Quotations by Isaiah Berlin

I have quite a good memory for human beings: less good for facts, alas; appalling for quotations.
IB to G. R. Potter, 20 September 1971


We all breathe through our mouth and nostrils – but we are not by nature Greeks and barbarians.
Diels-Kranz, fr. 44 B, col. ii, lines 24–35: ‘None of us is by definition barbarian or Greek, for we all breathe out into the air by mouth and nostrils.’ There is a good version of the same thought earlier in the fragment.


History is what Alcibiades did and suffered.
Poetics 1451b11

Fire burns both here and in Persia, but what is thought just changes before our very eyes.
Nicomachean Ethics 1134b26 (freely rendered)

Pierre Bayle

Le tribunal suprême & qui juge en dernier ressort & sans apel de tout ce qui nous est proposé, est la Raison.
Pierre Bayle, Commentaire philosophique (1686), part 1, chapter 1: p. 368, col. 1, in Oeuvres diverses de Mr Pierre Bayle (La Haye, 1737), vol. 2

Jeremy Bentham

Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.
Attributed by J. S. Mill in Utilitarianism, chapter 5 [near end]: Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson (Toronto/London, 1981–  ), vol. 10 (1969), p. 257

Bernard Bosanquet

But we will content ourselves at this point with noting the distinction and connection between the negative or juristic, and the varyingly positive or political conception of liberty.
Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State and Related Essays (London, 1899), chapter 6 (‘The Conception of Liberty [. . .]’), 3 (b), p. 136 (146 in 2001 ed.). Commenting on Bosanquet, J. P. Plamenatz uses the distinction between negative and positive liberty distinction in Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation (London, 1938; 2nd ed., 1968), p. 35.

Jacob Burckhardt

see Sainte-Beuve

Anton Chekhov

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
A. Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v tridsati tomakh, Pis´ma, vol. 3 (Moscow, 1976), item 707, p. 273, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889; see p. 464 for the comment that ‘This idea had already been expressed by Chekhov in the summer of 1889 at Yalta, in conversation with I. Ya. Gurlyand: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” From Gurlyand’s “Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov”, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No 28, 11 July, p. 521.’ Another version is quoted in S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911): ‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

Auguste Comte

If we don’t allow free thought in mathematics, why on earth should we allow it in morals and politics?
Paraphrase: see Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (1822): p. 14 in Auguste Comte, Systéme de politique positive, vol. 1, part 1 (Paris, 1824); p. 53 in Auguste Comte, ‘Appendice général du système de politique positive’, in Système de politique positive (Paris, 1851–4), vol. 4 (1854). Mill quotes this passage in Auguste Comte and Positivism: pp. 301–2 in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson (Toronto/London, 1981–  ), vol. 10.


La nature lie, par une chaîne indissoluble, la verité, le bonheur et la vertu.
(Nature binds, by an indissoluble chain, truth, happiness and virtue.)
Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, ed. O. H. Prior and Yvon Belaval (Paris, 1970), p. 228

Cf. ‘Thus industry, knowledge, and humanity, are linked together by an indissoluble chain, and are found, from experience as well as reason, to be peculiar to the more polished, and, what are commonly denominated, the more luxurious ages. Nor are these advantages attended with disadvantages, that bear any proportion to them.’

Hume, ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’: p. 271 in David Hume, Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, 1985: Liberty Fund)


A pair of boots is worth more than Shakespeare.
This remark, often mistakenly attributed to Pisarev (even by Gorky), appears to have its true origins in a satirical ‘extract’ from a ‘novel’ (entitled Shchedrodarov), contributed by Dostoevsky to the May 1864 issue (No 5) of his journal Epokha. This pastiche is aimed against the nihilists, who appear in it under thinly disguising pseudonyms. On p. 281 the eponymous character Shchedrodarov (Saltykov-Shchedrin), who has recently joined the editorial board of the journal Svoevremenny – a board whose members include Pravdolyubov (Dobrolyubov) and Skribov (Pisarev) – encounters the board’s editorial principle that ‘a pair of boots are, in every sense, better than Pushkin, because [. . .] Pushkin is mere luxury and nonsense’; and, a little later, ‘Shakespeare too is mere luxury and nonsense’. (Perhaps Dostoevsky had in mind Pushkin’s own remark in a letter of March 1823 that he looked on his poems ‘as a cobbler looks on a pair of boots. I sell for profit [. . .]’, even though this letter was not published until 1903.) Versions of this ‘principle’, mentioning Pushkin rather than Shakespeare, appear in Saltykov-Schedrin’s Gentlemen of Tashkent (1869–72) – p. 102 in M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 10 (Moscow, 1970) – and Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1871–2: part 1, chapter 1, section 6). In due course the Shakespearian version became current, and began to be attributed to Pisarev.


