Category Archives: Quotations

The Ultimate Victory of Tomorrow is Democracy with Education

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“There may be times when men and women in the turmoil of change lose touch with the civilized gains of centuries of educa­tion: but the gains of education are never really lost. Books may be burned and cities sacked, but truth, like the yearning for free­dom, lives in the hearts of humble men and women. The ulti­mate victory of tomorrow is with democracy, and through de­mocracy with education, for no people in all the world can be kept eternally ignorant or eternally enslaved.”

From President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address, titled “If the Fires of Freedom and Civil Liberties Burn Low in Other Lands, They Must be Made Brighter in Our Own,” delivered to the National Education Association on June 30, 1938. The address in included in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Volume 7).

What is the Cost of Lies?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsOne of the most powerful scenes in HBO’s Chernobyl, a miniseries written by Craig Mazin, is the last episode, when Valery Legasov, the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, testifies about what really happened at the nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. When Legasov stuns the courtroom with the truth, that the power plant had a design flaw, Judge Milan Kadnikov warns him about potential treason: “Professor Legasov, if you mean to suggest the Soviet State is somehow responsible for what happened, then I must warn you, you are treading on dangerous ground.” Legazov’s response and concluding narration are riveting, not only because they address the lies of Chernobyl, but they are so relevant today. In short, Chernobyl is a metaphor for the modern world. When you read Legazov’s response, think of the cost of lies of politicians, world leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, etc. at the center of all the major scandals in the news over the past few years. In every one of those situations, leaders have buried the truth in their headlong pursuit of greed and power rather than pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, which should be the highest aspiration of true leadership:

Valery Legasov : I’ve already trod on dangerous ground. We’re on dangerous ground right now, because of our secrets and our lies. They are practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies…

To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for the truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants, it doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?

For a fascinating discussion of the central issue of personal responsibility watch Oliver Thorn’s fascinating video titled “Chernobyl and Personal Responsibility” on his YouTube channel Philosophy Tube. Thorn, a philosopher and actor, began teaching philosophy in 2012 in response to the British government raising university fees 300%. In this particular video, Thorn examines the key philosophical issues involved in HBO’s Chernobyl and how the filmmakers used poetic license to reinforce certain themes. One of the most interesting discussions is the contrast between personal responsibility and intergenerational collective responsibility.

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It is the Man Who Craves More that is Poor

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout. He says: ‘Contented poverty is an honorable estate.’ Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

From Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius) by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), Roman philosopher, dramatist, statesman, and tutor to the future emperor Nero. The Moral Letters to Lucilius (also referred to as Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic) are a collection of 124 fascinating, thought-provoking letters that were written by Seneca during his retirement, after being an adviser to Emperor Nero. The letters, addressed to the procurator of Sicily, Lucilius, but were intended for a wider audience, provide guidance on morality and emphasize the themes of Stoicism. Although Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in 3 BC, it was popularized by the works and teachings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Some of the main teachings of Stoicism are that life is brief and happiness is found in the moment, virtue (like wisdom) is the only good, judgment should be based on behavior rather than words, and discontent is due to one’s impulsive dependency on reflexive senses rather than logic, and not being in accord with nature brings dissatisfaction.

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Discovering the Moral Truth About Human Existence is the Highest Truth of Art

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Telling the truth in fiction can mean one of three things: [1] saying that which is factually correct, a trivial kind of truth, though a kind central to works of verisimilitude; [2] saying that which, by virtue of tone and coherence, does not feel like lying, a more important kind of truth; and [3] discovering and affirming moral truth about human existence — the highest truth of art. This highest kind of truth, we’ve said, is never something the artist takes as a given. It’s not his point of departure but his goal. Though the artist has beliefs, like other people, he realizes that a salient characteristic of art is a radical openness to persuasion. Even those beliefs he’s surest of, the artist puts under pressure to see if they will stand. He may have a pretty clear idea where his experiment will lead, as Dostoevsky did when he sent Raskolnikov on his unholy mission; but in so far as he’s a true artist, he does not force the results. He knows to the depths of his soul that when an artist creates in the service of wrong beliefs — that is, out of wrong opinions he mistakes for knowledge — or when he creates in the service of doctrines that may or may not be true but cannot be tested — for instance, doctrinaire Marxism or belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead — the effect of his work, admirable or otherwise, is not the effect of true art but of something else: pedagogy, propaganda, or religion.”

