quote unquote

A collection of mildly obsessive rants about words, phrases and what they do and don’t mean.


A judgment of Solomon

Where better to begin a study of proverbial wisdom than with the man who seemingly had it all?

[quote Kings I on Solomon’s wisdom and original judgment]

One cannot help feel that Solomon would have cut an unforgettable figure as a social worker. Had the women between whom he judged expressed their love of their child in any way but as His Majesty’s view of mother-love dictated, the child would have been chopped in two. But of course that is precisely what proves Solomon’s wisdom – the fact that he was right. However, if that is the case, I can only hope that he was not so much wise as infallible.

© RJ Robinson

[1][1] The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, p. 41, transl. H. Beveridge, 1949. [2]
[2] Frank Zappa, Dumb All Over, from the album, You Are What You Is.


For want of a nail…

… the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost’[3]. Or in the words of Benjamin Franklin’s own synopsis, ‘A little neglect breeds mischief’. It is a simple truth, concisely and graphically put; however, one risks plunging wildly overboard as soon as one extends the chain of reasoning to more than a handful of terms. How far can one take it?- to a message, a battle, a kingdom, planet Earth, Milky Way South East, universal heat death?

Isaac Asimov once suggested (I forget where) an interesting analogy for how history really works, as a kind of ‘bow wave’ in time. At first there is immense tumult as the immediate effects of a cause (an event, a great personality, and so on) spread and proliferate; but then a phase of sublimation supervenes, assimilating those effects to the broader, deeper currents of Universal history.

The same applies for Great Men. What if Hitler had won World War II? It would certainly still have mattered in 2000 and even 2100, but what difference would it have made by 20,000 AD? Or 200,000 AD or 2,000,000? Indeed, looking at the history of Europe since the end of the Cold War, it is striking that, at least in terms of international politics, things look remarkably as they might have in 1925, had the First World War not intervened.

The whole logic of ‘For want of a nail’ rests on two false assumptions: that the world is basically atomistic, and that what changes is more vital than whatever remains the same. They are equally curious opinions, although entirely compatible with a world of fragmentation and distraction we inhabit now. But the universe is not just a concatenation of atoms but is on the contrary deeply and universally structured, local quantitative variations may be rapidly countered and any potential qualitative effects generally suppressed. And although we may not be interested in the same old same old, the universe and its human expression, history, takes it all into account.

Popular (mis)interpretations of chaos theory make a similar error. Contrary to the the way in which it is sometimes alluded to, chaos theory does not say that chaos is fundamental. On the contrary, it says that apparent chaos is often actually the expression of profound if also somewhat obscure, simplicity. That is why the old saw about a butterfly in Rio de Janeiro causing a thunderstorm in Peking is so misleading: not because the effects of its wing beats could not trigger a storm on another continent, but because they are only one of a massive number of other more or less profound effective causes. Especially on the global scale, weather consists, by and large, of immense and highly stable systems controlled by forces and laws operating on an incomparably vaster scale than all the life forms on the planet put together. Of course, a single butterfly may tip a system already in extremis into a new mode or phase, but that is hardly the same thing. Having the trigger does not mean you don’t need the rest of the howitzer.

So what is this really about? My own view is almost equally simple: it is about a popular ideology designed to accept the unintelligibility and uncontrollability of the world, be it through popular wisdom or pseudo-scientific explanation or (in a previous age) the Will of God, or indeed by any other means. The reasons why the world is fragmented and full of distraction are beyond both the understanding and the control of individuals, and there are vast forces ranged against anyone trying to create either a popular understanding of exactly what those forces are or a political organisation capable of combatting them.

© RJ Robinson

[3][3] Maxims Prefaced to Poor Richard’s Almanac, [?], 1758. [4]
[4] Michael Frayn, Ivan Kudovbin, in At Bay in Gear Street, 1967.



It is hard to be too disgusted with the idea of a Judas.

But surely even Judas is not beyond forgiveness? Indeed, forgiving Judas is surely one of the great tasks every Christian faces. Not because, without his betrayal, Christianity would never have begun. That is merely a historical nicety. Far more than that, Judas’ betrayal both is the essence of sin and highlights the essentially desolate nature of sin. After all, what does Judas do once he has committed his act of betrayal? He hangs himself. Where better then to bring a philosophy of forgiveness it its historical archetype and logical conclusion?

Has the entire role of Jesus of Nazareth been misunderstood? If I may borrow a conundrum originating with Jorge Luis Borges,[5][5] who is the real Son of God?

But the real problem for Christianity is not to forgive Judas but to forgive God. Who has betrayed humanity more completely than God?

More generally, I have long thought that the Bible was lacking in moral judgment. Of course, one has to sympathise with God’s predicament. It must be especially tough being divine in the face of modern technology. Imagine trying to manifest yourself over the phone, only to be put through to an answer machine. Imagine announcing the Second Coming by TV, only to have half the population video you instead and then record a soap opera over you without even bothering to watch.

Nor does Creation exactly reek of any deep concern with its inhabitants. At this very moment, a million children are crying with tooth ache. The state of the world, even on this small, quite non-cosmic level, would make Caligula blanch. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Universe was surely designed by a committee of camels. ( Actually, the conception of the universe as designed by a committee does solve one enduring theological conundrum – how the three persons of God can have a single substance.) Far from embodying divine wisdom, the universe is really the expression of perfect unwisdom, only made wise by humanity.

Kitty Genovese and bystander behaviour. Children in Auschwitz. God is the ultimate bystander.

Next to forgiving God, forgiving Judas is a push over. And of course, if we are in God’s image, one can just as well reverse the relationship: he is in ours. As Voltaire put it,

If God created us in His image, we have more than reciprocated.

Or as one eminent American critic of religious institutions has remarked:

Let’s get serious: God knows what he’s doing, he wrote this Book here, and the Book says he made us all to be just like him. So if we’re dumb, then God is dumb, and maybe even a little ugly on the side…

Chorus: Dumb all over… A little ugly on the side… Dumb all over… [6][2]

It’s lucky that God no more has free will than the rest of us; heaven only knows what he might have got up to. Cataracts, indeed. Nor is he much more effective on the social and historical planes: any religion which has still only acquired a minority holding in humanity’s conscience after 2,000 years of sustained marketing by some of history’s finest fanatics and delivers human happiness with the efficiency of the Plague is surely due for an overhaul.

There is no reason to worship God just because He is omnipotent, because He is our creator, etc. It may be Calvin’s opinion that one cannot help but worship one’s creator –

How can the idea of God enter your mind without instantly giving rise to the thought that since you are his workmanship, you are bound, by the very law of creation, to submit to his authority? [7][1]

– but that is surely to deny our integrity as responsible beings. After all, that’s how God made us – if we were made in the image of God, surely it was in his moral image. (Or if it was in his physical image, why was he so susceptible to in-growing toenails?) But in that case, we are as responsible for our acts as God is for his. What then is there to worship? By the same token, how can our sins be taken from us? On the other hand, is God as morally responsible as [?]

God does not exist, but even if he did, there would be no reason to ‘believe’ in Him. And even if he were worthy of belief, that would be no reason to worship him. I believe in democracy but I don’t worship it. And even if he were worthy of worship, there is no reason to think he is a Christian. After all, no one else is. Finally, even if He did exist, were a Christian and were worthy of belief and worship, then the entirety of human history cries out that he really is an Almighty Shit.

[8][5] Three Versions of Judas, in Labyrinths, Penguin Books, 1970.

© RJ Robinson


What’s in a name?