You are an aspect of my LIFE, and I am an aspect of yours.
In P. Enfantin and H. Saint-Simon, Science de l’homme: physiologie religieuse (Paris, 1858), p. 199.


There is but one way to freedom – to despise what is not in our power.
Encheiridion 19. 2.


Vain is the word of the philosopher which heals not the suffering of man.
Fragment 247 Arrighetti.

Émile Faguet

It would be equally reasonable to say that sheep are born carnivorous, and everywhere nibble grass.
Summarising Joseph de Maistre’s response to the first sentence of Rousseau’s Contrat social: Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvième siècle, 1st series (Paris, 1899), p. 41

J. G. Fichte

Der Mensch soll etwas seyn und thun.
(Man shall be and do something.)
Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Sämmtliche Werke, ed. I. H. Fichte (Berlin, 1845–6), vol. 6, p. 383


Sonate, que me veux-tu?
‘Sonate’, in the Encyclopédie (revised for Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de musique, 1768)

Forster, E. M.

Everything must be like something, so what is this like?
‘Our Diversions’, 3, ‘The Doll Souse’ (1924): p. 49 in Abinger Harvest (London, 1936). (‘This’ is Queen Mary’s dolls’ house.)

Théophile Gautier

No, imbeciles! No! Fools and cretins, a book will not make a plate of soup; a novel is not a pair of boots; a sonnet is not a syringe; a drama is not a railway – those forms of civilisation which have caused humanity to march on the road to progress.
   By all the bowels of all the popes, past, present and future, no! Ten thousand times no!
   You cannot make a hat out of a metonymy, and you cannot make a simile in the form of a bedroom slipper, and you cannot use an antithesis as an umbrella [. . .] An ode is, I have a feeling, too light a garment for the winter.

Preface (1834) to Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835); the full original appears below.

Non, imbéciles, non, crétins et goîtreux que vous êtes, un livre ne fait pas de la soupe à la gélatine; – un roman n’est pas une paire de bottes sans couture; un sonnet, une seringue à jet continu; un drame n’est pas un chemin de fer, toutes choses essentiellement civilisantes, et faisant marcher l’humanité dans la vois du progrès.
    De par les boyaux de tous les papes passeé, présents et futurs, non et deux cent mille fois non.
    On ne se fait pas un bonnet de coton d’une métonymie, on ne chausse pas une comparaison en guise de pantoufle; on ne se peut servir d’une anthithèse pour parapluie; malheureusement, on ne saurait se plaquer sur le ventre quelqus rimes bariolées en manière de gilet. J’ai la conviction intime qu’une ode est un vêtement trop léger pour l’hiver, et qu’on ne serait pas mieux habillé avec la strophe, l’antistrophe et l’épode, que cette femme du cynique qui se contentait de sa seule vertu pour chemise, et allait nue comme la main, à ce que raconte l’histoire.

J. W. Goethe

Das Klassische nenne ich das Gesunde, und das Romantische das Kranke.
(Classicism is health, romanticism is disease.)

