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Samuel Butler

Born 4 December 1835(1835-12-04)
Langar Rectory, England (near Bingham, Nottinghamshire)
Died 18 June 1902 (aged 66)
Occupation Novelist, Writer
Nationality British

Samuel Butler (4 or 5 December 1835 – 18 June 1902) was an iconoclastic Victorian author who published a variety of works. Two of his most famous pieces are the Utopian satire Erewhon and the posthumous novel The Way of All Flesh. He is also known for examining Christian orthodoxy, substantive studies of evolutionary thought, studies of Italian art, and works of literary history and criticism. Butler also made prose translations of The Iliad and when it was published in 1903, that it may be said to have started a new school,” particularly in the use of psychoanalytical modes of thought in fiction, which "his treatment of Ernest Pontifex [the hero of Butler's novel] foreshadows."[1]

Whether in his satire and fiction, his studies on the evidences of Christianity, his works on evolutionary thought or in his miscellaneous other writings, however, a consistent theme runs through Butler's work, stemming largely from his personal struggle with the stifling of his own nature by his parents, which led him on to seek more general principles of growth, development and purpose: "What concerned him was to establish his nature, his aspirations and their fulfillment upon a philosophic basis, to identify them with the nature, the aspirations, the fulfillment of all humanity – and more than that – with the fulfillment of the universe . . . His struggle became generalized, symbolic, tremendous."[1] The form that this search took was principally philosophic and – given the interests of the day – biological: “Satirist, novelist, artist and critic that he was, he was primarily a philosopher,” and in particular a philosopher who sought the biological foundations for his work: “His biology was a bridge to a philosophy of life which sought a scientific basis for religion and endowed a naturalistically conceived universe with a soul.”[1] Indeed, "philosophical writer" was ultimately the self-description Butler himself chose as most fitting to his work.[2]


Early life

He was born in Langar Rectory, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England to the Rev. Thomas Butler, son of Dr. Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury School and eventual Bishop of Lichfield. Dr. Butler was the son of a tradesman and descended from a line of yeomen, but his scholarly aptitude being recognized at young age was sent to Rugby and Cambridge, where he distinguished himself and launched his successful career. His only son Thomas wished to go into the Navy, but succumbed to paternal pressure and entered the Church, in which he led a wholly undistinguished career, all the more so in contrast with his father's. It has been suggested that this family dynamic had some impact on Samuel, insofar as it created the oppressive home environment (chronicled in The Way of All Flesh) which deeply formed his approach to the world. Thomas Butler, states one critic, "to make up for having been a servile son, became a bullying father."[1]

In any event, Samuel Butler's relationship with his parents, and especially with his father, was largely antagonistic. His education began at home, and it included frequent beatings, as was not uncommon at the time. Samuel, however, found his parents particularly "brutal and stupid by nature,"[1] and their relationship to him never progressed beyond the adversarial. He later recorded of his father that, "He never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him…. I have never passed a day without thinking of him many times over as the man who was sure to be against me."[1] Under his parents' influence, he was set on course to follow his father into the priesthood. He was sent to Shrewsbury and then in 1854 went up to St John's College, Cambridge, where he obtained a First in Classics in 1858[3] (the graduate society of St. John's is named the Samuel Butler Room (SBR) in his honour).


Following graduation from Cambridge, he lived in a low-income parish in London during 1858 and 1859 as preparation for his ordination to the Anglican clergy; there he discovered that baptism made no apparent difference to the morals and behaviour of his peers and began questioning his faith. This experience would later serve as inspiration for his work The Fair Haven. Correspondence with his father about the issue failed to set his mind at peace, inciting instead his father's wrath. As a result, in September 1859 he emigrated to New Zealand, regarded as a British colony since the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and many of the New Zealand Maori chiefs in 1840. Butler went there like many early British settlers of privileged origins, in order to put as much distance as possible between himself and his family. He wrote about his arrival and his life as a sheep farmer on Mesopotamia Station in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863), and made a handsome profit when he sold his farm, but the chief achievement of his time in New Zealand was the drafts and source material for much of his masterpiece Erewhon.

He returned to England in 1864, settling in rooms in Clifford's Inn (near Fleet Street), where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1872, the utopian novel Erewhon appeared anonymously, causing some speculation as to the identity of the author. When Butler revealed himself as the author, Erewhon made Butler a well-known figure, more because of this speculation than for its literary merits which are today undisputed.

His father's death in 1886 resolved his financial problems for the last six years of his own life. He indulged himself, holidaying in Italy every summer and producing while he was there his works on the Italian landscape and art. His close interest in the art of the Sacri Monti is reflected in Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (1881) and Ex Voto (1888).

He wrote a number of other books, including a not so successful sequel, Erewhon Revisited. His semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh did not appear in print until after his death, as he considered its tone of attack on Victorian hypocrisy too contentious.

