Quotations about   custom

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It is useful to know something of the manners of different nations, that we may be enabled to form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and be prevented from thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational, — a conclusion usually come to by those whose experience has been limited to their own country.

[Il est bon de savoir quelque chose des moeurs de divers peuples, afin de juger des nôtres plus sainement, et que nous ne pensions pas que tout ce qui est contre nos modes soit ridicule et contre raison, ainsi qu’ont coutume de faire ceux qui n’ont rien vu.]

René Descartes (1596-1650) French philosopher, mathematician
Discourse on Method [Discours de la méthode], Part 1 (1637) [tr. Veitch (1850)]
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(Source (French)). Alternate translations:

It's good to know something of the manners of severall Nations, that we may not think that all things against our Mode are ridiculous or unreasonable, as those are wont to do, who have seen Nothing.
[Newcombe ed. (1649)]

It is good to know something of the customs of different peoples in order to judge more sanely of our own, and not to think that everything of a fashion not ours is absurd and contrary to reason, as do those who have seen nothing.
[tr. Haldane & Ross (1911)]

It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so that we may judge our own more soundly and not think that everything contrary to our own ways is ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing of the world ordinarily do.
[tr. Cottingham, Stoothoff (1985)]

It is well to know something of the manner of various peoples, in order more sanely to judge our own, and that we do not think that everything against our modes is ridiculous, and against reason, as those who have seen nothing are accustomed to think.

Added on 21-Feb-22 | Last updated 21-Feb-22
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The other part of it is [the belief that] if we just totally opened our souls to one another, we would love one another and get along. This trivializes the fact that people have deep and legitimately-held differences. People think, mistakenly, that etiquette means you have to suppress your differences. On the contrary, etiquette is what enables you to deal with them; it gives you a set of rules. On the floor of the Congress, you don’t say, “You’re a jerk and a crook”; you say, “I’m afraid the distinguished gentleman is mistaken about so and so.” Those are the things that enable you to settle your differences, to bring them out in the open. Everything else just starts battles.

Judith Martin (b. 1938) American author, journalist [a.k.a. Miss Manners]
“Polite Company: A Chat with Judith Martin About Etiquette,” interview with Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today (1 Mar 1998)
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Added on 11-Feb-22 | Last updated 11-Feb-22
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Count heads. That is what matters in all things. When you must, follow the common taste, and make your way toward eminence. The wise should adapt themselves to the present, even when the past seems more attractive, both in the clothes of the soul and of the body. This rule for living holds for everything but goodness, for one must always practice virtue.

[l gusto de las cabeças haze voto en cada orden de cosas. Ésse se ha de seguir por entonces, y adelantar a eminencia. Acomódese el cuerdo a lo presente, aunque le parezca mejor lo pasado, así en los arreos del alma como del cuerpo. Sólo en la bondad no vale esta regla de vivir, que siempre se ha de practicar la virtud.]

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish Jesuit priest, writer, philosopher
The Art of Worldly Wisdom [Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia], § 120 (1647) [tr. Maurer (1992)]
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(Source (Spanish)). Alternate translation:

In everything the taste of the many carries the votes; for the time being one must follow it in the hope of leading it to higher things. In the adornment of the body as of the mind adapt yourself to the present, even though the past appear better. But this rule does not apply to kindness, for goodness is for all time.
[tr. Jacobs (1892)]

Added on 11-Feb-22 | Last updated 4-Apr-22
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In the course of my travels I remarked that all those whose opinions are decidedly repugnant to ours are not in that account barbarians and savages, but on the contrary that many of these nations make an equally good, if not better, use of their reason than we do. I took into account also the very different character which a person brought up from infancy in France or Germany exhibits, from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he lived always among the Chinese or with savages, and the circumstance that in dress itself the fashion which pleased us ten years ago, and which may again, perhaps, be received into favor before ten years have gone, appears to us at this moment extravagant and ridiculous. I was thus led to infer that the ground of our opinions is far more custom and example than any certain knowledge.

