Quotations about   humanity

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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) American fabulist [Howard Phillips Lovecraft]
“The Call of Cthulhu,” ch. 1, opening words (1928)
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We thus learn that Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English naturalist
The Descent of Man, ch. 21 (2nd ed., 1875)
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Do not only look
For gentlefolk in castles: everywhere,
In humble dwellings and in haylofts, too,
The hearts of men are often kind and true.

[Che non pur per cittadi e per castella,
Ma per tuguri ancora e per fenili
Spesso si trovan gli uomini gentili.]

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) Italian poet
Orlando Furioso, Canto 14, st. 62 (1532) [tr. Reynolds (1973)]
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Alt. trans.: "For not alone dwells Hospitality / In court and city; but ofttimes we find / In loft and cottage men of gentle kind." [tr. Rose (1831)]
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Men resemble great deserted palaces: the owner occupies only a few rooms and has closed-off wings where he never ventures.

François Mauriac (1885-1970) French author, critic, journalist
Second Thoughts: Reflections on Literature and on Life (1961)
Added on 23-Mar-20 | Last updated 23-Mar-20
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Feminism: The radical notion that women are people.

Marie Shear (1940-2017) American writer and feminist activist
“Media Watch: Celebrating Women’s Words,” New Directions for Women (May/Jun 1986)
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Often misattributed to Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler, A Feminist Dictionary (1985), which was the subject of Shear's review.
Added on 19-Mar-20 | Last updated 19-Mar-20
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My definition of Man is “a Cooking animal.” The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook. … Man alone can dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats.

James Boswell (1740-1795) Scottish biographer, diarist, lawyer
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, Sunday, 15 Aug, footnote (1785)
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Unlike most quoted Boswell, this is his own thought, not that of Samuel Johnson, recounting a conversation he had with Edmund Burke.
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In art as in politics we must deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be. Only by working with the real can you get closer to the ideal.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
In Her Day, Preface, “A Note to the Feminist Reader” (1976)
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After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all — the trouble is, humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.

Joanne "Jo" Rowling (b. 1965) British novelist [writes as J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith]
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, ch. 17 [Dumbledore] (1997)
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Human beings are more alike than unalike. There’s no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, back-slider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall, to accept love in return, some place to relax on Saturday or Sunday night, and some place to experience their God.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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A similar passage, from a speech at Ohio Dominican College (9 Dec 1993): "Humans are wonderfully different and marvelously alike. Human being are more alike than unalike. Whether in Paris, Texas, or Paris, France, we all want to have good jobs where we are needed and respected and paid just a little more than we deserve. We want healthy children, safe streets, to be loved and have the unmitigated gall to accept love. If we are religious, we want a place to perpetuate God. If not, we want a good lecture every once in a while. And everyone wants someplace to party on Saturday nights."
Added on 20-Feb-20 | Last updated 20-Feb-20
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I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
“Equality,” The Spectator (27 Aug 1943)

Reprinted in Present Concerns (1986).

See Lincoln.
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I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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That the beauty of life is a thing of no moment, I suppose few people would venture to assert, and yet most civilized people act as if it were of none, and in so doing are wronging themselves and those that are to come after them; for that beauty, which is what is meant by art, using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life, if we are to live as nature meant us to; that is, unless we are content to be less than men.

William Morris (1834-1896) British textile designer, writer, socialist activist
“The Beauty of Life,” lecture, Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design (19 Feb 1880)
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I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.

Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) American novelist, playwright, screenwriter
Outer Dark, ch. 17 (1968)
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Added on 3-Feb-20 | Last updated 3-Feb-20
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“And what would humans be without love?”

RARE, said Death.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Sourcery, ch. 1 (1988)
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Added on 31-Jan-20 | Last updated 31-Jan-20
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Do I seem to say, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die?” Far from it; on the contrary, I say, “Let us take hands and help, for this day we are alive together.”

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The First and the Last Catastrophe,” Popular Science Monthly (Jul 1875)
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Gossip isn’t scandal and it’s not merely malicious. It’s chatter about the human race by lovers of the same. Gossip is the tool of the poet, the shop-talk of the scientist, and the consolation of the housewife, wit, tycoon and intellectual. It begins in the nursery and ends when speech is past.

Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978) American author, poet
“A New Year and No Resolutions,” Woman’s Home Companion (Jan 1957)
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Mr. Khrushchev says that Communism, the police state, will bury the free ones. He is a smart gentleman, he knows that this is nonsense since freedom, man’s dim concept of and belief in the human spirit is the cause of all his troubles in his own country. But if he means that Communism will bury capitalism, he is correct. That funeral will occur about ten minutes after the police bury gambling. Because simple man, the human race, will bury both of them. That will be when we have expended the last grain, dram, and iota of our natural resources. But man himself will not be in that grave. The last sound on the worthless earth will be two human beings trying to launch a homemade spaceship and already quarreling about where they are going next.