Erewhon revealed Butler's long interest in Darwin's theories of biological evolution, and in fact Darwin had, like him, visited New Zealand. In 1863, four years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the editor of a New Zealand newspaper, The Press, published a letter captioned "Darwin among the Machines." Signed Cellarius, it was written by Butler; it compares human evolution to machine evolution, prophesizing (half in jest) that machines would eventually replace man in the supremacy of the earth: "In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race." [4] The letter raises many of the themes now being debated by proponents of the Technological Singularity, namely, that computers are evolving much faster than biological humans and that we are racing toward an unknowable future with explosive technological change.

Butler also spent a great deal of time criticising Darwin, and this criticism was motivated partly because Butler (himself a man living in the shadow of a previous Samuel Butler) believed that Darwin had not sufficiently acknowledged his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's contribution to the origins of his theory.

George Bernard Shaw (who also visited New Zealand) and E.M. Forster (who got only as far as India) were great admirers of the latter Samuel Butler who brought a new tone into Victorian literature, and began the long tradition of New Zealand utopian literature that would culminate in the works of Jack Ross, Scott Hamilton and William Direen.

Literary history and criticism

Butler developed a theory that the Odyssey came from the pen of a young Sicilian woman, and that the scenes of the poem reflected the coast of Sicily and its nearby islands. He described the "evidence" for this theory in his The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) and in the introduction and footnotes to his prose translation of the Odyssey (1900). Robert Graves elaborated on this hypothesis in his novel Homer's Daughter. In a lecture titled "The Humour of Homer", delivered at The Working Man's College in London, 1892, Butler argued that Homer's gods in the Iliad are like men but "without the virtue" and that the poet "must have desired his listeners not to take them seriously." Butler translated the Iliad (1898). His other works include Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899), a theory that Shakespeare's sonnets, if rearranged, tell a story about a homosexual affair.

The English novelist Aldous Huxley acknowledged the influence of Erewhon on his novel Brave New World. Huxley's utopian counterpart to Brave New World, Island, also prominently refers to Erewhon.


Project Gutenberg has available A first year..., Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited, The Way of All Flesh and several other of his works for free download at [1]. The Authoress of the Odyssey is available at The Open Archive. Project Gutenberg also has available Butler's translations of the Odyssey and of the Iliad which are also used in the Great Books.

A first year... , Erewhon and some writings mentioning him are available online at NZETC:[5]

In the 1920s Jonathan Cape published Butler's collected works in twenty volumes as The Shrewsbury Edition of the Works of Samuel Butler, but printed only 750 copies, making a complete set (if it can be found at all) unaffordable for the common reader. More easily available are the editions published by A.C. Fifield in 1908-1914. Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh remain in print as paperbacks.

Biography and criticism

Butler's friend Henry Festing Jones wrote the authoritative biography: the two-volume Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (1835-1902): A Memoir (commonly known as Jones's Memoir), published in 1919 and now only available from antiquarian booksellers. Project Gutenberg[6] hosts a shorter "Sketch" by Jones. More recently, Peter Raby has written a life: Samuel Butler: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1991). The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler's death by his literary executor, R. Streatfeild, in 1903. This version however altered Butler's text in many ways and cut important material. The actual manuscript was edited by Daniel F. Howard as Ernest Pontifex, or The Way of All Flesh (Butler's original title) and published for the first time in 1965. For a critical study, mostly about The Way of All Flesh, see Thomas L. Jeffers, Samuel Butler Revalued (University Park: Penn State Press, 1981).


  • M. Verzella,“Darwinism and its Consequences: Machines Taking over Man in Samuel Butler’s ‘Absurd’ Tableau”, Rivista di Studi Vittoriani, IX/X, 18/19 (Luglio 2004-Gennaio 2005), pp. 151–168;
  • M. Verzella,“Samuel Butler e il gusto del paradosso: il caso traduttologico di Erewhon”, Traduttologia, I (nuova serie), 2 (gennaio 2006), pp. 71–83;
  • Butler, Samuel (1878). Life and habit. Trubner (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 9781108005517)


  1. ^ a b c d e f Stillman, Clara G. (1932). Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern. London: Martin Secker.  
  2. ^ Morpurgo, Horatio (May 2006). "Samuel Butler, or Sociobiology for Grown-Ups". Three Monkeys Online. Retrieved 2009-05-20.  
  3. ^ Butler, Samuel in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  4. ^ "Darwin among the Machines" is reprinted in the Notebooks of Samuel Butler at Project Gutenberg:
  5. ^ Samuel Butler | NZETC at
  6. ^ Main Page - Gutenberg at

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Silence is not always tact and it is tact that is golden, not silence.

Samuel Butler (1835-12-041902-06-18) was a British satirist, best known for his novels Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh.