J. P. Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of his Life, 2 April 1829

G. W. F. Hegel

Hic Rhodus, hic salta.
The origin of this odd saying, whose currency is largely due to Hegel and Marx, takes a little explaining. Its original form is ‘Hic Rhodus, hic saltus’ (‘Rhodes is here, here is the place for your jump’), a traditional Latin translation [see, e.g., Erasmus, Adagia 3. 3. 28] of a punchline from Aesop. In the fable ‘The Braggart’ an athlete boasts that he once performed a stupendous jump in Rhodes, and can produce witnesses: the punchline is the comment of a bystander, who means that there is no need of witnesses, since the athlete can demonstrate the jump here and now.
    The epigram is given by Hegel, rather out of the blue, first in Greek, then in Latin (in the form ‘Hic Rhodus, hic saltus’), in the Preface to his Philosophy of Right. [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts [Sämtliche Werke, ed. Hermann Glockner, vol. 7] (Stuttgart, 1928), p. 35.] He does not explain what the proverb meant in its original context (without which it can hardly be understood); indeed a comment he makes about jumping over Rhodes suggests that he may not have fully understood it himself. At any rate, he then offers an adapted German version with a different meaning, ‘Hier ist die Rose, hier tanze’ (‘Here is the rose, dance here’, an allusion to the rose in the cross of rosicrucianism, implying that fulfilment should not be postponed to some Utopian future), punning first on the Greek (Rhodos = Rhodes, rhodon = rose), then on the Latin (saltus = jump [noun], salta = dance [imperative]). Marx adopts the saying in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Werke (Berlin, 1956–83), vol. 8, p. 118.], where he first gives the Latin, in the form ‘Hic Rhodus, hic salta!’, a garbled mixture of Hegel’s two versions, and then immediately adds ‘Hier ist die Rose, hier tanze!’, as if it were a translation, which it cannot be, since Greek Rhodos (despite what all the standard commentators say to the contrary), let alone Latin Rhodus, does not mean ‘rose’.
    The confusion, both deliberate and inadvertent, does no credit to either Hegel or Marx as classical scholars, and the epigram loses much of its original power – as well as its original meaning – in their hands. They were evidently intent on turning it to other purposes, but it seems doubtful whether their attempts to improve on Aesop have been of much use to their readers.

Special thanks to Terrell Carver for assistance with this account.

Heinrich Heine

I may not deserve to be remembered as a poet, but surely as a soldier in the battle for human freedom.
Based on Heinrich Heines Sämtliche Werke, ed. Oskar Walzel (Leipzig, 1911–20), vol. 4, p. 306

The ‘accursed questions’ [proklyatye voprosy] of Russian life.
The Russian phrase is probably a translation by Mikhail L. Mikhailov of ‘die verdammten Fragen’ from Heine’s poem ‘Zum Lazarus’, in ‘Gedichte/1853 und 1854’, Heinrich Heines Sämtliche Werke, vol. 3, p. 225. For Mikhailov’s version see his ‘Stikhotvoreniya Geine’ (‘Poems of Heine’), Sovremennik 1858 No 3, p. 125

J. G. Herder

Bin nicht zu denken hier! zu senn! zu fühlen! zu leben! mich zu freun!
(I am not here to think, but to be, feel, live!)
Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Bernhard Suphan (Berlin, 1877–1913), vol. 29, p. 366

Alexander Herzen

Out of the stones of a prison-house one cannot build a dwelling for the free.
Paraphrase: see ‘From the Other Shore’, Sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow, 1954–66), vol. 6, p. 51

Where is the song before it is sung? Where is the dance before it is danced?
Paraphrase: see Sobranie sochinenii, vol 6, pp. 33, 335

History has no libretto.
Paraphrase: see Sobranie sochinenii, vol 6, pp. 36, 338: ‘because there is no libretto. And if there were a libretto, history would lose all interest and become useless, boring, a joke [. . .]’, ‘and this is difficult, especially when there is no libretto. And if there were a libretto, then history would be unnecessary, and then it [would be] a practical joke’

Friedrich Hölderlin

Happiness is not an ideal, happiness is ‘tepid water on the tongue’
Cf. ‘Glüklich seyn! mir ist, als hätt’ ich Brei und laues Wasser auf der Zunge, wenn ihr mir sprecht von glüklich seyn.’ Hyperion, vol. 1, book 1: ii 118 in Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Norbert v. Hellingrath, Friedrich Seebass and Ludwig v. Pigenot (Berlin, 1943)

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus)

Dulce est desipere in loco.
(It’s nice to go mad in the right place.)
Horace, Odes 4. 12

Immanuel Kant

Beings who have received the gift of freedom are not content with the enjoyment of comfort granted by others.
The Quarrel Between the Faculties (1798), 2nd footnote to § 6 of II: Kant’s gesammelte Schriften (Berlin, 1900–  ), vol. 7, p. 87, line 19

Kurz der Mensch der da abhängt ist nicht mehr ein Mensch er hat diesen Rang verloren er ist nichts ausser ein Zubehor eines andern Menschen.
(The man who is dependent on another is no longer a man, he has lost his standing, he is nothing but the possession of another man.)
Kant’s gesammelte Schriften, vol. 20, p. 94, lines 1–3

