Friday, 2 December 2011

The value of quotations

This post comes from thoughts while ironing a shirt this morning and listening to Thought for the Day on Radio 4.  A wonderful epitaph tribute was quoted about Sir Robert Shirley, who died in 1656: 'Sir Robert Shirley built this church, whose singular Praise is this: to have done the best of things in the worst of times'. This is indeed a heart-warming tribute - Shirley's times were undoubtedly hard for everyone in the country, whatever their circumstances, during the years of the civil war, but this expression somehow transcends the horrors even of that period, and ends up being about Shirley as just another man - one of us indeed - and so somehow also manages to inspire any of us also to rise above the challenges of the times we live in. This chain of thought led me to one about a similar quotation that has stayed with me ever since I read it in Edward Thompson's biography of Morris (these sentiments tend inevitably to be expressed following the death of the individual concerned). This was said by Robert Blatchford in the Clarion, the high-circulation socialist newspaper in his obituary of Morris written in 1896: 'However you struck him, he rang true'.

As any reader of this blog will know, I like quotations, and in a rather unsystematic way, collect them. I think this is for a number of reasons: a good quotation encapsulates in a memorable and concise way an important thought, so it can be a useful practical tool for thinking; and paying attention to quotations embodies the idea that the thoughts of people in the past are potentially relevant to contemporary living, and so imply the unity across time of humanity - we are no different from our forebears, and our most important problems and challenges were theirs also. They are tools for reflection, and so potentially of great value to anyone with a professional or indeed craft attitude to their activities.

Suggestions for more inspirational quotations welcome.


  1. This is a great post - we completely agree! as teachres we often use quotes to motivate and inspire our students. Using quotations in the classroom should be incorporated into teacher training - if it has not already!

    Quotations are thought provoking and provide a stimulus for deeper higher level thinking - we are probably echoing what you have already mentioned.

    One particular quote for any classroom or even life in general is 'FAIL TO PRPARE, PREPARE TO FAIL'

    The flipside to this is that quotations can be problematic in the classroom, e.g. users take the risk of double standards and hypocracy so to sum this up in another quote: 'LIVE BY THE SWORD, DIE BY THE SWORD'. Things can also be taken out of context and may not fit every context and students may not have the cultural knowledge of something like 'CHIVALRY IS DEAD'.

    Overall, quotes are brilliant and some are even adapted such as the 'KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON' to 'KEEP CALM AND DO THE MATHS'

  2. Thanks for this response. I like 'Keep calm and do the Maths' - that would be a brilliant strapline for Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column in the Guardian. One of the dangers of quotes is that you can nearly always find another one that says the opposite of the one you are interested in.

    How about this instead of 'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail': 'Nothing venture, nothing gain'; or 'You can't jump a ravine in stages, you have to do it all at once'.

    I see this type of saying as 'proverbs': nobody knows who said them first. I particularly like it when I know who said the quote first. It tells me something about them, about their ideas, and maybe about their work. What do you think of these:

    'As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.' Albert Einstein

    'The wind and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.' Edward Gibbon

    'Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work' Bette Davis

    'Truth comes out of error more easily than out of confusion' Francis Bacon


  3. very true about quotes having opposites. I also like to know the source of quotes, that way you get a fuller picture. I like the Einstein quote which reverses some of the word order to make a statement - that's another feature of some quotes and I think they deserve study!

    'During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act' George Orwell