For the 17th-century author of Hudibras, see Samuel Butler (poet)



  • The man who lets himself be bored is even more contemptible than the bore.
  • A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.
  • Stowed away in a Montreal lumber room
    The Discobolus standeth and turneth his face to the wall;
    Dusty, cobweb-covered, maimed and set at naught,
    Beauty crieth in an attic and no man regardeth:
    O God! O Montreal!
  • The Discobolus is put here because he is vulgar -
    He has neither vest nor pants with which to cover his limbs.
    • A Psalm of Montreal, st. 5
  • Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.
    • Speech at the Somerville Club, February 27, 1895
  • God's merits are so transcendent that it is not surprising his faults should be in reasonable proportion.
    • "Rebelliousness", Note-Books (1912)
  • It is the manner of gods and prophets to begin: "Thou shalt have none other God or Prophet but me." If I were to start as a God or a prophet I think I should take the line: "Thou shalt not believe in me. Thou shalt not have me for a God. Thou shalt worship any d_____d thing thou likest except me." This should be my first and great commandment, and my second should be like unto it.
    • Samuel Butler's Notebooks (1912) self censored "d_____d" in original publication.
  • Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
    • First lines of Butler's translation of The Iliad

Ramblings In Cheapside (1890)

Universal Review (December 1890)

  • The turtle obviously had no sense of proportion; it differed so widely from myself that I could not comprehend it; and as this word occurred to me, it occurred also that until my body comprehended its body in a physical material sense, neither would my mind be able to comprehend its mind with any thoroughness. For unity of mind can only be consummated by unity of body; everything, therefore, must be in some respects both knave and fool to all that which has not eaten it, or by which it has not been eaten. As long as the turtle was in the window and I in the street outside, there was no chance of our comprehending one another.
    Nevertheless, I knew that I could get it to agree with me if I could so effectually buttonhole and fasten on to it as to eat it. Most men have an easy method with turtle soup, and I had no misgiving but that if I could bring my first premise to bear I should prove the better reasoner. My difficulty lay in this initial process, for I had not with me the argument that would alone compel Mr. Sweeting to think that I ought to be allowed to convert the turtles - I mean I had no money in my pocket. No missionary enterprise can be carried on without any money at all, but even so small a sum as half a crown would, I suppose, have enabled me to bring the turtle partly round, and with many half-crowns I could in time no doubt convert the lot, for the turtle needs must go where the money drives. If, as is alleged, the world stands on a turtle, the turtle stands on money. No money no turtle. As for money, that stands on opinion, credit, trust, faith— things that, though highly material in connection with money, are still of immaterial essence.
  • We can see nothing face to face; our utmost seeing is but a fumbling of blind finger-ends in an overcrowded pocket.
  • The limits of the body seem well defined enough as definitions go, but definitions seldom go far.
  • We meet people every day whose bodies are evidently those of men and women long dead, but whose appearance we know through their portraits.
  • I do not like books. I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it. I keep my books at the British Museum and at Mudie's, and it makes me very angry if anyone gives me one for my private library.
  • If a man would get hold of the public era, he must pay, marry, or fight
  • I should not advise anyone with ordinary independence of mind to attempt the public ear unless he is confident that he can out-lung and out-last his own generation; for if he has any force, people will and ought to be on their guard against him, inasmuch as there is no knowing where he may not take them.
  • We do not know what death is. If we know so little about life which we have experienced, how shall be know about death which we have not - and in the nature of things never can?
  • All we know is, that even the humblest dead may live along after all trace of the body has disappeared; we see them doing it in the bodies and memories of these that come after them; and not a few live so much longer and more effectually than is desirable, that it has been necessary to get rid of them by Act of Parliament. It is love that alone gives life, and the truest life is that which we live not in ourselves but vicariously in others, and with which we have no concern. Our concern is so to order ourselves that we may be of the number of them that enter into life— although we know it not.
  • Slugs have ridden their contempt for defensive armour as much to death as the turtles their pursuit of it. They have hardly more than skin enough to hold themselves together; they court death every time they cross the road. Yet death comes not to them more than to the turtle, whose defences are so great that there is little left inside to be defended. Moreover, the slugs fare best in the long run, for turtles are dying out, while slugs are not, and there must be millions of slugs all over the world over for every single turtle.
  • Propositions prey upon and are grounded upon one another just like living forms. They support one another as plants and animals do; they are based ultimately on credit, or faith, rather than the cash of irrefragable conviction. The whole universe is carried on on the credit system, and if the mutual confidence on which it is based were to collapse, it must itself collapse immediately. Just or unjust, it lives by faith; it is based on vague and impalpable opinion that by some inscrutable process passes into will and action, and is made manifest in matter and in flesh; it is meteoric - suspended in mid-air; it is the baseless fabric of a vision to vast, so vivid, and so gorgeous that no base can seem more broad than such stupendous baselessness, and yet any man can bring it about his ears by being over-curious; when faith fails, a system based on faith fails also.
  • Whether the universe is really a paying concern, or whether it is an inflated bubble that must burst sooner or later, this is another matter. If people were to demand cash payment in irrefragable certainty for everything that they have taken hitherto as paper money on the credit of the bank of public opinion, is there money enough behind it all to stand so great a drain even on so great a reserve?
  • By a merciful dispensation of Providence university training is almost as costly as it is unprofitable. The majority will thus be always unable to afford it, and will base their opinions on mother wit and current opinion rather than on demonstration.

