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In mathematics, you don’t understand things, you just get used to them.

John von Neumann (1903-1957) Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath [János "Johann" Lajos Neumann]
(Attributed)

The primary source for this comes from Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979), in a footnote on p. 208, related to von Neumann's time working on the H-bomb.

Dr. Felix Smith, Head of Molecular Physics, Stanford Research Institute, once related to me the true story of a physicist friend who worked at Los Alamos after World War II. Seeking help on a difficult problem, he went to the great Hungarian mathematician, John von Neumann, who was at Los Alamos as a consultant.

"Simple," said von Neumann. "The can be solved by using the method of characteristics."

After the explanation, the physicist said, "I'm afraid I don't understand the method of characteristics."

"Young man," said von Neumann, "in mathematics you don't understand things, you just get used to them."


David Wells offers a variant in The Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Mathematics (1997):

Van Neumann had just about ended his lecture when a student stood up and in a vaguely abashed tone said he hadn't understood the final argument. Von Neumann answered: "Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.

Variant: "Don't worry, young man: in mathematics, none of us really understands any idea -- we just get used to them."
Added on 17-Nov-20 | Last updated 17-Nov-20
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How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Dictation (2 Dec 1906), The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2 (2013)
    (Source)

A sentiment that may be behind the spurious Twain quotation, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled."
Added on 29-Oct-20 | Last updated 29-Oct-20
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It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American novelist, playwright, activist
“The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro,” opening comments, Cambridge Union, Cambridge, England (17 Feb 1965)
    (Source)

Debate with William F. Buckley, Jr.
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Truth never damages a cause that is just.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) Indian philosopher and nationalist [Mahatma Gandhi]
Non-Violence in Peace and War, Vol. 2 (1949)
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Build movements. Vote with your values, but vote strategically. Voting isn’t a Valentine. It’s a chess move.

Rebecca Solnit (b. 1961) American writer, historian, activist
Facebook (17 Oct 2016)
    (Source)

Solnit is credited with the core message of the last two sentences. She indicates (including from that Facebook post) that it was something she had said that was extracted and perhaps tweaked by May Boeve. E.g., "That 2016 aphorism that I sort of said and May Boeve made into this stand-alone slogan." (1 Nov 2018) "I said that off the cuff in 2016 and May Boeve caught it and it went on to have a nice life. It's also not the only chess move you get." (11 Aug 2020).

Variants:
  • "Voting is a chess move, not a valentine. And here's the joy of being politically engaged all year round every year; you get to work with a whole lot of chess pieces and players and strategies and long-term visions, so you don't agonize over whether this little hop with a pawn we call voting defines you. You get to define yourself by what you're passionately committed to, by who you align with, by your dreams and your visions, you get to move a lot of pieces a lot of times, you get heroic allies, and you play to win above, beyond, around elections. But you vote, because you know it matters too." (7 Nov 2016)
  • "I think of voting as a chess move, not a valentine. It’s just a little part of the picture of how we make the world." ("The 2000 Election Unleashed Disaster on the World. We Can’t Let that Happen Again in 2016," The Nation (3 Nov 2016))
  • "A vote is not a valentine. You are not confessing your love for the candidate. It's a chess move for the world you want to live in."
  • "Voting isn't a valentine, it's a chess move. Just one of many with one of your many pieces, if you're using what you've been given."
Added on 14-Oct-20 | Last updated 14-Oct-20
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The mind sins, not the body; if there is no intention, there is no blame.

[Mentem peccare, non corpus, et unde consilium abfuerit, culpam abesse.]

Livy (59 BC-AD 17) Roman historian [Titus Livius]
Ab Urbe Condita [From the Founding of the City; The History of Rome], Book 1, ch. 58 (27-9 BC)

Reassurances given to Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, after her rape by Sextus Tarquin. She still kills herself.

Different sources use abfuerit or afuerit. Restated as a legal term, it's usually given as Mens peccat, non corpus, et unde consilium abfuit, culpa abest.

Alt. trans.:
  • "That it is the mind sins, not the body; and that where intention was wanting guilt could not be." [tr. Spillan (1896)]
  • "The mind sins, not the body, and there is no guilt when intent is absent." [tr. Luce]
  • "The mind sins, not the body; and where the power of judgment has been absent, guilt is absent." [Source]
  • "The mind alone was capable of sinning, not the body, and that where there was no such intention, there could be no guilt." [tr. Baker (1823)]
  • "It is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt." [tr. Roberts (1905)]
  • "It is the mind that sins, not the body; and that where purpose has been wanting there is no guilt." [tr. Foster (1919)]
  • "It is the will only that is capable of sinning, not the body; and where there is no intention, there can be no guilt." [Source]
Added on 12-Oct-20 | Last updated 12-Oct-20
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TECMESSA: Kindness gives birth to kindness.

