Quotations about   meaning

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We were entrusted to one another, in the days which mattered, Clare thought. Entrusted to one another by chance, not choice. Chance, and its agents time and place. Chance is better than choice; it is more lordly. In its carelessness it is more lordly. Chance is God, choice is man. You — she thought, looking at the bed — chanced not chose to want us again.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) Irish author
The Little Girls, ch. 7 (1964)
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Quoted, in abbreviated form, in the foreword to her Pictures and Conversations (1975):

Chance is better than choice; it is more lordly. Chance is God, choice is man.
Added on 28-Apr-22 | Last updated 28-Apr-22
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Clarity of language is the first casualty of authoritarianism.

Robin Morgan (b. 1941) American poet, author, activist, journalist
“Saving the World,” Ms. (Summer 2003)
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Added on 4-Nov-21 | Last updated 4-Nov-21
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The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.

Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) American minister, academic, author
An Altar in the World, ch. 6 (2009)
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Added on 29-Oct-21 | Last updated 29-Oct-21
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A faith is dead when no one can think of a heresy.

James Richardson (b. 1950) American poet
“Vectors: 56 Aphorisms and Ten-second Essays,” Michigan Quarterly Review, # 40 (Spring 1999)
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Added on 26-Oct-21 | Last updated 26-Oct-21
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In the popular imagination, the belief persists that history involves little more than reconstruction, a retelling of the past “as it actually was.” But historical understanding involves far more than mere empiricism; it demands a readiness to draw back from the facts to reflect on their significance and their interconnection.

Peter E Gordon
Peter E, Gordon (b. 1966) American intellectual historian
“Why Historical Analogy Matters,” New York Review of Books (7 Jan 2020)
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Added on 24-Sep-21 | Last updated 24-Sep-21
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It is never until one realizes that one means something to others that one feels there is any point or purpose in one’s own existence.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, biographer
Beware of Pity (1939)
Added on 16-Sep-21 | Last updated 16-Sep-21
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There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on them. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: If one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
I Shall Wear Midnight (2010)
Added on 22-Jun-21 | Last updated 22-Jun-21
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The muffled syllables that Nature speaks
Fill us with deeper longing for her word;
She hides a meaning that the spirit seeks;
She makes a sweeter music than is heard.

George Santayana (1863-1952) Spanish-American poet and philosopher [Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruíz de Santayana y Borrás]
“Premonition”
Added on 10-Jun-21 | Last updated 10-Jun-21
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Such closet politicians never fail to assign the deepest motives for the most trifling actions; instead of often ascribing the greatest actions to the most trifling causes, in which they would be much seldomer mistaken. They read and write of kings, heroes, and statesmen, as never do anything but upon the deepest principles of sound policy. But those who see and observe kings, heroes, and statesmen, discover that they have headaches, indigestions, humors, and passions, just like other people; every one of which, in their turns, determine their wills, in defiance of their reason.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son (5 Dec 1749)
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Added on 25-Mar-21 | Last updated 25-Mar-21
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It’s a blessing to die for a cause, because you can so easily die for nothing.

Andrew Young (b. 1932) American politician, diplomat, activist
Interview by Peter Ross Range, Playboy (Jul 1977)
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Added on 25-Feb-21 | Last updated 25-Feb-21
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For even the humblest person, a day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search for truth and perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) American writer, philosopher, historian, architect
The Condition of Man (1944)
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Added on 17-Feb-21 | Last updated 17-Feb-21
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Your calling is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) American minister, author
The Hungering Dark (1969)
Added on 3-Feb-21 | Last updated 3-Feb-21
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Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet
“An Essay on Criticism” (1711)
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Added on 25-Jan-21 | Last updated 25-Jan-21
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I’m filled with a desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-French novelist, essayist, playwright
The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942)
Added on 7-Jan-21 | Last updated 7-Jan-21
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What you don’t understand you can make mean anything.

Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) American novelist and freelance journalist
Diary (2003)
Added on 19-May-20 | Last updated 19-May-20
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A work of art does not answer questions: it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between their contradictory answers.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer, pianist
“A Sabbatical Report,” sec. 1, New York Times (24 Oct 1965)
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Reprinted in The Infinite Variety of Music (1966)
Added on 8-May-20 | Last updated 8-May-20
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Every word is a messenger. Some have wings; some are filled with fire; some are filled with death.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) American poet
“Sand Dabs, Six,” Winter Hours (1999)
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Added on 24-Mar-20 | Last updated 24-Mar-20
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ANTON EGO: In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

Brad Bird (b. 1957) American director, animator and screenwriter [Phillip Bradley Bird]
Ratatouille (2007)
Added on 12-Feb-20 | Last updated 12-Feb-20
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Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions.

