Things Other People Said

A wise professor once gave this great advice: Write in the pages of your books. Underline, annotate, highlight. (To that suggestion, I’d add, don’t be afraid to drop a smiley in the margins either.)

Here are a few passages I’ve marked in books over the years, as well as some hoot-and-a-half lyrics and at least one quote from an episode of McHale’s Navy.


In this world, God and his angels only may be spectators.

Hadrian the Seventh, 364

It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.  (That makes your daddy wanna rock.)

Henry Glover, songwriter


You might have been enough the man you are/With striving less to be so.

Volumnia, Coriolanus, III. 2.19

People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.

Florence Foster Jenkins, terrible soprano.


If there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god! Hence there are no gods.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 86

The greatest obstacle to scientific progress, after all, is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.

Why Us? 108


We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, preface

It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman, but also to be enamored of the Sonnet.

Lewis, Preface, 3

Art is what you can get away with.

Andy Warhol, Creators, 272

My king will last longer than yours.

Bernini’s retort to a royal minion
who told the artist that his bust of
Louis was not accurate.
The Genius in the Design, 263

Cooking is an art; it has in it personality, and even perversity, for the definition of an art is that which must be personal and may be perverse.

Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World


A donut dipped in cement

Spike Jones, Yes, We Have No Bananas


May God reward you and grant you a larger share of riches and a longer life than mine.

Arabian Nights, Haddawy, 220


Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach/Who please — the more because they preach in vain –/Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,/Sermons and soda water the day after.

Byron, Don Juan, canto 2, stanza 178


We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of Nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.

Edmund Burke, Selected Writings, 316


Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.

Brideshead Revisited, 273


When someone asked G.K. Chesterton what one book he would want to have along if stranded on a desert island, he paused only an instant before replying, “Why, A Practical Guide to Shipbuilding, of course.”

Orthodoxy, xi

Thinking it the only way to find peace, the Welsh asked King Edward to find them a prince who could speak neither English nor French. So he went off and got his infant son (who couldn’t speak at all) and announced him as the first Prince of Wales.

The Three Edwards, 23

My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so wills.

King Edward confined his rather
engorged brother in a cell with
the doors open but the space too narrow
for him to fit through. The Three Edwards, 167


I myself am a savage, owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him.

Ishmael, Moby-Dick, 290


His zeal is of a curious character. It is not for the propagation of his own opinions, but of any opinions. It is not for the diffusion of truth, but for the spreading of contradiction. Let the noble teachers but dissent, it is no matter from whom or from what.

Reflections on the Revolution in France, 95


In the fatness of these pursy times/Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.

Hamlet, Hamlet, 3.4


Conscience and cowardice are really the same thing, Basil. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, 11

They only lived who fled.

Contrast this with what Milton
said they who only stand and wait do.
Samson Agonistes, 264


It is really this that makes death so hard – curiosity unsatisfied.

West With the Night, 25

EGO (Healthy)

… they began to talk of generals, and Hannibal affirmed that Alexander was the greatest commander the world had seen, next to him Pyrruhus, and the third was himself; Scipio, with a smile, asked, “What would you have said, if I had not defeated you?” “I would not then, Scipio,” he replied, “have made myself the third, but the first commander.”

At a meeting between Hannibal and Scipio.
Flamininus, 463

Caesar’s ransom: … When these men [pirates] first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty.

Plutarch, Caesar, 855

… a world of incessant autobiography.

Life amid Milton’s Satan, who has a favorite topic
of conversation: Satan. Lewis, Preface, 102

The mind is its own place and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven … Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.

Satan as a motivational speaker,
Paradise Lost, 76. To which the angel
Abdiel will later reply:
Thyself not free; but to thyself enthralled. 348

Every cold empirick, when his heart is expanded by a successful experiment, swells in to a theorist, and the laborious collator at some unlucky moment frolicks in conjecture.

Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare

This is the danger when we trust something sacred to the clergy.

Frank Lloyd Wright on the porch
of his Robie House when its adjacent
owners, a seminary, threatened to pull it down.
Said while waving his cane at said seminary.

Every time Hitler occupies a country he sends me a message.

Mussolini, 209


You will smile here at the consistency of those democratizes, who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time, they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.

Reflections on the Revolutions in France, 146

Cynicism was such a cowardly form of superiority.

Bonfire of the Vanities, 63

The great and very obvious merit of the English aristocracy is that nobody could possibly take it seriously.

Orthodoxy, 126


Any strong emotion brings with it the illusion of permanence.

Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 55


A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, 12

… the throng of his Apostasy.

Satan’s followers. Paradise Regained, 545

I cultivate the gentle art of making enemies. A friend is necessary, one friend, but an enemy is more necessary. An enemy keeps one alert.

