Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Quotes I go to again and again.

The past couple of years I've taken up arguing with people online. It is not always pleasant. Most of the commenters who reply are very partisan and rude and their style of arguing about a point you make is to call you names. At one point I started making a list of the insults I received, though few were clever enough to make it worth it and I would forget to copy down the words of those who were. But, among them are:

moderate (the one's who figure that out are really angry about it.)
Einstein (I assure you, not meant as a compliment. Rarely is.)

These are not as bad as some of the things my family and friends have called me, of course, including in response to this blog, but, it is obviously the best they can do. I don't really care if someone wants to comment on what they think my politics or mental capabilities are. That's fair game. But, when an insult to me is made to argue a completely unrelated point (the dreaded argumentum ad hominem), my virtual eyes roll in my digital head.

In any event, I found that as the topics were limited, I would often use the same quotes over and over. So, I started keeping a file with those too. The following are the ones I've kept lately. There's no pattern or overall theme here, but, I will make a few comments, just because I can.

Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess.

Descartes - The above quote (one version of it, anyway) is from his Le Discours de la M├ęthode (1637). You can figure out what it means. Sometimes French is just like English. It's the same book, discussing reason, where he wrote the much more famous line, Je Pense, donc je suis - I think, therefore I am. But, I like the words I quoted, because I use them whenever someone tells me that I have no common sense. Unfortunately, it's not real pithy, and if I try to use it in person, my victim tends to pass out before I get to the end.


I have repeatedly said the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans are outstanding Americans and make enormous contributions to our country. But there are realities we cannot ignore. For instance a Pew Poll said that 15% of Muslim-American men between the age of 18 and 29 could support suicide bombings. This is the segment of the community al Qaeda is attempting to recruit.

This is from Rep. Peter King, who included it in his opening statement in the very controversial hearing he held on the radicalization of the Islamic-American community. It was hotly opposed by Democrats, before and during the hearing. I thought his quote was spot on. I did not get the complaint of the Democrats that if they were investigating jihadists they should also investigate the KKK and other radical groups. Of course, the last time the KKK killed someone was . . . ? I asked the gentleman I sometimes refer to here as my favorite liberal, and he made precisely this argument. I asked him - so really, since you know these other groups are a relatively minor threat, you just want to prevent any investigation of radical Muslims because it must be racist? He said yes. I watched the hearing and the follow up hearing, and they were both excellent, particularly the testimony of non-radical Muslims.


The real terrors of both Parties have all ways been, and now are, the fear that they shall loose the Elections and consequently the Loaves and Fishes; and that their Antagonists will obtain them.

John Adams to Jefferson


While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now then 3 or 4 thousand Years ago. What is the Reason? I say Parties and Factions will not suffer, or permit Improvements to be made. As soon as one Man hints at an Improvement his rival opposes it. No sooner has one Party discovered or invented an Amerlioration of the Condition of Man or the order of Society, than the opposite Party, belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it . . . .”

John Adams to Jefferson


Power always sincerely conscientiously . . . believes itself Right. Power always thinks it has a great Soul, and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak; and that it is doing God Service, when it is violating all his Laws.

John Adams to Jefferson. John Adams to Jefferson. I love these three quotes from Adams in his wonderful correspondence with TJ and probably use them more than any others except from the first Twain one, below. Unlike Jefferson, Adams, tempermentally unsuited to be president (he hated it) unless he was completely adored, and his personality pretty much ruled that out, was a fairly moderate guy, and, other than the later admitted mistake of signing the Alien and Sedition Act into law, actually had a pretty good presidency. He's very quotable because he loved to stick it to his fellow founders, like in the next quote, also to Jefferson.


In the Congress of 1774 there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of the Precipice or rather the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it. America is in total Ignorance, or under infinite deception concerning that assembly. To draw the characters of them all would require a volume and would now be considered as a caracatura print. One third Tories, another Whigs and the rest mongrels.


This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.

Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1861, special message to congress. No president, not even Jefferson, could write like Lincoln. I often use this to summarize a reasonable summary of libertarianism.


The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to—day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.

Lincoln – speech April 18, 1864.  This is not honey to the ear of a partisan, who wants to believe that all right is on his side, and none on the other.  A few years ago I wrote about the Islamicist Qtub's vision of freedom, so different from ours, it is almost impossible for us to believe he was serious. But, as Lincoln shows, it is more an emotion than a formula. Yet, both sides could be said to be against liberty - the South, with their slaves, and the North, with their refusal to let the south severe itself from the union.


Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world - and it never will.

Mark Twain- I believe this is from an 1887 speech entitled Consistency. I'm not even sure that this is completely true. But, you know what he means and it sparkles. It's on Twain's bust in one of those D.C. museums. I might put it on my urn.


...we all know that in all matters of mere opinion that [every] man is insane--just as insane as we are...we know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours....All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it. None but the Republicans. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.

Twain - from Christian Science. Another quote that scratches my need to torment partisans. What says it better than the end - I often write online (well, who else is going to quote me) that . . . Partisanship makes everyone a little bit crazy. Pretty much the same thing, isn't it?


For at least I know, with certainty, that a man’s work is nothing but the long journeying to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart.

Albert Camus. I wish I could remember where I found this. I have a couple of Camus books on my shelf, but I haven't read him since my 20s and I can't find the source online. Existentialism and absurdism sounds better when you are young. But, I admire this thought, and suspect there is some truth to it. I have a few themes, but, I'm saving them for the second volume of my best selling autobiography, tentatively titled - I Really Suck.


I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said 'I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right — Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."

Benjamin Franklin at the end of the Constitutional Convention, urging his fellows to vote - Yes. Maybe it worked, because they did. In any event, it is a typically brilliant Franklin ode to humility, reason, moderation and the French language, which, despite his long stay in France during the war, he never quite mastered.


I have long entertained a suspicion with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake to which they seem liable almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phenomenon, though by the most violent and absured reasoning. Our own mind being narrow and contracted, we cannot extend our conception to the variety and extent of nature, but imagine that she is as much bounded in her operations as we are in our speculation.

David Hume – from The Sceptic. I've argued, at least briefly, in an earlier post that he was the greatest modern philosopher. It might depend on when you begin "modern," but I base my argument on the influence he had on so many great scientists and philosophers. Others would argue Spinoza, I imagine, and I would say that Hume might stem from him, but, understanding Spinoza is a lifetime work - and I just don't have another lifetime. Anyway, what Hume is saying, of course, is that philosophers get stuck, just like mystery novelists and, for that matter, if you believe Camus, the rest of us.


Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

Lao Tze (Stephen Mitchell, 1988, translation)

I know this is good advice. But, it is also really, really hard to follow. Sort of like the poem, If, it is honored in the breach.


Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Karl Popper - from The Open Society and Its Enemies: Vol. 2. Although Popper was an advocate of toleration, he opined that intolerance should not be tolerated. This is just another of those endless paradoxes we need to face. Just like pointing out to someone who constantly make the logical error of argument against the person, that they do. It is the only ad hominem argument you can reasonable make. Actually, it still isn't logical to do so, but sometimes you can't make any progress in a debate until you embarrass the other sided to actually argue the point. That comes up a lot in online debates.


If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

From The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. This was a joint statement made about their work, after, if I recall, the 10th of 11th volumes. Could be wrong, but it was later on in their long careers. It's another saying I wouldn't mind having on my urn. I better order a big urn. Might as well  finish with a few more from Durant:


History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque.

Ditto, quoting from his own The Age of Reason. And, likewise:


Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire.

Ditto. Lot of smiling.

Is it possible that, after all, “history has no sense,”that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?

Ditto.  Ironic, huh? They spend all that time reviewing the history of the world as never before, and then repeatedly tell us don't take it too seriously.


  1. Ah, Frodo, this is why I love you. You think for yourself about what you read, and you read as widely as anyone I've ever known. You left out two of my favorite argument quotes, one from the pen of Mario Puzo,though it is best remembered from the movie: "Leave the gun, take the cannolis." I use this on people who are arguing vociferously but completely off the point. I also am a fan of taking oneself with a grain of salt,although I lack the refinement of Durant or even you,dear Frodo. "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Don't know who said it first, but I like it best in the Revenge of the Nerds movie.

  2. The "Leave the gun, take the cannolis" line was also quoted in one of my favorite movies, which is also one of your least favorite movies - You've Got Mail. Although I could never actually get through any of the Godfather films (I know, sacrilege for a male), that was actually a very funny line in the movie. I actually liked The Revenge of the Nerds, but I don't remember the line. I take your word for it. Thanks.

  3. Conchis10:49 AM

    Bravo, David. And, I join Bear in his praise. Thanks.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Why, thank you Conchis. Is it my birthday or something? All this praise for copying words I didn't even write. But, I did notice just scrolling down the post now that I did write this completely redundant gem - "I often use this to summarize a reasonable summary . . ." I really have to proof harder.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .