It Seems To Me

Herb Stein’s Unfamiliar Quotations

On money, madness, and making mistakes.

By Herbert Stein

(1,184 words; posted Thursday, May 15; to be composted Thursday, May 22)

I love to browse through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. It may be lazy of me, but I like to taste the plums of many authors whose full puddings I cannot digest. For example, I cannot make anything of T.S. Eliot in his entirety. But I know that I am in the presence of genius when I read the following lines from The Wasteland:

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water.

Of course, some of these nuggets are ambiguous. Thus, we have Swedish Count Axel Oxenstierna writing in the 17th century, “Behold, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.” For a long time I thought that this was a complaint that the world is not governed with more wisdom. Recently I have come to think it means that not much wisdom is required to govern the world.

As recompense–small though it be–for the pleasure I have got from Bartlett, I am setting down a few quotations (with explanations where necessary) that have resonated with me and are not included in that book.

If you meet a madman who says that he is a fish and that we are all fishes, do you take off your clothes to show him that you do not have fins?

–Milan Kundera, Risibles Amours, 1984

I love this in part because I am proud that I translated it from the French, which, in turn, was translated from the Czech. But I love it even more because it has saved me so much trouble. In the past when I encountered some outlandish inanity–often about taxes–I would sit down at my keyboard and write an answer. I am still tempted to do that, but since I encountered that quotation, I have resisted.

You may ask: How will I know if he is a madman? The answer is: Don’t worry, you’ll know. And if you are in doubt, assume he is mad and leave the refutation to others. You have plenty to do in the world without having to worry about debating people who may be mad.

Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.

–Professor Frank H. Knight, in class at the University of Chicago, 1936

Clear enough, aside from these questions: What qualifies as wasting time, and what should you do if you can’t sleep? I recently encountered a somewhat different quotation from the poet Baudelaire:

To kill that particular monster [time] is the most ordinary and legitimate occupation of each person.

It is interesting that Knight should have used the word “waste,” which is the gangland term for “kill.” Perhaps the reconciliation here is that sleep is the best way of killing time.

Honesty may not be the best policy, but it is worth trying once in a while.

–Richard Nixon, in a meeting, 1970

This may seem the ultimate in cynicism, but the second half of the quotation (about trying honesty once in a while) seems foreign to many politicians, among others.

Surely there is something unlovely, to modern as against medieval minds, about marked inequality of either kind [income or power].

–Henry C. Simons, Economic Policy for a Free Society, 1948

What fascinates me about this sentence is the word “unlovely.” It is a candid declaration that feelings on this subject are “feelings,” not matters of efficiency or justice but matters of taste, of aesthetics, of emotions.

There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.

–Adam Smith, in a letter to a friend who, after the battle of Saratoga, was lamenting that the revolt of the colonies was going to ruin Britain, late 18th century

This is a comfort when one is listening to politicians or editorialists describing the ruin that will follow if their pet policies are not adopted.

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

–Stein’s Law, first pronounced in the 1980s

This proposition, arising first in a discussion of the balance-of-payments deficit, is a response to those who think that if something cannot go on forever, steps must be taken to stop it–even to stop it at once.

If a plank creaks in the floor, he [Ernesto IV] snatches up his pistols and imagines that there is a liberal hiding under his bed.

–Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839

A comment on many of today’s pundits.

Three percent exceeds 2 percent by 50 percent, not by 1 percent.

–Edward Denison, in conversation, about 1960

An obvious point, but one that is important–and commonly overlooked–in discussions of economic growth.

Observe how he has made a breast of his back.

In life he wished to see too far before him,

And now he must crab backwards round this track.

–Dante Alighieri, TheInferno (Canto XX, Circle Eight–The Fortune Tellers and Diviners), early 14th century

This is Dante’s vision of the fate of economic and political forecasters.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

–T.S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934

These Eliot lines, not in Bartlett’s, are an advance comment on the Information Age of which we are now so proud.

Don’t worry, you’ll do it again!

–Mother-in-law, in conversation many times

In the Jewish tradition, this sardonic remark is intended to comfort a person who is grieving over having made a serious mistake.

Thus, prediction of whether or not the capitalist order will survive is, in part, a matter of terminology.

–Joseph Shumpeter, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1945

Capitalism survived its crisis and went on to great successes. But the capitalism that survived and succeeded was not the capitalism of 1929.

–Herbert Stein, The Triumph of the Adaptive Society, 1989

This joint entry is a reminder that terms like “capitalism,” “socialism,” “liberalism,” “conservatism,” “welfare state,” and “free market” have to be defined if they are to be used in intelligent discussion. The required definitions are missing most of the time.

We [the American colonists fighting in the War of Independence] have shed our blood in the glorious cause in which we are engaged; we are ready to shed the last drop in its defense. Nothing is above our courage, except only (with shame I speak it) the courage to TAX ourselves.

–James Madison, 1782

I was not the first person to observe this fact.

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

–Humorist Robert Benchley, quoted in The Algonquin Wits, 1968

This comes to mind frequently when I am emptying the dishwasher or engaging in a similar activity.