The Quest for Corvo, 85


It knows no sun, no breath of wind.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 68


… democratic nations love change for its own sake … Even when they have no need to change words, they sometimes have the desire.

Democracy in America, 2, 65

It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable.

Orthodoxy, 130

I propose not to be bullied with long words instead of short reasons.

Manalive, 121

May the bird of paradise smile all over you.

Confidence man Guido Panzini,
from McHale’s Country Club Caper

… their kingdom of grammarians.

Centuries-old description of those who
argue not with  logic but with semantics.
Edmund Campion: A Life, 207


… he who always hopes for the best becomes old, deceived by life, and he who is always prepared for the worst becomes old prematurely; but he who has faith, retains eternal youth.

Fear and Trembling, 52

I am happy and satisfyed in my little ship … Both men and officers tractable and well disposed and chearfulness and content in the countenance of everyone … I have no cause to inflict punishments for I have no offenders and everything turns out to my most sanguine expectations.

Captain Bligh, en route to Tahiti.
The Bounty, Alexander


You have to have some theology, and it is rather important it should be correct.

Huxley and God, 60


If I were asked … to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.

Democracy in America, 2, 214


Once in the realm of the fictitious, what difference is there between an apparition and a mortgage?

Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 108

Does it come off? No, not quite.

Forester on Joyce’s Ulysses,
Aspects of the Novel, 122

My tales are tokens of life prolonged.

Scheherazade. Tales from the 1001 Nights, 444

The novel is a formidable mass, and it is so amorphous — no mountain to climb in it. It is most distinctly one of the moister areas of literature.

Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 5

“The King died and then the Queen died” is a story. “The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.

Forster, Aspects, 56


In the church with saints, in the tavern with gluttons.

Inferno, 197

… a miserable and yet a mighty solace in death.

Pliny, thinking the world was
ending with him at Vesuvius.
Pliny’s Letters, 20

… great crowds are in themselves a sort of darkness.

De Quincy, On Murder, 90

Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.


What am I doing?!

Bugs Bunny, helping the gremlin set off up a bomb


The silence of flattery is sometimes equal to the most positive and authentic evidence.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I, 524


Julian was not insensible of the advantages of freedom … [W]hen he ascended the throne, his pride was sometimes mortified by the reflection that the slaves who would not dare to censure his defects were not worthy to applaud his virtues.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I, 661

We should have lost our memories as well as our tongues had it been as easy to forget as to be silent.

When free speech was eliminated.
Tacitus, The Agricola, 52


Remember what the ancient proverb says: If you walk in front, you protect your comrade; if you know the route, you safeguard your friend.

Gilgamesh, 102

… Mellon and Coolidge seemed to have conversed “almost entirely in pauses.”

The Myth of the Robber Barons, 114


Thus spoke the devil to me once: “God too has his hell: that is his love of man.” And most recently I heard him say this: “God is dead; God dies of his pity for man.”


God lets us turn all things into toys by his great gift of distance.

Manalive, 102


… there is one only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, 6

One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, 234


A little water clears us of this deed.

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, II, ii.

Their uniforms were spick and span,/And they wore their Sunday suits,/But we knew the work they had been at,/By the quicklime on their boots.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol


Hero dust/Is vile as vulgar clay.

Byron, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, stanza 12

Every hero becomes a bore at last.

Heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 527

Of course it would be a great misfortune, but if the Neapolitan cruisers were to capture and hang my poor Garibaldi … it would simplify things a good deal. And what a fine monument we should erect to him!

King Victor Emmanuel, Heroes, 536


It is an instinct of human nature to hate a man whom you have injured.

Tacitus, The Agricola, 94

You don’t win friends with salad.

Bart Simpson

A race of upstart creatures.

Satan on humans. Paradise Lost, 150

I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.

Linus Van Pelt


When the London Times asked a number of writers for essays on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton sent in the shortest reply and the most to the point:
Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G.K. Chesterton

Orthodoxy, xx

He wants nothing of a god but eternity, and a heaven to throne in.

Coriolanus, V.4.23

No, Sir (said he,) I won’t learn it. You shall maintain your superiority by my not knowing it.

When Boswell threatens to teach
him about a Scottish pastoral,
Johnson declines.
The Life of Samuel Johnson


Suddenly Iulus shouted: “What we’re even eating our platters now?” Only a joke, and nothing more, but his words, once heard, first spelled an end of troubles.

Fulfilling a prophecy, Rome, it seems,
was discovered through a gag.
Aeneid, Fagles 7:125

It’s the most fun you can have without laughing.

Ida Lupino, from a movie I can’t remember,
referring to dancing.


He would not let his conduct drive him from his principles.