The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)

Part I - Lord, What is Man?

  • Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.
    • Life, ix
  • All progress is based upon a universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its income.
    • Life, xvi
  • We play out our days as we play out cards, taking them as they come, not knowing what they will be, hoping for a lucky card and sometimes getting one, often getting just the wrong one.
    • The World, ii
  • There is an eternal antagonism of interest between the individual and the world at large. The individual will not so much care how much he may suffer in this world provided he can live in men’s good thoughts long after he has left it. The world at large does not so much care how much suffering the individual may either endure or cause in this life, provided he will take himself clean away out of men’s thoughts, whether for good or ill, when he has left it.
    • The Individual and the World
  • Life is the gathering of waves to a head, at death they break into a million fragments each one of which, however, is absorbed at once into the sea of life and helps to form a later generation which comes rolling on till it too breaks.
    • Birth and Death, ii

Part II - Elementary Morality

  • The true laws of God are the laws of our own well-being.
    • God's Laws
  • Intellectual over-indulgence is the most gratuitous and disgraceful form which excess can take, nor is there any the consequences of which are more disastrous.
    • Intellectual Self-Indulgence
  • The extremes of vice and virtue are alike detestable; absolute virtue is as sure to kill a man as absolute vice is, let alone the dullnesses of it and the pomposities of it.
    • Vice and Virtue, ii
  • God does not intend people, and does not like people, to be too good. He likes them neither too good nor too bad, but a little too bad is more venial with him than a little too good.
    • Vice and Virtue, iii
  • Sin is like a mountain with two aspects according to whether it is viewed before or after it has been reached: yet both aspects are real.
    • Sin
  • Morality turns on whether the pleasure precedes or follows the pain. Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk.
    • Morality
  • Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feeling of one’s peers. Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country.
    • Cannibalism
  • To love God is to have good health, good looks, good sense, experience, a kindly nature and a fair balance of cash in hand.
    • God and Man
  • Is there any religion whose followers can be pointed to as distinctly more amiable and trustworthy than those of any other? If so, this should be enough. I find the nicest and best people generally profess no religion at all, but are ready to like the best men of all religions.
    • Religion
  • Heaven is the work of the best and kindest men and women. Hell is the work of prigs, pedants and professional truth-tellers. The world is an attempt to make the best of both.
    • Heaven and Hell
  • If we are asked what is the most essential characteristic that underlies this word, the word itself will guide us to gentleness, to absence of such things as brow-beating, overbearing manners and fuss, and generally to consideration for other people.
    • Gentleman
  • Money is the last enemy that shall never be subdued. While there is flesh there is money - or the want of money; but money is always on the brain so long as there is a brain in reasonable order.
    • Money

Part III - The Germs of Erewhon and of Life and Habit

  • We take it that when the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. We treat our horses, dogs, cattle and sheep, on the whole, with great kindness, we give them whatever experience teaches us to be best for them, and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has added to the happiness of the lower animals far more than it has detracted from it; in like manner it is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals.
    • Darwin Among the Machines
  • Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.
    • Darwin Among the Machines
  • Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.
    • Darwin Among the Machines

Part IV - Memory and Design

  • To be is to think and to be thinkable. To live is to continue thinking and to remember having done so.
    • Memory, ii
  • Memory and forgetfulness are as life and death to one another. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. To die is to forget and to forget is to die.
    • Antithesis
  • We are so far identical with our ancestors and our contemporaries that it is very rarely we can see anything that they do not see. It is not unjust that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children, for the children committed the sins when in the persons of their fathers.
    • Personal Identity

Part V - Vibrations

  • All thinking is of disturbance, dynamical, a state of unrest tending towards equilibrium. It is all a mode of classifying and of criticising with a view of knowing whether it gives us, or is likely to give us, pleasure or no.
    • Thinking
  • In the highest consciousness there is still unconsciousness, in the lowest unconsciousness there is still consciousness. If there is no consciousness there is no thing, or nothing. To understand perfectly would be to cease to understand at all.
    • Equilibrium