From The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (1983) by American novelist and literary critic John Gardner (1933-1982). Gardner wrote more than 20 books (fiction and nonfiction); however, his most popular novel was Grendel, published in 1971, that tells the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. Gardner published several books on writing, two of which, On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction (both published posthumously in 1983), that are considered classics. Gardner is known for his succinct summary of all of literature: “There are only two plots in literature: a person goes on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.”

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Are We Living in an Orwellian World?

alex atkins bookshelf booksGeorge Orwell (born Eric Blair, 1903-1950) grew up at a time in history that exhibited mankind at its worst. He saw how totalitarian regimes (eg, Fascism in Italy; Nazism in Germany) set the stage for two World Wars that left unimaginable devastation, profoundly scarring several generations. Nevertheless, Orwell was as astute student of human nature and was able to view it through the lens of language. In his insightful essay, Politics and the English language (1946), which foreshadowed many of the themes of his timeless classic 1984, Orwell believed that language had become a powerful political tool used to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics,” he wrote, “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia… Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind… [And] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

It was in the shadow of the horrors of WWII and its aftermath that Orwell wrote his dystopian novel 1984 in 1949. The novel introduces us to Winston Smith living in a world where every individual is under surveilliance because the Party (a totalitarian government) wants to suppress individualism and independent, critical thinking. Smith’s job is to write the news so that it reflects what the Party wants people to believe — regardless of the truth. The novel also introduces several enduring concepts, such as the Thought Police, Newspeak, Big Brother, the Brotherhood, the Ministry of Truth, thoughtcrimes, and the Party that reflect the tremendous power and egregious abuses of a totalitarian government. The story is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Literary critic Lionel Trilling observed, “1984 is a profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating book. It is a fantasy of the political future, and like any such fantasy, serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present.” Now I know what you are thinking. You are asking yourself: is 1984 really a “fantasy of the political future?” When you read today’s headlines, particularly those that cover any of the totalitarian regimes around the globe — and consider the Trump administration’s assault on truth over the past three years — you will note an eerie coincidence between the world depicted in 1984 and the present day. No wonder many journalists have remarked over the past few years how Orwellian the world is becoming. And they are not trying to be flippant.

So the question we face today is: are we living in an Orwellian world? Ironically, Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale; however, many political leaders in the U.S. and around the globe have used it as a manual on how to lead. How Machiavellian! Let’s take a look at some of the notable quotes from 1984 and you be the judge:

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

“Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

“The best books… are those that tell you what you already knew.”

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

“We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing…The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.”

“What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?”

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

“War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking into the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

“Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.”

“If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

“To die hating them, that was freedom.”

It’s amazing — isn’t it — how 2019 is a lot like 1984?

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When You Read an Excellent Book, You Gain a New Friend

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read a book over I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.”

From The Citizen of the World, a series of letters and essays by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), Irish poet, playwright, and novelist. Goldsmith is best known for writing the novel The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766, and the play She Stoops to Conquer (first performed in 1773), and the famous children’s tale, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765). Prior to his death, Goldsmith was working on writing and editing an encyclopedia with the working title Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences.

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My Best Friend is a Person Who Will Give Me a Book I Have Not Read

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.”

The quotation is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Although the phrase is not found in any of his writings, most likely it is a paraphrase of something he said. There are two sources that confirm this and both reveal a rather hayseed diction, inconsistent with the eloquence we expect from Lincoln. The first, is from Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926): “The next thing Abe would be reading between the plow handles, it seems to them. And once trying to speak a last word, Dennis Hanks [Lincoln’s cousin] said, “There’s suthin’ peculairsome about Abe.” Maybe in books he would find the answers to dark questions pushing around in the pools of this thoughts and the drifts of his mind. He told Dennis and other people, ‘The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.” The second is a variation of that first source, found in the essay “Abe Lincoln and His Books” by Frances Cavanah included in the Wilson Library Bulletin (Volume 28, 1953): “For he was one of that fortunate group to whom a book could open a new world. ‘My best friend,’ he told his cousin, Dennis Hanks, ‘is a man who can give me a book I ain’t read.'”

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