What a silly line, even if it is Romeo and Juliet (Act II, ii, 43).Still, I’ve had my doubts about Shakespeare ever since I discovered Hamlet wasn’t a farce. Like ‘Fine feathers… ’, which sometimes do make fine birds, names can be critical. Imagine being blessed with one of the following:

  • Mrs Belcher Wack Wack
  • Newton Hooton
  • Goody P. Creep (undertaker)
  • Preserved Fish, Jr
  • Mrs Screech (singing teacher)
  • Larry, Harry and Jerry Derryberry (not, alas, brothers)
  • Gaston J. Feeblebunny
  • I. O. Silver
  • Zezozose Zadfrack
  • Mr Vice (890 arrests, 421 convictions)
  • Cardinal Sin (Catholic Primate of the Philippines)
  • Virginia May Sweatt Strong
  • T. Hee
  • B. Brooklyn Bridge
  • Concerto Macaroni
  • Cigar Stubbs
  • I.C. Shivers (ice man)

– all recorded and authenticated in John Train’s Remarkable Names of Real People. And some choice names from my own (mostly unauthenticated) records: Brain (… ) and Head (1861-1940) were eminent neurologists. The head of the Motor Industry Research Establishment used to be a Mr Morris. One of my sisters was at school with a Miles Inigo Gapper and his sister Flavia, and one of my children’s cookery teachers is called Mrs Eatwell. Really. (I also have a colleague named Max Loosli who wanted to name his consultancy business Loosli Managed Projects, but that’s a little contrived.)

It’s hard to imagine going through life with this sort of burden and getting out alive. Anyone named Quasimodo is surely destined for bell ringing and bad posture. Mr Train also reports that the early Puritans favoured names such as Fly Fornication, though he does not say whether this was intended as an exhortation to rectitude or the most ambitious perversion ever conceived. Anyway, eat your heart out, Charles Dickens.

Just as bad are names that sound like a prize-winning petunia.

But it’s not all negative – names may have the most tonic effects. As Mr Train points out,

General Ulysses Grant… what panache! Led by a Hiram – the General did in fact start life as Hiram – the boys in blue would have cracked; Gettysburg would have gone the other way. Under President Oscar Lincoln the Union would have sundered.

Maurice Bonaparte? Derek Churchill? However, that is not to deny that whenever names are deliberately manipulated, the intention and the consequences are almost always bad. Of course, if I’d been born Marion Morrison or Archibald Cox, I dare say I’d have changed it to John Wayne or Cary Grant. But more than mere aesthetics, these are ideological names ‑ WASP names. [??] changed his name not to some other Lithuanian Jewish name more manageable to Hollywood tongues, but to Kirk Douglas.

All in all, parents should be licensed before being allowed to name their offspring.

Campaign for the Rectification of Names (or Telling It Like It Is, as we used to say around 1972). Why don’t we have one? See Fung’s history of Chinese philosophy.

Ministry of Defence. Peace keeping. Military intelligence. Airline food. Free enterprise.

© RJ Robinson


Neither a borrower nor a lender be

The trouble with this familiar old saw not that it is misquoted or misunderstood, but that it is such dangerous advice. Nor is it improved, as many quotations are, by being restored to its original context:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. [9][6]

In an economic system like capitalism, unsated by the most extravagant waste and debt, this would be unorthodox advice to say the least. But then, most proverbial wisdom on this topic has a wonderful irrelevance in the modern world. For example, ‘waste not, want not’. Debt is the drug of system too, and a mortgage on the future. OK on the individual level, but it mortgages the whole of future society too – under capitalism. Planned obsolescence as conquest of time by making it effectively pass faster. Fashion as socially approved form of whim. Conspicuous consumption.

The successive crises of over-production of the kind to which capitalism is so prone are only exacerbated by beggaring our children. Brave New World homilies to waste as fundamental truths of consumer capitalism. It expands the basis of production, and thus of sales and profit. But it adds nothing to our objective well-being. Individual indebtedness in Britain.Indebtedness of the Third World. Debt as basis of power over Third World and quiescence at home.

The gap (and indifference) between profit, technical excellence and human need.

© RJ Robinson

[10][6] Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, scene iii.


Suffering fools gladly

Of course, the norm is not to suffer fools gladly. It is even the subject of boasts and admiration – we often have at least a sneaking regard for those who do not suffer fools gladly. After all, fools are fools. However, the Bible, where the phrase originated, looked at it quite differently:

For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing you yourselves are wise. [11][7]

Perhaps Paul was being ironic, although humour was never his strong suit. Of course, folly is not always what it appears. When the Earl of Rochester proposed the following (premature) epitaph for Charles II:

Here lies a great and mighty king,
Whose promise none relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one

His Majesty replied,

This is very true, for my words are my own and my actions are my ministers

But there are still more telling reasons for seeming folly. Zen masters’ method with madness in it. It appears foolish because it is we who are too sophisticated – or rather, too primitive – to appreciate its utter logic.

Altogether more dangerous is method with madness in it – economic apologetics, scientism, etc.

© RJ Robinson

[12][7] Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, xi, 19.


My country, right or wrong

This bizarre, odious and possibly insane sentiment originated with a slightly more innocuous toast by Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), an American patriot of the post-Revolutionary period (when it no doubt seemed very sound). In 1816 he proposed thus:

Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be right; but our country, right or wrong. [13][8]

Carl Schurz [?] made a better stab at it:

Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.

But ‘my country, right or wrong’ (only the other side of vox populi, vox dei) is all that has come down to popular consciousness, and to provide countless little reactionaries with a rhetorical flourish to their vulgarity, in response to which GK Chesterton replied:


And in general, to a European ear, so much of American ideals and ideology is barely intelligible. As GK Chesterton also said:

There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong. [14][9]

The ideal American certainly seems to live on a very different planet from most real Europeans. He (and the ideal American is a he) still believes in Old Glory, the unity (more or less) of his country (E pluribus unum) and that no Presidential candidate is worth a vote unless they can command an occasional tête à tête with the Almighty:

It is inconceivable to me that anyone would think that he could do this job, the Presidency, if he couldn’t call on God for help and have faith that he’d be granted that help. [15][10]

To which the Almighty replied (through his amanuensis, Edward Sorel):

Go figure it!? The devil gets H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Sam Clemens, Billie Holliday, Gershwin, Porter, Schubert… and… and I… I keep getting dreck like this!!![16][11]

[Add Sorel cartoon of US Presidents talking to God.]

Such sentiments seem more than a little bizarre this side of the Pond. Still, the mere fact that Americans believe amazing things is not the only reason Europeans are so prone to discount and patronise American culture and thinking. On this side of the Atlantic, anti-Americanism is the acceptable face of racism. In any case, the Old World seethes with equally reactionary sentiments; we are simply too sophisticated, if that is the word, to say what we mean. After all, it is only a decade or so since Anthony Blunt was pilloried for preferring to work for a country in whose future he sincerely believed – the Soviet Union – rather than an ugly and decadent Britain busy appeasing Hitler. Of course, he would have fared at least as badly in the United States, not only as an enemy agent but also as a ‘premature anti-fascist’, as they used to say at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Apparently you can object to mass murder too soon for the US Congress.

Americans despise Europeans because they have no money. Europeans despise Americans because they have no culture.

[Johnson and Bierce on patriotism.]

© RJ Robinson

[17][8] Quoted in A. S. Mackenzie, Life of Decatur, ch. 14. [18]
[9] New York Times, 1st February, 1931. [19]
[10] Ronald Reagan, Time, 15th May, 1976. [20]
[11] From Superpen: The Cartoons and Caricatures of Edward Sorel.


Elementary, my dear Watson

Having recently read all the Sherlock Holmes stories (not for the last time, I suspect), I can assure the reader that Holmes never utters the words, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. ‘Elementary’ sometimes, and ‘My dear Watson’ often, but never together. Conan Doyle’s son used it in an attempt to prolong Holmes’ career, though not to any enduring effect.

Of course, that should not stop anyone ‘quoting’ Holmes/Conan Doyle to that effect. It is a very good phrase. In John Lennon’s case, it has even been embellished – twice:

Harrybelafonte, my dear Whopper


Ellafitzgerald my dear Whopper[21][12]

As Umberto Eco has observed, William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349) was clearly an ancestor of Sherlock Holmes (fl. 1887-1927). When the famous detective asserted that:

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. [22][13]

… he was only reiterating his philosophical forebear’s famous dictum that one should always prefer the hypothesis which calls for the least number of assumptions. Or, in Ockham’s own words:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem [23][14]

It’s an attractively simple, all-purpose principle, a sort of intellectual Swiss Army knife, and it’s interesting that such otherwise dissimilar figures are Holmes and Ockham should agree on this issue. Not only did they live six centuries apart but, as nominalist philosopher/amateur coiffeur and consulting detective/cocaine addict respectively, their experience could scarcely have been more different.