Part VI - Mind and Matter

  • An energy is a soul - a something working in us.
    • Matter and Mind, iii
  • Animals and plants cannot understand our business, so we have denied that they can understand their own. What we call inorganic matter cannot understand the animals’ and plants’ business, we have therefore denied that it can understand anything whatever.
    • Organic and Inorganic
  • Feeling is an art and, like any other art, can be acquired by taking pains.
    • Feeling
  • Moral influence means persuading another that one can make that other more uncomfortable than that other can make oneself.
    • Moral Influence
  • When we go up to the shelves in the reading-room of the British Museum, how like it is to wasps flying up and down an apricot tree that is trained against a wall, or cattle coming down to drink at a pool!
    • Mental and Physical Pabulum
  • All eating is a kind of proselytising - a kind of dogmatising - a maintaining that the eater’s way of looking at things is better than the eatee’s.
    • Eating and Proselytising
  • We can no longer separate things as we once could: everything tends towards unity; one thing, one action, in one place, at one time. On the other hand, we can no longer unify things as we once could; we are driven to ultimate atoms, each one of which is an individuality. So that we have an infinite multitude of things doing an infinite multitude of actions in infinite time and space; and yet they are not many things, but one thing.
    • Unity and Multitude

Part VII - On the Making of Music, Pictures, and Books

  • Thought pure and simple is as near to God as we can get; it is through this that we are linked with God.
    • Thought and Word, i
  • Though analogy is often misleading, it is the least misleading thing we have.
    • Thought and Word, ii
  • The mere fact that a thought or idea can be expressed articulately in words involves that it is still open to question; and the mere fact that a difficulty can be definitely conceived involves that it is open to solution.
    • Thought and Word, iv
  • Words impede and either kill, or are killed by, perfect thought; but they are, as a scaffolding, useful, if not indispensable, for the building up of imperfect thought and helping to perfect it.
    • Thought and Word, vi
  • Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.
    • Thought and Word, viii
  • The written law is binding, but the unwritten law is much more so. You may break the written law at a pinch and on the sly if you can, but the unwritten law - which often comprises the written - must not be broken. Not being written, it is not always easy to know what it is, but this has got to be done.
    • The Law
  • [Ideas] are like shadows - substantial enough until we try to grasp them.
    • Ideas
  • All things are like exposed photographic plates that have no visible image on them till they have been developed.
    • Development
  • Always eat grapes downwards - that is, always eat the best grape first; in this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last.
    • Eating Grapes Downwards
  • My notes always grow longer if I shorten them. I mean the process of compression makes them more pregnant and they breed new notes.
    • Making Notes
  • There is nothing less powerful than knowledge unattached, and incapable of application. That is why what little knowledge I have has done myself personally so much harm. I do not know much, but if I knew a good deal less than that little I should be far more powerful.
    • Knowledge is Power
  • In art, never try to find out anything, or try to learn anything until the not knowing it has come to be a nuisance to you for some time. Then you will remember it, but not otherwise. Let knowledge importune you before you will hear it. Our schools and universities go on the precisely opposite system.
    • Agonising
  • Every new idea has something of the pain and peril of childbirth about it; ideas are just as mortal and just as immortal as organised beings are.
    • New Ideas
  • Critics generally come to be critics by reason not of their fitness for this but of their unfitness for anything else. Books should be tried by a judge and jury as though they were crimes, and counsel should be heard on both sides.
    • Criticism
  • A great portrait is always more a portrait of the painter than of the painted.
    • Portraits
  • A man’s style in any art should be like his dress - it should attract as little attention as possible.
    • A Man's Style
  • They say the test of this [literary power] is whether a man can write an inscription. I say “Can he name a kitten?” And by this test I am condemned, for I cannot.
    • Literary Power
  • When a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence.
    • Writing for a Hundred Years Hence

Part VIII - Handel and Music

  • If you tie Handel’s hands by debarring him from the rendering of human emotion, and if you set Bach’s free by giving him no human emotion to render - if, in fact, you rob Handel of his opportunities and Bach of his difficulties - the two men can fight after a fashion, but Handel will even so come off victorious.
    • Handel and Bach, i
  • Handel and Shakespeare have left us the best that any have left us; yet, in spite of this, how much of their lives was wasted.
    • Waste
  • Honesty consists not in never stealing but in knowing where to stop in stealing, and how to make good use of what one does steal.
    • Honesty

Part IX - A Painter's Views on Painting

  • Sketching from nature is very like trying to put a pinch of salt on her tail. And yet many manage to do it very nicely.
    • Sketching from Nature
  • Art has no end in view save the emphasising and recording in the most effective way some strongly felt interest or affection.
    • Great Art and Sham Art
  • An artist’s touches are sometimes no more articulate than the barking of a dog who would call attention to something without exactly knowing what. This is as it should be, and he is a great artist who can be depended on not to bark at nothing.
    • Inarticulate Touches
  • One reason why it is as well not to give very much detail is that, no matter how much is given, the eye will always want more; it will know very well that it is not being paid in full. On the other hand, no matter how little one gives, the eye will generally compromise by wanting only a little more. In either case the eye will want more, so one may as well stop sooner or later. Sensible painting, like sensible law, sensible writing, or sensible anything else, consists as much in knowing what to omit as what to insist upon.
    • Detail
  • Painters should remember that the eye, as a general rule, is a good, simple, credulous organ - very ready to take things on trust if it be told them with any confidence of assertion.
    • The Credulous Eye
  • After having spent years striving to be accurate, we must spend as many more in discovering when and how to be inaccurate.
    • Accuracy
  • The composer is seldom a great theorist; the theorist is never a great composer. Each is equally fatal to and essential in the other.
    • Action and Study
  • If a man has not studied painting, or at any rate black and white drawing, his eyes are wild; learning to draw tames them. The first step towards taming the eyes is to teach them not to see too much.
    • Seeing
  • Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it you are lost.
    • Improvement in Art
  • The youth of an art is, like the youth of anything else, its most interesting period. When it has come to the knowledge of good and evil it is stronger, but we care less about it.
    • Early Art

