S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.


OF some one of the many thousand brief and pithy remarks which the great men and women of history have uttered, generally without premeditation, yet stamped with the seal of immortality, the question is often asked, “Who said it? When was it said? Under what circumstances?” These questions are to some extent answered in the following pages. Curiosity, if not gratitude, would wish to follow to their source words which have, during the centuries since their first appearance, come repeatedly to man’s aid in the sudden emergencies wherein history repeats itself. Many of them adorn the page of the historian, giving to narrative its local color, and lending to descriptions of character the air and dignity of authenticity. Research may, therefore, pay the debt of history by relieving such sayings of all adventitious circumstance, by removing those which belong to history from the domain of tradition, and relegating others to the abode of myth. Strangest of the fictions of history are the historic mots which have made Julian a blasphemer, Charles IX. a murderer, and Louis XIII. a monster. To banish calumny from serious literature is a service to truth. Only the romantic element of history will thereby suffer. The weeds and vines which gave a parasitic charm to the ruins of Rome hastened their decay: they were therefore removed.

A Latin poet has asserted that there was no saying which had not been already said. In later times, Henry IV. will be surprised to know that Agesilaus preceded him in that royal game of romps which both kings thought only a father could appreciate. The poet Rogers was not the first to prefer the art of forgetting to that of memory; and Talleyrand has reason to invoke the curse of Donatus, “Perish the men who said our good things before us!” No one better than Fournier, in his “Esprit dans l’Histoire,” has plucked the stolen plumage from the daw. I cannot acknowledge my obligations to this iconoclast of bons mots without borrowing Madame du Deffand’s judgment of Montesquieu’s “Esprit des Lois,”—that his “Wit in History” should be called “Wit on History.”

In collecting true and notable sayings, and happy thoughts flashed in the heat of controversy or the war of wit, I have taken no account of what men have written in books, save as such written words illustrate their own or others’ speech; nor will all the sayings of ancient or modern times be included in five hundred pages. Such a compilation would be as impossible as to bring into one volume every historic event which has stirred man to heroic utterance, or every idea with which the sublime and the beautiful have inspired the scholar and the poet. Too liberal an intention has not been given to the title, “Great Men.” Those who remember Lysander’s maxim, that, “where the lion’s skin fails to reach, it must be pieced out with the fox’s,” may ask if it is the lion’s robe which covers both Julius Cæsar and Sir Boyle Roche. If so, they have forgotten that Goethe did not confine his question to the clever things which one century borrows from another,—even dulness has its place:—

  • “Who can think wise or stupid things at all,
  • That were not thought already in the past?”

  • Boston, Aug. 1, 1882.

    Preface to the Fifth Edition

    The cordial reception given to the “Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men,” both in England and America, necessitates a fifth, enlarged and revised, edition. Since 1882, the proverb, “Happy the country that has no history,” has been verified in many of those States which supplied illustrative sayings in the heat of former domestic or foreign struggles; but England in her relations with Ireland, and an American presidential campaign, have left traces in that department of personal history to which this work is devoted.

    The reader’s attention is again drawn to the purpose of this collection, sometimes overlooked, which confines “sayings” to oral utterances, without intending to gather into one volume the bright thoughts of the makers of books, except by way of comment or comparison. He who should attempt to bring together written thoughts stamped with the individuality of Seneca, Montaigne, Goethe, Carlyle, Emerson, and Holmes, would be overwhelmed in an encyclopædic undertaking. Exception has, however, been made in the case of letters, journals, proclamations, and addresses, from their greater spontaneity and closer relation to contemporary events. In a few instances, the boundary line between the oral and the written may have been unwittingly transgressed. Thus the delicious Gallicism of Rivarol, “It is, no doubt, an immense advantage to have done nothing, but one should not abuse it,” occurs in the preface to his Petit Almanach de nos Grands Hommes; and he who turns over the dusty pages of Giordano Bruno’s Gli Eroici Furori will find the now famous proverb, Se non è vero è ben trocato, which took form there rather than in an oral saying of Cardinal d’Este.

    Throughout this revised edition many sayings are marked “unauthentic,” which owed their admission to popular credulity. It may be useless, as well as cruel, to attempt, in the interest of historic truth, to detach such sayings from their presumed authors. With all the probabilities against their original utterance, ambition will still echo Louis XIV.’s L’état, c’est moi, and recanting heresy whisper Galileo’s E pur si muove.

    S. A. B.
    Boston, January, 1887.