[Et depuis, en voyageant, ayant reconnu que tous ceux qui ont des sentiments fort contraires aux nôtres ne sont pas pour cela barbares ni sauvages, mais que plusieurs usent autant ou plus que nous de raison; et ayant considéré combien un même homme, avec son même esprit, étant nourri dès son enfance entre des Français ou des Allemands, devient différent de ce qu’il seroit s’il avoit toujours vécu entre des Chinois ou des cannibales, et comment, jusques aux modes de nos habits, la même chose qui nous a plu il y a dix ans, et qui nous plaira peut-être encore avant dix ans, nous semble maintenant extravagante et ridicule; en sorte que c’est bien plus la coutume et l’exemple qui nous persuade, qu’aucune connaissance certaine.]

René Descartes (1596-1650) French philosopher, mathematician
Discourse on Method [Discours de la méthode], Part 2 (1637) [tr. Veitch (1901)]
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(Source (French)). Alternate translations:

I further recognized in the course of my travels that all those whose sentiments are very contrary to ours are yet not necessarily barbarians or savages, but may be possessed of reason in as great or even a greater degree than ourselves. I also considered how very different the self-same man, identical in mind and spirit, may have become, according as he is brought up from childhood amongst the French or Germans, or has passed his whole life amongst Chinese or cannibals. I likewise noticed how even in the fashions of one's clothing the same thing that pleased us ten years ago, and which will perhaps please us once again before ten years are passed, seems at the present time extravagant and ridiculous. I thus concluded that it is much more custom and example that persuade us than any certain knowledge.
[tr. Haldane & Ross (1911)]

Since then I have recognized through my travels that those with views quite contrary to ours are not on that account barbarians or savages, but that many of them make use of reason as much or more than we do. I thought, too, how the same man, with the same mind, if brought up from infancy among the French or Germans, develops otherwise than he would if he had always lived among the Chinese or cannibals; and how, even in our fashions of dress, the very thing that pleased us ten years ago, and will perhaps please us again ten years hence, now strikes us as extravagant and ridiculous. Thus it is custom and example that persuade us, rather than any certain knowledge.
[tr. Cottingham, Stoothoff (1985)]

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Even in their appeal to “custom” they accomplish nothing. To constrain us to yield to custom would be to treat us most unjustly. Indeed, if men’s judgments were right, custom should have been sought of good men. But it often happens far otherwise: what is seen being done by the many soon obtains the force of custom; while the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority. Therefore, the private vices of the many have often caused public error, or rather a general agreement on vices, which these good men now want to make law.

John Calvin
John Calvin (1509-1564) French theologian and reformer
The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Christianae Religionis Institutio], Preface, sec. 5 (1536) [tr. Battles (1960]
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Alternate translation:

Then, again, it is to no purpose they call us to the bar of custom. To make every thing yield to custom would be to do the greatest injustice. Were the judgments of mankind correct, custom would be regulated by the good. But it is often far otherwise in point of fact; for, whatever the many are seen to do, forthwith obtains the force of custom. But human affairs have scarcely ever been so happily constituted as that the better course pleased the greater number. Hence the private vices of the multitude have generally resulted in public error, or rawther that common consent in vice which these worthy men would have to be law.
[tr. Beveridge (1845)]
Added on 14-Dec-21 | Last updated 14-Dec-21
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The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author and lecturer
Optimism, Part 2 (1903)
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See Parker.
Added on 1-Dec-21 | Last updated 1-Dec-21
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Popular art is normally decried as vulgar by the cultivated people of its time; then it loses favour with its original audience as a new generation grows up; then it begins to merge into the softer lighting of “quaint” and cultivated people become interested in it, and finally it begins to take on the archaic dignity of the primitive.

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) Canadian literary critic and literary theorist
Anatomy of Criticism, “Mythical Phase: Symbol as Archetype” (1957)
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Added on 15-Nov-21 | Last updated 15-Nov-21
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Contumely always falls upon those who break through some custom or convention. Such men, in fact, are called criminals. Everyone who overthrows an existing law is, at the start, regarded as a wicket man. Long afterward, when it is found that this law was bad and so cannot be re-established, the epithet is changed. All history treats almost exclusively of wicked men who, in the course of time, have come to be looked upon as good men. All progress is the result of successful crimes.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
The Dawn [Morgenröte], sec. 20 (1881) [Mencken (1907)]
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Alternate translations:

We have to make good a great deal of the contumely which has fallen on all those who, by their actions, have broken through the conventionality of some custom -- such people generally have been called criminals. Everybody who overthrew the existing moral law has hitherto, at least in the beginning, been considered a wicked man; but when afterwards, as sometimes happened, the old law could not be re-established and had to be abandoned, the epithet was gradually changed. History almost exclusively treats of such wicked men who, in the course of time, have been declared good men.
[tr. Volz (1903)]