At first sight it seems that this most striking convergence must surely betoken a profound truth. Surely such a preposterous yet consonant mésalliance can only rest on a deeper meaning? But does their agreement indicate a verity spanning half a millennium and more, or merely a prejudice so commonplace that only the most foolhardy – or the most brilliant – thought to challenge it in all those centuries? Mere endurance is not evidence, one way or the other. After all, slavery was considered the natural order for millennia.

What should we do when ‘impossible’ turns out to be only the name of that part of reality for which our prejudices have no place, to sustain which we therefore have to introduce ever more – and ever more incredible – assumptions? Should we be whipping out that Swiss Army knife again when the situation calls for a linear accelerator? Is the principle of parsimony merely a principle of false economy?

For example, there is the question of cosmology. Leaving aside the obvious fact that the Earth is flat, stands still, and the Sun rotates around it once a day (to which either may have subscribed), Holmes and Ockham would both have taken a dim view of Copernicanism. In fact according to Watson, Holmes was unaware that the Copernican revolution had ever taken place [ref??], so their intellectual alliance is obviously all the closer. And one cannot help but feel that Ockham would have felt much the same, if not about a heliocentric universe [check Fabric of the Heavens] as such then certainly about the rather radical re-jigging of the cosmos Copernicus was proposing.

In assessing the change wrought by Copernicus, it is important to recognise why his theory was so appealing. First and foremost, Copernicus’ solar system did not work any better than Ptolemy’s, and indeed was in most respects an attempt to save the Copernican fundamentals such as a closed space, the circle as the perfect form of celestial motion, the epicycle and the eccentric as basic explanatory tools, and so on. Indeed, Copernicus’ account predicted the position of the stars rather worse than the earlier one. Nor was it more economical: again, it called for exactly the same sort of spheres and epicycles, only now the system had 48 of the latter instead of just 40.

In fact, the only major difference was that the solar system was now centred on the Sun rather than the Earth. No basic change in the fabric of the heavens, no shift of method. Only a change in the arrangement of things. Of course this was pretty reasonable, given the appalling implications of a truly unbounded space combined with the lack of stellar parallax. In other words, there were almost no additional ‘entities’ or assumptions, yet what was needed was the complete re-conceiving of the universe – something which both Ockham and Holmes would have reviled.

Kuhn vs Lakatos/Popper on the structure of scientific revolutions – revolutionary versus normal science. Thus, the entire history of astronomy between Ptolemy’s initial atlas of the Heavens and Copernicus setting to with a chain saw consisted precisely of the kind of minimalist thinking Ockham called for – the same structure exactly, only with more or less epicycles. Keynes on the use of statistics and other empiricist methods, and their implications for policy. The problem is that possible/impossible is not the only dimension of knowledge. It might be so, if we already knew all the dimensions of reality, and could therefore derive every possible truth from first principles. But we don’t, so we must respect Holmes’ and Ockham’s right to believe what they please, but concur with Aristotle that:

A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. [24][15]

For, as an only marginally less prominent philosophical figure has explained:

The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that. ’… The [impossible] merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The [improbable], however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and its specious rationality… If it could not possibly be done, then obviously it had been done impossibly. The question is how? [25][16]

As usual, fiction is so much more truthful than mere fact (leaving aside the debatable conclusion… ) ‘The facts’ are so often little more than a rag-bag, picked over now and then as circumstances dictate; great fiction, on the other hand, is deduced with geometric precision from a central truth, a overriding vision of the inexorable logic which underpins the merely correct.

Integral suspension of disbelief necessary to most of culture. Hollywood’s narrative realism. Quotation on Madame Bovary {?} – so true it could not possibly have really happened.

And from time to time a revolution occurs which reminds us that, beneath the seeming self-evidence of the possible and the impossible there is a more or less hidden framework of concepts which determine what can even exist for us while thinking and reasoning in that mode. And there is no guarantee that the Universe is confined by the concepts which currently confine our minds. Thus, Copernicus’s universe was not merely unknown to Ptolemy; he might well have found it inconceivable. Einstein, Darwin, etc.

In short, intellectual history is the history not of intellectual accumulation but of intellectual struggle. And that struggle is not only a struggle to wrest truth from the Universe, but also a struggle to prise the beams from our eyes. Hence the transmutation not only of one scientific method into another, but also of base common sense into science – and, perhaps, science into some form of reason for which science and morality, politics and art are all one. Same for cognitive development.

[26][12] Both from A Spaniard in the Works, Jonathan Cape, 1965.
[27][13] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four.
[28][14] ‘Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. ’[29]
[15] Poetics, 24, 1460.
[30][16] Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, p. 132.

© RJ Robinson


Time is money

Time is money? Certainly. Benjamin Franklin said so:

Remember that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day… and… sits idle one half of that Day… has already thrown away Five Shillings. [31][17]

Why is time money? Because time is opportunity and energy, and money is the ultimate arbiter and representative of action. Or at least, it is in any society with a decent grasp of accounting. Antiphon had a similar (though not explicitly monetary) sentiment attributed to him [ref]. Nevertheless, had Franklin been alive today, one cannot help but feel that the references to ‘Ten Shillings’ and ‘Five Shillings’ would still have been capitalised (so to speak), even if they were converted into a more contemporary currency. For we are unique in getting the relationship between time and money completely the wrong way round. For us, time serves to produce money rather than the other way about. Is there no time like the present?- surely there is no time the but the present! So why are we mortgaging away not merely a few hours or days or even years, but our entire lives to the pursuit of money – the true thief of time?

[32][17] Advice to Young Tradesman, 1748, Writings, vol. ii.

© RJ Robinson


Death and taxes

This is another of Benjamin Franklin’s deservedly well known exercises in the apologetics of money:

But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. [33][18]

Of course, death is a good deal less certain than taxes. Avoiding dying is merely a technical problem; tax (or its historical alternatives) stands at the root of our natures. For taxes embody one of the basic, if concealed, facts of our apparently individualistic world, namely its profound sociality. Taxes are inevitable because the social whole is so very much more than the sum of the individuals who make it up. Yet taxes appear as taxes – which is to say as an imposition, as a burden, as still ‘the taxpayers’ money’ and ‘you tax dollar’, to be spent only on advancing the interests of individuals – because our particular world does not recognise this basic fact. Individual property and income is perceived as the basic fact, while taxation is at best a necessary evil. And we should expect to get as much benefit out of ‘the system’, ‘the government’, as we put taxes in.

This is of course deeply silly. If there are only individuals and we expect to get as much out as we put in, why bother putting it in the first place? Why not just keep it under the mattress? Is the state merely the administrator of a more efficient company, to which it is therefore wise to pay a subscription? Franklin himself was aware of the collective nature of human action –

We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately. [34][19]

It’s a rather basic way of making the point, but it captures the gist. There are social structures and actions of which each individual is incapable yet which are indispensable to the interest of all. Nor is this reasoning the sole prerogative of individuals: whole states can join in. EU membership and getting as much as paying!

It is therefore ironic that capitalism, which is above all the author of this particular idiocy, is also one long process of socialisation, and thus revealing and curing this particular social lunacy.

[35][18] Letter to Jean Baptiste Le Roy, 13th November, 1789, in Writings, vol. x. [36]
[19] A remark to John Hancock at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence.

© RJ Robinson


Silent as the grave

Othello this time (not sure where, but certainly in Verdi’s Otello).

But the grave is not silent, except in the sense that I find another place, where I am not, silent.

Is life the reverse of the grave? It is finitude, not mortality, which is the enemy of humanity. That is, the ultimate horror is not the end of existence but collapse of meaning. Without meaning – without, that is, a place in the world, even our own, and therefore without necessity the main difference between eternal life and death is only that you don’t have to show up for death. With meaning, by contrast, even the briefest candle has its place, absolute and irreplaceable. If the universe had not come to me, it would have had to be a different universe! But it was not; therefore my existence is absolutely necessary, and therefore absolutely meaningful, even where I do no perceive that meaning. And so is yours. Thus there is an up side, even to death. If, as Martin Heidegger observed, dying is the one thing that cannot be done for me, and death is absolute, then death is irrefutable proof that my existence is also absolute.

