Quotations by Huxley, T. H.


The chessboard is the world; the pieces are the are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated — without haste, but without remorse.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“A Liberal Education and Where to Find It” (1868)
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The life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated — without haste, but without remorse.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“A Liberal Education and Where to Find It” (1868)
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Like all compulsory legislation, that of Nature is harsh and wastful in its operation. Ignorance is visited as sharply as willful disobedience — incapacity meets with the same punishment as crime. Nature’s discipline is not even a word and a blow, and the blow first; but the blow without the word. It is left to you to find out why your ears are boxed.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“A Liberal Education,” Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870)
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If individuality has no play, society does not advance; if individuality breaks out of all bounds, society perishes.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Administrative Nihilism” (1871)
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We have not the slightest objection to believe anything you like, if you will give us good grounds for belief; but, if you cannot, we must respectfully refuse, even if that refusal should wreck morality and insure our own damnation several times over. We are quite content to leave that to the decision of the future. The course of the past has impressed us with the firm conviction that no good ever comes of falsehood, and we feel warranted in refusing even to experiment in that direction.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Agnosticism and Christianity” (1899)

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Agnosticism is not properly described as a “negative” creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to agnosticism.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Agnosticism,” The Nineteenth Century (Feb 1889)


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When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,” — had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Agnosticism,” The Nineteenth Century (Jun 1889)

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Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good”; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Agnosticism” (1889)
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When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” — had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. […] So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic”. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Agnosticism” (1889)
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The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Biogenesis and Abiogenesis,” Presidential Address at the British Association (1870)
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Let us have “sweet girl graduates” by all means. They will be none the less sweet for a little wisdom; and the “golden hair” will not curl less gracefully outside the head by reason of there being brains within.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Emancipation — Black and White” (1865)

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The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence. Science is simply common sense at its best — that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Evolution and Ethics,” The Romanes Lecture, Oxford (1893)

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The results of political changes are hardly ever those which their friends hope or their foes fear.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Government: Anarchy or Regimentation?” (1890)

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The saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing is, to my mind, a very dangerous adage. If knowledge is real and genuine, I do not believe that it is other than a very valuable possession, however infinitesimal its quantity may be. Indeed, if a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“On Elemental Instruction in Physiology” (1877)

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I can assure you that there is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life. You learn that which is of inestimable importance — that there are a great many people in the world who are just as clever as you are. You learn to put your trust, by and by, in an economy and frugality of the exercise of your powers, both moral and intellectual; and you very soon find out, if you have not found it out before, that patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“On Medical Education” (1870)
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The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. And it cannot be otherwise, for every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority, the cherishing of the keenest scepticism, the annihilation of the spirit of blind faith; and the most ardent votary of science holds his firmest convictions, not because the men he most venerates hold them; not because their verity is testified by portents and wonders; but because his experience teaches him that whenever he chooses to bring these convictions into contact with their primary source, Nature — whenever he thinks fit to test them by appealing to experiment and to observation — Nature will confirm them. The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge” (1866)

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The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge” (1870)
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To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences” (1854)
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The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and the solidity of our possessions.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“On the Reception of the Origin of Species” (1887)

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The foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Science and Marvels” (1886)
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The foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Science and Morals” (1886)

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The great and peculiar benefit which a fair course of scientific study confers, even on those who do not follow it as a profession, is that it compels such a firm and entire faith in our mental processes, so far as their range extends, that it teaches us what this range is, and enables us to distinguish between the natural and the artificial limitations of man’s powers. And let me bid you remember that this faith does not rest upon mere testimony, however respectable, however solemnly supported. The works of science are her witness. Her age of inspiration and of miracles is not over, but beginning, and its duration will be coeval with that of the intellect of man. Nor is access to her deepest secrets restricted to a race or to a priesthood. Every man can, if he pleases, apply to the sources of all scientific knowledge directly, and verify for himself the conclusions of others. In science, faith is based solely on the assent of the intellect; and the most complete submission to ascertained truth is wholly voluntary, because it is accompanied by perfect freedom, nay, by every encouragement, to test and try that truth to the uttermost.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Science and Religion,” lecture (Dec 1858)
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Quoted in The Government School of Mines, The Builder (Jan 1859)
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The present state of civilized nations and their past history bear witness on the same side. So far as any nation recognises, or has recognised, the great truth, that every dictum, every belief, must be tested and tried to the uttermost, and swept ruthlessly away if it be not in accordance with right reason, so far is that nation prosperous and healthy; and so far as a nation has allowed itself to be hood-winked and fettered, and the free application of its intellect, as the criterion of all truth, restricted, so far is it sinking and rotten within. There is one restriction, and only one, so far as I know, placed upon our supreme arbiter. It is, that it shall be actuated by an uncompromising and unswerving love of truth. With that, the human intellect is the nearest in personification of the Divine; without that, it is, in my apprehension, the worst of conceivable devils.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Science and Religion,” lecture (Dec 1858)
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Quoted in The Government School of Mines, The Builder (Jan 1859)
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And if you seek a preservative against these snares, I say, strive earnestly to learn something, not only of the results, but of the methods of science, and then apply those methods to all statements which offer themselves for your belief. If they will not stand that test, they are nought, let them come with what authority they may.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Science and Religion,” lecture (Dec 1858)
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Quoted in The Government School of Mines, The Builder (Jan 1859)
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The great end of life is not knowledge but action.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“Technical Education” (1877)