‘Negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom
Critique of Practical Reason, part 1, book 1, chapter 1, section 8, theorem 4

Karl Marx/Marxists

The unity of theory and practice.
For this fundamental Marxist formula (not apparently expressed in exactly these terms by Marx himself, nor by Engels) see Georg Lukács, ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ (1919): pp. 2–3 in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics [1923], trans. Rodney Livingstone (London, 1971). Leszek Kolakowski offers as a gloss ‘the understanding and transformation of reality are not two separate processes, but one and the same phenomenon’: Main Currents of Marxism: Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution (Oxford, 1978: Oxford University Press), vol. 3, The Breakdown, p. 270. For Soviet philosophy, in which it is repeated ad nauseam, it meant roughly ‘Physical sciences should work for Soviet industry; social and human sciences are instruments of political propaganda.’ Similar locutions (which should not, however, be regarded as equivalent in meaning, even mutatis mutandis) are used by Marx’s contemporaries. For example, Mill himself attributes the ‘union of theory and practice’ to the ancient Greeks in ‘On Genius’ (1832) at i 336; there are also references by Auguste Comte to ‘harmonie entre la théorie et la pratique’ (‘harmony between theory and practice’) in Système de politique positive (Paris, 1851–4), vol. 4, pp. 7, 172. More generally, of course, discussion of the relationship of theory and practice goes back to antiquity, perhaps originating in Socrates’ doctrine that virtue is knowledge; see also Diogenes Laertius 7. 125 on the Stoic view that ‘the virtuous man is both a theorist, and a practitioner of things doable’. Especially well known is Leibniz’s recommendation in 1700 ‘Theoriam cum praxi zu vereinigen’ (‘to combine theory with practice’) in his proposal to establish a Brandenburg Academy in Berlin – see Hans-Stephan Brather, Leibniz und seine Akademie: Ausgewählte Quellen zur Geschichte der Berliner Sozietät der Wissenschaften 1697–1716 (Berlin, 1993), p. 72.

Mill, John Stuart

‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial’.
J. S. Mill, On Liberty, chapter 3: vol. 18, p. 266, in in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson and others (Toronto/London, 1963–91). The last two phrases are from John Sterling’s 1838 essay on Simonides: vol. 1, p. 190, in Essays and Tales, ed. Julius Charles Hare (London, 1848).


Human laws should be ‘les rapports nécessaires qui dérivent de la nature des choses’.
De l’esprit des lois, book 1, chapter 1

L. B. Namier

Lord Derby: ‘Namier, you are a Jew. why do you write our English History? Why do you not write Jewish history?’
Namier: ‘Derby! There is no modern Jewish history, only a Jewish martyrology, and that is not amusing enough for me.’

IB, ‘L. B. Namier – A Personal Impression’, PI ?? [1st ed., 71–2]

Friedrich Nietzsche

Man does not desire happiness, only the Englishman does.
Götzen-Dämmerung (1889), ‘Sprüche und Pfeile’, No 12: p. 55 in Werke, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, part 6, vol. 3 (Berlin, 1969)


Virtue is knowledge.
Protagoras 361b, Meno 87d–88d


Nihil agis, dolor! quamvis sis molestus, numquam te esse confitebor malum.
(Do your worst, Pain! Nothing you do will make me admit that you are evil.)
Quoted by Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 2. 61

Arthur Quiller-Couch

The whole pother about [the] difference [between ‘classicism’ and ‘romanticism’] amounts to nothing that need trouble a healthy man.
‘On the Terms “Classical” and “Romantic”’, Studies in Literature [first series] (Cambridge, 1918), p. 94

Guido de Ruggiero

‘Negative freedom and positive freedom’
Title of part 2, chapter 1, section 2 (pp. 350–6), of Guido de Ruggiero, The History of European Liberalism, trans. R. G. Collingwood (London, 1927: Oxford University Press [Italian original 1925])