[L’ineptie consiste à vouloir conclure. […] Oui, la bêtise consiste à vouloir conclure.]

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) French writer, novelist
Letter to Louis Bouilhet (4 Sep 1850)
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The phrase is used twice in the letter. The initial phrase is usually translated to "foolishness" or "folly," the second to "stupidity."
Added on 23-Jan-20 | Last updated 23-Jan-20
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what matters most is
how well you
walk through the
fire.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
“How Is Your Heart?” (1986)
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Added on 4-Sep-19 | Last updated 4-Sep-19
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Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
— By Order of the Author

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Notice” (1884)
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Added on 12-Apr-18 | Last updated 12-Apr-18
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What Man seeks, to the point of anguish, in his gods, in his art, in his science, is meaning. He cannot bear the void. He pours meaning on events like salt on his food. He denies that life bounces along at random, at the mercy of events, in sound and in fury. He wants it always to be directed, aimed toward a goal, like an arrow.

François Jacob (1920-2013) French biologist, Nobel prize winner in Medicine
The Statue Within: An Autobiography (1987) [tr. Philip (1988)]
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Added on 18-Sep-17 | Last updated 18-Sep-17
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There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 1 “Consolations for Unpopularity,” sec. 4 (2000)
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Added on 7-Sep-17 | Last updated 7-Sep-17
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The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers.

Ruth Benedict (1887-1947) American anthropologist
An Anthropologist at Work, Journal Entry, 7 Jan 1913 (1959)
Added on 2-Sep-17 | Last updated 2-Sep-17
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This ideal University of Life … would never take the importance of culture for granted. It would know that culture is kept alive by a constant respectful questioning — not by an excessive and snobbish attitude of respect. Therefore, rather than leaving it hanging why one was reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, an ideal course covering nineteenth-century literature would ask plainly “What is it that adultery ruins in a marriage?” Students in the ideal University of Life would end up knowing much the same material as their colleagues in other institutions, they would simply have learned it under a very different set of headings.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
“Reclaiming the Intellectual Life for Posterity,” Liberal Education (Spring 2009)
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Added on 18-Aug-17 | Last updated 18-Aug-17
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It should be quite unnecessary to point the moral; the right telling of the story should be sufficient. Do not moralize, but let the facts produce their own moral in the child’s mind.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) English mathematician and philosopher
Education and the Good Life, ch. 11 (1926)
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Added on 14-Jul-17 | Last updated 14-Jul-17
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Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is timid and dislikes going into the water.

[Tief sein und tief scheinen. — Wer sich tief weiss, bemüht sich um Klarheit; wer der Menge tief scheinen möchte, bemüht sich um Dunkelheit. Denn die Menge hält Alles für tief, dessen Grund sie nicht sehen kann: sie ist so furchtsam und geht so ungern in’s Wasser.]

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
The Gay Science [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft], Book 3, §173 (1882) [tr. Kaufmann (1974)]

Also known as The Joyful Wisdom or The Joyous Science. (Source (German)). Alternate translations:

To Be Profound and to Appear Profound. -- He who knows that he is profound strives for clearness; he who would like to appear profound to the multitude strives for obscurity. The multitude thinks everything profound of which it cannot see the bottom; it is so timid and goes so unwillingly into the water.
[tr. Common (1911)]

Being Deep and Seeming Deep. -- Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd takes everything whose ground it cannot see to be deep; it is so timid and so reluctant to go into the water.
[tr. Nauckhoff (2001)]

Being Profound and Being Thought Profound -- Whoever knows that he is profound strives for clarity; whoever would like the crowd to think he is profound strives for obscurity. The reason for this is that the crowd thinks something is profound whenever it cannot see to the bottom of it; it is afraid of the water and hates to get its feet wet.
[tr. Hill (2018)]

Being Deep and Appearing Deep -- Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.
[Source]

Whoever knows himself to be deep strives for clarity; whoever wants to appear deep to the masses strives for obscurity. For the masses consider anything to be deep that they cannot see the bottom of.
[Source]

Added on 15-Apr-17 | Last updated 18-Nov-21
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Clarity in language depends on clarity in thought.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) American historian, author, social critic
Interview with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN (10 May 1998)
Added on 7-Apr-17 | Last updated 7-Apr-17
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There is a difference between tragedy and blind brutal calamity. Tragedy has meaning, and there is dignity in it. Tragedy stands with its shoulders stiff and proud. But there is no meaning, no dignity, no fulfillment, in the death of a child.

