Quotations about   motivation

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It occurs to me that there is a proper balance between not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much. It may be that I set my sights too high and so repeatedly end a day in depression. Not easy to find the balance, for it one does not have wild dreams of achievement, there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

May Sarton
May Sarton (1912-1995) Belgian-American poet, novelist, memoirist [pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton]
Journal of a Solitude, “February 4th” (1973)
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Added on 19-Oct-21 | Last updated 19-Oct-21
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All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.

James Thurber (1894-1961) American cartoonist and writer
“The Shore and the Sea,”, Moral, Further Fables for Our Time (1956)
Added on 15-Oct-21 | Last updated 15-Oct-21
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We must never forget that human motives are generally far more complicated than we are apt to suppose, and that we can very rarely accurately describe the motives of another.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) Russian novelist
The Idiot, Part 3, ch. 3 (1869) [tr. Martin (1915)]
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Alternate translation: "Don't let us forget that the motives of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and varied than we are apt to explain them afterwards, and can rarely be defined with certainty." [tr. Magarshack (1955)]
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I’m not interested so much in how people survive as in how they avoid humiliation. Chekhov says we must never humiliate one another, and I think avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.

John Guare
John Guare (b. 1938) American playwright and screenwriter
The House of Blue Leaves, Introduction (1971)
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Much misconstruction of character arises out of our habit of assigning a motive for every action — whereas a good many of our acts are performed without any motive.

Christian Nestell Bovee (1820-1904) American epigrammatist, writer, publisher
Intuitions and Summaries of Thought, Vol. 2 (1862)
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Added on 30-Jul-21 | Last updated 30-Jul-21
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I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) American chef, author, travel documentarian
(Attributed)
Added on 30-Jul-21 | Last updated 30-Jul-21
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In my opinion, most of the great men of the past were only there for the beer — the wealth, prestige and grandeur that went with the power.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“Fiction in History,” Times Literary Supplement (23 Mar 1973)

Reprinted in his Essays in English History (1976).
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It is important to remember that events now long in the past were once in the future.

F. W. Maitland (1850-1906) English legal historian and jurist [Frederic William Maitland]
(Attributed)

A favorite saying of A. J. P. Taylor's which he used repeatedly in his writings, attributing it to Maitland. It is sometimes erroneously attributed to Taylor. Variant: "It is very had to remember that events now long in the past were once in the future"
Added on 21-Jun-21 | Last updated 21-Jun-21
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Perhaps the hardest thing for humans to do is to imagine the world as it is imagined by others. We tend to confuse acting in accordance with the goals and values of the society in which we live with rationality; we tend to confuse intelligence with thinking in accordance with those goals and values. And, of course, we are always inclined to see events as predetermined — and we are almost always wrong.

Masha Gessen (b. 1967) Russian-American journalist, author, translator, activist
“The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments,” The New Yorker (20 Feb 2018)
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Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoid.

[ἔστιν δὲ ἦθος μὲν τὸ τοιοῦτον ὃ δηλοῖ τὴν προαίρεσιν, ὁποία τις ἐν οἷς οὐκ ἔστι δῆλον ἢ προαιρεῖται ἢ φεύγει διόπερ οὐκ ἔχουσιν ἦθος τῶν λόγων ἐν οἷς μηδ᾽ ὅλως ἔστιν ὅ τι προαιρεῖται ἢ φεύγει ὁ λέγων.]

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Poetics [Περὶ ποιητικῆς, De Poetica], ch. 6, sec. 17 / 1450b.9 (c. 335 BC) [tr. Butcher (1895)]
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Original Greek. The key word êthos [ἦθος] is generally given here as "character." Alternate translations:
  • "Character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents, i.e. the sort of thing they seek or avoid, where that is not obvious." [tr. Bywater (1909)]
  • "Psychology in the sense of "an index to the quality of the purpose" has for its sphere places where the ulterior purposes of an immediate resolve (positive or negative) is naturally obscure." [tr. Margoliouth (1911)]
  • "Character is that which reveals choice, shows what sort of thing a man chooses or avoids in circumstances where the choice is not obvious." [tr. Fyfe (1932)]
  • "Character is that which reveals decision, of whatever sort." [tr. Janko (1987), sec. 3.1.3]
  • "Moral character is what reveals the nature of people's fundamental options." [tr. Kenny (2013)]
Added on 14-May-21 | Last updated 14-May-21
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People in other cultures are generally thought to commit terrible acts for calculated reasons, underscored by some perverse morality that can be readily discounted, so that only the consequences of their actions should be judged, whereas for one’s own group motivation is, and what ought to, mostly count.