C.-A. Sainte-Beuve

Grand simplificateur/Terribles simplificateurs.
‘grand simplificateur’ is Sainte-Beuve, coining ‘simplificateur’ in the process: ‘[. . .] il [Franklin] était lui-même, dans ses manières générales de voir et de présenter les choses, un grand, un trop grand simplificateur.’ In ‘Franklin à Passy’ (29 November 1852): p. 181 in C.-A. Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, 16 vols (Paris, [1926–42]), vol. 7; ‘terribles simplificateurs’ is a phrase coined by Jacob Burckhardt in a letter of 24 July 1889 to Friedrich von Preen: p. 203 in Jacob Burckhardt, Briefe, ed. Max Burckhardt, vol. 9 (Basel/Stuttgart, 1980); the idea appears in earlier letters, and the phrase ‘furchtbaren Simplificateurs’ in a letter of 18 July 1885 to Max Alioth, but this is the first occurrence of the full French phrase; cf. Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois xxix 18 (‘Des idées d’uniformité’)

Henri de Saint-Simon

From everyone according to his capacity, to every capacity according to its work.
The epigraph that appeared on the title page of Le Globe when the Saint-Simonians owned it. The latter part became ‘to each according to his needs’ in the Marxist version.
See Georg G. Iggers, The Cult of Authority (The Hague, 1958), p. 151, note 3

It was said that he got his valet to wake him every morning with the words: ‘Rise, M. le Comte – you have great things to achieve.’
(Levez-vous, monsieur le comte, vous avez de grandes choses à faire.)
For this anecdote see Louis Reybaud, Études sur les Réformateurs ou socialistes modernes (1840), chapter 2, ‘Saint-Simon et les Saint-Simoniens’: vol. 1, p. 67 in the 7th ed. (Paris, 1864). It also appears in M. G. Hubbard, Saint-Simon: sa vie et ses travaux (Paris, 1857), p. 9

Friedrich Schiller

Alle andere Dinge müssen; der Mensch ist das Wesen, welches will.
All other things must: man is the being that wills.)
‘Über das Erhabene’ [On the Sublime], in Schillers Werke, ed. Lieselotte Blumenthal and Benno von Wiese, vol. 21 (Weimar, 1963), p. 38, lines 8–9

For the ‘negative’ conception of freedom (der negative Begriff der Freiheit) see Schiller to Christian Gottfried Körner, 23 February 1793: vol. 26, p. 202, lines 12 ff., in Schillers Werke, Nationalausgabe (Weimar, 1943–  ); cited by R. D. Miller, Schiller and the Ideal of Freedom: A Study of Schiller’s Philosophical Works with Chapters on Kant (Oxford, 1970: Clarendon Press), 92; Schiller’s ‘positive concept of its opposite’, however, does not tally with IB’s ‘positive freedom’ 

Joseph A. Schumpeter

To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.
Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London, 1943), p. 243

Adam Smith

The invisible hand.
(Sometimes misquoted as ‘The hidden hand.’)
The Theory of Moral Sentiments IV 1. 10, p. 184 in Glasgow Edition (Oxford, 1976); An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations IV ii 9, p. 456 in the same edition (Oxford, 1976). Cf. Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ‘History of Astronomy’ III 2, p. 49 in the same edition (Oxford, 1980).

Germaine de Staël

What man, exhausted by the passions of life, can listen with indifference to the tune which enlivened the dances and games of his tranquil infancy? What woman whose beauty time has at last ravaged can hear without tears the song that her lover once sang for her?
Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (Paris, 1788; photographic reprint, Geneva, 1979), letter 5 (p. 88)

Vincent of Lérins

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.
(What is believed everywhere, always, by everyone.)
Commonitorium 2. 3


When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost.
The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. Theodore Besterman and others, vol. 114 (Banbury, 1973), p. 155

Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

Whoso wishes to grasp God with his intellect becomes an atheist.
In M. Aug. Gottlieb Spangenbergs Apologetische Schluß-Schrift [. . .] (Leipzig and Görlitz, 1752; photographically reprinted as Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Ergänzungsbände zu den Hauptschriften, ed. Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer, vol. 3, Hildesheim 1964), p. 181

In the course of my work I come across, and often have to trace, many passages from other authors, some of which seem to me eminently quotable, though they are not in standard reference works: a list of some these appears on this page. One or two examples owe their place in the list to the fact that they were peculiarly hard to track down, or are often misattributed.

I should like to thank those who have helped me find some of these quotations, especially Andrew Fairbairn, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Aileen Kelly, Francis Lamport, David Miller, Helen Rappaport, T. J. Reed, Philip Schofield and Peter Winch.