ABC (1962)

QUOTE NOTE: Bordel is another word for a brothel or a bordello.

  • Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble. Joseph Heller, in Catch-22 (1961)
  • My method? Basically the same principle as Masters and Johnson, only they charge thousands and it’s called therapy. I charge $50 and it’s called prostitution. Xaviera Hollander, in The Happy Hooker (1971)
  • Prostitutes don’t sell their bodies, they rent their bodies. Housewives sell their bodies when they get married. Florynce R. Kennedy, in Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times (1976)
  • Prostitution is really the only crime in the penal law where two people are doing a thing mutually agreed upon and yet only one, the female partner, is subject to arrest. Kate Millett, in The Prostitution Papers (1971)
  • Monogamy and prostitution go together. Kate Millett, in The Prostitution Papers (1971)
  • The one thing prostitution is not is a “victimless crime.” It attracts a wide species of preying criminals and generates a long line of victims, beginning with the most obvious and least understood—the prostitute herself. Gail Sheehy, in Hustling (1973)

Sheehy’s book also included these other observations:

“It is a silly question to ask a prostitute why she does it…. These are the highest-paid ‘professional’ women in America.”

“Into this anonymous pit they climb—a fumbling, frightened, pathetic man and a cold, contemptuous, violated woman—prepared to exchange for twenty dollars no more than ten minutes of animal sex, untouched by a stroke of their common humanity.”



  • Toothpicks are an excellent source of protein. Dusty Baker, quoted by Mark McDermott in, “Will Dusty Baker make Hall of Fame?” Sacramento Bee (June 27, 2015)



  • Our tradition is one of protest and revolt, and it is stultifying to celebrate the rebels of the past while we silence the rebels of the present. Henry Steele Commager, in Freedom, Loyalty and Dissent (1954)
  • Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis. Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry (April 19, 1838)

QUOTE NOTE: In the spring of 1838, Emerson was attempting to come to grips with a powerful sense of outrage after citizens of the Cherokee Nation were forcibly removed from their ancestral home in Georgia and resettled in American Southwest land (present-day Oklahoma) that had been designated as Indian Territory. This practice—which also included the forced relocation of the Muscogee, Seminole, Chicasaw, and Choctaw nations—is commonly referred to as The Trail of Tears. About a letter of protest he sent to President Van Buren, Emerson wrote that he was fully aware that the letter was “merely a scream; but sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.”

  • Art is a protest against death. Audrey Flack, in Audrey Flack on Painting (1981)
  • Protesting is an act of love. It is born of a deeply held conviction that the world can be a better, kinder place. Saying “no” to injustice is the ultimate declaration of hope. Amy Goodman & David Goodman, in Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times (2008)
  • Anger is protest. Lillian Hellman, in Watch on the Rhine (1941)
  • Originality is deliberate and forced, and partakes of the nature of a protest. Eric Hoffer, in The Passionate State of Mind (1955)

Hoffer preceded this observation with these famous words: “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

  • If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest. Audre Lorde, quoted in Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work (1983)
  • The exclusive pretension made by a part of the truth to be the whole, must and ought to be protested against. John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1859)
  • In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty. Phil Ochs, liner note to his 1967 album Pleasures of the Harbor

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way the quotation is often presented, but it is actually a single line from an Ochs poem that appeared on the back cover of the album. The full poem may be seen at: Phil Ochs poem.

  • A protest song is a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit. Phil Ochs, liner note to his 1989 album The Broadside Tapes I (songs originally recorded 1962-64)
  • Silence is consent. And silence where life and liberty is at stake, where by a timely protest we could stay the destoyer’s hand, and do not do so, is as criminal as giving actual aid to the oppressor, for it answers his purpose. Ernestine L. Rose, in an 1852 speech in New York City
  • When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him. Bayard Rustin, quoted in Joslyn Pine, Book of African-American Quotations (2011)

QUOTATION CAUTION: This observation has become very popular, appearing on hundreds of internet sites. An original source has never been provided, however, so consider it an “attributed, but not verified” quotation.

  • The lady doth protest too much, methinks. William Shakespeare, the character Gertrude speaking, in Hamlet (1601)
  • It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. John Steinbeck, in Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962)
  • Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Alfred North Whitehead, in “The Aims of Education,” a 1916 presidential address to the Mathematical Association of England; reprinted in The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929)

Whitehead continued on a pessimistic note: “Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.”

  • To sin by silence when we should protest,/Makes cowards of men. The human race/Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised/Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,/ The inquisition yet would serve the law,/And guillotines decide our least dispute. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Protest,” in Poems of Problems (1914)

ERROR ALERT: A very similar version of the first line is often mistakenly attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The problem appeared to originate in a July 25, 1951 speech to the Massachusetts legislature, in which General Douglas MacArthur—then under heat from President Truman—quoted Lincoln as saying: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” To see Wilcox’s full poem, go to ”Protest”.

  • The human race/Has climbed on protest. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Protest,” in Poems of Problems (1914)
  • There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Eli Wiesel, in “Hope, Despair, and Memory,” his Nobel Lecture, Oslo, Norway (Dec. 11, 1986)



  • Protocol is etiquette with a government expense account, and is not to be sneered at. Judith Martin (Miss Manners), in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (1982; “Freshly Updated” in 2005)



  • Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. Chinua Achebe, the voice of the narrator, in Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), quoted in S. C. Champion, Racial Proverbs: A selection of the World's Proverbs Arranged Linguistically (1938)
  • All the world over, proverbs run in pairs, and pull both ways: for the most part one neutralizes, by contradiction, the other. Richard Burton, in Abeokuta and the Camaroons Mountains: an Exploration (1863)
  • Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long and wise experience. Miguel de Cervantes, the title character speaking, in Don Quixote (1605-15)

QUOTATION CAUTION: This is one of Cervantes's most widely quoted observations, but it looks like a extremely generous translation of the passage, which historically was presented this way: “I am of the opinion, Sancho, there is no proverb but what is true, because they are all sentences drawn from experience itself, the mother of all sciences.”

A similar observation appeared in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and there are many who believe she should be legitimately regarded as the author of the short/long phrasing (see her entry below).