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1923-1996) American science fiction writer
“The Will” (1953)
Added on 6-Feb-17 | Last updated 6-Feb-17
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Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) American poet
(Attributed)
Added on 19-Feb-16 | Last updated 19-Feb-16
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If you do everything for one reason, then all you have done will become meaningless when the reason does.

James Richardson (b. 1950) American poet
Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays, #41 (2001)
Added on 6-Nov-15 | Last updated 6-Nov-15
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Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and there is only one Glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.

Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) Spanish mystic, poet, philosopher, saint
“Maxims for Her Nuns”

In Complete Works St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 3 (1963) [ed. Peers]
Added on 28-Oct-15 | Last updated 28-Oct-15
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Don’t write so you can be understood. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.

Quintilian (39-90) Roman orator [Marcus Fabius Quintilianus]
De Institutione Oratoria, Book 8, ch. 2, l. 24

Alt. trans.: "We should not write so that it is possible for [the reader] to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us."

Also attributed to Epictetus, Francis Bacon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Taft.
Added on 24-Aug-15 | Last updated 13-Jun-16
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Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Lords and Ladies (1992)
Added on 29-Jul-15 | Last updated 29-Jul-15
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The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose; all other things, to reign, to lay up treasure, to build, are, at most, but little appendices and props.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
“Of Experience,” Essays, Vol 3, ch. 13 [ed. Hazlitt, tr. Cotton]
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Added on 6-Apr-15 | Last updated 6-Apr-15
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BENDIS: We’re gonna die.
MAL: We’re not gonna die. We can’t die, Bendis. You know why? Because we are so — very — pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die.

Joss Whedon (b. 1964) American screenwriter, author, producer [Joseph Hill Whedon]
Firefly, 1×01 “Serenity” (pilot) (20 Dec 2002)
Added on 29-Jan-15 | Last updated 29-Jan-15
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Life is a biography, not a series of disconnected moments, more or less pleasurable but increasingly tedious and unsatisfying unless one imposes a purposive pattern upon them.

Theodore Dalrymple (b. 1949) English writer, journalist, psychiatrist [pen name for Anthony (A.M.) Daniels]
Life at the Bottom (2001)
Added on 2-Dec-14 | Last updated 2-Dec-14
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If the world were clear, art would not exist.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-French novelist, essayist, playwright
“Absurd Creation,” The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
Added on 3-Nov-14 | Last updated 3-Nov-14
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I am an agnostic partly because I don’t think it is part of the human condition ever to have very much certainty about anything but moments of pleasure and of imminent and immanent death. I don’t think we have a language, will ever have a language, that can describe transcendence in any useful way and am aware that transcendence may be nothing more than the illusory aspiration of a decaying piece of meat on a random rock. The thing is to be humble enough to be content with that while acting to other people as generously as if better things were true, and making art as if it might survive and do good in the world. Because what else are we going to do with the few short years of our life?

Roz Kaveney (b. 1949) British writer, critic, poet
“On Good Friday, I may not have faith, but that doesn’t make me an atheist,” The Guardian (29 Mar 2013)
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Added on 22-Oct-14 | Last updated 22-Oct-14
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What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other….

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) English modernist writer [b. Adeline Virginia Stephen]
To the Lighthouse, Part 3, ch. 3 (1927)
Added on 16-Jun-14 | Last updated 16-Jun-14
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What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
Speech, Dundee (10 Oct 1908)
Added on 26-May-14 | Last updated 25-Apr-17
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Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.

David Sedaris (b. 1956) American humorist, comedian, author
Interview, Louisville Courier-Journal (5 Jun 2005)
Added on 3-Apr-14 | Last updated 31-Oct-14
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There is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of a good cause.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“A Message to My Adopted Country,” Pageant (Jan 1946)
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Later reprinted as "The Negro Question."
Added on 9-Dec-13 | Last updated 21-Feb-21
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We cannot define anything precisely! If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, “You don’t know what you are talking about!”. The second one says, “What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?” and so on.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) American physicist
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume I, 8-2 “Motion” (20 Oct 1961)
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Added on 25-Mar-08 | Last updated 10-Jan-20
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Happiness is not the end of life, character is.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) American clergyman and orator
Life Thoughts: Gathered from the Extemporaneous Discourses of Henry Ward Beecher (1858)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 23-Aug-16
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From the same it proceedeth that men give different names to one and the same thing from the difference of their own passions: as they that approve a private opinion call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion; but has only a greater tincture of choler.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) English philosopher
Leviathan, Part 1, ch. 11 (1651)
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Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 6-Nov-20
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Life may have no meaning. Or even worse, it may have a meaning of which I disapprove.

Ashleigh Brilliant (b. 1933) Anglo-American writer, epigramist, cartoonist
Pot-Shots, #1347
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 13-Nov-20
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