Conversely, if there is salvation, if there is an afterlife, does that mean that my entire existence is a walk on part in God’s cosmic theatricals – the Universe, starring God Almighty? How very … well, how very vain.

© RJ Robinson


Vox populi, vox dei

This may be an acceptable sentiment to the average populist. However, populism was decidedly not to the taste of its originator. He invented the aphorism only in order to disown it:

Nor should we listen to those who say that the voice of the people is the voice of God, for the turbulence of the mob is always close to madness.

This singularly non-populist sentiment was delivered by Alcuin (735-804 AD), a Church Father (and therefore the authorised spokesperson for God) in a letter to Charlemagne (the fully accredited deputy of the people). Or perhaps it is not so un-populist a view – in some quarters at least, the greatest popular acclaim seems to have gone to those who exploited popular sentiments the most cynically, and who despised the people – in their minds undoubtedly ‘the mob’ – utterly. A populist is, as often as not, someone who announces that, on the one hand, the people are their own oracle, thank you very much, but, on the other hand, their pronouncements are unfortunately so Delphic that they cannot dispense with the services of an interpreter, even to themselves. Populists in that vein – not to be confused with the great populist revolutionaries of, for example, Tsarist Russia – are merely confused (or covert) monarchists. They would really prefer an absolutist monarchy to a popular republic, and are dissatisfied only until the monarchy is bestowed on them. Which is what ‘the people’ are for, of course. Once they have performed their indispensable function as noble king-makers, they become ‘the mob’, relegated to a diet of bread and circuses. Or bread and pogroms.

© RJ Robinson


The pen is mightier than the sword

In its popular but abbreviated form, this seems a singularly silly thing to say, as anyone will confirm who has ever tried parrying an epée with an epigram. However, it rings a little more true once restored to its proper context. It comes (in this form) from Richelieu a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73), and the couplet of which it is a part runs:

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. [37][20]

This is certainly a more plausible proposition (although the prospect of being ruled by men moderately competent, let alone entirely great, is still too remote to verify it), even though the more full blooded (ie, brutal, one-sided) version has more ancient forebears than Bulwer-Lytton’s more guarded couplet. However, even if such a utopia should come to pass under anything like our present social, economic and political arrangements, there would remain the problem that those who control the swords and those who control the pens tend to be pretty much interchangeable. Or at least, their interests and perspectives are much of a muchness. So what use is it to protest the superiority of the pen over the sword, when each can be relied on to defend the other?

The sentiment was also well known outside the West. Speaking of the role of the cleric in prosecuting jihad, the twelfth century Bahr al-Fava’id (‘Sea or Precious Virtues’) notes that:

For indeed that scholar who in a mosque and a prayer niche holds pen in hand and knows the proofs of Islam, is a warrior and his pen is mightier than the sword. [38][21]

On the other hand, Saladin was fond of quoting Abu Tammany, one of whose observations was that

The sword is truer than what is told in books.
In its edge is the separation between truth and falsehood. [39][22]

Incidentally, Bulwer-Lytton himself was rather a curious character. Now almost totally unknown, in his own day he was second among popular novelists only to Dickens, and it was he who gave us not only the excellent (if appalling) ‘the great unwashed’, the Vril people (from The Coming Race) (after whom Bovril is apparently named and who surface from time to time as a neo-Nazi secret order), but also whatever it was Hollywood exhumed to give us The Last Days of Pompeii.

Despite his many gifts to humanity, not everyone appreciated Bulwer-Lytton. Nathaniel Hawthorne described him as ‘the very pimple of the age’s humbug’, and Disraeli once remarked that he ‘never wrote an invitation to dinner without an eye to posterity’. As can be seen from these credits, Bulwer-Lytton’s real achievements were largely unintentional. Perhaps the most glorious is the immortal line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, with which he opened his novel, Paul Clifford (1830). This landmark of literary banality has even inspired the English Department of San José State University to name their annual competition for the worst opening sentence to a (thankfully imaginary) novel the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

To understand why this innocent (if irritatingly melodramatic) phrase was accorded this signal honour, it helps to restore this quotation to its full context:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

They don’t write them like that any more. Thank God. His Rienzi has a similarly barmy opening:

The celebrated name which forms the title of this work will sufficiently apprise the reader that it is in the earlier half of the fourteenth century that my story opens.

It is hard to imagine Wagner’s fate had he adopted this for the libretto of his opera Rienzi – second reserve page turner, I suspect.

It was in recognition of triumphs such as this – surely worthy rivals to the immortally dreadful Yankee Doodle and Home on the Range (perpetrated by Edward Bangs and ‘Dr Brewster Higley’ respectively) – that, in reply to the question, ‘Was Bulwer-Lytton’s pen mightier than the sword? ’, the founders of the eponymous contest were forced to concede, ‘On a good day, maybe mightier than a letter opener’[40][23].

[40][20] Act II, scene ii[?]. [41]
[21] Quoted by Robert Irwin in Riley-Smith (1999: 223). [42]
[22] Quoted by Robert Irwin in Riley-Smith (1999: 232). [43]
[23] Much of the information included here is taken from It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (compiled by Scott Rice, Sphere Books Ltd, 1986).This splendid compendium of entries from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for ‘the worst possible opening sentence for an imaginary novel’ is well worth a modest investment. The absurdity of the original quote I managed to glean for myself, though.

© RJ Robinson


The law of averages

The law of averages is the most marvellous of all the many remarkable laws of nature. It is, I suspect, a relative of the exception that proves the rule and Mark Twain’s [ref] infinitely fruitful ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’, from which anything can allegedly be proved. They are not so much arguments as intellectual off-switches, to be pressed every time reality demands a little too much critical effort. They haven’t even the saving grace of consoling us in the face of a dire truth; on the contrary, they serve solely to excuse us from dealing with reality at all. More generally than mere statistics, however, it is often said that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ – except that, as Poincaré remarked, ‘Facts do not speak’. Or at least, as Aldous Huxley observed, not for themselves:

Facts are ventriloquist’s dummies. Sitting on a wise man’s knee they be made to utter words of wisdom; elsewhere, they say nothing, or talk nonsense[44][24].

Of course, if you don’t know you’re in the theatre, it’s easy to imagine that it is the prop that’s talking. But the waggling of the props without any insight into what is really going on is mere superstition. ‘The facts’ do not simply impress themselves on our minds, like the stylus on that famous but preposterous tabula rasa. On the contrary, we build them up ourselves, quite possibly on the basis of experience, but an experience, like all experience, constructed from prejudice and interest and reason as well as the sights and sounds of the moment. And it is as well that we do: otherwise some of the most powerful tools at our disposal would be inconceivable. As Poincaré went on to say:

Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house[44][25].

Hence the dangerous and self-deceiving nature of ‘common sense’, in which everything is said to ‘stand to reason’, but the reasoning which lies beneath the surface remains entirely unnoticed. In fact, if reason is about criticism and insight, it is astonishing how little of common sense is truly scrutinised by reason before given prejudice receives its imprimatur.

However, common sense has still more treacherous deeps. Far from simply expressing what is, to people of good sense, the obvious, it is not only inherently false but also inherently reactionary.

Common sense is the practical ideology of the ruling class. [44][26]

[45][24] Time Must Have a Stop, Chatto and Windus, 1945, ch. 30. [46]
[25] La science et l’hypothèse, Flammarion, 1902. [47]
[26] Antonio Gramsci, [ref].

© RJ Robinson


The good old days

Like the fabled time, ‘after the Revolution’, a sop to present helplessness.

The man who draws up a programme for the future is a reactionary. [48][27]

[49][27] Letter to Professor E. S.Beesley.

© RJ Robinson


Cometh the hour

But how would you know? After all, how many times might things have gone quite the other way, had another individual – equally timely, but of quite the opposite effect – come along?

Take the case of that astonishing sixteenth-century figure Ivan Kudovbin. He invented a primitive form of gas mantle; he wrote 123 flute sonatas, before the sonata form had been invented; he experimented with cheap money and deficit budgeting; he raised a citizen army which drove the Galicians out of Galicia into Silesia, and the Silesians right out Silesia into Galicia.