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Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“The Coming Age of ‘The Origin of Species'” (1880)
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History warns us, however, that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions; and, as matters now stand, it is hardly rash to anticipate that, in another twenty years, the new generation, educated under the influences of the present day, will be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of the ‘Origin of Species’ with as little reflection, and it may be with as little justification, as so many of our contemporaries, twenty years ago, rejected them. Against any such a consummation let us all devoutly pray; for the scientific spirit is of more value than its products, and irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“The Coming of Age of The Origin of Species” (1880)

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Science … commits suicide when it adopts a creed.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“The Darwin Memorial” (1885)

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The antagonism between science and religion, about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely factitious — fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people who confound a certain branch of science, theology, with religion; and, on the other, by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension; and that, outside the boundaries of that province, they must be content with imagination, with hope, and with ignorance.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
“The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature” (1885)

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God give me the strength to face a fact though it slay me.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
(Attributed)
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I don’t know what you think about anniversaries. I like them, being always minded to drink my cup of life to the bottom, and take my chance of the sweets and bitters.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Aphorisms and Reflections From the Works of T. H. Huxley, ed. Henrietta A. Huxley (1907)
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Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Darwiniana: the Origin of Species (1860)
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This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but to say that it is the worst is mere petulant nonsense.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
The Struggle for Existence in Human Society
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Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
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Inscribed on his memorial at Ealing. Quoted in Nature (30 Oct 1902).
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True science and true religion are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis. The great deeds of philosophers have been less the fruit of their intellect than of the direction of that intellect by an eminently religious tone of mind. Truth has yielded herself rather to heir patience, their love, their single-heartedness, and their self-denial, than to their logical acumen. And all the reformations in religion–all the steps by which the creeds you hold have been brought to that comparative purity and truth in which you justly glory–have been due essentially to the growth of the scientific spirit, to the ever-increasing confidence of the intellect in itself — and its incessantly repeated refusals to bow down blindly to what it had discovered to be mere idols, any more. It is above all things needful for you, working men, to note these truths. For with the limited time, and the limited means for study at your disposal, you run the risk of flying to one of two extremes–bigoted orthodoxy, or conceited scepticism.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Lecture, “Science and Religion” (Dec 1858)
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Quoted in The Government School of Mines, The Builder (Jan 1859). Quoted in Herbert Spencer, Education: Intellectual, Moral, Physical, ch. 1 (1860)
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Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind — that my own highest aspirations even — lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.  My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to Charles Kingsley (23 Sep 1860)

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Truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to Charles Kingsley (23 Sep 1860)
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Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to Charles Kingsley (23 Sep 1860)

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Make up your mind to act decidedly and take the consequences.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to Dr. Dohrn (17 Oct 1873)

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The mediaeval university looked backwards: it professed to be a storehouse of old knowledge. … The modern university looks forward: it is a factory of new knowledge.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to E. Ray Lankester (11 Apr 1892)
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I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything — especially as I am now so much occupied with theology — but I don’t see my way to your conclusion.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to Herbert Spencer (22 Mar 1886)

Often quoted with the American spelling "skeptic," and leaving off all after "anything."

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A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there was an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man — a man of restless and versatile intellect — who not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them with aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Reply to Samuel Wilberforce, Oxford Evolution Debate (30 Jun 1860)

As quoted in Leonard Huxley (ed.), Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley F.R.S (1900).

Bp. Wilberforce (1805-1873), during a debate, asked Huxley "whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's." No precise transcript was made at the time, so there are various accounts of Huxley's answer.

Variants:

  • Quoted in Alan L. Mackay, Harvest of a Quiet Eye (1977): "If the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."
  • Quoted in Mrs. Isabella Sidgwick, "A Grandmother's Tales," Macmillan's Magazine (Oct 1898): "The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words — words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they were spoken, for their meaning took away our breath, though it left us in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to carried out: I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr Daubeney's, every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day."
  • [After a defense of Darwin's work.]  "I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth."
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I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Speech, Johns Hopkins University opening ceremony (12 Sep 1876)

Quoted by Hubert Humphrey at the commencement address at the Holton-Arms School (Jun 1967).

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A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Speech, opening ceremonies, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (12 Sep 1876)
Added on 27-Oct-11 | Last updated 27-Oct-11
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More quotes by Huxley, T. H.