Sophocles (496-406 BC) Greek tragic playwright
Ajax

Alt. trans.:
  • "For it is always kindness which breeds kindness." [tr. Garvie (1998), ll. 522-23]
  • "Kindness begets kindness." [tr. Golder & Pevear (1999), l. 584]
  • "'Tis kindness that still begets kindness." [tr. Jebb (1917), ll. 521-22]
  • "For kindness begets kindness evermore." [tr. Trevelyan (1919)]
Added on 8-Oct-20 | Last updated 8-Oct-20
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I think vital Religion has always suffer’d, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue. And the Scripture assures me, that at the last Day, we shall not be examin’d what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did GOOD to our Fellow Creatures.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist, philosopher
Letter to his parents, Josiah and Abiah Franklin (13 Apr 1738)
    (Source)

Franklin cites Matt. 26 in the letter, but it should be Matt. 25:31-46.
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One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American scientist and writer
The Demon-Haunted World, ch. 13 (1995)
    (Source)
Added on 29-Sep-20 | Last updated 29-Sep-20
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Young people, who are still uncertain of their identity, often try on a succession of masks in the hope of finding the one which suits them — the one, in fact, which is not a mask.

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) Anglo-American poet [Wystan Hugh Auden]
“One of the Family” (1965), Forewords and Afterwords (1973)
    (Source)
Added on 25-Sep-20 | Last updated 25-Sep-20
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The lesson of History is rarely learned by the actors themselves.

James A. Garfield (1831-1881) US President (1881), lawyer, lay preacher, educator
Letter to Professor Demmon (16 Dec 1871)
    (Source)
Added on 18-Sep-20 | Last updated 18-Sep-20
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The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author and lecturer
“Try Democracy,” The Home Magazine, Vol. 11, # 4 (Apr 1935)
Added on 14-Sep-20 | Last updated 14-Sep-20
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Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.

Frank McCourt (1930-2009) Irish-American teacher and writer
Angela’s Ashes (1996)

Also included in the dedication to Teacher Man (2006).
Added on 10-Sep-20 | Last updated 10-Sep-20
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The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) South African writer and political activist
“A Bolter and the Invincible Summer” (1963)
    (Source)

See Keats.
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For, though th’ ascent be rough, and steep the fall,
Ambition has but one reward for all:
A little power, a little transient fame,
A grave to rest in, and a fading name!

William Winter (1836-1917) American dramatic critic and author
“The Queen’s Domain,” The Queen’s Domain, and Other Poems (1858)
    (Source)
Added on 2-Sep-20 | Last updated 2-Sep-20
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The wretched Artist himself is alternatively the lowest worm that ever crawled when no fire is in him: or the loftiest God that ever sang when the fire is going.

Caitlin Thomas (1913-1994) British author, wife of Dylan Thomas [née Macnamara]
Not Quite Posthumous Letter to My Daughter (1963)
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But I never was happy, never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Speech, Society of the Army of the Tennessee Annual Meeting, Chicago (12 Nov 1879)
    (Source)

Twain made quips along this line several times, though there is no evidence he said the more frequently quoted "It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." For more discussion, see here.
Added on 25-Aug-20 | Last updated 25-Aug-20
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A woman should never take a lover without the consent of her heart; nor a husband without the concurrence of her reason.

Anne "Ninon" de l'Enclos (1620-1705) French author, courtesan, patron of the arts [Ninon de Lenclos, Ninon de Lanclos]
The Memoirs of Ninon de L’Enclos, Vol. 1, “Life and Character” (1761)
    (Source)
Added on 18-Aug-20 | Last updated 18-Aug-20
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Grief is the agony of an instant; the indulgence of Grief the blunder of a life.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) English politician and author
Vivian Grey, Book 6, ch. 7 (1826)
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Added on 17-Aug-20 | Last updated 17-Aug-20
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For nothing stands out so conspicuously, or remains so firmly fixed in the memory, as something in which you have blundered.

[Nihil est enim tam insigne, nec tam ad diuturnitatem memoriae stabile, quam id, in quo aliquid offenderis.]

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman orator, statesman, philosopher
De Oratore [On the Orator], Book 1, ch. 28, sec. 129 (55 BC)

Alt trans.:
  • "For nothing makes so remarkable, so deep an impression upon the memory as a miscarriage." [tr. Guthrie (1742)]
  • "Nothing, indeed, is so much noticed, or makes an impression of such lasting continuance on the memory, as that in which you give any sort of offense." [tr. Watson (1855)]
  • "For nothing so immediately attracts attention, or clings so tenaciously to the memory, as any defect." [tr. Calvert (1870)]
  • "Nothing attracts so much attention, or retains such a hold upon men's memories, as the occasion when you have made a mistake." [Source]
  • Original Latin
Added on 10-Aug-20 | Last updated 10-Aug-20
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The enemies of Freedom do not argue; they shout and they shoot.

