Life, the universe, and everything

Heraclitus, about 2500 years ago:

You can't step twice into the same river.

Attributed to William Occam, 1324:

No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.

Attributed to Frank Ward O'Malley, early 20th century:

Life is just one damned thing after another.

Isaac Asimov, as quoted by The Economist in 2017:

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.

Philip K. Dick, 1972:

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Bertrand Russell, 1950:

Every advance in civilization has been denounced as unnatural while it was recent.

George Bernard Shaw, 1903:

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.

Hunter S Thompson:

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.

Calvin (Bill Watterson):

On the one hand, undeserved success gives no satisfaction . . . but, on the other hand, well-deserved failure gives no satisfaction either.

Attributed to Mark Twain:

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.

Soong Mei-ling (wife of Chiang Kai-shek):

I've noticed the most successful men are usually not the ones with great powers as geniuses but the ones who had such ultimate faith in their own selves that invariably they hypnotize others as well as themselves.

Jane Wagner:

All my life, I always wanted to be somebody. Now I see that I should have been more specific.

Woody Allen:

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.

Maurice Chevalier, 1960:

Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative.

Epicurus, 3rd century BC:

Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern to us: for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist.


Cardinal Newman, 1831:

It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.

Edgar Watson Howe, 1911:

There is no such thing as a convincing argument, although every man thinks he has one.

Attributed to Mark Twain:

Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.


Doubt is not a pleasant mental state but certainty is a ridiculous one.

Poul Anderson, 1969:

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become more complicated.

Bertrand Russell, 1956:

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

Larry Niven, Ringworld, 1970:

In challenging a kzin, a simple scream of rage is sufficient. You scream and you leap.


Julia S. Lang, 1950:

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Alfred Hitchcock:

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century:

There is but one art, to omit! Oh, if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knows how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.

Raymond Chandler, 1950:

The demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn't seem to matter.

Tom Stoppard, 1980:

Writing a play is like smashing that [glass] ashtray, filming it in slow motion, and then running the film in reverse, so that the fragments of rubble appear to fly together. You start — or at least I start — with the rubble.

Sir Philip Sidney, 1591:

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, 1899:

If what we have written brings happiness to any sad heart we shall not have laboured in vain. But we want the money too.

Liberace, 20th century, in response to hostile criticism:

I cried all the way to the bank.

Wilbur Smith, 2003:

Even after writing 29 novels, I hate the loneliness, the doubt. Usually halfway through a book I have a serious depression, so I go on safari on my ranch in South Africa, or fishing off my island in the Seychelles. When I come back and re-read it, I think, “What was that all about, Smith? It's fine, just get on with it.”

Love and marriage

For some reason, celebrations of the joys of love and marriage don't seem to make their way into dictionaries of quotations. My own opinions on the subject aren't as dark as those expressed here.

Miss Piggy, 1981:

Only time can heal your broken heart, just as only time can heal his broken arms and legs.

P G Wodehouse, 1960:

I was in a rare fettle and the heart had touched a new high. I don't know anything that braces one up like finding you haven't got to get married after all.

Helen Rowland:

When a girl marries she exchanges the attentions of many men for the inattention of one.

Reverend Sydney Smith, 1855:

My definition of marriage: . . . it resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.

Ogden Nash, 1931:

One would be in less danger
From the wiles of a stranger
If one's own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.


My wife says I never listen to her. At least, I think that's what she said.


John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Lord Macaulay, 1825:

Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim. If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait for ever.

Terry Pratchett, Going postal, 2004:

You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise.

John L. O'Sullivan, 1837:

The best government is that which governs least.

W.S. Gilbert, Iolanthe, 1882:

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well . . .

Friedrich Engels, 19th century:

The State is not ‘abolished’, it withers away.

Margaret Thatcher:

Many of our troubles are due to the fact that our people turn to politicians for everything.

Attributed to Milton Friedman:

The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.

Gerald Ford addressing Congress, 12 August 1974:

A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 1966:

‘Sovereignty’, like ‘love’, means anything you want it to mean; it’s a word in dictionary between ‘sober’ and ‘sozzled’.

Sir Ernest Benn, 1930:

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.

Sir Anthony Eden:

Everybody is always in favour of general economy and particular expenditure.

Al Ross:

ROBIN HOOD: Here is the way it works: we take from the rich and give to the poor — keeping only enough for salaries, travel, equipment, depreciation, and so on, and so on.

Ebenezer Elliott, 1840:

What is a communist? One who has yearnings
For equal division of unequal earnings.

Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR:

The planners tried various expedients. They issued instructions that user demand should be met. They modified the bonus systems so that the achievement of purely quantitative targets should not be sufficient, that the assortment had also to be fulfilled, that costs had to be reduced, the wages plan not exceeded, and so on. They experimented with a kind of value-added indicator known as “normed value of processing”. Each of these “success indicators” had its own defect, induced its own distortions. Thus, insistence on cost reduction often stood in the way of the making of a better-quality product. A book could be easily filled with a list of various expedients designed to encourage enterprises to act in the manner the planners wished, and the troubles to which each of them gave rise.

C S Lewis, 1943:

I don't deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

Henry Kissinger:

The qualities rewarded in the rise to eminence are less and less the qualities required once eminence is reached.

H L Mencken, 1956:

Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.

Winston Churchill:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

James Thurber, 1945:

You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.


Lord Hewart, 1923:

It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.