Scott Atran (b. 1952) American-French cultural anthropologist
“Good Guys Kill Better,” Huffington Post (17 Mar 2012)
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Added on 11-May-21 | Last updated 11-May-21
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We must not suppose that, because a man is a rational animal, he will, therefore, always act rationally; or, because he has such or such a predominant passion, that he will act invariably and consequentially in the pursuit of it. No, we are complicated machines; and though we have one main spring that gives motion to the whole, we have an infinity of little wheels, which, in their turns, retard, precipitate, and sometimes stop that motion.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son (19 Dec 1749)
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Added on 1-Apr-21 | Last updated 1-Apr-21
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CREON: Prophecies? All your tribe wants is to make money.
TIRESIAS: And what about tyrants? Filthy lucre is all you want!

[Κρέων: τὸ μαντικὸν γὰρ πᾶν φιλάργυρον γένος.
Τειρεσίας: τὸ δ᾽ ἐκ τυράννων αἰσχροκέρδειαν φιλεῖ.]

Sophocles (496-406 BC) Greek tragic playwright
Antigone, l. 1055ff (441 BC) [tr. Woodruff (2001)]
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Argument between Creon, the king, and Teiresias, his seer. Original Greek. Alternate translations:

KREON: The race of seers is wholly given to pelf.
TEIRESIAS: The tyrant-race is given to filthy lucre.
[tr. Donaldson (1848)]

CREON: Prophets are all a money-getting tribe.
TEIRESIAS: And kings are all a lucre-loving race.
[tr. Campbell (1873)]

CREON: Desire of money is the prophet's plague.
TIRESIAS: And ill-sought lucre is the curse of kings.
[tr. Storr (1859)]

CREON: Yes, for the prophet-clan was ever fond of money.
TEIRESIAS: And the race sprung from tyrants loves shameful gain.
[tr. Jebb (1891)]

CREON: Your prophetic race are lovers all of gold.
TIRESIAS: Tyrants are so, howe'er illgotten.
[tr. Werner (1892)]

CREON: Well, the prophet-tribe was ever fond of money.
TEIRESIAS: And the race bred of tyrants loves base gain.
[tr. Jebb (1917)]

CREON: The generation of prophets has always loved gold.
TEIRESIAS: The generation of kings has always loved brass.
[tr. Fitts/Fitzgerald (1939)]

CREON: I say all prophets seek their own advantage.
TEIRESIAS: All kings, I say, seek gain unrighteously.
[tr. Watling (1947)]

CREON: Well, the whole crew of seers are money-mad.
TEIRESIAS: And the whole tribe of tyrants grab at gain.
[tr. Wyckoff (1954)]

CREON: Prophets have always been too fond of gold.
TEIRESIAS: And tyrants, of the shameful use of power.
[tr. Kitto (1962)]

CREON: You and the whole breed of seers are mad for money!
TIRESIAS: And the whole race of tyrants lusts for filthy gain.
[tr. Fagles (1982), l. 1171ff]

CREON: Yes, for the whole family of prophets is philos to silver.
TIRESIAS: And the family of absolute rulers holds disgraceful profits as philoi.
[tr. Tyrell/Bennett (2002)]

CREON: The whole race of prophets loves money.
TEIRESIAS: And the kings love their shameful profits.
[tr. Theodoridis (2004)]

CREON: The tribe of prophets --
all of them -- are fond of money.
TEIRESIAS: And kings?
Their tribe loves to benefit dishonestly.
[tr. Johnston (2005), l. 1180ff]

TEIRESIAS: The race of tyrants loves shameful profit.
[tr. @senstantiq (2018)]
Added on 4-Mar-21 | Last updated 11-Mar-21
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Virtue consists, not in avoiding wrong-doing, but in having no wish thereto.

[Ἀγαθὸν οὐ τὸ μὴ ἀδικεῖν, ἀλλὰ τὸ μηδὲ ἐθέλειν.]

Democritus (c. 460 BC - c. 370 BC) Greek philosopher
Frag. 62 (Diels) [tr. Freeman (1948)]
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Original Greek. Diels cites this as "62. ( 38 N.) DEMOKRATES. 27" ; collected in Joannes Stobaeus (Stobaios) Anthologium III, 9, 29. Bakewell lists this under "The Golden Sayings of Democritus." Freeman notes this as one of the Gnômae, from a collection called "Maxims of Democratês," but because Stobaeus quotes many of these as "Maxims of Democritus," they are generally attributed to the latter.