Think of it … Kudovbin after Kudovbin – composers who wrote greater polyphonic music than Bach; Elizabethan dramatists more universal than Shakespeare; Elizabethan monarchs more Elizabethan than Elizabeth.

The steamboat would have been invented in time to take people to the Crusades; the United Nations in time to reach a negotiated settlement instead. Frozen fish-fingers would have come about the beginning of the Renaissance.

…[Kudovbin] was undoubtedly a genius. But, as we know from studying the history of the period, he was one of he unlucky ones who didn’t get born. He Kudovbin, but he wasn’t[50][4].

And that is the real problem in understanding the cosmic significance of Great Men. It is impossible to imagine Hitler as Reichskanzler, had the Germans won the First World War [there is a short story about this…]:what forces could he have called forth?

Of course, neither individual person nor individual event can be discounted. But what makes one individual more ‘historic’ than another is, more than anything else, the place they occupy, and therefore the levers they control, in the totality of human affairs. Indeed, not only the opportunities which historic action requires but also the historic personality itself is moulded, if by no means totally defined, by the larger historic whole. Who would have heard of Napoleon if he had been born to the Amazonian rain forests or the Siberian tundra? And just as importantly, his experience would almost certainly have expunged any Napoleonic potential or aspirations long before he reached maturity.

The function of heroes and celebrities.

© RJ Robinson


Every picture tells a story

And a picture is worth a thousand words.

A Mondrian? A Rothko? Beside these, Waiting for Godot is a riot of colour and episode. The words are indistinct. The medium is the message, and the message is ‘Huh?’. The words are irrelevant, deceiving, hypocritical. Narrative realism revisited.

© RJ Robinson


The best things in life are free

But admission to them is not. Commodification of everything. Hobbies.

© RJ Robinson


All men have their price

If, as Oscar Wilde’s wrote, a cynic is ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’, then ‘All men have their price’ is surely the nadir of cynicism. At least, I hope it is. It would be interesting to know whether those who repeat this repulsive sentiment include themselves among ‘all men’. If so, this surely disqualifies them from judging others, whose principles they see as nothing more than commodities to be bought and sold. And if not, then by what special Providence do they except themselves, other than the usual sleight of hand of those who claim to observe human life with Olympian detachment?

Whichever it is, this is not what Robert Walpole (1676-1745), the First Earl of Oxford and the author of this phrase, either meant or said. In fact, as a correct quotation of the original remark itself shows, he meant exactly the reverse. One day in the House of Commons, he pointed at the Members across the gangway and said, not ‘All men have their price’, but rather (with emphasis freely added):

All those men have their price.

That is, he was trying to distance himself, his own side (fine, upstanding chaps to a man), and very possibly the general run of humanity as a whole, from the venality of the individuals on the benches opposite. Not exactly the stuff of cynicism.

Incidentally, it was the same Walpole who gave us ‘the balance of power’. Nor was he the only Walpole who knew his own mind: the Fourth Earl (Horace Walpole, 1717-1797) once asserted that Shakespeare ‘undoubtedly wanted taste’ and that Tristram Shandy was ‘a very insipid and tedious performance’. He was probably quite a fan of Alcuin too, referring on one occasion to ‘our supreme governors, the mob’. On the other hand, he also gave us ‘serendipity’. ‘Serendip’ was the name for the island of Ceylon. The eponymous heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’, which is some small recompense.

Echoes ‘the best of men are but men at best’. Perfectibility of reason.

© RJ Robinson


The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong

Possibly, and we have God’s word for it,[50][28] but as H.L. Mencken noted, that’s the way to bet.

[51][28] Ecclesiastes, IX, 11.

© RJ Robinson


Rats leaving the sinking ship

And why not? The expression originally took the rats’ departure to be an omen, not a matter of moral turpitude. Or perhaps you think it would make more sense to stay on board and drown?

© RJ Robinson


Fair exchange is no robbery

Well if it isn’t, there goes Marxism.

What do you mean, it has already gone? Marxism is no more discredited by the collapse of the Soviet system than Christianity was by the decline of the Inquisition.

© RJ Robinson


Vengeance is mine

This expression is usually to be found somewhere in the vicinity of an extremely brutal and arbitrary act masquerading as divine judgement, and serves mainly to give a moral gloss to the other wise unspeakable. It usually works, though only because there’s little point in arguing with anyone so blatantly smug and hypo critical that they cite the word of God to justify their brutality. In other words, utter egomania. Even then, they’ve got the sentiment wrong, if not the actual words. Indeed, the way it is normally used seems to me to be precisely the reverse of the Bible’s intention. The full quotation is:

Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

I think this rather clearly arrogates the right to vengeance to God personally rather than any of his alleged representatives on Earth. Interestingly, although it has all the malice and savagery of the Old Testament, ‘Vengeance is mine’ is actually from the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 12:19 the New Testament. But then it is just the sort of thing that would have appealed to the Romans, what with the millions of people they murdered in the arena. Not that that was vengeance (more normally it was entertainment), but it is easy to imagine St Paul’s God and the Romans vying to mete out the most savage and disproportionate ‘punishments’. After all, the crimes of Sodom are not even criminal offences in our moral universe, whereas in the OT they rate a holocaust. But then the OT always was a little OTT.

As for the expression itself, I have long since suspected that God was a little short on moral subtlety. His treatment of Sodom is not exactly an object lesson in hope or charity. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to try and put the Almighty right on quite so fundamental an issue as the treatment of sinners (perhaps He and I and the inhabitants of Gomorrah will be able to take this up on Judgment Day). This is after all one of the few sentiments which survived the major policy rethink which occasioned the New Testament. He must have meant it.

An eye for an eye. That is, morality by results: the ethics of a five year old.

On the other hand:

Judge not, lest ye be judged (…)

It’s an attractive-sounding sentiment, and as doomed to relegation to a pious hope as most of the rest of the New Testament. The fact is, we don’t really have any option about making judgments, about everyone and everything, all the time. For judgment is not something you do apart from ordinary acts of understanding. To understand things is to place them in relation to other things, and those other things include not only other facts about things, people and events but also values, goals, ideals and all the other paraphernalia of judgment. I cannot know how capitalism works without making a judgment about this fact. I cannot listen to the ‘fact’ of Beethoven’s Eroica without making a judgment about it. I cannot know that the Nazis murdered millions without making a judgment about this fact. Scientists, administrators and professional newspaper editors may all aspire to keep facts and values firmly apart, but it is a futile quest. The best they can hope for is to distinguish between the two. But even that can never quite be accomplished, if only because the criteria by which we make even this distinction are themselves matters of value; how then can they generate value-free statements about whether proposition A or argument Z is a matter of simple fact?

In any case, why would anyone want to keep fact and value apart? We cannot avoid responsibility by insisting on being ‘non-judgmental’ (a term not unrelated to ‘unconscious’, or perhaps ‘brain-dead’). And isn’t the goal of any rational action to change the facts of the world as they actually are into the facts as they they should be? True, it is a strategy that is fraught with danger, not least because of confusions between fact and value. But even so, to try to keep the two sides apart forever is surely the way not only to failure but also disappointment.

© RJ Robinson


The law is an ass

Dickens this time, and more particularly the Beadle from Oliver Twist. A fuller quotation would be:

‘If the law supposes that’, said Mr Bumble… ‘the law is a ass – a idiot. ’[52][29]

However, Mr Bumble is the Beadle – the author of many of Oliver’s early sorrows and a deeply unpleasant chap. Which leads me to my criticism of how the phrase ‘the law is an ass’ is used. This phrase is usually used to denigrate the law (usually as an institution rather than an ideal), to suggest that it is stupid and incompetent and, above all, reactionary. However, what Mr Bumble is complaining about is that the law is not reactionary enough.

Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons – defence of the law as a prop against Satan as a lesson to contemporary revolutionaries who perceive capitalism as nothing but evil, as opposed to interim, if ambiguous, pinnacle of human achievement. Marx’s attacks on Simon Bolivar.