One has to take back much of the defamation which people have cast upon all those who broke through the spell of a custom by means of a deed -- in general, they are called criminals. Whoever has overthrown an existing law of custom has hitherto always first been accounted a bad man: but when, as did happen the laws could not afterwards be reinstated and this fact was accepted, the predicate gradually changed -- history treats almost exclusively of these bad men who subsequently became good men!
[tr. Hollingdale (1997)]

Added on 20-Sep-21 | Last updated 20-Sep-21
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Old women will often bear the lack of food for two or three days. But take food from an athlete for a single day, he will implore the very Olympian Jupiter for whose honor he is in training, and will cry that he cannot bear it. Great is the power of habit.

[Aniculae saepe inediam biduum aut triduum ferunt; subduc cibum unum diem athletae: Iovem, Iovem Olympium, eum ipsum, cui se exercebit, implorabit, ferre non posse clamabit.]

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman orator, statesman, philosopher
Tusculan Disputations [Tusculanae Disputationes], Book 2, ch. 17 / sec. 40 (45 BC) [tr. Peabody (1886)]
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Original Latin. Alternate translations:

Weak old Women oftentimes go without eating two or three days together; do but with-hold Meat one day from a Wrestler, he will cry out upon Olympian Jupiter; the same to whose Honor he shall exercise himself. He will cry he cannot bear it. Great is the Power of Custom.
[tr. Wase (1643)]

You may often hear of diminutive old women living without victuals three or four days; but take away a wrestler's provision for but one day, he will implore Jupiter Olympus, the very god for whom he exercises himself: he will cry out, It is intolerable. Great is the force of custom!
[tr. Main (1824)]

Tender old women often support a fast of two or three days. Withdraw his rations for one day from a wrestler; he will appeal to that Olympic Jove himself, for whom he exercises; he will cry out it impossible to bear it. Great is the force of habit.
[tr. Otis (1839)]

You may often hear of old women living without victuals for three or four days: but take away a wrestler's provisions but for one day, and he will implore the aid of Jupiter Olympius, the very God for whom he exercises himself: he will cry out that he cannot endure it. Great is the force of custom!
[tr. Yonge (1853)]

Feeble old women often endure hunger for two or three days. Take food away from an athlete for just one day. He will appeal to Jupiter, that Olympian Jupiter, the very one for whom he will be doing this training -- he will cry out that he can't bear it. Practice has great power.
[tr. Douglas (1990)]

Little old ladies often bear a two or three day period of fasting; but take away an athlete’s food for a day, and he will beg for relief from Jove! Olympian Jove, the one for whom he exercises! And he’ll tell you that he simply cannot bear it.
[tr. @sentantiq (2015)]

Old women regularly endure a lack of food for a period of three or four days; take from an athlete his food for a single day and he will appeal to olympian Jupiter, the very god in whose honor he trains, he will cry out that he can't bear it. The force of habit is considerable.
[tr. Davie (2017)]

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Queerly shaped pieces of flat silver, contrived for purposes known only to their designers, have no place on a well appointed table. So if you use one of these implements for a purpose not intended, it cannot be a breach of etiquette, since etiquette is founded on tradition, and has no rules concerning eccentricities.

Emily Post (1872-1960) American author, columnist [née Price]
Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage (1927)
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Added on 9-Nov-20 | Last updated 9-Nov-20
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The security of society lies in custom and unconscious instinct, and the basis of the stability of society, as a healthy organism, is the complete absence of any intelligence amongst its members. The great majority of people being aware of this, rank themselves naturally on the side of that splendid system that elevates them to the dignity of machines, and rage so wildly against the intrusion of the intellectual faculty into any question that concerns life, that one is tempted to define man as a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
“The Critic as Artist,” Intentions (1891)
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Added on 27-May-19 | Last updated 27-May-19
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Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, but a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Anglo-Irish statesman, orator, philosopher
Letters on a Regicide Peace, Letter 1 (1796)
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The most absurd customs and the most ridiculous ceremonies are everywhere excused by an appeal to the phrase, but that’s the tradition. This is exactly what the Hottentots say when Europeans ask them why they eat grasshoppers and devour their body lice. That’s the tradition, they explain.

Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794) French writer, epigrammist (b. Nicolas-Sébastien Roch)
Maxims and Thoughts, ch. 3, #249 (1796)
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As has been pointed out so often, it is characteristic of mankind to make as little adjustment as possible in customary ways in the face of new conditions; the process of social change is epitomized in the fact that the first Packard car body delivered to the manufacturers had a whipstock on the dashboard.

Robert Lynd (1892-1970) American sociologist [Robert Slaughton Lynd]
Middletown, ch. 29 (1929) [with Helen Lynd]
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Added on 30-Jun-17 | Last updated 30-Jun-17
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The fashion wears out more apparel than the man.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, sc. 3 (1598-99)
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The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany: ‘Traditional values are to be debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
The Abolition of Man (1943)
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What once were vices, are now the manners of the day.

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC-AD 65) Roman statesman, philosopher, playwright [Lucius Annaeus Seneca]
Moral Letters to Lucilius [Epistulae morales ad Lucilium], Letter 109
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I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do today.

Will Rogers (1879-1935) American humorist
(Attributed)

Quoted in P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, Bring on the Girls: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy (1953).
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There is nothing more innately human than the tendency to transmute what has become customary into what has been divinely ordained.

la-follett-customary-into-divinely-ordained-wist_info-quote

Suzanne La Follette (1893-1983) American journalist, author, feminist
Concerning Women, “The Beginnings of Emancipation”(1926)
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Fashions in sin change.

Hellman - fashions in sin change - wist_info quote

Lillian Hellman (1906-1987) American playwright, screenwriter
Watch on the Rhine (1941)
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The custom and fashion of to-day will be the awkwardness and outrage of to-morrow. So arbitrary are these transient laws.

Dumas - custom and fashion of today - wist_info quote

Alexandre Dumas, père (1802-1870) French novelist and dramatist
(Attributed)

Quoted in James Comper Gray, The Biblical Museum: Old Testament, vol. 3 (1878 ed.).
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Whenever the locals rub blue mud in their navels, I rub blue mud in mine just as solemnly.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Time Enough for Love [Lazarus Long] (1973)
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Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman orator, statesman, philosopher
De Oratore (46 BC)
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Each nation, knowing it has the only true religion and the only sane system of government, each despising all the others, each an ass and not suspecting it.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
What Is Man? ch. 6 (1906)
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The slaves of custom are the sport of time.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
De Augmentis Scientiarum [Advancement of Learning], Book 6, ch. 3, “Innovation” (1605)
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Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, ch. 5 (1876)
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The opium of custom, whereof all drink and many go mad.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Education,” Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1883)
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Each nation knowing it has the only true religion and the only sane system of government, each despising all the others, each an ass and not suspecting it.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
“What Is Man?” (1906)

Full text.

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Laws are sand, customs are rock. Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
“The Gorky Incident” (1906)
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Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world — and never will.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Paper delivered in Hartford (1884)

First part (to "soul") engraved on Twain's bust in the National Hall of Fame, New York University.
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When I am in Rome, I fast as the Romans do; when I am at Milan, I do not fast. So likewise you, whatever church you come to, observe the custom of the place.

[Cum Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; cum hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi.]

St. Ambrose (339-397) Roman prelate, Bishop of Milan [Aurelius Ambrosius]
In Augustine, Epistulae, Letter 36 (c. AD 400)

Alt trans.:
  • Popularly, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
  • "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are."
  • "When I am here, I do not fast on the Sabbath; when I am in Rome, I fast on the Sabbath."
  • Alternately given as "If you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; if you are elsewhere, live as they live there. [Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; / Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi.]" in J. Taylor, Ductor Dubitantium, or the Rule of Conscience, I.i.5 (1660).
Various Augustine citations described:
  • Epistulae 36, 14 or 32
  • Letter 54 to Januarius
  • Epistle to Januarius, 2, sec. 18
  • Epistle to Casualanus, 36, sec. 32
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Habit with him was all the test of truth,
“It must be right: I’ve done it from my youth.”

George Crabbe (1754-1832) English poet, writer, surgeon, clergyman
The Borough, Letter 3 “The Vicar,” l. 138 (1810)
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Each race determines for itself what indecencies are. Nature knows no indecencies; Man invents them.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Mark Twain’s Notebook [ed. Paine (1935)]
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