Alternate translations:

  • "To be good is not only not to do an injury, but not so much as to desire to do one." [tr. Clarke (1750), Democrates, "Ethica."]
  • "Good means not [merely] not to do wrong, but rather not to desire to do wrong.: [tr. Bakewell (1907)]
  • "To be good is not to refrain from wrongdoing but not even to want to commit it." [tr. Barnes (1987)]
  • "It is not good to not commit injustice, but rather to not desire to." [tr. @sententiq (2018), frag. 61]
  • "Virtue consists not in avoiding wrongdoing, but in having no desire for it." [Source]
Added on 9-Feb-21 | Last updated 23-Feb-21
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It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.

John Jay (1745-1829) American statesman, diplomat, abolitionist, politician, Chief Justice (1789-1795)
The Federalist #4 (7 Nov 1787)
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I am sure that in nine out of ten cases the original wish to write is the wish to make oneself felt … the non-essential writer never gets past that wish.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) Irish author
Letter to Graham Greene, quoted in Why Do I Write? (1948)

Ellipses in the original.
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To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will.

Judith Guest (b. 1936) American novelist and screenwriter.
Ordinary People, ch. 1, opening lines (1980)
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Added on 14-Jul-20 | Last updated 14-Jul-20
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Every social war is a battle between the very few on both sides who care and who fire their shots across a crowd of spectators.

Murray Kempton (1917-1997) American journalist.
Part of Our Time: Some Ruins & Monuments of the Thirties (1955)
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Added on 3-Jul-20 | Last updated 3-Jul-20
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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
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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If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, Fourth Annual Republican Women’s National Conference, Washington, DC (6 Mar 1956)
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Added on 10-Apr-19 | Last updated 10-Apr-19
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We do what we must, and call it by the best names we can, and would fain have the praise of having intended the result which ensues.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Experience,” Essays: Second Series (1844)
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Added on 2-Feb-19 | Last updated 2-Feb-19
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You can buy a man’s time; you can buy a man’s physical presence at a given place; you can even buy a measured number of skilled muscular motions per hour or day. But you cannot buy enthusiasm; you cannot buy initiative; you cannot buy loyalty; you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds and souls. You have to earn those things.

Clarence Francis (1888-1985) American business executive, food industry consultant
“The Causes of Industrial Peace,” speech, National Association of Manufacturers (4 Dec 1947)
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Sometimes titled "Philosophy of Management".
Added on 17-Nov-17 | Last updated 20-Nov-17
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The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) American-British poet, critic, playwright [Thomas Stearns Eliot]
Murder in the Cathedral, Act 1 [Thomas] (1935)
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People never move towards revolution; they are pushed towards it by intolerable injustices in the economic and social order under which they live.

Suzanne La Follette (1893-1983) American journalist, author, feminist
(Attributed)
Added on 10-Apr-17 | Last updated 10-Apr-17
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[Capitalism is] the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) English economist
(Attributed)

Attributed by Sir George Schuster, Christianity and Human Relations in Industry (1951). Frequently quoted, but no direct citation found. More information here.

Variations:
  • "... the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all."
  • "... the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone."
  • "The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society." (written by E. A. G. Robinson, Monopoly (1941). (Robinson was a colleague of Keynes.)
Added on 28-Mar-17 | Last updated 28-Mar-17
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Be civil, then, to young and old,
Especially to persons who
Possess a quantity of gold
Which they might leave to you.
The more they have, it seems to me,
The more polite you ought to be.

Harry Graham (1874-1936) English journalist, poet, stage lyricist
“Politeness”
Added on 30-Jan-17 | Last updated 30-Jan-17
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To be a human being means to possess a feeling of inferiority which constantly presses towards its own conquest. … The greater the feeling of inferiority that has been experienced, the more powerful is the urge for conquest and the more violent the emotional agitation.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) Austrian psychologist
The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, ch. 3, sec 3 (1956) [ed. Ansbacher]
Added on 22-Nov-16 | Last updated 22-Nov-16
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If we are devoted to the cause of humanity, we shall soon be crushed and broken-hearted, for we shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we would from a dog; but if our motive is love to God, no ingratitude can hinder us from serving our fellow men.

Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) Scottish evangelist and teacher
“My Utmost For His Highest” (1927)
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In giving of thy alms, inquire not so much into the person, as his necessity. God looks not so much upon the merits of him that requires, as into the manner of him that relieves; if the man deserve not, thou hast given it to humanity.

Francis Quarles (1592-1644) English poet
Enchyridion, Cent. 3, cap. 38
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Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.

Van Gogh - emotions - wist_info

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter
Letter to Theo Van Gogh (Jul 1889)
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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)
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Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities.

