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George Bernard Shaw: The Art of Quotation

By Matt Reimann. Jul 26, 2016. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Nobel Prize Winners, Drama

Good booze, beautiful scenery, and wit are the very things Ireland is perhaps known best for. The country’s long history of strife and oppression has given its people a talent for insight and humor. An analysis of the sharpest wits in the English language reveal a lopsided representation of Ireland, with a stacked roster represented by the likes of Swift, Sterne, Wilde, and Behan. And strong as they may be, such a list would be incomplete without the inclusion of playwright and Nobel Prize-winner George Bernard Shaw.

George_Bernard_Shaw_pd-2.jpgSo here they aresome of George Bernard Shaw’s best quotes for your reading pleasure (and yes, we checked that he really said or wrote them).

“Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.”

“What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day.”

Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”

The above quotations are characteristic of Shaw. He made a habit of professing unconventional wisdom. And while he did not make play of paradox to the degree of Oscar Wilde, he delighted in challenging assumption and common understanding.

Shaw made enemies of convention and authority throughout his life, and like many smart people who lived long and said much, he left behind a legacy of complicated and contradictory opinions. He was a famous detractor of Shakespeare, whom he could not avoid respecting, but slighted many times, going far enough to claim that Caesar and Cleopatra was a better play than Julius Caesar. And this is all before his complicated politics, like his anti-Irish independence stance, his Marxism, his support for eugenics, his dislike for conventional religion, and even his culpable support of Nazism leading up to 1939.

494px-George_Bernard_Shaw_Statue.jpgOn a similarly contentious note, here Shaw is on religion:

“But no public man in these islands ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means.”

“God is on the side of the big battalions.”

And morality:

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity.”

And here he is on work ethic:

“We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.”

“You must not suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living.”

“As long as I have a want, I have a reason for living. Satisfaction is death.”

Of course, Shaw has some opinions on socioeconomics:

“Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to the country and to mankind is to bring up a family. But here again, because there is nothing to sell, there is a very general disposition to regard a married woman's work as no work at all, and to take it as a matter of course that she should not be paid for it.”

“A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

This longer excerpt from his play Major Barbara goes to show how polemical and idea-driven Shaw’s plays can be:

“Cusins: Call you poverty a crime?

Undershaft: The worst of crimes ... Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences; strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound or smell of it. What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now and a curse then: what do they matter? they are only the accidents and illnesses of life: there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London. But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty.”

With a brush of his quotations it’s not very hard to see why the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Shaw on the basis of both his “idealism” and his “satire.” He has an interesting grasp of ideas, as well as a talent for humor.

680px-George_Bernard_Shaw_notebook.jpg“Journalists are too poorly paid in this country to know anything that is fit for publication.”

I am afraid we must make the world honest before we can honestly tell our children that honesty is the best policy.”

“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”

And, if you listen long enough, Shaw might even provide you with useful life advice.

“If you leave your art, the world will beat you back to it. The world has not an ambition worth sharing, or a prize worth handling. Corrupt successes, disgraceful failures, or sheeplike vegetation are all it has to offer. I prefer Art, which gives me a sixth sense of beauty, with self-respect: perhaps also an immortal reputation in return for honest endeavour in a labour of love.”

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

“The test of a man or woman's breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.”

Yet no matter who you are, George Bernard Shaw has said something that you will find impossible to agree with. He is simply too bold, too uncompromising, too self-assured not to irritate people in some way. But on that matter, G.B. Shaw can explain himself. Here, let's give him the last word:

“The secret of success is to offend the greatest number of people.”


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Matt Reimann
Reader, specializing in Twentieth Century and contemporary fiction. Committed to spreading an infectious passion for literature, language, and stories.


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