Part X - The Position of a HomoUnius Libri

  • Nothing is so cruel as to try and force a man beyond his natural pace.
    • Capping a Success
  • If I die prematurely, at any rate I shall be saved from being bored by my own success.
    • Compensation
  • I doubt whether any angel would find me very entertaining. As for myself, if ever I do entertain one it will have to be unawares. When people entertain others without an introduction they generally turn out more like devils than angels.
    • Entertaining Angels
  • People say that there are neither dragons to be killed nor distressed maidens to be rescued nowadays. I do not know, but I think I have dropped across one or two, nor do I feel sure whether the most mortal wounds have been inflicted by the dragons or by myself.
    • Dragons
  • There are some things which it is madness not to try to know but which it is almost as much madness to try to know.
    • Trying to Know
  • He who would propagate an opinion must begin by making sure of his ground and holding it firmly. There is as little use in trying to breed from weak opinion as from other weak stock.
    • The Art of Propagating Opinion
  • Ideas and opinions, like living organisms, have a normal rate of growth which cannot be either checked or forced beyond a certain point. They can be held in check more safely than they can be hurried. They can also be killed; and one of the surest ways to kill them is to try to hurry them.
    • The Art of Propagating Opinion
  • The more unpopular an opinion is, the more necessary is it that the holder should be somewhat punctilious in his observance of conventionalities generally, and that, if possible, he should get the reputation of being well-to-do in the world.
    • The Art of Propagating Opinion
  • Many, if not most, good ideas die young - mainly from neglect on the part of the parents, but sometimes from over-fondness. Once well started, an opinion had better be left to shift for itself.
    • The Art of Propagating Opinion
  • Argument is generally waste of time and trouble. It is better to present one’s opinion and leave it to stick or no as it may happen. If sound, it will probably in the end stick, and the sticking is the main thing.
    • Argument

Part XI - Cash and Credit

  • He [the Philosopher] should have made many mistakes and been saved often by the skin of his teeth, for the skin of one’s teeth is the most teaching thing about one. He should have been, or at any rate believed himself, a great fool and a great criminal. He should have cut himself adrift from society, and yet not be without society.
    • The Philosopher
  • Most artists, whether in religion, music, literature, painting, or what not, are shopkeepers in disguise. They hide their shop as much as they can, and keep pretending that it does not exist, but they are essentially shopkeepers and nothing else.
    • The Artist and the Shopkeeper
  • It is curious that money, which is the most valuable thing in life, exceptis excipiendis, should be the most fatal corrupter of music, literature, painting and all the arts. As soon as any art is pursued with a view to money, then farewell, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, all hope of genuine good work.
    • Money
  • Genius...has been defined as a supreme capacity for taking trouble...It might be more fitly described as a supreme capacity for getting its possessors into trouble of all kinds and keeping them therein so long as the genius remains.
    • Genius, i
  • Inspiration is never genuine if it is known as inspiration at the time. True inspiration always steals on a person; its importance not being fully recognised for some time.
    • Genius, iii
  • Dullness is so much stronger than genius because there is so much more of it, and it is better organised and more naturally cohesive.
    • Genius, iv
  • All men can do great things, if they know what great things are.
    • Great Things
  • Surely the glory of finally getting rid of and burying a long and troublesome matter should be as great as that of making an important discovery. The trouble is that the coverer is like Samson who perished in the wreck of what he had destroyed; if he gets rid of a thing effectually he gets rid of himself too.
    • The Art of Covery
  • The supposition that the world is ever in league to put a man down is childish. Hardly less childish is it for an author to lay the blame on reviewers. A good sturdy author is a match for a hundred reviewers.
    • Ephemeral and Permanent Success