[53][29] Chapter 51.

© RJ Robinson


Religion is the opium of the people

Only a tiny fraction of Karl Marx’s immense outpourings on history, capitalism, calculus, the Tsarist Secret Service and so on has entered into popular consciousness. Given the man’s impact on the world, this is hard to explain. Perhaps it is the often extreme tedium of his literary style – Volume II of Capital is excruciating – or perhaps it is the fact that, in many circles, quoting Marx has about the same respectability as quoting the Devil. At the very least you find yourself being looked at as though you’ve just made a joke in very poor taste.

However, Marx had many moments of sheer literary genius, so it is inevitable that some small nuggets should have crept into everyday rhetoric. Unfortunately, most of these prove to be fools’ gold, at least for would-be Marxologists, being either unoriginal to Marx or fundamentally misunderstood. In fact it is hard to identify any one remark with any one writer, given that the era all but breathed revolutionary rhetoric. Marx himself attributed ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat’ to August Blanqui (1805-1881), ‘workers of the world, unite!’ is a thoroughly un-Marxist translation of Marx’s actual words, and ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ is very likely borrowed from the anarchist Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). Finally, ‘The workers have nothing to lose… but their chains’ was probably original, but co-authored with Engels (altogether more readable than Marx, though intellectually much less brilliant). It is also from the Communist Manifesto, which is probably the worst piece of Marxism Marx ever wrote, so Karl might have been grateful if history had consigned this to ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice’, as he did The German Ideology.

Still, it is especially ironic that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is so well known, since it always seems to have been understood in a sense which is almost the opposite of Marx’s original intentions. But then I suppose a dialectician must expect his best phrases to be turned on their heads. Nowadays it is taken as a straightforward denunciation of religion, whereas Marx was surely trying to express the equivocal relationship between religion and human existence. To put this famous remark back into context:

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call them to give up their illusions about their condition is call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo[54].[30]

This brilliant, terse, pungent summary of the materialist view of religion is typical of Marx at his best. The method it uses is also typical of Marxism in its mature form: a revelation of the dynamism of history and consciousness, sweeping up everything in its path, both driven and undermined by the inexhaustible tension between moral consolation and political action. Writing like this, Marx has a startling way of showing that fireworks and analysis can go hand in hand. Which only makes it all the greater shame that, at his worst, Marx is stunningly dull and obscure. However, in this case it is clear that the object of Marx’s criticisms is not religion as such. For him religion was mainly a symptom of underlying structures and processes that produced the things he really did abhor – oppression, ignorance, fear, alienation. He sympathises with the underlying need, even if he does deplores the way religion fulfils it.

Perhaps it is just as well that Marxism can only be comprehended by going beyond the rhetoric and into serious research. Perhaps this shields it from the toy Marxism of so much modern day revolutionism, which takes the title of socialist even while depriving socialism of all humanity. In fact, along with ‘democracy’ and ‘nationalism’, ‘socialism’ spent most of the 20th century as little but a substitute for ‘true religion’ as the indispensable rhetorical device of Western politics. Where a century or two ago the crucial justification of revolution (or reaction) was that it would refurbish the faith to its ancient purity, today it promises the rule of the people in some form. What then does it matter that Marx is misquoted, any more than that the Sermon on the Mount is subverted by hypocritical churches? It’s not as though the people who misquote him would be any more likely to institute a socialist society if they got the words right.

[54][30] From the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

© RJ Robinson


Workers of the world, unite!

The translation improves the words, but destroys the sense. The original German is:

Proletärier aller Länder, vereinigt Euch!

which should be translated as ‘proletarians of all countries, unite’. To a non-Marxist, the difference between ‘proletarian’ and ‘worker’ may seem cosmetic, and the technically more accurate translation certainly lacks panache. For a Marxist, however, this difference is the very crux of the Marxist theory of history, economics and society. ‘Worker’ is a term for sociologists (apparently one of Lenin’s favourite terms of abuse – ‘Sociologist!’), and indicates little more than a concatenation of empirical features about a person’s background and everyday life – the kind of job they do, the kind of culture they are likely to possess, and other characteristics more suited to a compendium of statistics than a serious theory. They give you the facts, but they don’t tell you the truth.

‘Proletarian’, by contrast, indicates a person’s relationship to the ‘means of production’, which is to say, the basic mechanisms whereby society makes and remakes itself. In particular it indicates one’s part in how the control of wealth, and therefore the control of power, is distributed. In a mature capitalist system, this means one of two things: either you are a bourgeois, and so entitled to the profits from the capital you owns; or you are a proletarian, entitled only to your wages or salary.

By this definition, the term ‘proletariat’ includes not only the ‘workers’ in the traditional blue collar sense but also all professionals, managers, and almost every other member of the middle classes. It appears that the traditional working class of manual labourers is fast disappearing. However, the class of waged and salaried employees is not. On the contrary, it is continually expanding, and it follows from the basic logic of capitalism that it must.

For us, the importance of this notion of ‘workers’ lies in this: that the divisions between working and middle classes, in which so many political stratagems and images are grounded, are, if by no means baseless, merely symptoms of the immaturity of political consciousness. Still, the unity of interest between middle and working classes is not merely palpable but clearly growing. Ever since the First World War – to put it no earlier – the great middle class professions of law and medicine and teaching has found themselves increasingly reduced to employment by either State or corporate capital.

Therefore, ‘workers of the world, unite!’ not only mistranslates Marx’s original words: it thoroughly perverts them.

As an aside, I’d also like to recall a splendid piece of graffiti I saw in London some time in the 1980’s. All down a wall in letters 3 metres tall I saw the heroic words, ‘Let the bosses pay for their own crisis’ – except that someone had changed the last ‘i’ to a ‘p’.

© RJ Robinson


More honoured in the breach

This phrase is invariably used to suggest that the practice in question has largely lapsed, and so more frequently breached than observed, so to speak. Hamlet’s intention, however, was quite different, for when he says,

But to my mind, – though I am a native here,
And to the manner born, – it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance. [55][31]

… he is referring to the nightly drunkenness of the Danish court which, the courtiers apparently believe, demonstrates how cultivated they are.

But culture, the Prince is saying, would be the better demonstrated by foregoing drunken orgies – more honoured by the breach than the observance. As with the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law, one must sometimes offend against the one to uphold the other. Indeed,

… the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. [56][32]

[57][31] From Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, scene iv, 14. [58]
[32] Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, xvi, v. 6.

© RJ Robinson


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…

Hamlet again, and this time you can get the original words completely right and still miss the point: it’s all a question of emphasis. The usual rendition –

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. [59][33]

…implies that it’s Horatio who’s got it wrong (he’s probably a bit too dim for this malarkey), whereas it should be read thus:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

This emphatic yet subdued use of the word ‘your’ is still common in parts of London (in fact its best known recent exponent is probably Alf Garnett of Till Death Us Do Part fame), where it is used to emphasise the noun associated with it. What Hamlet is saying is that, far from it being Horatio who is at fault, it is philosophy itself that is too narrow to comprehend heaven and earth. I must admit I never thought much of Hamlet as a philosopher, especially when he’s ranting on in his usual sub-existential vein. Like his French descendants, Hamlet thinks that the pointlessness of his life is somehow a comment on life in general. The fellow is plainly a complete egomaniac. [expand, on existentialism and philosophy]

At least Aldous Huxley has managed inject some life into this otherwise rather morbid enfant horrible. Thus:

‘He was a philosopher, if you know what that was. ’ ‘A man who dreams of fewer things than there are in heaven and earth,’ said the Savage promptly. [60][34]

But making a fetish of inconsistency is just as bad (Kierkegaard/Nietzsche?). Thus, Nietzsche’s definition of a philosopher as

… terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger. [61][35]

is characteristically thrilling, but actually describes a type as likely to create Nietzsche’s hell of eternal recurrence as endure it. It doesn’t much resemble the philosophers I’ve met much either. On the other hand, the chronicling the history of inconsistency is a central method to science itself [Hegel, Piaget].

[62][33] Act I, scene v, 166. [63]
[34][64][65] Brave New World, Penguin Books, 1977, p. 186. [66]
[35] Ecce Homo, Die Unzeitgemässen.

