10 Famous Lines By Philosophers You Should Definitely Read

Every once in a while, a philosopher comes up with a great line, a saying that for one reason or another "sticks", so well that many - even most - of the people who employ the saying couldn't tell you which work the quip came from.  Why is that?  In most cases, it is because they haven't read that philosopher's work, or perhaps anything by that philosopher.  They just know - or rather, think they know - that the philosopher said it.  And it sounds cool, or apropos, or at least relevant.

After seeing yet one more person start out a post ostensibly focused on gratitude by citing Cicero - who did in fact say that gratitude is the "parent of the other virtues" - a post that made it clear that the author either had never read Cicero, or if she did, had managed to forget everything that she had read, I decided it was time, rather than to silently curse the intellectual darkness again, to shed a bit of light.

I put out a challenge in three of the social media platforms I use - Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. Here it is: What quotations of philosophers, in your view, best meet these four criteria:

1) the passage is posted online fairly often
2) the passage was actually said somewhere by that philosopher
3) almost none of the the people posting the quote would be able to say what work it comes from
4) most of the people posting the quote have not read more than a bit of that philosopher's actual work


What I Got From The Different Platforms

All of the ten quotations I'm providing here came to me through my Facebook feed.  This was rather surprising to me, given that I've got roughly the same number of followers or contacts on each of these three platforms - somewhere in the 2000+ range.  There wasn't even a contest between them.  Within minutes I had several suggestions on Facebook.  It too quite some time before anything got posted on Twitter or Google+.  The Facebook comment thread continued to grow over the course of the day, and I ended up with many more quotations than I needed for this piece.

What happened with Google+ and Twitter?  I only got useful responses from two people, and those ended up replicating quotations that some of the Facebook people had suggested hours earlier.  Something similar ended up happening with Twitter as well.  The responses that I ended up getting - and there's a reason I write, "ended up", since the first responses were way off base! - were again quotes Facebook people had already long since posted.

What I ended up getting from Twitter at first were, on the one hand, conjectures about why people post quotations from authors and works that they clearly haven't read, and on the other hand mentions of philosophers or ideas that get quoted in that fashion.  Why was that the case?  By the tweeter's own admissions, because they didn't carefully read what was being asked for!

So, it looks as if - at least for my own subscriber/follower/viewer base - the place to go when it comes to crowdsourcing this sort of thing is clearly Facebook.  Perhaps if I'd created a YouTube video - which I do intend to do along the lines of this post, but that's a different matter - asking for such quotations, I might have gotten a good batch of responses on that platform.  Next time around, I likely will try that medium.

The Ten Famous Quotations

I got more than ten good suggestions, but I decided that I'd prune the list to a neat number, and ten struck me as likely to produce a decent list.  The quotes are below.  And before you scroll down further, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Who actually wrote that passage?
  • What work is that passage from?
  • Have I read more than just a few passages by this philosopher?
  • Have I read the work this passage is from?
  • Do I understand the philosopher's perspective on what is discussed in this passage?

So, here are the passages:
  • Well begun is half done
  • We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals
  • Hell is other people
  • Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely
  • Religion is the opium of the masses
  • The unexamined life is not worth living
  • I think, therefore I am
  • What does not kill you makes you stronger
  • Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
  • Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others


Which Philosophers and Works Are These From?

Well begin is half done - this comes from book 5 of Aristotle's work, the Politics.  Note, however, that this is actually Aristotle citing a proverb common in his own time.

The unexamined life is not worth living - this one comes from Plato's work, the Apology.  It is often attributed to Socrates, Plato's teacher, because he says those words as a character in the Apology.  So, this one could do double duty - you could attribute it to Socrates or or Plato.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others  - another commonly used quote from the ancient period, and from Cicero specifically.  Although you'll find some good discussions of gratitude in some of his more famous works (e.g. On Duties), this one actually comes from his speech For Plancius.

I think, therefore I am - many people can readily identify this as Rene Descartes, but which work does it come from?  As it turns out, this formulation is from the Discourse on Method.  You can find something similar in the Meditations on First Philosophy, but not precisely the same.

We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals - this one gets a lot of mileage, understandably enough, from animal-rights people.  But who said it?  It was Immanuel Kant, but not in any of the works you're likely to have read or even seen.  It's from his Lectures on Ethics.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely - this one sometimes gets attributed to Edmund Burke, but it is actually from Lord Acton (i.e. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton). as with Cicero's quip, you can hunt around in his more famous works, and not find this, as it's from a letter addressed to the bishop, Mandel Creighton.

Religion is the opium of the masses - this one could use a wealth of commentary.  It was coined by the communist economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, who originated the phrase in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

What does not kill you makes you stronger - one of the most popular of these quotations (showing up in a variety of artistic genres), this one sometimes does get rightly attributed, namely to Friedrich Nietzsche.  But which work does it come from?  The Twilight of the Idols, actually quite early on in the work.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it - this one also rates up there along with the previous quotation.  Lots of people say this.  But who said it first?  It was the great Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, in his work, The Life of Reason.

Hell is other people - a quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, actually put into the mouth of one of the characters of the play, Joseph Garcin.  And he'd know, since he is - at least in the play -indeed in Hell.

A Challenge For You, The Reader

It is extremely unlikely that you've actually read all of the works that these commonly cite passages come from.  I'll admit myself that, though I've read nearly all of these works - and though I have read all of these authors - I've only read bits of Santayana's Life of Reason (a deficit I intend to remedy this coming year, spurred by the insistence of one of my colleagues and old classmates).  

In a few cases - those of the Cicero and Acton quotes - I wouldn't actually suggest you go read those particular, admittedly minor, works. In fact, if you wanted to read either of those thinkers, you'd find plenty of works well worth the attention readily available.

But here's the challenge:  In the coming year - since, let's be honest, the holidays are coming, and most of us are going to slack off (whatever our great intentions may be at present) during those times - pick one or two of those great authors, and read the work from which their lapidary quotation stems from.  That way, you'll not only know and understand what the context and full meaning of that passage is, you'll also enter into a fruitful conversation with that thinker, one that I hope will continue throughout the coming year. . . .