William Faulkner (1897-1962) American novelist
Speech to the UNESCO Commission, New York (1959)

Quoted in The New York Times (3 Oct 1959)
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Prudent men are in the habit of saying — and not by chance or without basis — that he who wishes to see what is to come should observe what has already happened, because all the affairs of the world, in every age, have their individual counterparts in ancient times. The reason for this is that since they are carried on by men, who have and always have had the same passions, of necessity the same results appear.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) Italian politician, philosopher, political scientist
The Discourses on Livy, Book 3, ch. 43 (1517) [tr. Gilbert (1958)]
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Alt. trans.: "The wise are wont to say, and not without reason or at random, that he who would forecast what is about to happen should look to what has been; since all human events, whether present or to come, have their exact counterpart in the past. And this, because these events are brought about by men, whose passions and dispositions remaining in all ages the same naturally give rise to the same effects." [tr. Thomson]
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I see men assassinated around me every day. I walk through rooms of the dead, streets of the dead, cities of the dead: men without eyes, men without voices; men with manufactured feelings and standard reactions; men with newspaper brains, television souls and high school ideals.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters, 1963-1993 (2003)
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When asked his reaction to the assassination of John Kennedy.
Added on 24-Jan-20 | Last updated 24-Jan-20
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Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) British writer [Herbert George Wells]
The Outline of History, Vol. 2, ch. 41, sec. 4 (1921)
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Also attributed to Wells: "Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have."
Added on 6-Jan-20 | Last updated 6-Jan-20
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Certainly it is presumptuous to say that we cannot improve, and that Man, who has only been in power for a few thousand years, will never learn to make use of his power. All I mean is that, if people continue to kill one another as they do, the world cannot get better than it is, and that, since there are more people than formerly, and their means for destroying one another superior, the world may well get worse. What is good in people — and consequently in the world — is their insistence on creation, their belief in friendship and loyalty for their own sakes; and, though Violence remains and is, indeed, the major partner in this muddled establishment, I believe that creativeness remains too, and will always assume direction when violence sleeps.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Man is a gaming animal. He must be always trying to get the better in something or other.

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) Welsh-English essayist
“Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist,” The Essays of Elia (1823)
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I was often humiliated to see men disputing for a piece of bread, just as animals might have done. My feelings on this subject have very much altered since I have been personally exposed to the tortures of hunger. I have discovered, in fact, that a man, whatever may have been his origin, his education, and his habits, is governed, under certain circumstances, much more by his stomach than by his intelligence and his heart.

François Arago (1786-1853) French Catalan mathematician, physicist, astronomer, politician.
Biographies of Distinguished Scientific Men, “The History of My Youth” (1859) [tr. Smyth, Powell, Grant]
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Man is a reasoning animal. Therefore, man’s highest good is attained if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth. And what is it which this reason demands of him? The easiest thing in the world — to live in accordance with his nature. But this has turned into a hard task by the general madness of mankind; we push one
another into vice.

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC-AD 65) Roman statesman, philosopher, playwright [Lucius Annaeus Seneca]
Letters to Lucilius, Letter 41 (c. 65 AD)
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It is our conviction that if souls were visible to the eyes, we should be able to see distinctly that strange thing, that each one individual of the human race corresponds to some one of the species of the animal creation; and we could easily recognize this truth, hardly perceived by the thinker, that from the oyster to the eagle, from the pig to the tiger, all animals exist in man, and that in each one of them is in a man. Sometimes even several of them at a time.

Animals are nothing else than the figures of our virtues and our vices, straying before our eyes, the visible phantoms of our souls. God shows them to us in order to induce us to reflect.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) French writer
Les Misérables, Part 1, “Fantine,” Book 5, ch. 5 (1862) [tr. Wilbour]
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Introducing Javert.

Alt. trans. [Fahnestock/MacAfee]: "It is our belief that if the soul were visible to the eye, every member of the human species would be seen to correspond to some species of the animal world, and a truth scarcely perceived by thinkers would be readily confirmed, namely, that from the oyster to the eagle, from the swine to the tiger, all animals are to be found in men and each of them exists in some man, sometimes several at a time. Animals are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes, the visible reflections of our souls. God displays them to us to give us food for thought."
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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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We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.

Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) American physician, poet, essayist, researcher
“The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around,” The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979)
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The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do and, in addition, will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people. They say “no” to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds, but in their quiet refusals to commit villainies. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) American writer
“How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (1978)
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People don’t alter history any more than birds alter the sky, they just make brief patterns in it.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Mort (1987)
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Added on 28-Dec-18 | Last updated 28-Dec-18
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For a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.

Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) French philosopher
Creative Evolution, ch. 1 (1907) [tr. Mitchell (1911)]
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At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique human being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is ever be put together a second time.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
“Schopenhauer as Educator,” ch. 1 (1874) [tr. Collins]
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Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours its own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich upon the poor.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Col. Edward Carrington (16 Jan 1787)
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It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) German philosopher
“On Religion,” Parerga and Paralipomena (1851)
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Phryne was feeling most displeased with a species to which, she reminded herself, she belonged. She took an egg sandwich and a gulp of tea and strove to adjust her philosophy.