© RJ Robinson


Play on, Macduff

Or sometimes, ‘Lead on’, and wrong both times. Shakespeare yet again – surely the undisputed British heavyweight champion of misquotation. In this case it’s Macbeth, and the original goes thus:

Lay on, Macduff; And damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’

It’s an invitation to a fight, not a sing-song.

© RJ Robinson


Curate’s egg

This excellent but much misunderstood phrase originated with a Punch cartoon of 1895. The lord of the local manor is having the neighbourhood for a meal (as guests, that is), and the local curate is sat at the far end of the table. He has been served a bad egg. The following exchange ensues:

‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones’
‘Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’[67][36]

I suggest that those who purloin this little beauty try downing a bad egg. I wonder if they would accept it as ‘good in parts’, as the phrase is now used?

[68][36] Punch, vol. 106, p. 222, 19th November.

© RJ Robinson


We are the masters now

This phrase must have sent a few shivers through Britain. The ring is unmistakably totalitarian – a ring which must have been quite chilling in April, 1946, when Sir Hartley Shawcross is supposed to have said this in the House of Commons, and the words have had a sinister resonance ever since. It’s only a pity he never said them. The original remark was:

We are the masters at the moment – and not only for the moment but for a very long time to come.

Well, it’s still pretty blunt, but at least it lacks the knock-on-the-door-at-four-in-the-morning quality of the more familiar version.

© RJ Robinson


All’s well that ends well

There are some aphorisms you only have to say out loud to realise how fatuous they are. All’s well that ends well? Like the Second World War, perhaps? The good guys won, so Auschwitz and Leningrad and Hiroshima and Dresden and the Burma Railway are OK? A necessary price, yes, but an acceptable price? Never.

When they find a cure for AIDS, will that console the grieving and the dead?

[How does the Shakespeare play develop?]

© RJ Robinson


Money is the root of all evil

This famous aphorism has achieved a peculiarly paradoxical status among famous quotations, being as frequently cited as a notorious misquotation as misquoted in its own right. The original is from St Paul:

The love of money is the root of all evil. [69][37]

Money’s ability to transmute everything in its path has always been recognised. Shakespeare in particular made rather a meal of the subject, albeit in a succession of cordon bleu dishes. For example:

However, it is no accident that this quote has been so turned to universal and enduring misquote. As Bagehot might have said, Money rules, even while it does not reign. If it reigned, the love of money would be even more important than it actually is. However, even where it merely rules, its regime is stern and resounds with iron decrees, none of them for the betterment of humanity. Money really does make the world go around, and will continue to do so until there is widespread and organised social and political control of money – which is to say, resistance to the entire world being reduced to a commodity – and without recognition of the implicit power of the rule of money, there can be no moral or ethical basis of action. Thus money is a root of evil, much if by no means all.

However, not only do many of these conditions prevail in our own society but they define what is normal. Although it is not true that money, either as a unit of value or a means of exchange, directly causes evil, the mechanisms whereby money operates are so wholly indifferent to the good, whether moral or ethical, that it, more than any other force in the contemporary world, reveals the truth of another aphorism, that indifference to the good is more corrosive to morality than any evil [quote…].

But money’s influence is also much more direct and mechanical than that. Widespread drug abuse, for instance, is possible on a large scale only where it is either socially sanctioned or there is a solvent of social controls – of which money is the quintessential example, and in this case the immediate agent. Money as the solvent of social order:’ Money has no smell’. And for evil to flourish, it is only necessary that good men do nothing. In the case of a completely money-based system, however, good men need not even stand aside. No, they will simply be disregarded, as dreamers and moralising bores. And until good men recognise what it is that is causing their morals to be disregarded, that is exactly what they will be. When money doesn’t talk, it swears.

[70][37] First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, vi, 10.

© RJ Robinson


Fine feathers make fine birds

Another of those masterpieces of thoughtless cynicism that litter the English language. This one has certainly ‘improved’ on the original: what Aesop (fl. 570 BC) actually said was:

A Peacock spreading its gorgeous tail mocked a Crane that passed by, ridiculing the ashen hue of its plumage and saying, “I am robed, like a king, in gold and purple and all the colors of the rainbow; while you have not a bit of color on your wings.” “True,” replied the Crane; “but I soar to the heights of heaven and lift up my voice to the stars, while you walk below, like a cock, among the birds of the dunghill.” Fine feathers don’t make fine birds.[71][38]

I detect a discrepancy here. On the other hand, the misquotation agrees with contemporary reality much better than Aesop (whose advice is seldom either pleasant or plausible anyway). Fashion and style, individuality and social conformity and roles. Historic opposition and eventual reconciliation.

[72][38] The Peacock and the Crane, translated by George Fyler Townsend.

© RJ Robinson


Every cloud has a silver lining

Bad meteorology, worse philosophy. One could as well assert that every silver lining has a great big black cloud in the middle of it, but no one seems to make as much of that fact.

© RJ Robinson


If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well

Not a bad philosophy, as far as it goes. It even receives a Biblical sanction (including a typically savage rationalisation):

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. [73][39]

Yes, not bad as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go very far. Like ‘grasping the nettle’, it’s more dramatic than realistic. Some job’s are only worth doing because they can be done superficially. Nor are more major jobs always worth doing well, even when backed up with the most draconian sanctions. Even working for a living, which should surely promote the best in human productivity, is generally a waste of time for the individual concerned. Certainly most of the jobs I’ve had were definitely not worth doing – at least, not from my point of view. I was simply bribed or compelled to do them. That in no way reduced the compulsion to do them: whether out of irresistible social obligation or just for the money, I had no choice. Whether it was the washing up as a child or the routine chores of adult employment, I really cannot swear that much of it was worthwhile. For example, I never minded being an operating theatre technician or a research assistant; but there was always something it would have more useful to do, more valuable to humanity, except that it didn’t pay.

Since this particular old saw is bandied about with the greatest frequency precisely where the job at hand has no visible means of support other than such nuggets of proverbial wisdom, it is an especially pernicious cliché.

Of course, the job may be worth doing well from someone else’s point of view. The trouble is, most jobs are not worth doing by the doer. Is a clerk’s job worth doing ‑ from the standpoint of the clerk, that is? Or only from that of their boss, who would not dream of wasting their life on anything so worthless? But then the boss is almost certainly unaware that they even do it – so is it only necessary from the point of view of ‘the system’.

But isn’t that what most paid employment is from the point of view of the employee – doing something worthless for money? Isn’t this the very nadir of nihilism – to live by doing something of no significance? Isn’t that the essence of cynicism to do a job for the wage, not its intrinsic value?

This is the essence of alienation.

[74][39] Ecclesiastes, ix, 10.

© RJ Robinson


Do as you would be done by

Another triumph of rampant egocentrism, or perhaps merely the reduction of all nuance and individuality to a single glowing cliché. As with so many quaint banalities, this nugget finds a niche in the Bible:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. [75][40]

Something similar also appears in the Book of Common Prayer:

To love him as myself, and to do to all men, as I would they should do unto me. [76][41]

It also surfaces in Confucius’ Analects:

Do not do to others what you do not wish yourself. [77][42]

…not to mention some less august (though no less profound) sources:

I shall grow as handsome as my sister… the loveliest fairy in the world;… her name is Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. [78][43]

However, in the very familiar form already mentioned, it may well originate with the Earl of Chesterfield (who also gave us the excellent ‘chapter of accidents’):

Do as you would be done by is the surest method that I know of pleasing. [79][44]

All the same (and despite the impressive range of authorities backing it up), it really won’t do. As George Bernard Shaw retorted:

Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. [80][45]

Like the masochist who cries ‘Beat me! Beat me!’ and the sadist who replies ‘No… ’, the differences within humanity are as close to its soul as its samenesses.

[81][40] Gospel According to St Matthew, vii, 12. [82]
[41] The Catechism. [83]
[42] Analects, XII, 2. [84]
[43] Water Babies, Charles Kingsley. [85]
[44] Letter to his Son, 16th October, 1747. [86]
[[87]45][88] Maxims for Revolutionists, p. 227.

