On Essays and Letters

On my desk, I have a second edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The original edition was in 1941; the edition that I have is from 1960. I have seen reference to a fifth edition [seventh —Ed.]. The fourth edition advertisement said that it had over 9,000 citations from 2,300 authors. Like everything else almost, it seems to be online. But there is something solid about the book I have that I would be reluctant to sacrifice.

The second edition is 1003 pages long. It even has a “Greek Index” for citations in that noble language. Thus on page 248, #13, Hippocrates is cited: ό βίοσ βραχύσ, ή δѐ τéχνη μακρή—“The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” In this short entry we are told one more astonishing thing. This translation to English was made by Chaucer, which is no doubt why it is in the Dictionary.

I approach this magisterial work through a comment made by Robert Sokolowski, in his insightful book, Pictures, Quotations, and Distinctions. “Quotation is not merely repetition, even though it involves repeating what someone else has said. . . . There may be no difference in the words being repeated, but they are repeated differently: it is as if we no longer saw an object directly but now only in a mirror” (U. of Notre Dame Press, 1992, 27). If I cite an author from another time or place or language, what was said becomes alive again in my text, yet with the emphasis or understanding I give to it as part of my text, while it remains itself.

The thousands of quotations found in the Dictionary are separated from the text in which they originally appear. They each just sit there in the text of the Dictionary. Each is identified by author, date, and source. The general index enables a reader easily to find a citation on many different subject matters or different authors.

The famous phrase, for example, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” we are infirmed comes from a certain Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, (1855–1897). We are also informed that this quotation was itself cited in Molly Brown, 1878. I am not sure what Molly Brown was. Molly Brown herself was a woman who was saved from the Titanic. A later musical thus was called The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

At this point, we are also referred from Hungerford to page 557, entry #18. This citation turns out to be from Lew Wallace (1827–1905). It reads: “Beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder,” from an 1893 play called The Prince of India.

I cite these apparently chance interrelations of quotations not just to indicate that the same quotation can appear in many different contexts, but also to wonder about the principle itself. Beauty is often considered a transcendental, an attribute of being itself, like truth and good and one. If it is merely in the eye of the beholder, it is not first in things. I should much prefer to think that it is really there, in things, to be seen and affirmed as existing there and not merely the way I put things together. But then the beholder might well see a beauty in things which most of us miss.

Next, I wondered if Maurice Baring is cited, but he is not. Baring’s Lost Lectures contain some of the most entertaining passages that I know. But Belloc, the man from Sussex, whom I consider the best essayist in the language, is cited. From The South Country (p. 42, #7), let me cite just one item from Belloc: “If I ever become a rich man, / Or if I ever grow to be old, / I will build a house with deep thatch / To shelter me from the cold, / And there shall the Sussex songs be sung / And the story of Sussex told. / I will hold my house in the high wood, / Within a walk from the sea, / And the men that were boys when I was a boy / Shall sit and drink with me.” Much of Belloc’s great book, The Four Men, is here.

The Dictionary contains over 27 pages from the Bible. From 1 Corinthians 10.26, we read: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” (p. 66, #40). That is, there is a difference between the Earth and its fullness, as if to say that the purpose of the Earth is that it be filled by that being who alone can fill it, or perhaps fail to do so.

Of Shakespeare, we find 65 pages. How can we forget from Henry V (4, 189): “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own” (p. 444, #20)? How much of the political philosophy inspired by the distinction between God and Caesar is contained in that one citation from Shakespeare! The citation itself from Matthew 22 is found on p. 60, #12.

A “dictionary” of quotations is a wondrous thing. We usually do not quote just to be quoting. A quotation has its own life within our using of it. When wecite someone, we acknowledge that others have spoken before us. We can quote to agree or disagree. We also do not want to pretend that we were the first to say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or that “every subject’s soul is his own.” It may be important that we say it and see its truth. But it is somehow more important to recognize that someone else has seen a truth before we did. And if we find that we disagree, we at least state fairly that with which we disagree.

I was curious to see if Machiavelli is cited. He is not. But Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) is cited in French, from his unedited letters from 15 août 1811: “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.” This passage is then translated: “Every country has the government it deserves” (p. 327, #13). This passage sounds too much like current events after the election to dare to comment on.

In looking at an orderly collection of quotations in one’s own tongue, anyone must be struck by the richness of the language. The nine thousand quotations, of course, are but an infinitesimal fraction of the amount of words that we utter or listen to daily. Yet certain passages do stand out. We are grateful for such a collection that allows us either to cite what Robert Browning said—“We have not sighed deep, laughed free, / Starved, feasted, despaired,—been happy” (p. 97, #28)—or go in search for more of what he said. But to realize what Browning said here in Youth and Art is a task that takes a whole lifetime. Such is the power of quotations and books in which they are found scattered about for us to come across to unsettle or soothe our souls because someone else saw first what we now absorb into our hearts as a seed planted there to continue to grow to its full meaning. 

James V. Schall, S.J. retired in December 2012 as professor of government at Georgetown University.

Father Schall reflects on the art of the quotation: We usually do not quote just to be quoting.
Below is a bonus column from Father Schall. You can also peruse his other online articles in this series here.