Kerry Greenwood (b. 1954) Australian author and lawyer
Urn Burial (1996)
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Tolerance, good temper and sympathy — they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’’re telling the truth about the human being — what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) American union leader, activist, socialist, politician
Statement to the Court (18 Sep 1918)
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On being convicted of Sedition. Often paraphrased: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
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Man is a clever animal, who behaves like an imbecile.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) Alsatian theologian, philosopher, physician, philanthropist
(Attributed)
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Yet there is still this difference between man and all other animals — he is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed; the only animal that is never satisfied.

Henry George (1839-1897) American economist
Progress and Poverty, Book 2, ch. 3 (1879)
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Man is a successful animal, that’s all.

Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915) French poet, novelist, critic
Promenades Philosophiques (1908)

Alt. trans.: "Man is merely a successful animal."
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A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 4 “Consolation for Inadequacy” (2000)
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Summarizing Montaigne.
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Man is the only animal who does not feel at home in nature, who can feel evicted from paradise, the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem that he has to solve and from which he cannot escape.

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) American psychoanalyst and social philosopher
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, ch. 10 (1973)
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Sometimes elided, "Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem he has to solve."
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Man is a social animal who dislikes his fellow man.

[L’homme es un animal sociable qui déteste ses semblables.]

Eugène Delacroix (1799-1863) French painter [Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix]
The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, 17 November 1852 (1951)
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Man is a talking animal and he will always let himself be swayed by the power of the word.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) French author, existentialist philosopher, feminist theorist
Les Belles Images (1966)
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Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing nativities and deaths with equal luster, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.

Thomas Browne (1605-1682) English physician and author
Urn-Burial: Or, Hydriotaphia, ch. 5 (1658)
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Every man has a certain sphere of discretion, which he has a right to expect shall not be infringed by his neighbors. This right flows from the very nature of man. First, all men are fallible: no man can be justified in setting up his judgment as a standard for others. We have no infallible judge of controversies; each man in his own apprehension is right in his decisions; and we can find no satisfactory mode of adjusting their jarring pretensions. If every one be desirous of imposing his sense upon others, it will at last come to be a controversy, not of reason, but of force.

William Godwin (1756-1836) English journalist, political philosopher, novelist
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book 2, ch. 5 (1793)
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The best aphorisms are pointed expressions of the results of observation, experience, and reflection. They are portable wisdom, the quintessential extracts of thought and feeling. They furnish the largest amount of intellectual stimulus and nutriment in the smallest compass. About every weak point in human nature, or vicious spot in human life, there is deposited a crystallization of warning and protective proverbs.

William Rounseville Alger (1822-1905) American writer, minister, translator
“The Utility and the Futility of Aphorisms,” Atlantic Monthly (Feb 1863)
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Often paraphrased, "Aphorisms are portable wisdom."
Added on 22-Nov-17 | Last updated 22-Nov-17
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Man is a military animal,
Glories in gunpowder, and loves parade;
Prefers them to all things.

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902) English poet
“Festus” [Lucifer] (1839)
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Added on 20-Nov-17 | Last updated 20-Nov-17
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Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!

George Meredith (1828-1909) English novelist and poet
Modern Love, Sonnet 50 (1862)
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Added on 17-Nov-17 | Last updated 17-Nov-17
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I also think living in the country gives you faith. All you have to do is get up and look at the mountains and look at the other animals to realize that your problems are mostly made up or exacerbated by humans. But human life isn’t necessarily life. There’s so much more out there.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Interview in OutSmart (Jan 1998)
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Added on 30-Oct-17 | Last updated 30-Oct-17
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O woman! lovely woman! Nature made thee
To temper man: we had been brutes without you.
Angels are painted fair, to look like you:
There’s in you all that we believe of heaven, —
Amazing brightness, purity, and truth,
Eternal joy, and everlasting love.

Thomas Otway (1652-1685) English dramatist
Venice Preserv’d, Act 1, sc. 1 (1682)
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Added on 24-Oct-17 | Last updated 24-Oct-17
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Love would put a new face on this weary old world in which we dwell as pagans and enemies too long.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Man the Reformer,” lecture, Boston (25 Jan 1841)
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Added on 24-Oct-17 | Last updated 24-Oct-17
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At twenty a man is a Peacock, at thirty a Lion, at forty a Camel, at fifty a Serpent, at sixty a Dog, at seventy an Ape, at eighty nothing.

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish Jesuit priest, writer, philosopher
The Art of Worldly Wisdom [Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia], #276 (1647) [tr. Jacobs (1892)]
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Added on 23-Oct-17 | Last updated 31-Jan-20
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A bookstore is one of the only pieces of physical evidence we have that people are still thinking.

Jerry Seinfeld (b. 1955) American comedian
SeinLanguage (1993)
Added on 19-Oct-17 | Last updated 19-Oct-17
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There comes now and then a bolder spirit, I should rather say, a more surrendered soul, more informed and led by God, which is much in advance of the rest, quite beyond their sympathy, but predicts what shall soon be the general fullness; as when we stand by the seashore, whilst the tide is coming in, a wave comes up the beach far higher than any foregoing one, and recedes; and for a long while none comes up to that mark; but after some time the whole sea is there and beyond it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Lecture on the Times,” Boston (2 Dec 1841)
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Added on 17-Oct-17 | Last updated 17-Oct-17
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