© RJ Robinson


Play it again, Sam

Casablanca is my all-time favourite film, especially from the point of view of quotable quotes ‑ the whole script is littered with wonderful lines. My favourite is also probably the ultimate insult:

‘You despise me don’t you? ’
‘Well, if I gave you any thought I probably would. ’

Or consider Humphrey Bogart’s summary of the day the Wehrmacht entered Paris:

I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.

Or this exchange:

Major Strasser:‘You give him too much credit for cleverness. My impression was that he is just another blundering American.’

Captain Renault: ‘You mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918’.

Or this:

Rick: ‘It’s December, 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?’
Sam: ‘My watch stopped. ’

Ah, they don’t write them like that any more. And in the case of ‘Play it again, Sam’, they didn’t write them like that then either: the words simply never appear anywhere in the film. I should know, I’ve seen it thirteen times. The closest anyone gets is Ingrid Bergman’s:

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.

Or perhaps:

Rick: ‘You played for her, you can play it for me. ’
Sam: ‘But I don’t think I can remember it. ’
Rick: ‘If she can stand it, I can. Play it!’

Well, at least Humphrey Bogart really does say ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’. Three times, in fact. Pity it’s such a duff line.

In fact posterity is usually a pretty good sub-editor. Certainly it has given Mae West’s most famous one-liner (to Gary Cooper?? Cary Grant?? ) a punch it originally lacked. What she actually said – in She Done Him Wrong (a title which surely merits some sort of an accolade in its own right) – was:

You know I always did like a man in uniform. And that one fits you grand. Why don’t you come up some time and see me?

Regrettably, she never said ‘Peel me a grape, Beulah’ either.

Other lines that are equally conspicuous only by their absence are ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ and ‘Come with me to the Casbah’.

In the not altogether likely event of my becoming a Hollywood nymphette, I expect to be saying ‘I want to be alone’ frequently. It is a pity that I shall not be echoing Greta Garbo when I do. The words were attributed to her relatively early in her career and seem to have stuck, even though there is no evidence of her having uttered them at that time. In fact, the lady expressly disavowed them. However, having become her trademark, the phrase took on a life all its own, even to the extent that in later films (such as Grand Hotel, 1932) she starts to use it after all. Perhaps this was her script writers’, directors’ and producers’ way of cashing in on a memorable phrase.

Of course, having the wrong things attributed to you can have more serious consequences than merely reducing you to a walking cliché. Some, like ‘Let them eat cake’, can damage a lot more than your public reputation. This remark is usually attributed to Marie Antoinette, consort of Louis XVI, at the time of the French Revolution or thereabouts, on being told that the poor had no bread. It has always served as a kind of moral (if deplorably non-judicial) justification for terminating completely the lady’s interest in things comestible. It must be agreed that it wasn’t a very sensitive thing to say in the circumstances. However, she can be forgiven on three counts. Firstly, she probably never said it. This tale is as apocryphal as any favourite quotation. Secondly, the traditional English rendering makes her seem more heartless. What she actually said (if she said anything at all) was:

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

This translates as, ‘let them eat brioche‘ – a bread-like substance, often eaten as an alternative to bread. A bit dim, but no reason to consign such a cosseted person to the tumbrel. And finally, something like Qu’ils mangent de la brioche seems to have been rather a common phrase of the day, as Rousseau testifies in his Confessions. If Marie Antoinette was saying it, so were a lot of other people, not all of whom ended up having a sheet of steel pushed through their throat. Indeed, the reference in Rousseau would date the phrase at no later than 1740 – fifteen years before Marie Antoinette was born! And still further back, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations[89][46] cites a thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury saying something very similar.

[90][46] OUP, 1985, corrigenda.

© RJ Robinson


Enough is as good as a feast

Nonsense. And a very niggardly, puritanical nonsense, too, even if it does go back at least as far as Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur. As Oscar Wlide observed, ‘Enough is as good as a meal‘.

The purpose of feasting is not nutrition but indulgence. It’s an entirely gratuitous activity, done for the sheer pleasure and ostentation of it all. Not only is ‘enough’ no index of a satisfactory feast, the word simply doesn’t figure in the calculus of feasting at all. As the Romans showed with their splendid invention, the vomitarium, even being stuffed stupid is no hindrance to serious feasting.

But of course, saying that enough is as good as a feast is also a way of telling the ‘less fortunate’ to be contented with their lot when it isn’t a lot.

© RJ Robinson


You’ve never had it so good

Harold Macmillan undoubtedly said these words, in July 1957, apparently echoing a US Presidential campaign slogan from five years earlier. The historic accuracy of the quotation is therefore not in question. However, as with any quotation taken out of context, the problem lies in deciding exactly what he meant by it. The popular view is that it is a piece of self-congratulation – not inconceivable, given its author. Yet the context makes it clear that Macmillan meant to inculcate a sense of caution, not exultation:

What is beginning to worry some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true? ’ Or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last? ’

© RJ Robinson


In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king

The author of this phrase seems to have been Erasmus. As to the sentiment, well, possibly – if the other inhabitants are aware of their handicap, if they have not so arranged things that vision is a positive nuisance, if they don’t regard vision as witchcraft, and if they have any idea what a sighted person is going on about. Otherwise, in the country of the blind the one eyed man is merely incomprehensible.

HG Wells devoted one of his most interesting short stories to this more plausible hypothesis. Its sighted hero is almost seduced into having his eyes plucked out in order to live among the blind. In the end he decides not to sacrifice his eyes; but it is a very close call.

Relationship of adult to child, adult to mystic… Method is our madness.

© RJ Robinson


A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse

Quite right. But as with many such pearls, its literal correctness is marred by the fact that most people who try to cash it in don’t pay the least bit of attention to what they’re actually saying. It’s not even as though there were anything obscure about it: a nod is as good a wink to a blind horse. But how many people say this to mean that all signs are equally useless to someone who cannot (or will not) see, than whom it is notorious that there are none so blind? Almost no one: all but universally, it is used to mean that they’ve got the message – precisely what a blind horse doesn’t do!

© RJ Robinson


It’s the exception that proves the rule

Well if it is, then bang goes science.

That this is blatant nonsense and only ever used to excuse the most blatant intellectual laziness has never detracted from its popularity. It may be (as Brewer noted) that the existence of an exception implies the existence of a rule, but the usual use of this expression is to except the user from bothering with any rule at all. I suspect that this is because it is easier to maintain one’s universe in good working order if we can assume that all rules are false when it suits us. This both acknowledges disposes of troublesome reality, creates the illusion of higher wisdom, and justifies the speaker’s inertia – all in a single economical utterance. It is thus an indispensable weapon in one’s intellectual armoury.

The idea that there might be exception which ‘proved’ a rule is about as sensible as the equally popular notion that you can prove anything with statistics. In both cases the fallacy is the same: that you can say anything is true, just as long as you are prepared to talk complete nonsense. Like statistics, a ‘proof’ can only be constructed where there is a sound underlying method. In particular, there must be some kind of logical or material connection between the assumptions, the evidence, the argument and the conclusion. Since an exception is, by definition, a case where the normal connections are absent, it’s hard to see how it can figure in a proof!

Of course, the phrase makes perfectly good sense when the old meaning of the word ‘prove’ is taken into account. Before gaining its present meaning, the verb ‘to prove’, like the German prüfen and the French preuver [??], with both of which it shares much of its ancestry, meant ‘to test ‘. A slight echo of this meaning is still to be heard in the term ‘proving ground’, and in ‘proof reading’ too.

It is of course perfectly sensible to try and find an apparent exception against which to test a supposed rule. In fact that is the entire basis of Karl Popper very popular model of scientific method as being grounded in not verification (ie, proof) but falsification. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for cultivating a certain inconsistency. As Emerson once remarked,

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. [91][47]

In fact, the cultivation of inconsistency, if only to see what it will come out in the wash, is a major branch of scientific method. It may be unscientific to make a virtue out of contradiction, but the analysis and resolution of contradictions stands at the heart of some of the highest achievements of reason. [Hegel, Piaget, Marx]

[92][47].Self Reliance, ii.

© RJ Robinson







































































































































































































Leave a Reply