Dee W. Hock (b. 1929) American businessman
In M. Mitchell Waldrop, “Dee Hock on Management,” Fast Company (Oct/Nov 1996)
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My test of the real worth of a man as a preacher is when his congregation go away, saying, not, “What a beautiful sermon!” but “I will do something.”

François de Sales (1567-1622) French bishop, saint, writer [a.k.a. Francis de Sales, b. François de Boisy]
(Attributed)
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Change based on principle is progress. Constant change without principle becomes chaos.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, Republican National Convention, accepting the presidential nomination (23 Aug 1956)
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Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 6 (1891)
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Talking of the danger of being mortified by rejection, when making approaches to the acquaintance of the great, I observed, “I am, however, generally for trying, ‘Nothing venture, nothing have.'” JOHNSON. “Very true, sir; but I have always been more afraid of failing, than hopeful of success.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
Comment (22 Sep 1777)
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In Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) See Heywood.
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Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs our strength matters just as much.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
Speech, Amherst College (26 Oct 1963)
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You can’t say, “I won’t write today,” because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then … you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer.

Dorothy Catherine "D. C." Fontana (1939-2019) television screenwriter, story editor
(Attributed)
Added on 10-Feb-14 | Last updated 10-Feb-14
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The only difference between me and most people is that I’m perfectly aware that all my important decisions are made for me by my subconscious. My frontal lobes are just kidding themselves that they decide anything at all. All they do is think up reasons for the decisions that are already made.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) American writer
In “Author Rex Stout vs. the FBI,” Interview with Sandra Schmidt, Life (10 Dec 1965)
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All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Notes on Nationalism” (May 1945)
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Added on 13-Feb-12 | Last updated 9-Mar-21
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If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition. And then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Stephen Colbert (b. 1964) American political satirist, writer, comedian
“Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat,” The Colbert Report (16 Dec 2010)

Full video.
Added on 24-Dec-10 | Last updated 27-Aug-20
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Man will do many things to get himself loved; he will do all things to get himself envied.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Following the Equator, ch. 21, epigraph (1897)
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There are two classes [of scientists], those who want to know and do not care whether others think they know or not, and those who do not much care about knowing but care very greatly about being reputed as knowing.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, “Scientists” (1912)

Full text.

Added on 5-Mar-09 | Last updated 5-Sep-19
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He that hath the worst Cause, makes the most Noise.

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English writer, physician
Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs, #2153 (1732)
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One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.

[Celui-là tissera des toiles, l’autre dans la forêt par l’éclair de sa hache couchera l’arbre. L’autre, encore, forgera des clous, et il en sera quelque part qui observeront les étoiles afin d’apprendre à gouverner. Et tous cependant ne seront qu’un. Créer le navire ce n’est point tisser les toiles, forger les clous, lire les astres, mais bien donner le goût de la mer qui est un, et à la lumière duquel il n’est plus rien qui soit contradictoire mais communauté dans l’amour.]

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) French writer, aviator
Citadelle [The Wisdom of the Sands] (1948)

This looks to be the origin of the following, more common quotations attributed to Saint-Exupery:
  • "If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea."
  • "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
  • "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
  • "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the workers to gather wood, don't divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
More discussion: Teach Them to Yearn for the Vast and Endless Sea – Quote Investigator.
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Good intentions are no substitute for knowing how a buzz saw works, Ira; the worst criminals in history have been loaded with good intentions.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Time Enough for Love [Lazarus Long] (1973)
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From his cradle to his grave a man never does a single thing which has any FIRST AND FOREMOST object but one — to secure peace of mind, spiritual comfort, for HIMSELF.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
“What Is Man?” (1906)
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It may be called the Master Passion, the hunger for self approval.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
What Is Man?, ch. 6 (1906)
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Whenever people say “we mustn’t be sentimental,” you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, “we must be realistic,” they mean they are going to make money out of it.

Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) Anglo-Irish writer, novelist, playwright
Unlived Life
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They who are of opinion that Money will do every thing, may very well be suspected to do every thing for Money.

George Savile, Marquis of Halifax (1633-1695) English politician and essayist
“Of Money,” Political, Moral, and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections (1750)
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See also Franklin.
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I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants.

A. Whitney Brown (b. 1952) American comic actor, writer
The Big Picture: An American Commentary (1991)
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Love, with very young people, is a heartless business. We drink at that age from thirst, or to get drunk; it is only later in life that we occupy ourselves with the individuality of our wine.

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) Danish writer [pseud. of Karen Christence, Countess Blixen]
“The Old Chevalier,” Seven Gothic Tales (1934)
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The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) American journalist and author
“Roosevelt Has Gone,” “Today and Tomorrow” column (14 Apr 1945)

On the death of Franklin Roosevelt.
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