  • His chief strength lay in proverbs, of which he had always abundance ready, though perhaps not always fitting the occasion. Miguel de Cervantes, the narrator describing the title character, in Don Quixote (1605-15)
  • An idea launched like a javelin in proverbial form strikes with sharper point on the hearer's mind and leaves implanted barbs for meditation. Desiderius Erasmus, in The Adages of Erasmus (2001; William Barker, ed.)

Erasmus added: “It will make far less impression on the mind if you say ‘Fleeting and brief is the life of man’ than if you quote the proverb ‘Man is but a bubble’.”

  • He repeated to himself an old French proverb that he had made up that morning. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Notebook E,” in The Crack-Up (1945; Edmund Wilson, ed.)
  • A proverb is much matter decocted into few words. Thomas Fuller, in The History of the Worthies of England (1662)
  • You are right to listen to proverbs. They are short sayings made out of long experience. Zora Neale Hurston, the character Mentu speaking to the title character, in Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)

QUOTE NOTE: This was Mentu’s response to the title character, who had just said to him: “I won’t forget anything that you have ever taught me, the sayings, and the proverbs and all. They have helped me a lot.”

As young Moses was growing up, his most influential mentor was Mentu, a palace stableman whose primary method of moral instruction was to tell stories to the young prince. In the novel, the narrator said about him: “He had answers in the form of stories for nearly every question that Moses asked.”

  • Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them. Aldous Huxley, in Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday (1926)

Huxley added: “The newly arrested thief knows that honesty is the best policy with an intensity of conviction which the rest of us can never experience.”

  • A proverb is anonymous human history compressed to the size of a seed. Stefan Kanfer, “Proverbs or Aphorisms?” a Time magazine essay (June 11, 1983)

In a striking metaphorical contrast between proverbs and aphorisms, Kanfer added about the latter: “The aphorism is a personal observation inflated into a universal truth, a private posing as a general.”

  • Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced—even a proverb is no Proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it. John Keats, in letter to George and Georgiana Keats (March 19, 1819)
  • Proverbs contradict each other. That is the wisdom of a nation. Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, in Unkempt Thoughts (1962)
  • Proverbs, the ready money of human experience. James Russell Lowell, in the essay “Abraham Lincoln” (1864), in My Study Windows (1871)
  • One man’s wit, and all men’s wisdom. John Russell, his definition of a proverb, quoted in R. J. Mackintosh, Life of the Right Hon. Sir James Mackintosh. Vol 2, (1836)
  • The proverb is the horse of conversation. Proverb (West African)
  • Proverbs put old heads on young shoulders. Charles Reade, in The Cloister and the Hearth (1861)
  • Proverbs were at their height in Shakespeare’s time, and it is more than probable that any proverbs attributable to Shakespeare had a previous existence, even if in a less memorable form. Ronald Ridout and Clifford Witting, in Introduction to English Proverbs Explained (1967)
  • The great advantage of a proverb in argument is that it is supposed to be incontrovertible, as embodying the quintessential sagacity of our ancestors. But when once you have realized that proverbs go in pairs which say opposite things you can never again be downed by a proverb; you merely quote the opposite. Bertrand Russell, “On Proverbs”, in New York American (16 November 1932); reprinted in Mortals and Others: American Essays, 1931–35 (1975)

A bit earlier in the essay, Russell wrote: “The supposed wisdom of proverbs is mainly imaginary. As a rule, proverbs go in pairs which say opposite things. The opposite of ‘More haste, less speed’ is ‘A stitch in time saves nine’.”

  • Proverbs depend for their truth entirely on the occasion they are applied to. Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it. George Santayana, in The Life of Reason, Reason in Science, Vol. 5 (1906)
  • Patch grief with proverbs. William Shakespeare, Leonato speaking to Antonio, in Much Ado About Nothing (1598)

QUOTE NOTE: Patch here is used in the sense “to mend,” making this one of history’s most succinct sayings on the soothing power of words.

  • The proverb answers where the sermon fails, as a well-charged pistol will do more execution than a whole barrel of gunpowder idly expended in the air. William Gilmore Simms, in Egeria: Or Voices of Thought and Counsel (1853)

ERROR ALERT: For nearly 150 years, published collections of quotations have mistakenly presented this observation with exploded rather than expended.

  • Books, like proverbs, receive their chief value from the stamp and esteem of ages through which they have passed. William Temple, “Ancient and Modern Learning,” in Miscellanea, Part II (1690)



  • Proximity is nine-tenths of friendship. John Malcolm Brinnin, in Truman Capote—Dear Heart, Old Buddy (1987)
  • The longest absence is less perilous to love than the terrible trials of incessant proximity. Ouida (pen name of Maria Louise Ramé), in Wisdom, Wit and Pathos (1884)



  • I regard psychiatry as fifty per cent bunk, thirty per cent fraud, ten per cent parrot talk, and the remaining ten percent just a fancy lingo for the common sense we have had for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, if we ever had the guts to read it. Raymond Chandler, in letter to Paul McClung (Dec. 11, 1951); reprinted in The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (2000)
  • Psychiatry’s chief contribution to philosophy is the discovery that the toilet seat is the seat of the soul. Alexander Chase, in Perspectives (1966)
  • After all, Jews invented psychiatry to help other Jews become Gentiles. Morton Feldman, in Give My Regards to Eighth Street : Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (2000)
  • Psychiatry enables us to correct our faults by confessing our parents’ shortcomings. Laurence J. Peter, in Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time (1977)
  • A psychiatrist is a man who goes to the Folies-Bergère and looks at the audience. Mervyn Stockwood, quoted in The Observer (London; Oct. 22, 1961)
  • Psychiatric expert testimony: mendacity masquerading as medicine. Thomas Szasz, in The Second Sin (1973)
  • I suspect that our own faith in psychiatry will seem as touchingly quaint to the future as our grandparents’ belief in phrenology seems now to us. Gore Vidal, in Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (1969)
  • A neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the air. A psychotic is the man who lives in it. And a psychiatrist is the man who collects the rent. Alfred Webb-Johnson, quoted in Look magazine (Oct. 4, 1955)

QUOTE NOTE: This appears to be the earliest appearance of this saying, which went on to become widely quoted and adapted. Lord Webb-Johnson was a respected British surgeon, personal physician to Queen Mary from 1936–53, and former president of the Royal College of Surgeons.



  • Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution. G. K. Chesterton, widely attributed

ERROR ALERT: This is how the quotation almost always appears, but not one quotation anthology offers a precise citation because Chesterton never said it this way. On several occasions, he did use the confession without absolution phrase, but never in the clear-cut and direct way typically suggested. The closest he came was in an Aug. 25, 1922 piece he wrote in The New Witness: “I should say that psycho-analysis was confession without absolution.”

  • Psychoanalysis is a permanent fad. A vogue here to stay because it tells an old story in a new way. Peter De Vries, the opening passage of Forever Panting (1973)

De Vries continued: “I mean the traditional conflict between flesh and spirit, as viewed by the Christianity now supposedly outmoded, isn’t likely to ease up because we have scrapped the notion of sin and now speak instead of the ego and superego between them riding herd on something called the id. It’s the same keg of nails any way you open it.”

  • Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love. Sigmund Freud, in letter to Carl Jung (1906), quoted in Bruno Bettleheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1984)
  • Freud is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother. Germaine Greer, in The Female Eunuch (1970)
  • Sigmund Freud was a novelist with a scientific background. He just didn’t know he was a novelist. All those damn psychiatrists after him, they didn’t know he was a novelist, either. They made simply awful sense out of his intuitions. John Irving, in Paris Review interview (Summer–Fall, 1986)
  • There is an analogy between the bombardment of the atom and the bombardment of the personality by the method of analysis. Anaïs Nin, diary entry (July, 1945)

Nin went on to write: “Just as scientists stripped away the layers of matter to get at the heart of the atom, the analyst has stripped away the layers of the personality to get at the core of the psyche.”

  • Psychoanalysis is a sort of individual history, an embryology of the personality. Jean Piaget, in “Psychoanalysis and its Relations with Child Psychology” (1920); reprinted in The Essential Piaget (1977)
  • A good psychoanalyst listens to every word you don’t say. Hart Pomerantz, in personal communication to the compiler (April 14, 2018)


(see BABBLE)



  • It seems a pity that psychology has destroyed all our knowledge of human nature. G. K. Chesterton, quoted in The Observer (London; Dec. 9 1934)
  • Psychology has a long past, but only a short history. Hermann Ebbinghaus, the opening sentence, Summary of Psychology (1908)
  • Professional psychologists seem to think that they are the only people who make sense out of human actions. The rest of us know that everybody tries to do just this. What else is gossip? Dorothy Canfield Fisher, “The Moran Scandal,” in Four-Square (1949)
  • Psychology as a science has its limitations, and, as the logical consequence of theology is mysticism, so the ultimate consequence of psychology is love. Erich Fromm, in The Art of Loving (1956)
  • It is easier to study the “behavior” of rats than people, because rats are smaller and have fewer outside commitments. So modern psychology is mostly about rats. Celia Green, in The Decline and Fall of Science (1976)
  • There is no such thing as a normal psychology that holds for all people. Karen Horney, in The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937)
  • Psychology which explains everything/explains nothing,/and we are still in doubt. Marianne Moore, “Marriage,“ in Selected Poems (1935)
  • The trouble with psychology…is that it doesn’t take human nature into account. Ruth Rendell, Inspector Wexford speaking, in Road Rage (1997)
  • A large part of the popularity and persuasiveness of psychology comes from its being a sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of “spirit” over matter. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor (1978)
  • Many books in popular psychology are a melange of the author's comments, a dollop of research, and stupefyingly dull transcriptions from interviews. Carol Tavris, “A Remedy But Not a Cure,” in a 1989 issue of The New York Times (specific issue undetermined)
  • The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best. Paul Valéry, in Tel Quel (1943)



  • If God wanted teenagers to be abstinent, puberty would begin at twenty. Jacob M. Appel, in The Replacement (2006)
  • You think I’m exaggerating, but I have male friends whose daughters are approaching puberty at speeds upwards of 700 miles per hour, and when you say the word “dating,” my friends get a look in their eyes that makes Charles Manson look like Captain Kangaroo. Dave Barry, in Dave Barry Turns 40 (1990)

Barry introduced the thought by writing: “I’ll tell you what would really age me fast: if I had a teenaged daughter. I don’t think I could handle that. Because that would mean teenaged boys would be coming around to my house. ‘Hi, Mr. Barry!’ they’d say, with their cheerful, innocent young voices. ‘We’re here to have sex with your daughter!’ No, of course they wouldn’t come out and say that, but I know that’s what they’d be thinking, because I was a teenaged boy once, and I was basically a walking hormone storm. I’m sure modern boys are no different.”

  • Becoming a comedienne was my way of adjusting to puberty. Phyllis Diller, quoted in Denise Collier and Kathleen Beckett, Spare Ribs: Women in the Humor Biz (1980)
  • Puberty is the cradle of love, senility its cremation. Obi Egbuna, in Wind versus Polygamy (1974)
  • Hey, God made us sexual creatures. If he wanted teenagers to wait that long, he would have made puberty start at twenty-five. Natasha Friend, in For Keeps (2010)
  • Before puberty the child’s personality has not yet formed and it is easier to guide its life and make it acquire specific habits of order, discipline, and work…. Antonio Gramsci in Letters from Prison (2011, Frank Rosengarted, ed.)
  • Puberty for a girl is like floating down a broadening river into an open sea. G. Stanley Hall, in Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime and Religion (1904)
  • The slowly awakening sense of my own sexuality overcame me, as it does every person, like an enemy and terrorist, as something forbidden, tempting, and sinful. Herman Hesse, the title character speaking, in Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth (1919)

QUOTE NOTE: Demian is a coming of age tale that originally appeared to be a memoir written by one Emil Sinclair (a nom de plume chosen by Hesse for the work). In this remarkable description of the onset of puberty, Sinclair added: “What my curiosity sought, what dreams, lust and fear created—the great secret of puberty—did not fit at all into my sheltered childhood. I behaved like everyone else. I led the double life of a child who is no longer a child.” To see how the passage continues, go to Demian

  • Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the “creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.” Hugh MacLeod, in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity (2009)
  • Schools must stop being holding pens to keep energetic young people off the job market and off the streets. We stretch puberty out a long, long time. Toni Morrison, in Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994; Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie, ed.)
  • But after the intimacy-inducing rituals of puberty, boys who would be men are told we must go it alone, we must achieve our heroism as the Lone Ranger, we must see the other men as threats to our masculine mastery, as objects of competition. Frank Pittman, in Man Enough (1993)
  • In pre-puberty you become who you are. In post-puberty, you refine whom you have become. Harvey Stanbrough, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Charles Claymore Task, in Confessions of a Professional Psychopath (2015)
  • There are three intellectual pursuits, and, so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess. George Steiner, “A Death of Kings,” in Extraterritorial; Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution (1971)
  • What war has always been is a puberty ceremony. It’s a very rough one, but you went away a boy and came back a man, maybe with an eye missing or whatever but godammit you were a man and people had to call you a man thereafter. Kurt Vonnegut, in a March 11, 1983 interview in City Limits magazine.
  • We are American at puberty. We die French. Evelyn Waugh, a July 18, 1961 diary entry, in The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (1976)


(includes PUBLIC SENTIMENT; see also OPINION and [Opinion] POLLS and [The] PUBLIC)

  • Public opinion, the sum of private opinions, does matter, can matter often for good. Sybille Bedford, in A Compass Error (1968)
  • There is nothing that makes more cowards and feeble men than public opinion. Henry Ward Beecher, in Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)
  • Public Opinion, this invisible, intangible, omnipresent, despotic tyrant; this thousand-headed Hydra—the more dangerous for being composed of individual mediocrities. H. P. Blavatsky, in Spiritual Scientist (1875)
  • That cruelest of tyrants—public opinion. H. P. Blavatsky, “A Paradoxical World,” in Lucifer (1889)
  • I had grown tired of standing in the lean and lonely front line facing the greatest enemy that ever confronted man—public opinion. Clarence Darrow, in The Story of My Life (1932)
  • I’ve seen public opinion shift like a wind and put out the very fire it lighted. Rachel Field, in All This and Heaven Too (1939)
  • Public opinion, though slow as lava, in the end forces governments towards more sanity, more justice. My heroes and heroines are all private citizens. Martha Gellhorn, in The View From the Ground (1988)
  • Publicity is the only thing some people fear. An aroused public opinion has been the cause of most reforms. Muriel Lester, in It Occurred to Me (1937)

Lester continued: “Telling the truth is perhaps the pacifist’s only weapon. Over and over again, even the suggestion that one may publish the facts has changed a scornful, bullying opponent into an almost subservient helper. But how dangerous it is!”

  • There are only two forces that can withstand the force of the war’s spirit when it seizes upon the world. The one is the force of an independently thinking, free, and articulate democracy. The other is the force of an instructed and enlightened public opinion. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a 1914 remark, quoted in Margaret R. Higonnet, Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I (1999)
  • Public sentiment is everything, With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Abraham Lincoln, remark in his first debate with Stephen A. Douglas (Ottawa, Illinois; Aug. 21, 1858); quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)

Lincoln continued: “Consequently, he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper that he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

  • Public opinion!—a tyrant, sitting in the dark, wrapt up in mystification and vague terrors of obscurity; deriving power no one knows from whom; like an Asian monarch, unapproachable, unimpeachable, undethronable, perhaps illegitimate; but irresistible in its power to quell thought, to repress action, to silence conviction; and bringing the timid perpetually under an unworthy bondage of mean fear. Harriet Martineau, in Society in America, Vol. 3 (1837)
  • In America, public opinion is the leader. Frances Perkins, in People at Work (1934)
  • Private opinion creates public opinion. Public opinion overflows eventually into national behaviour and national behavior, as things are arranged at present, can make or mar the world. Jan Struther, “The Weather of the World,” A Pocketful of Pebbles (1946)

Struther continued: “That is why private opinion, and private behavior, and private conversation are so terrifyingly important.”



  • When I came back to the United States [after WWII], I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And “propaganda” got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words so we found the words “public relations.” Edward L. Bernays, quoted in The Century of the Self (BBC-TV, March, 2002; written and produced by Adam Curtis)





  • The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies. Henry Brooks Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
  • Live by publicity, you’ll probably die by publicity. Russell Baker, in The New York Times (Dec. 3, 1986)
  • You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity. O. A. Battista, in Quotoons: A Speaker’s Dictionary (1981)

ERROR ALERT: This observation has been commonly misattributed to Thomas Wolfe. For more on the quotation, see this 2011 QUOTE INVESTIGATOR post.

  • All publicity is good, except an obituary notice. Brendan Behan, tweaking a popular American proverb (to be seen below); quoted in Sunday Express (London; Jan 5, 1964)
  • Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most effective policeman. Louis D. Brandeis, in Other People’s Money (1914)

QUOTE NOTE: Brandeis may not have been the author of the proverb sunlight is the best disinfectant, but he certainly helped popularize the saying. In offering his fuller thought above, Brandeis was likely inspired by an 1860 observation from Emerson (see below)

  • As gas-light is found to be the best nocturnal police, so the universe protects itself by pitiless publicity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Worship,” in The Conduct of Life (1860)
  • The most amazing feature of American life is its boundless publicity. Carl Jung, in The Complications of American Psychology (1930)

Jung added: “Everybody has to meet everybody, and they even seem to enjoy this enormity.”

  • In order to fuel the engines of publicity the media suck so much love and adulation out of the atmosphere that unknown men must gasp for breath. Lewis H. Lapham, “Sculpture in Snow,” in Harper’s magazine (June, 1981)
  • All publicity is good publicity. Proverb (American)

QUOTE NOTE: According to the Yale Book of Quotations, this modern proverb was first expressed in this exact phrasing in the Washington Post on Feb. 24, 1938. Seven years earlier, a negatively-phrased version of the sentiment (“No publicity is bad publicity”) had appeared in a July 14, 1931 issue of the the Oshkosh [Wisconsin] Daily Northwestern.



  • Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. Margaret Atwood, in speech accepting the American PEN Literary Service Award (April 27, 2010)

Atwood continued: “Or else you find out in an unpleasant way: You’re arrested, you are condemned, you are tortured, you are shot, you disappear. Those doing the shooting and the torturing, whether they are from the left or the right, whether they represent theocracies or secular totalitarian dictatorships or extreme factions, all have one thing in common: They wish to silence the human voice, or all human voices that do not sing their songs.” The full text of Atwood’s speech may be seen at The Daily Beast

  • As repressed sadists are supposed to become policemen or butchers so those with irrational fear of life become publishers. Cyril Connolly, in Enemies of Promise (1938)
  • To publish a book is to talk at the dinner table in front of the servants. Henri de Montherlant, in Carnets, 1930–1944 (1957)
  • When you publish a book, it’s the world’s book. The world edits it. Philip Roth, “A Visit with Philip Roth” (an interview with James Atlas), in The New York Times Book Review (Sep. 2 1979)
  • The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business. John Steinbeck, quoted in Newsweek magazine (Dec. 24, 1962)




  • Pugnacity is a form of courage, but a very bad form. Sinclair Lewis, “What’s Right with America?” in McCall’s magazine (Nov. 1929)



  • I suppose this is a trivial matter but I do want to object to the maddening fuss-fidget punctuation which one of your editors is attempting to impose on my story. I said it before but I’ll say it again, that unless necessary for clarity of meaning I would prefer a minimum of goddamn commas, hyphens, apostrophes, quotation marks and fucking (most obscene of all punctuation marks) semi-colons. Edward Abbey, from a 1974 letter to his editor at Milkweed Editions, in Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast (2006)

Abbey concluded: “I’ve had to waste hours erasing that storm of flyshit on the typescript [of The Monkey Wrench Gang].” For a similar letter of complaint about an overly enthusiastic copyeditor, see the Raymond Chandler entry in GRAMMAR.

  • The man who uses italics is like the man who raises his voice in conversation and talks loudly in order to make himself heard. H. H. Asquith, to Oscar Wilde, quoted in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1987)

QUOTE NOTE: Wilde had a great fondness for italicization and this remark, delivered in the presence of others, was intended as a put-down. See Wilde’s reply below.

  • No steel can pierce the human heart so chillingly as a period at the right moment. Isaac Babel, “Guy de Maupassant” (1924), in Collected Stories (1960)

QUOTE NOTE: In Words on Words: Quotations About Language and Languages (2000), David & Hilary Crystal present a slightly different translation: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.” In American English, the term full stop is rarely used, but in England, it is used interchangeably with period to indicate the end of a sentence (an example occurs in the Lynne Truss entry below). For more on the subject, go to: Full Stops.

  • In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard. Russell Baker, ”How to Punctuate,”, in Ebony magazine (Nov., 1985)

Baker preceded the thought by writing: “When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly—with body language. Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow.” Baker’s informative article also included these other tips and suggestions:

“The dash creates a dramatic pause to prepare for an expression needing strong emphasis.”

“Parentheses help you pause quietly to drop in some chatty information not vital to your story.”

“A colon is a tip-off to get ready for what’s next: a list, a long quotation, or an explanation.”

“You can also end [a sentence] with an exclamation point (!), but must you? Usually it just makes you sound breathless and silly.”

  • One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided wherever possible. Winston Churchill, quoted in William Safire, “Hyphenating Americans,” The New York Times (Dec. 23, 1979); reprinted in On Language (1980)
  • Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. F. Scott Fitzgerald, quoted in Sheila Graham, Beloved Infidel (1958; written with Gerold Frank)

QUOTE NOTE: In an observation that was clearly inspired by this Fitzgerald quotation, British humorist Miles Kington offered the following in a 1976 issue of the English humor magazine Punch: “So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading LAUGHTER to a studio audience.”

ERROR ALERT: On many internet sites, the Fitzgerald quotation is mistakenly presented as: “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” This error appears to have originated with Jon Winokur, who presented it this way in his otherwise wonderful quotation anthology, Advice to Writers (1999)

  • Hyphens, like cats, are capable of arousing tenderness or shudders. Pamela Frankau, in Pen to Paper (1961)
  • Overall, the universe’s apostrophe store stays in balance. It seems our linguistic world was intelligently designed—for every gratuitous apostrophe there’s an instance where it’s omitted. Anu Garg, in “A.Word.A.Day” post (Sep. 3, 2012)
  • Alas, there are so many kinds of commas: those that lie like rocks in the path of a sentence, slowing its gait and requiring the reader’s heed to avoid a stumble; their gentler cousins, impairing a pell-mell flow of meaning the way pebbles slow a stream; commas that indicate a pause for thinking things over; commas enclosing phrases the way the small pockets in a purse hug hairpins or collect bits of loose change; commas that return us to our last stop, and those that some schoolmarm has insisted should be placed, like a traffic cop, between “stop” and “and.” William H. Gass, “Enter a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s: Revision and Craft,” in Harper’s magazine (Oct., 2011)

QUOTE NOTE: Gass was describing Bishop’s penchant for using dashes, and how her many dashes were changed into oh-so-many commas by editors at The New Yorker. He continued: “Not to mention those comma-like curvatures that function like overhead lighting—apostrophes they’re called—that warn of a bad crack in a spelt word where some letters have disappeared to apparently no one’s alarm; or claws that admit the words they enclose aren’t theirs; or those that issue claims of ownership, called possessives by unmarried teachers.”

  • My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. Ernest Hemingway, letter to Horace Liveright (May 22, 1925); reprinted in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917–1961 (1981, Carlos Baker, ed.)

Hemingway added: “You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

  • I like to use as few commas as possible so that sentences will go down in one swallow without touching the sides. Florence King, in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (1989)
  • Punctuation marks do for the reader what road signs and traffic signals do for the driver. Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis, in The Write Way (1995)

Lederer and Dowis added: “They tell when to slow down, when to stop, and what to expect along the way. Reading a book with no punctuation would be like driving through a busy city with no signs or signals.” In her 2003 grammar guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss was likely thinking of this quotation when she wrote: “Another writer tells us that punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop.”

  • An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Louis Menand, on Lynne Truss and her 2003 grammar guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in “Bad Comma: Lynne Truss’s Strange Grammar,” The New Yorker (June 28, 2004)

Menand found so many punctuation mistakes, grammatical errors, and questionable recommendations in Truss’s book that he wrote: “It’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.” To read Menand’s full article, go to: "Bad Comma".