There are two possible cures to hypocrisy:
Try to stop doing the wrong things,
or to try to stop believing they’re wrong.
Brookhiser, Hamilton, 188.


A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.

Burke, Enquiry, 58


Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do … The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

Orthodoxy, 10-11

The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

Orthodoxy, 13

All this done/Upon the gad!

King Lear, II, 2


And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing … all monsters and dust.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, 16

Deconstruction means never having to say you’re sorry.

The Reckless Mind, 175

Hitler doesn’t want Austria. Austria would be of no use to him at all.

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s Poker, 121


The journalists of the United States are generally in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind … he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them in to private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.

Democracy in America, 1, 187

… the liberty of the press … is the only cure for the evils that equality may produce.

Democracy in America, 2, 324


… the English or American lawyer resembles the hierophants of Egypt, for like them he is the sole interpreter of an occult science.

Democracy in America, 1, 277

A Locrian who proposed any new law stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and, if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II, 1435

Civil jurisprudence under Justinian was a mysterious science and a profitable trade.

Gibbon, II, 1480

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins.

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1690

It is much more important to kill bad laws than to pass good ones.

Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge, 75


… if we wish our civilization to survive we must break with the habit of deference to great men.

Popper. Wittgenstein’s Poker, 175

White men pay for danger – we poor ones cannot afford it. Find your elephant, then vanish, so that you may live to find another.

Makula, local elephant tracker
to a newcomer on the job.
West With the Night, 214


Liberty is a good to be improved, and not an evil to be lessened.

Burke, Selected Writings, 243

Attend: that thou art happy, owe to God;/That thou continu’st such, owe to thyself.

Says the angel Raphael to Adam, Paradise Lost, 314

Only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous; there begins the song of necessity, the unique and inimitable tune.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 51

For myself, when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the arms of a million men.

Democracy in America


The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.

Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 47

The kinsfolk [of the Gatae nation] surround the newly born and lament for him, for all the ill he must endure, once he has now been born, and they set forth all the sufferings of men. But the dead they hide in the grave with joy and delight and say over him what evils he is now quit of and how he is now in perfect happiness.

Herodotus, The Histories, p 358

… the cosmic patriot.

Orthodoxy, 65

All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.

Orthodoxy 78

True, we love life, not because we area used to living but because we are used to loving. There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 41

Life is life and fun is fun, but it’s all so quiet when the goldfish dies.

Coptic saying. West With Night, 218

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; to forgive wrongs darker than death or night; to defy Power … This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

Prometheus Unbound, last stanza

Live well, I conjure you.

Among his last words of advice.
The Life of Samuel Johnson


We submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us.

Burke, Enquiry, 103

Sleep takes about eight hours out of the twenty-four, food about two more. Shall we put down love for another two?

Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 50

No! No one shall be forgotten who was great in this world; but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to the greatness of what he loved.

Fear and Trembling, 50

Familiar acts are beautiful through Love.

The Earth, Prometheus Unbound, p 148


Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  I, 236

Yes, but they rebelled loyally!

On the creeping and respectful
coup against Haile Selassie.
The Emperor, p. 134

My country? My country is where the rain falls.

From an African Ballad. The Shadow of the Sun, 202


Suppose the sun and the moon, to which you sing alternately, are only the two eyes of one vast and sneering giant, opened alternately in a never-ending wink.

Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 159

Be strong, live happy and love.

Angel Raphael to Adam, Paradise Lost, 464

The man should sail; that is the whole point.

Jupiter talking to the other gods,
about Aeneas. The Aeneid, p 104.

Behold, the heavens do ope,/The gods look down, and this unnatural scene/They laugh at.

Coriolanus, V.3.183

They have childhood; we have beer.

I found this in my handwriting, in a small notebook.
I don’t remember who said it or when.

The way to endure a painful crisis is to insist very much that it is a crisis; to permit people who must feel sad at least to feel important.

Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World


No one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day.

Seneca, 58

The happiest lot.

Among the Massagetae,
when a person grows old, your relatives make
a stew of you.  Literally.  They kill and cook you.
Herodutus, The Histories, p. 130


… it was felt as an affront, that the thing should be dishonored by being employed upon so unworthy a subject; punishment, also, having its proper dignity, and ostracism being one that was appropriate rather for Thucydides, Aristides, and such like persons; whereas for Hyperbolus it was a glory, and a fair ground for boasting on his part, when for his villainy he suffered the same with the best men. As Plato, the comic poet, said of him: — “The man deserved the fate, deny who can;/ Yes, but the fate did not deserve the man.”

Plutarch, Nicias, 635-636


That is the art of arts.