William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) English prelate [Dean Inge]
End of an Age, ch. 4 (1948)
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Here is a dream.
It is my dream,
My own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt,
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.

Ogden Nash (1902-1971) American poet
“My Dream” (1954), You Can’t Get There from Here (1957)
    (Source)
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The murderer, the victim, the witness, each of us thinks our role is the lead.

Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) American novelist and freelance journalist
Invisible Monsters, ch. 1 (1999)
    (Source)
Added on 28-Jul-20 | Last updated 28-Jul-20
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The importance to the writer of first writing must be out of all proportion of the actual value of what is written.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) Irish author
Encounters, Preface to the 1951 Edition (1923)
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Added on 27-Jul-20 | Last updated 27-Jul-20
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If pleasures are greatest in anticipation, just remember that this is also true of trouble.

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) American writer, businessman, philosopher
The Philosophy of Elbert Hubbard (1916)
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You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden, ch. 1 (1952)
    (Source)
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Man is a victim of dope
In the incurable form of hope.

Ogden Nash (1902-1971) American poet
“Good-bye, Old Year, You Oaf, or Why Don’t They Pay the Bonus?” (1935)
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There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.

Aubrey Menen (1912-1989) English writer
Rama Retold (1954)
    (Source)
Added on 2-Jul-20 | Last updated 2-Jul-20
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Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Only actions
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Belief
Initiates and guides action —
Or it does nothing.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) American writer
The Parable of the Talents, ch. 20, epigraph (1998)
    (Source)
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An easygoing vice, I hold,
Is better than an angry virtue.

[J’aime mieux un vice commode,
Qu’une fatigante vertu.]

Molière (1622-1673) French playwright, actor [stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
Amphitryon, Act 1, sc. 4, l. 681-2 [Mercury] (1666) [tr. Wilbur (2010)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.:
  • "I prefer an accommodating vice / To an obstinate virtue."
  • "I prefer a convenient vice, to a fatiguing virtune." [tr. Waller (1903)]
  • Original French.
Added on 5-Jun-20 | Last updated 5-Jun-20
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                        It is the wit,
The policy of sin, to hate those men
We have abus’d.

William Davenant (1606-1668) English poet and playwright [a.k.a. William D'Avenant]
The Just Italian, Act 3, sc. 1 [Sciolto] (1630)
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Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavour to warp and spoil it to their turn.

William Penn (1644-1718) English real estate entrepreneur, philosopher, statesman
First Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, Preface (1682)
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Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.

Saul Bellow (1915-2005) Canadian-American writer
Herzog (1964)
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Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wants to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
Commonplace Book (1985) [ed. Gardner]
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JUST DISCOURSE: Do not bandy words with your father, nor treat him as a dotard, nor reproach the old man, who has cherished you, with his age.

Aristophanes (c.450-c.388 BC) Athenian comedic playwright
Clouds, ll. 998-999 (423 BC) [tr. Athenian Soc. (1912)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.:
  • JUST ΛΟΓΟΣ: "[Learn] not to contradict your father in any thing; nor by calling him Iapetus, to reproach him with the ills of age, by which you were reared in your infancy." [tr. Hickie (1853)]
  • RIGHT LOGIC: "Nor dare to reply when your Father is nigh, nor 'musty old Japhet' to call / In your malice and rage that Sacred Old Age which lovingly cherished your youth." [tr. Rogers (1924)]
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“For your own good” is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction.

Janet Frame (1924-2004) New Zealand author [pen name of Nene Janet Paterson Clutha]
Faces in the Water, ch. 4 (1961)
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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)
    (Source)

Reprinted in The Infinite Variety of Music (1966)
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Ill doers in the end shall ill receive.

[Chi mal opra, male al fine aspetta.]

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) Italian poet
Orlando Furioso, Canto 37, st. 106, l. 6 (1532) [tr. Rose (1831)]
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DORINE: Those who have the greatest cause for guilt and shame
Are quickest to besmirch a neighbor’s name.

[Ceux de qui la conduite offre le plus à rire
Sont toujours sur autrui les premiers à médire.]

Molière (1622-1673) French playwright, actor [stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
Tartuffe, Act 1, sc. 1 (1664) [tr. Wilbur (1963)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.:
  • "They whose own conduct is the most ridiculous are always the first to slander others." [tr. Van Laun (1876)]
  • "Since they are always talked about, / They're sniffing other scandal out." [tr. Bolt (2002)]
  • "Those whose conduct gives room for talk / Are always the first to attack their neighbors." [Bartlett's]
Original French.
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Love makes you go all in. Love makes you voluntarily stupid. Love robs you of the humor you use to protect yourself and leaves you speechless. Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. And then it strips you down, and leaves you fully nude for all to see.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
Their Eyes Were Watching God, ch. 13 (1937)
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Justice is indiscriminately due to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.