Part XII - The Enfant Terrible of Literature

  • I am the enfant terrible of literature and science.
    • Myself
  • If people like being deceived - and this can hardly be doubted - there can rarely have been a time during which they can have had more of the wish than now. The literary, scientific and religious worlds vie with one another in trying to gratify the public.
    • Populus Vult
  • The greatest poets never write poetry. The Homers and Shakespeares are not the greatest - they are only the greatest that we can know. And so with Handel among musicians. For the highest poetry, whether in music or literature, is ineffable - it must be felt from one person to another, it cannot be articulated.
    • Poetry
  • If a person would understand either the Odyssey or any other ancient work, he must never look at the dead without seeing the living in them, nor at the living without thinking of the dead. We are too fond of seeing the ancients as one thing and the moderns as another.
    • Ancient Work

Part XIII - Unprofessional Sermons

  • Nothing will ever die so long as it knows what to do under the circumstances, in other words so long as it knows its business.
    • The Roman Empire
  • Italians, and perhaps Frenchmen, consider first whether they like or want to do a thing and then whether, on the whole, it will do them any harm. Englishmen, and perhaps Germans, consider first whether they ought to like a thing and often never reach the questions whether they do like it and whether it will hurt. There is much to be said for both systems, but I suppose it is best to combine them as far as possible.
    • Italians and Englishmen
  • One can bring no greater reproach against a man than to say that he does not set sufficient value upon pleasure, and there is no greater sign of a fool than the thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him. To know this is not easy, and how to extend our knowledge of it is the highest and the most neglected of all arts and branches of education.
    • On Knowing what Gives us Pleasure, i
  • I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.
    • On Knowing what Gives us Pleasure, ii

Part XIV - Higgledy-Piggledy

  • Every one should keep a mental waste-paper basket and the older he grows the more things he will consign to it - torn up to irrecoverable tatters.
    • Waste-Paper Baskets
  • They [my thoughts] are like persons met upon a journey; I think them very agreeable at first but soon find, as a rule, that I am tired of them.
    • My Thoughts
  • An idea must not be condemned for being a little shy and incoherent; all new ideas are shy when introduced first among our old ones. We should have patience and see whether the incoherency is likely to wear off or to wear on, in which latter case the sooner we get rid of them the better.
    • Incoherency of New Ideas
  • It must be remembered that we have only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.
    • An Apology for the Devil
  • It does not matter much what a man hates provided he hates something.
    • Hating
  • The great characters of fiction live as truly as the memories of dead men. For the life after death it is not necessary that a man or woman should have lived.
    • Hamlet, Don Quixote, Mr. Pickwick and others
  • The evil that men do lives after them. Yes, and a good deal of the evil that they never did as well.
    • Reputation
  • 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.
    • Scientists
  • Everything matters more than we think it does, and, at the same time, nothing matters so much as we think it does. The merest spark may set all Europe in a blaze, but though all Europe be set in a blaze twenty times over, the world will wag itself right again.
    • Sparks
  • Time is the only true purgatory.
    • Purgatory
  • He is greatest who is most often in men’s good thoughts.
    • Greatness
  • The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.
    • Dogs
  • The Will-be and the Has-been touch us more nearly than the Is. So we are more tender towards children and old people than to those who are in the prime of life.
    • Future and Past
  • People are lucky and unlucky not according to what they get absolutely, but according to the ratio between what they get and what they have been led to expect.
    • Lucky and Unlucky
  • A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.
    • Definitions, iii
  • The dons are too busy educating the young men to be able to teach them anything.
    • Oxford and Cambridge
  • Silence is not always tact and it is tact that is golden, not silence.
    • Silence and Tact
  • To put one’s trust in God is only a longer way of saying that one will chance it.
    • Providence and Improvidence, ii
  • To live is like to love - all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it.
    • Life and Love

Part XV - Titles and Subjects

  • This poem [The Ancient Mariner] would not have taken so well if it had been called “The Old Sailor.”
    • The Ancient Mariner

Part XVI - Written Sketches

  • A little boy and a little girl were looking at a picture of Adam and Eve. "Which is Adam and which is Eve?" said one. "I do not know," said the other, "but I could tell if they had their clothes on."
    • Adam and Eve

Part XVII - Material for a Projected Sequel to Alps and Sanctuaries

  • The public buys its opinions as it buys its meat, or takes in its milk, on the principle that it is cheaper to do this than to keep a cow. So it is, but the milk is more likely to be watered.
    • Public Opinions
  • Men are seldom more commonplace than on supreme occasions.
    • Supreme Occasions

Part XIX - Truth and Convenience

  • The pursuit of truth is chimerical. That is why it is so hard to say what truth is. There is no permanent absolute unchangeable truth; what we should pursue is the most convenient arrangement of our ideas.
    • Truth, ii
  • Some men love truth so much that they seem to be in continual fear lest she should catch cold on over-exposure.
    • Truth, vii
  • Our world - like Noah's ark: a handful of people and lots of creatures
  • Truth consists not in never lying but in knowing when to lie and when not to do so.
    • Falsehood, i
  • Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well.
    • Falsehood, iii
  • I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.
    • Falsehood, iv