On sciolism, the show of superficial
knowledge, to fool people into
believing you’re really smart.
Quest for Corvo, 92

PERSPECTIVE (different)

… the Romans, in their divinations from birds, chiefly regard the vulture … For it is a creature the least hurtful to any, pernicious neither to corn, fruit-tree, nor cattle; it preys only upon carrion, and never kills or hurts any living thing.

Plutarch, Romulus, 30

… the eccentric genius who, after being asked by his host why he had rubbed the broccoli in his hair at dinner, apologized with a bow from the waist and said he had thought it was spinach.

West With the Night, 40

One white man related to Kalakaua that the English constitution has a prehensile tail, clinging to tradition. To which the King responded, “It is a monkey government, is it? I don’t want anything of that kind in my country.”

Shoal of Time, 218

Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.

Hoover, talking about the Depression.
The Forgotten Man,113

A tourist in Boston gets into a cab and says, can you take me to where I can get scrod. OK, the cabbie says, but I never heard it said in the pluperfect subjunctive before.

Old joke


It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs.

Democracy in America, 1, 200

… it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own.

Democracy in America, 1, 208

… they [Americans] show their long experience of parliamentary life, not by abstaining from making bad speeches, but by courageously submitting to hear them made. They are resigned to it as to an evil they know to be inevitable.

Democracy in America, 2, 92

Elected magistrates do not make the American democracy flourish; it flourishes because the magistrates are elective.

Democracy in America, 2, 105

… their fresh-built corridors of small connivance and enormous words.

West With the Night, 157


Each age dreams the next.

Michelet, The Reckless Mind, 107

I cannot bring back the dead. I can only kill the living.

Mobster comforting a new widow, Valachi Papers


The invention of a new sauce was liberally rewarded: but if it was not relished, the inventor was confined to eat of nothing else, till he had discovered another more agreeable to the Imperial palate.

Gibbon, Decline and Fall, I, 114, footnote

Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples – for your arts are to be these: To pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, and battle down the proud.

Father of Aeneus to his son. The Aeneid, 190

I have adopted the Roman sentiment, that it is more honourable to save a citizen, than to kill an enemy, and have been more careful to protect than to attack.

Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Volume 39, 257

That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!

Moby-Dick, 80


Fortune rejects the prayers of the halfhearted!

Ovid, 249


It is said commanders are crucified if they have conducted a campaign with a successful issue but with bad strategy.

Livy, Rome and the Mediterranean, p. 383


To expect punishment is to suffer it.

Seneca, 196

And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.

Moby-Dick, 62


Reason is never inconvenient, except when it comes to be applied.

Burke, Selected Writings, 260


… the love of honourable danger in a generous cause.

Reflections on the Revolution in France, 116


with the former [enemies] you will be contending only on the field of battle; but with the latter everywhere and always.

Livy, War with Hannibal, 138


Nietschze said that the sacred is whatever it is in a culture that cannot be laughed at.

All Things Shining, 196


Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.

Reflections on the Revolution in France, 181


The palace of King Sleep and his son Morpheus.

Ovid, 384 – 387


We all have strength enough to endure the misfortune of others.

La Rochefoucauld, quoted in Why Us? 174

He said that few people had intellectual resources sufficient to forgo the pleasures of wine. They could not otherwise contrive how to fill the interval between dinner and supper.

Boswell paraphrasing Johnson
The Life of Samuel Johnson


When you can understand the point of view of another race, you are a civilized being.

Lawrence, With Lawrence in Arabia, 236


Let not his mode of raising cash seem strange,/Although he fleeced the flags of every nation,/For into prime minister but change/His title, and ‘tis nothing but taxation.

Referring to a pirate. Byron, Don Juan,
canto 3, stanza 14


The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Wilde, Dorian Gray, 23


Thou canst blind; but I can then grope.

Ahab, Moby-Dick, 533

But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser [towing rope] tows his purpose yet.

Ahab, Moby-Dick, 591


This passion and the death of a dear friend,/would go near to make a man look sad.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Thesues, V, I


When you’re going to lie, lie big. Goebbels.

Mussolini, 36

There is an old tradition [in Islam] that a lie is excusable in three circumstances: in war, to reconcile friends, and to women.

With Lawrence in Arabia, 156

I may be wrong and you may be right and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.

Popper. Wittgenstein’s Poker, 240

The concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion.

Borges, Essays, 57

Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it.

Yeats. All Things Shining, 186


… one of these days, communities from the provinces will send deputations to the people of Rome requesting that the extortion law and its court should be abolished. For if no such court existed, they suppose that each governor would only take away with him enough for himself and his children. At present, on the other hand, with the courts as they are, a governor takes enough for himself, and his protectors, and his counsel, and the president of the court, and the judges! … A greedy man’s lust for gain they could satisfy, but they cannot afford a guilty man’s acquittal.

Cicero, Against Verres, 53


Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, V, i