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How Could They have Been So Foolish?

We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser sons, no doubt will think us so.

Alexander Pope

[But are our predecessors quite so foolish as they appear? And if so, is their foolishness partially excusable due to such extenuating factors as cultural attitudes, philosophical axioms, or utopian ideals? Have you noticed any blatant examples of folly recently?]

A nation could be the best of families: one that creates independence, not dependence: whose purpose it is to nurture self-esteem in all its members.

Gloria Steinem

After having sought for truth, with some diligence, for half a century, I am, at this day, hardly sure of anything but what I learn from the Bible.

John Wesley (from a sermon)

Northrop Frye recalled hearing a clergyman who resolutely insisted that “if the Bible had said that Jonah had swallowed the whale he would still believe it.”

Anyone who says that the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization—let him be anathema.

Pius IX (pope from 1846-1878)

I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

George W. Bush (speaking of Vladimir Putin)

I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest. I had thought before I saw him that he might be where he was because men were afraid of him, but I realize that he owes his position to the fact that no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him.

H. G. Wells (speaking of Josef Stalin)

In 1955, William F. Buckley started National Review as a voice for “the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order.”

In a republic which can only be based on virtue, any pity shown towards crime is a flagrant proof of treason.

Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (friend of Robespierre)

Long ago I set about systematically changing the experience (of free will). I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away. . . As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether—this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it, I think it is true that I don’t.

Susan Blackmore

Scholasticism [i.e. Mediaeval philosophy] is simply nothing else but scientific thought, and it is merely perpetuating an unwarranted prejudice when it is thought that this part of the general history of science should be designated by a special name.

Adolf von Harnack (Protestant theologian, 1851-1930)

Neither the criminal nor the criminal code had any respect for the sanctity of human life [in 18th century England]. In those days, there were no less than a hundred and sixty offences which were expiated on the gallows. Theft from a person of an article one shilling in value, or from a shop of an article five shillings in value, sending threatening letters, illegally cutting down trees, cutting hopbinds or breaking down the banks of a fish-pond were all punishable by death.

Arnold Lunn (from John Wesley, 1929)

No organism, human or non-human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism.

Richard Rorty

One thing we are sure of, and that is the reality and substantiality of the luminiferous ether.

Lord Kelvin

Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation or remission of sins. Therefore we declare, say, determine and pronounce that for every human creature it is necessary for salvation to be subject to the authority of the Roman pontiff.

Boniface VIII (pope from 1294-1303)

Poetry is the parent of superstition.

T. Sprat (from History of the Royal Society)

Putty is exactly like human nature. . . you can twist it and pat it and model it into any shape you like; and when you have shaped it, it will set so hard that you would suppose that it could never take any other shape on earth...the Soviet Government has shaped the Russian putty very carefully. . . and it has set hard and produced quite a different sort of animal.

George Bernard Shaw

The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French and not contrariwise.

Suger (abbot-stateman, 1081-1151)

The good Lord gave me my money.

John D. Rockefeller (Address, University of Chigago, 1894)

[This passage from Fr. P. J. Kelly’s 1968 book, So High the Price, presents the traditional argument for justifying the horrific torments of hell as the appropriate punishment for sin. Whether the reasoning makes you laugh or shudder, it is interesting to note the explicit appeal to logic.]

The optimists object: “Can it be possible that God punishes a momentary sinful pleasure with an eternity of pain?” It is not only possible, but it is right and just. The offence given by the sinner to God when he transgresses His holy laws involves infinite malice, since it is an offence to infinite Majesty. Therefore, it deserves an infinite punishment. But since man, being finite, is incapable of undergoing punishment that is infinite in intensity, God punishes him with a chastisement infinite in duration. In acting thus, God acts justly.

[In the passage below a famous Oxford historian, J. A. Froude, having just attended an evangelical meeting in the 1850s, spells out the implications of the doctrine of justification by faith.]

We are left face to face with a creed which tells us that God has created us without the power to keep the commandments,—that He does not require us to keep them; yet at the same time that we are infinitely guilty in His eyes for not keeping them, and that we justly deserve to be tortured for ever and ever, to suffer, as we once heard an amiable clergyman express it, ‘to suffer the utmost pain which Omnipotence can inflict, and the creature can endure, without annihilation.’

We believe, though it is incomprehensible, that it is just to damn such as do not deserve it.

Beza (Calvin’s lieutenant)

That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.


I do wish those people who deny the reality of eternal punishment would understand their own dreadful vulgarity.

Lionel Johnson

Social psychologists have always been painfully aware that their field is in desperate need of a general theory of social behaviour.

(from a paper from Equity Theory and Intimate Relationships)

Socialism is love.

Bob Rae

The hope of understanding the world is itself one of those daydreams which science tends to dissipate. There is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.

Bertrand Russell

The personality of Jesus has no importance for the kerygma either of Paul or of John . . . Indeed the tradition of the earliest Church did not even unconsciously preserve a picture of his personality. Every attempt to reconstruct one remains a play of subjective imagination.

Rudolf Bultman

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.


The state is the world which mind (Geist) has made for itself; its march, therefore, is on lines that are fixed and absolute. How often we talk of the wisdom of God in nature! But we are not to assume for that reason that the physical world of nature is a loftier thing than the world of mind. As high as mind stands over nature, so high does the state stand over physical life. Man must therefore venerate the state as the Divine upon Earth (das Irdisch-Göttliches) and observe that if it is difficult to comprehend nature, it is infinitely harder to understand the state. . . The March of God in the world, that is what the state is.


Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to bypass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. . . [a] condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.

Marshall McLuhan

Too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing? There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.

Margaret Thatcher

We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. . . The argument of this book [The Selfish Gene] is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.

Richard Dawkins

We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.

Herbert Hoover

War is a male solution to international problems. In a non-patriarchal world, there would be no wars, and no victims of wars, either male or female.

(from a letter to the editor, Star)

What is life? Life is the nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the individual is the nation.

Adolf Hitler (from a broadcast after the defeat at Stalingrad)

Progress is not an accident but a necessity. What we call evil and immorality must disappear. It is certain that man must become perfect.

Herbert Spencer

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