Epicurus, 3rd century BC:

There is no such thing as justice in the abstract: it is merely a compact between men.

John Selden, 1689:

Ignorance of the law excuses no man; not that all men know the law, but because 'tis an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to confute him.

Solon, more than 2500 years ago:

Laws are like spider's webs: if some poor weak creature come up against them, it is caught; but a bigger one can break through and get away.

M K Gandhi, 1948:

An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.

Denis Diderot, 1796:

Anyone who takes it upon himself, on his own authority, to break a bad law, thereby authorizes everyone else to break the good ones.

Diderot's argument implies that, if a law is passed that we should report our Jewish neighbours to the authorities for extermination, we should dutifully obey it. Bah. It's immoral to obey an immoral law.

Who decides whether a law is immoral? You do: morality is subjective and personal. Bear in mind, however, that those who believe the law to be moral will try to punish you for breaking it.


H L Mencken, 1922:

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.

John Buchan, 1940:

An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support.

Woody Allen:

If only God would give me a clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.

Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness, 1969:

Hallowed be Thy name, if a name Thou hast and any desire to see it hallowed . . .

Attributed to G K Chesterton:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.

Byron, circa 1820:

Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles would have done as they did.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961:

Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine scheme of Creation?

Douglas Adams, quoted by Nicholas Wroe, 2000:

I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously.

I suspect that Adams was trying to be polite in his first sentence, to soften the impact of the second. Speaking frankly and for myself, I find religion neither plausible nor interesting.


Carl Sandburg, 1936:

Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come.

Anonymous, early 20th century:

War does not determine who is right, it determines who is left.

My mother reported these quotations from the Countdown television program (2001), taken from commanding officers' reports on their junior officers:

His men would follow him anywhere. Out of curiosity.

This man would be useful in any village that needed an idiot.

Bertrand Russell:

Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.

Winston Churchill, 1952:

A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him.

Abraham Lincoln:

My dear McClellan, If you don't want to use the army I should like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.

A Confederate soldier, January 1863:

In winter, the overcoat-bearing Federal was esteemed especially for his pelt.

Major General John Sedgwick, May 1864, shortly before being killed instantly by a bullet in the head:

They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.

Final entry in the bloodstained notebook of a Union soldier, 1864:

June 3. Cold Harbor. I am killed.

William A. Fletcher, Rebel private: front and rear (1908), Chapter 7:

. . . our conscience was clear—we knew we had committed no wrong, for self-preservation born in man is one of his strongest traits, and if killing an invader in one's country is not self-preservation, please define.

Odds and ends

William Morris, 1882:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Logan Pearsall Smith, early 20th century:

To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave as the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and keep absolutely sober.

Terry Pratchett, Wyrd sisters, 1988

Quaffing is like drinking, but you spill more.

Terry Pratchett, Going postal, 2004

. . . the man climbing out of your window in a stripy jumper, a mask and a great hurry might merely be lost on the way to a fancy-dress party, and the man in the wig and robes at the focus of the courtroom might only be a transvestite who wandered in out of the rain. Snap judgements can be so unfair.

C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Robert Benchley:

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Unknown origin, late 20th century (?):

Hard work pays off in the future, but laziness pays off right now.

Edward John Phelps, 1899:

The man who makes no mistakes usually does not make anything.

Peter Cook:

I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly.

Fred Allen:

A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.

Edgar Watson Howe, 1919:

A modest man is usually admired — if people ever hear of him.

Sir Alan Herbert:

If nobody ever said anything unless he knew what he was talking about, a ghastly hush would descend upon the Earth.

G K Chesterton, 1908:

Thieves respect property; they merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 19th century:

Beggars should be abolished entirely! It is annoying to give to them and it is annoying not to give to them.

Fran Lebowitz, 1981:

Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he's buying.

Attributed to Lord Raglan:

Culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don't.

Attributed to Samuel Goldwyn:

Anyone who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.

Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs, 1885:

I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary:

Selfish: Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

What is worth doing is worth the trouble of asking somebody to do it.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961:

“From now on I'm thinking only of me.”

Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”

“Then,” said Yossarian, “I'd certainly be a damn fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?”

Russell Green:

The climate of England has been the world's most powerful colonizing impulse.

Miss Piggy, 1981:

Continental breakfasts are very sparse, usually just a pot of coffee or tea and a teensy roll that looks like a suitcase handle. My advice is to go right to lunch without pausing.

Mae West in Klondike Annie, 1936:

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.

Eleanor Roosevelt, circa 1961:

I had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: “No good in a bed, but fine against a wall”.

Cherry Palfrey, 2001:

I'm absolutely bursting with lethargy this morning. What shall I get up and not do?

Anonymous, 1978:

If you feel strongly about graffiti, sign a partition.

Spike Milligan, 1972:

Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion.

Denis Norden, 1977:

It's a funny kind of month, October. For the really keen cricket fan it's when you discover that your wife left you in May.

Stormont Mancroft, 1974:

Cricket is a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of Eternity.

Edmond Hoyle, Hoyle's Games, 1756:

When in doubt, win the trick.


Omar Khayyam/Edward Fitzgerald (11th/19th century):

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 1797:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

Thomas Love Peacock, The War-Song of Dinas Vawr, 1823:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, 1876:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species, 1911:

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

G K Chesteron, Lepanto, 1915:

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.

T S Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1917:

. . . I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two . . .

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.