  • I have always had a deep and abiding love for the English language. I’ve always loved the flirtatious tango of consonants and vowels, the sturdy dependability of nouns and the capricious whimsy of verbs, the strutting pageantry of the adjective and the flitting evanescence of the adverb, all kept safe and orderly by those reliable little policeman, punctuation marks. Dennis Miller, in The Rant Zone (2001)

Miller ended his metaphorical flight of fancy in, for him, a predictable way: “Wow! Think I got my ass kicked much in high school?”

  • Since it first popped up in the 14th century, the exclamation point (punctus admirativus or exclamativus) has generally been regarded as the hot-headed punk in the school of punctuation. Richard Nordquist, “Notes on Exclamation Points,” in Grammar & Composition posting (About.com, April 4, 2012)

Nordquist, professor of rhetoric and English at Armstrong Atlantic State University (Savannah, GA) and the Grammar Guide for About.com, added: “Favored by advertisers, preteens, and writers of ransom notes, the exclamation point is less a mark of punctuation than an oratorical cue or a typographical shriek—in newspaper slang, a ‘screamer.’” To read the full post, go to: Nordquist on Exclamation Points.

  • Commas, like nuns, often travel in pairs. Mary Norris, in Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015)
  • One of our great assistances is, of course, punctuation. But it occurred to me that, perhaps, each of us writers has only perhaps a finite amount of it for our use, and we should use it judiciously—lest we hear a voice, suddenly, when we need it, saying, “No more semicolons!” “You’re finished with your dashes!” And, also, that passive-aggressive comma, with which we so carefully set off what is nice, so it won’t be missed. Mary Oliver, introducing “Seven White Butterflies,” a poem that has no punctuation, except for a question mark at the end; in reading at event sponsored by Lannan Foundation (San Francisco, CA; Aug., 1, 2001)
  • The fig-leaves that hide the private parts of literature. Pablo Picasso, on punctuation marks, quoted in Anthony Burgess, A Mouthful of Air (1992)
  • Give your main clause a little space. Prose is not like boxing; the skilled writer deliberately telegraphs his punch, knowing that the reader wants to take the message directly on the chin. William Safire, on placing a comma after the dependent clause, in How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar (1990)
  • The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and move on. Robert J. Samuelson, “The Sad Fate of the Comma,” in Newsweek (July 23, 2007)
  • A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” in Lectures in America (1935)

Stein, who famously eschewed the use of commas in her writing, also had this to say on the subject in that same lecture: “A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it and to me for many years…the use of them was positively degrading.”

  • Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath. Lewis Thomas, “Notes on Punctuation,” in The Medusa and the Snail (1979)
  • Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop. Lynne Truss, quoting an unnamed writer, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Toleration Approach to Punctuation (2003)
  • To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Toleration Approach to Punctuation (2003)

Truss continued: “The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.”

  • In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly. Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Toleration Approach to Punctuation (2003)

Truss’s book was filled with extended metaphorical flourishes. Here are two more examples:

“As with other paired bracketing devices (such as parentheses, dashes and quotation marks), there is actual mental cruelty involved, incidentally, in opening up a pair of commas and then neglecting to deliver the closing one. The reader hears the first shoe drop and then strains in agony to hear the second. In dramatic terms, it’s like putting a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I and then having the heroine drown herself quietly offstage in the bath during the interval. It’s just not cricket.”

“Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP for hours if necessary . . . and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots . . . you stop. But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes—that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity—well, they are the colons and semicolons.”

  • First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. Kurt Vonnegut, “Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing,” in A Man Without a Country (2007)
  • Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim. E. B. White, in Paris Review interview (Fall 1969)

White made the observation as he was denying that there was such a thing as “a New Yorker style.” He did, however, make this slight concession: “If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copydesk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention.”

  • Just as the orator marks his good things by a dramatic pause, or by raising and lowering his voice, or by gesture, so the writer marks his epigrams with italics, setting the little gem, so to speak, like a jeweler. Oscar Wilde, to H. H. Asquith, quoted in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1987)

QUOTE NOTE: This was Wilde’s rejoinder to Asquith’s attempt to put him down for using italics in his writing (see the Asquith remark above).

  • The Exclamation Point. Don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect. It has a gushy aura, the breathless excitement of a debutante commenting on an event that was exciting only to her. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Zinsser added: “We have all suffered more than our share of these sentences in which an exclamation point knocks us over the head with how cute or wonderful something was.” Zinsser also offered these thoughts on other punctuation marks:

“The Semicolon. There is a 19th-century mustiness that hangs over the semicolon…. The semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause. So use it with discretion, remembering that it will slow to a Victorian pace the late-20th-century momentum you’re striving for, and rely instead on the period and the dash.”

“The Dash. Somehow this invaluable tool is widely regarded as not quite proper—a bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English. But it has full membership and will get you out of many tight corners.”

“The Period. There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”




  • Never place a period where God has placed a comma. Gracie Allen

QUOTATION CAUTION: This quotation appears on the web sites of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of churches, and it even became the centerpiece of a 2005 national advertising campaign by the United Church of Christ (“God is Still Speaking”). The quotation has never been authenticated, however. It is commonly reported that Allen addressed the saying to husband George Burns in a letter she wrote to him just before her death. The story is almost certainly false—and, as often happens with apocryphal stories, it is often embellished with tantalizing details (the most popular is that Burns discovered the long-lost letter in his deceased wife’s papers many years after her death).

  • A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point. That’s basic spelling that every woman ought to know. Mistinguett, quoted in Theatre Arts magazine (Dec., 1955)

AUTHOR NOTE: Long before Cher and Madonna, a French woman with a single name was the world’s most famous female entertainer. Mistinguett (pronounced miss-tin-GET) was a singer and dancer who rose from poverty to become the highest-paid female entertainer of her time.

  • Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods. Neil Postman, quoting “an old aphorism,” in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
  • The victim was an infinitive. It has been split, probably, Smith asserts, by some blunt weapon such as a bad pen. The body was on a scrap of paper, and several drops of ink on the paper, together with a general crumpled appearance, showed that the victim had not succumbed without a struggle. P. G. Wodehouse, the detective Burdock Rose speaking, in “The Adventure of the Split Infinitive” [a Sherlock Holmes parody], in Public School Magazine (March 1902)


(see also [Capital] PUNISHMENT and [Corporal] PUNISHMENT and CRIME and DISCIPLINE and GUILT and JUSTICE and LAW and RETRIBUTION)

  • Are there any punishments in life but our joys turned against us? Elizabeth Bibesco, in The Fir and the Palm (1924)
  • Corporal punishment is as humiliating for him who gives it as for him who receives it; it is ineffective besides. Neither shame nor physical pain have any other effect than a hardening one. Ellen Key, in The Century of the Child (1909)
  • The fault no child ever loses is the one he was most punished for. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)
  • An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. Thomas Paine, in First Principles of Government (1795)
  • Whipping and abuse are like laudanum; you have to double the dose as the sensibilities decline. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the voice of the narrator, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1856)





(see also WORDPLAY)

  • Puns are little “plays on words” that a certain breed of person loves to spring on you and then look at you in a certain self-satisfied way to indicate that he thinks that you must think he is by far the cleverest person on Earth now that Benjamin Franklin is dead. Dave Barry, “Why Humor is Funny,” in Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits (1988)

Barry continued: “When in fact what you are thinking is that if this person ever ends up in a lifeboat, the other passengers will hurl him overboard by the end of the first day even if they have plenty of food and water.”

  • Pun, n. A form of wit, to which wise men stoop and fools aspire. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)
  • A good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation. James Boswell, journal entry (June 19, 1784), in Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

QUOTE NOTE: Boswell might have been thinking about the subject of his famous biography when writing this, for Dr. Johnson was fond of punning. Boswell introduced the observation by writing: “For my own part I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed.”

  • Science has not yet found a cure for puns. Robert Byrne, in The 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (1982)
  • Puns have been called verbal practical jokes, and are either loved or hated according to temperament. David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987)
  • A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket. John Dennis, on a contemporary punster, in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1781, vol. 51)
  • The lowest and most groveling kind of Wit. John Dryden, on puns, in “Defence of the Epilogue” (1672)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the origin of the popular expression A pun is the lowest form of wit. “Defence of the Epilogue” originally appeared as an appendix to The Conquest of Granada, a stage play written completely in iambic pentameter and first performed in 1670. Dryden never used the word pun though, but the word clench, his term for puns. To see his original use of the phrase, go to: Dryden on Punning.

  • There is a persistent difference of opinion about puns, some finding them cottony in the mouth, and others doting on the taste of them. Max Eastman, in Enjoyment of Laughter (1936)

Eastman went on to discuss three types of puns: pointless (also known as atrocious), witty, and poetic. To read his analysis, go to: Eastman on Puns.

  • Punsters’ minds work like Las Vegas one-armed bandits, with plums and cherries and oranges spinning madly upon someone’s utterance, searching for the right combination to connect on a pun. Robert Greenman, in Words in Action (1983)
  • Puns are the highest form of literature. Alfred Hitchcock, playing off the lowest form of wit expression, in appearance on The Dick Cavett Show (June 8, 1972)
  • People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers [copper pennies] on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)

Earlier in the piece, Holmes derided punsters with this sardonic reflection: “A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide.”

  • A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect. Charles Lamb, “Popular Fallacies,” originally published in London Magazine and reprinted in Last Essays of Elia (1833)

ERROR ALERT: This quotation is often mistakenly presented as if it begins simply A pun is a pistol let off…. To read Lamb’s entire essay, which includes a number of other metaphorical reflections on punning, go to: Lamb’s “Worst Puns” Essay.

  • Puns are a three-way circus of words: words clowning, words teetering on tightropes, words swinging from tent-tops, words thrusting their heads into the mouths of lions. Richard Lederer, in Get Thee to a Punnery (1988)

Illustrating the joy to be found in punning, Lederer went on to write: “Punning is a rewording experience. The inveterate (not invertebrate) punster believes that a good pun is like a good steak—a rare medium well done.”

  • A pun is language on vacation. Christopher Morley, attr.

QUOTATION CAUTION: I first discovered this quotation in Richard Lederer’s Get Thee to a Punnery (1988), but have been unable to track down an original source. While it may accurately reflect Morley’s view of puns, the evidence suggests that it is not an exact quotation. It may have all begun with this passage from Weigh the Word, a 1957 language arts textbook by Charles P. Jennings, Nancy King, and Marjorie Stevenson: “While to Christopher Morley a pun is language on vacation, to the non-punster it may seem more like language in agony.”

  • Punsters throughout history have served as some of the most adventurous scouts on the frontiers of language. John Pollack, in The Pun Also Rises (2011)
  • To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms. Walter Redfern, in Puns: More Senses Than One (1985)
  • Puns keep us on the alert, and responding to them reveals that we are alert…. They make us stretch our minds and double our attention.

Walter Redfern, in Puns: More Senses Than One (1985)

  • Metaphors and similes (puns, too, I might add) extend the dimensions and expand the possibilities of the world. When both innovative and relevant, they can wake up a reader, make him or her aware, through elasticity of verbiage, that reality—in our daily lives as well as in our stories—is less prescribed than tradition has led us to believe. Tom Robbins, “What Is the Function of Metaphor?” in Wild Ducks Flying Backward (2005)
  • The true punster’s mind cycles through homophones in search of a quip the way small children delight in rhymes or experiment babblingly with language. Joseph Tartakovsky, “Pun for the Ages,” in The New York Times (March 28, 2009). See full article at: “Pun for the Ages”.


(see also ANIMALS and BIRDS and CATS and CATS & DOGS and DOGS and HORSES and KITTENS and PETS)

  • A puppy is but a dog, plus high spirits, and minus common sense. Agnes Repplier, “A Kitten,” in In the Dozy Hours, and Other Papers (1894)



  • It is easy to become the dupe of a deferred purpose, of the promise the future can never keep. Jane Addams, in Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
  • In one of life’s great ironies, our innate awareness of purpose fades out of view just when we need it most—when we must begin contemplating some very significant questions about the future. Samantha Aker, in Catcher of the Light (2021)
  • Your purpose has been inside you from your earliest days, leaving a trail of clues by way of your talents and passions and the opportunities in the world of significance to you. Those clues, shining brilliantly during your childhood, are now faintly glowing embers. Samantha Aker, in Follow Your Light (2021)
  • Until thought is linked with purpose there is no intelligent accomplishment. James Allen, in As a Man Thinketh (1903)
  • They who have no central purpose in their life fall an easy prey to petty worries, fears, troubles, and self-pitying, all of which are indications of weakness. James Allen, in As a Man Thinketh (1903)

Allen continued by writing that a life without purpose will “lead, just as surely as deliberately planned sins (though by a different route), to failure, unhappiness, and loss, for weakness cannot persist in a power evolving universe.”