John Jay (1745-1829) American statesman, diplomat, abolitionist, politician, Chief Justice (1789-1795)
Georgia v. Brailsford, 3 US 1 (1794) [unanimous opinion]
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Most of the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
The Conduct of Life, “Considerations Along the Way” (1860)
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What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.

[Τὸ τῷ σμήνει μὴ συμφέρον οὐδὲ τῇ μελίσσῃ συμφέρει.]

Marcus Aurelius (121-180) Roman emperor (161-180), Stoic philosopher
Meditations, Book 6, #54 (2nd C AD)

Original here. Alt. trans.:
  • "That which is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bee." [tr. Casaubon (1634); numbered 49]
  • "What does not benefit the hive is no benefit to the bee." [tr. Farquharson (1944)]
  • "That which is not for the interest of the whole swarm is not for the interest of the bee." [tr. Collier]
  • "What injures the hive injures the bee." [tr. Hays (2002)]
  • "What is not good for the hive is not good for the bee."
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CHORUS: Full of wiles, full of guile, at all times, in all ways, are the children of Men.

[δολερὸν μὲν ἀεὶ κατὰ πάντα δὴ τρόπον / πέφυκεν ἄνθρωπος]

Aristophanes (c.450-c.388 BC) Athenian comedic playwright
The Birds, ll. 451-2 (414 BC) [tr. Rogers (1906)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.:
  • "Man naturally is deceitful, ever indeed, and always, in every one thing." [tr. Warter (1830)]
  • "Man is naturally deceitful ever, in every way!" [tr. Hickie (1853)]
  • "Man is a truly cunning creature." [abridged tr. O'Neill (1938)]
  • "A treacherous thing always in every way is human nature." [tr. Henderson (1998)]
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Things are beautiful if you love them.

Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) French dramatist
Mademoiselle Colombe, Act 2, sc. 2 (1950) [tr. Kronenberger (1954)]
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Art — the one achievement of Man which has made the long trip up from all fours seem well advised.

James Thurber (1894-1961) American cartoonist and writer
Forum and Century (Jun 1939)

Also quoted in Clifton Fadiman, I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time (1939).
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Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil (1909-1943) French philosopher
Letter to Joë Bousquet (13 Apr 1942)

Quoted in Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life (1976) [tr. Rosenthal].
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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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In art, there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists. And in the end, doesn’t the revolutionary’s work become official, once the State takes it over?

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) French painter [Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin]
Letter in Le Soir (25 Apr 1895)

Collected in Daniel Guérin, ed., The Writings of a Savage (1996) [tr. Levieux].

Often given as "Art is either plagiarism or revolution," or sometimes "Art is either a revolutionist or a plagiarist." This is often cited from James Huneker, The Pathos of Distance (1913), but there it is given as a paraphrase: "Paul Gauguin has said that in art one is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary."

(Huneker's book elsewhere contains the parallel paraphrase, "Paul Gauguin has said that all artists are either revolutionists or reactionists.")
Added on 2-Apr-20 | Last updated 2-Apr-20
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Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers — for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (4 Nov 1963)
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The 1963 Proclamation was written, finalized, and distributed prior to Kennedy's assassination, six days before Thanksgiving.
Added on 24-Mar-20 | Last updated 24-Mar-20
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Race and nationality are catchwords for which rulers find that their subjects are willing to fight, as they fought for what they called religion four hundred years ago.

William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) English prelate [Dean Inge]
“The Future of the English Race,” Galton Lecture (1919), Outspoken Essays: First Series (1920)
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I hate writing. I love having written.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) American writer
(Attributed)
Added on 16-Mar-20 | Last updated 16-Mar-20
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“Snowflake.” Yes, I’ve heard this word. I think sociopaths use it in an attempt to discredit the notion of empathy.

John Cleese (b. 1939) English comedian, actor, screenwriter, producer
Twitter (8 Jul 2018)
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In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.

John Barth (b. 1930) American writer
Quoted in Charles B. Harris, Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth (1983)
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Quoted as such in the introductory materials, without specific citation. Barth used the phrase on multiple occasions, including:
  • "My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in love-making. That is to say, on the one hand, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and, on the other hand, so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity." [first used, in Alan Prince, "An Interview with John Barth," Prism (Spring 1968)]
  • "Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal, Dunyazade; so does heartless skill. But what you want is passionate virtuosity." [Barth, Chimera (1972)]
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One mustn’t criticize other people on grounds where he can’t stand perpendicular himself.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ch. 26 “The First Newspaper” (1889)
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