Part XX - First Principles

  • Our choice is apparently most free, and we are least obviously driven to determine our course, in those cases where the future is most obscure, that is, when the balance of advantage appears most doubtful.
    • Choice
  • You can have all ego, or all non-ego, but in theory you cannot have half one and half the other - yet in practice this is exactly what you must have, for everything is both itself and not itself at one and the same time.
    • Ego and Non-Ego
  • As a general rule philosophy is like stirring mud or not letting a sleeping dog lie. It is an attempt to deny, circumvent or otherwise escape from the consequences of the interlacing of the roots of things with one another.
    • Philosophy
  • It is with philosophy as with just intonation on a piano, if you get everything quite straight and on all fours in one department, in perfect tune, it is delightful so long as you keep well in the middle of the key; but as soon as you modulate you find the new key is out of tune and the more remotely you modulate the more out of tune you get.
    • Philosophy and Equal Temperament

Part XXI - Rebelliousness

  • You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.
    • Faith, ii

Part XXII - Reconciliation

  • I am not sure that I do not begin to like the correction of a mistake, even when it involves my having shown much ignorance and stupidity, as well as I like hitting on a new idea.
    • Inaccuracy

Part XXIII - Death

  • No one thinks he will escape death, so there is no disappointment and, as long as we know neither the when nor the how, the mere fact that we shall one day have to go does not much affect us; we do not care, even though we know vaguely that we have not long to live. The serious trouble begins when death becomes definite in time and shape. It is in precise fore-knowledge, rather than in sin, that the sting of death is to be found; and such fore-knowledge is generally withheld; though, strangely enough, many would have it if they could.
    • Fore-knowledge of Death
  • To die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead.
    • Complete Death
  • There is nothing which at once affects a man so much and so little as his own death.
    • The Defeat of Death

Part XXIV - The Life of the World to Come

  • To try to live in posterity is to be like an actor who leaps over the footlights and talks to the orchestra.
    • Posthumous Life, i
  • The world will, in the end, follow only those who have despised as well as served it.
    • The World
  • When I am dead I would rather people thought me better than I was instead of worse; but if they think me worse, I cannot help it and, if it matters at all, it will matter more to them than to me.
    • Apologia, i

The Way of All Flesh (1903)

  • It is far safer to know too little than too much. People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other.
    • Ch. 5
  • Adversity, if a man is set down to it by degrees, is more supportable with equanimity by most people than any great prosperity arrived at in a single lifetime.
    • Ch. 5
  • We know so well what we are doing ourselves and why we do it, do we not? I fancy that there is some truth in the view which is being put forward nowadays, that it is our less conscious thoughts and our less conscious actions which mainly mould our lives and the lives of those who spring from us.
    • Ch. 5
  • Youth is like spring, an overpraised season.
    • Ch. 6
  • A pair of lovers are like sunset and sunrise: there are such things every day but we very seldom see them.
    • Chapter 11
  • Taking numbers into account, I should think more mental suffering had been undergone in the streets leading from St George’s, Hanover Square, than in the condemned cells of Newgate.
    • Ch. 13
  • Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him.
    • Ch. 14
  • All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.
    • Ch. 19
  • How is it, I wonder, that all religious officials, from God the Father to the parish beadle, should be so arbitrary and exacting.
    • Chapter 23 [1]
  • One great reason why clergymen’s households are generally unhappy is because the clergyman is so much at home or close about the house.
    • Chapter 24
  • Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime.
    • Chapter 24
  • To me it seems that those who are happy in this world are better and more lovable people than those who are not.
    • Chapter 26
  • There are two classes of people in this world, those who sin, and those who are sinned against; if a man must belong to either, he had better belong to the first than to the second.
    • Chapter 26
  • The advantage of doing one’s praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places.
    • Chapter 34
  • The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.
    • Chapter 39
  • A man can stand being told that he must submit to a severe surgical operation, or that he has some disease which will shortly kill him, or that he will be a cripple or blind for the rest of his life; dreadful as such tidings must be, we do not find that they unnerve the greatest number of mankind; most men, indeed, go coolly enough even to be hanged, but the strongest quail before financial ruin, and the better men they are, the more complete, as a general rule, is their prostration.
    • Chapter 66
  • An empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed.
    • Chapter 72
  • A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage—but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends.
    • Chapter 75


  1. This is one of the passages excised from The Way of All Flesh when it was first published in 1903, after Butler's death, by his literary executor, R. Streatfeild. This first edition of The Way of All Flesh is widely available in plain text on the internet, but readers of facsimilies of the first edition should be aware that Streatfeild significantly altered and edited Butler's text, "regularizing" the punctuation and removing most of Butler's most trenchant criticism of Victorian society and conventional pieties. Butler's full manuscript, entitled Ernest Pontifex, or The Way of All Flesh, was edited and issued by Daniel F. Howard in 1965. It is from this edition that this quote is derived; it was excised by Streatfeild in the first edition.

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