  • A man should conceive of a legitimate purpose in his heart, and set out to accomplish it. He should make this purpose the centralizing point of his thoughts. It may take the form of a spiritual ideal, or it may be a worldly object, according to his nature at the time being; but whichever it is, he should steadily focus his thought-forces upon the object which he has set before him. He should make this purpose his supreme duty, and should devote himself to its attainment, not allowing his thoughts to wander away into ephemeral fancies, longings, and imaginings. This is the royal road to self-control and true concentration of thought. James Allen, in As a Man Thinketh (1903)
  • All successful men are men of purpose. They hold fast to an idea, a project, a plan, and will not let it go; they cherish it, brood upon it, tend and develop it; and when assailed by difficulties, they refuse to be beguiled into surrender; indeed, the intensity of the purpose increases with the growing magnitude of the obstacles encountered.  James Allen, in The Master of Destiny (1909)
  • Purpose is the keystone in the temple of achievement. It binds and holds together in a complete whole that which would otherwise lie scattered and useless. James Allen, in The Master of Destiny (1909)

Allen continued: “Empty whims, ephemeral fancies, vague desires, and half-hearted resolutions have no place in purpose. In the sustained determination to accomplish there is an invincible power which swallows up all inferior considerations and marches direct to victory.”

  • The stronger the signal you send yourself of your highest purpose, the more likely you are to notice ways to serve it. Kare Anderson, in Mutuality Matters (2014)
  • A man needs a purpose for real health. Sherwood Anderson, in an August 1926 letter to his son Robert; reprinted in The Letters of Sherwood Anderson (1953; Howard Mumford Jones, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: In the letter, written in surprisingly adult language to his 8-year-old son Bob, Anderson was advising the young lad to pursue some other career than writing (his reasoning was that people would always compare him to his father, and the boy wouldultimately begin to hate him for that). He suggested a career on the stage—acting or playwrighting—saying “You are a natural dramatist with a quick imagination.“ When the lad grew up he became a painter and sculptor.”

  • I have seen so much of ugly, meaningless, drifting men that I have come to love the men I feel definitely at work. Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Van Wyck Brooks (July 30, 1923); reprinted in The Letters of Sherwood Anderson (1953; Howard Mumford Jones, ed.)
  • It concerns us to know the purposes we seek in life, for then, like archers aiming at a definite mark, we shall be more likely to attain what we want. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics (4th c. B.C.)

QUOTE NOTE: Another translation of the Aristotle thought has it phrased this way: “We will more easily accomplish what is proper if, like archers, we have a target in sight.”

  • The very first condition of lasting happiness is that a life should be full of purpose, aiming at something outside self. Hugh Black, in Culture and Restraint (1900)

Black preceded the thought by writing: “It is the paradox of life that the way to miss pleasure is to seek it first.”

  • I must have something to engross my thoughts, some object in life which will fill this vacuum and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart. Elizabeth Blackwell, an 1845 journal entry; reported in her book Pioneer Work for Women (1895)

QUOTE NOTE: America’s first female physician, Blackwell made this journal entry at age 23, when she first began to seriously consider a medical career. She preceded the thought by writing: “I felt more determined than ever to become a physician, and thus place a strong barrier between me and all ordinary marriage.”

  • I believe a burning purpose attracts others who are drawn along with it and help fulfill it. Margaret Bourke-White, in Portrait of Myself (1963)
  • For while species develop in an extraordinarily chancy way from the bottom of the tree upward, human lives, even when haphazard, “reek with purpose.” Jerome S. Bruner, “Childhood Lost and Found, ” in In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography (1983)
  • The purpose of life is a life of purpose. Robert Byrne, in The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (1986)
  • The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder; a waif, a nothing, a no-man. Thomas Carlyle, quoted in James Brand, The Beasts of Ephesus (1892)

According to Brand, Carlyle said this to a University of Edinburgh student who had not yet made up his mind about a course of study. Carlyle added: “Have a purpose in life, if it is only to kill and divide [meaning, “to butcher”] and sell oxen well. But have a purpose, and having it, throw such strength of mind and muscle into your work as God has given you.” In most anthologies, the quotation is presented as if the middle oxen portion never appeared.

  • Living for a high purpose is as honorable as dying for it. Carrie Chapman Catt, a 1922 remark, quoted in Mary Gray Peck, Carrie Chapman Catt (1948)
  • Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good! Anton Chekhov, the narrator and protagonist Ivan Ivanovich speaking, in the short story “Gooseberries” (1898)
  • No doubt about it: happiness is not about self-satisfaction; it is about the joy that comes with a sense of purpose. Joan Chittister, in The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (2009)
  • The one way to get thin is to re-establish a purpose in life. Cyril Connolly, in The Unquiet Grave (1944)
  • My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose. Bette Davis, in The Lonely Life (1962)
  • You must act as if everything depended on your individual efforts. The secret of success is constancy of purpose. Benjamin Disraeli, in speech at Crystal Palace (London; June 24, 1872), cited in “Mr. Disraeli at Sydenham,” The Times June 25, 1872)

QUOTE NOTE: There is some debate as to whether Disraeli originally said constancy of purpose or constancy to purpose. Both sides have some evidence to support their positions, but the foregoing version is the most favored.

  • She had brought herself, by long meditation, to the conviction that a human being, with a settled purpose, must accomplish it, and that nothing can resist a will that will stake even existence for its fulfillment. Benjamin Disraeli, the narrator describing the character Myra Ferrars, in Endymion (1880)
  • The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Grand Inquisitor speaking, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
  • To give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger than one's self, and more enduring than one’s life. Will Durant, in On the Meaning of Life (1932)
  • To have a great purpose to work for, a purpose larger than ourselves, is one of the secrets of making life significant, for then the meaning and worth of the individual overflow his personal borders and survive his dea