I have a decided weakness for collections of maxims, proverbs, and pithy sayings, wherein most of the wisdom of the human race is accumulated. They are like the apples in Locke’s state of nature, free to everyone who will bother to pick them up, and given in such abundance that no thought of competition for scarce resources can arise. The grandest of such books of quotations is H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources. There’s also a fine collection of online quotation books at

On IR and All That, I have entries (largely from Mencken’s collection) on Golden Rules, Liberty, Justice, Peace, Nature, Reason, and Truth.

What follows below are selections from an especially penetrating but forgotten character named Dickson G. Watts, who was President of the New York Cotton Exchange between 1878 and 1880. These sayings, about a fourth of the total, are from Watt’s Thoughts on Life, reprinted along with Speculation as a Fine Art in 1965. The section titles are my own.

Rhythms of Life

People forget in the rush, remember in the hush.

Tendency is everything. The direction in which you start determines your destination.

Enthusiasm is a poor guide, but a good companion.

Life is a dream. Some men know they are dreaming; others think they are awake.

All things demand an outlet. The passageway of the body stopped, death ensues; the mind, inverted, stagnates; the soul, denied expression, stifles.

Men wish to die when they should live; wish to live when they should die.

Use conditions possession. You must use your body or lose it; use your mind or lose it; use your soul or lose it.

To conquer fate, advance to meet it.

In life, as in a game of cards, you must sit out bad luck.

Sleep is a truce, death a surrender.

Great wealth is a misfortune; it attracts parasites and repels friends.

Eating, drinking, and sleeping are the penalties the soul pays for inhabiting a body.

Wealth is a means of refinement; but having done its work it ceases to aid, and retards true refinement.

In youth a man forges the chains that bind him in old age.

A blemish in youth, a vice in old age.

To the careless, life is a drama; to the heartless, a comedy; to the thoughtful, a tragedy.

Acquire a habit and a habit has acquired you.

“Misery loves company,” but company doesn’t reciprocate.

In the presence of some people we wither like sensitive plants; in the presence of others, we expand like flowers.

The sorrows of youth are acute; of age bitter.

Sickness develops a man inwardly, health outwardly. To have the benefits of both, man must have been sick and become well.

Two kinds of wisdom,–to persist in things worth doing; to abandon things not worth doing.

Put on the breaks in middle life, or the momentum of youth will destroy you.

The Way People Are

People, like gems, have flaws. If we would enjoy them we should not examine too closely.

In his secret heart, every man thinks the universe is especially hard on him

Dislike is sometimes based upon understanding; oftener, on misunderstanding.

A good man thinks the motives of others are as pure as his own. A bad man thinks the motives of others are as bad as his own. Life often corrects the mistake of the former, seldom those of the latter.

Angels abroad are often demons at home.

No man is as good as he is thought to be; no man as bad.

Against flattery women are on guard. Men can be flattered into doing almost anything.

Men excuse their vices by enumerating their virtues.

Men wear masks and the world takes them seriously; when a man shows his real face, the world laughs.

Man seeks society because he can’t endure his own companionship.

Desire for superiority is universal. If a man be a knave, he wishes to be the greatest knave; if a fool, the greatest fool.

Awe is fear petrified.

A common deception, — self deception.

People meditate much—on other people’s sins.

Better the vagaries of eccentricity than common-place dullness.

Men make large demands on the universe, but they offer little in payment.

A friend is one with whom we can think out loud.

Patience is sustained courage.

“The destruction of the poor is their poverty.” The destruction of the rich is their riches.

Sarcasm is the spawn of meanness; joking, the off-spring of good nature.

Many a truth spoken in jest; many an untruth spoken in earnest.

Blame, when praise is deserved, exasperates; praise, when blame is deserved, humiliates

Virtue is its own reward; so is vice.


Seeing things in their right relation to each other is the highest vision.

Light is one; and yet people see things “in a different light.” It is shadow that makes the difference.

Two kinds of vision,–to see things as we see them; to see things as others see them.

Teach men to navigate life’s sea as you teach a boy to swim: put your hand under him, then slowly and gently withdraw it.

A true view can only be gained by having been in a thing and having come out of it.

Argument is an effort of each man to force his idea on the other; discussion is an effort to gain knowledge. The wise man declines argument, invites discussion.

Wisdom consists in seeing many things and concentrating on one thing.

Much power, like much learning, makes men mad.

A philosopher doesn’t win battles, found empires; but reclaims new territory and civilizes old hemispheres.

Placing emphasis in the right place is the truest art and the highest wisdom.

The whole truth cannot be stated in any one proposition.

Man rules man; ideas rule the world.

The man who “knows it all” has much to learn.

Genius consists in seeing instantly the vital point.

A man who does not change his mind has little mind to change.

A good second-hand article,–experience.

Wise men sometimes say foolish things. Fools sometimes say wise things.

Words are coins. Stamp them with your own image.

To separate the essential from the non-essential is the mark of a superior mind.

The more points of view, the better the point of view.

Don’t batter down the door; pick the lock

Not what others have written, but what you think.

Public Affairs

“Make believe” is a game society plays as well as children.

People who wish to do; people who wish to know; people who wish to see; people who wish to dream,–the first are statesmen, the second, philosophers; the third are artists; the last are poets.

All movements are in waves,–in politics, in business, in the atmosphere, in spirit. Rest with the descending wave; mount with the ascending wave.

“Great bodies move slowly.” Great events move rapidly.

We cannot be just and hold the scales ourselves.

Destroy the illusions and there is not much left of life.

Don’t fool with Nature; she “strikes back.”

Surplus is as bad as deficiency, deficiency as surplus.

The realist makes the mistake of exposing everything. It isn’t necessary to go through the kitchen to reach the parlor.

Health is equilibrium.

The distant is the great, the near the little. But the little-near controls man rather than the distant-great.

If you wait until you see clearly, you will never act; if you wait for a pure motive, you will never move.

The greatest tolerance is to tolerate the intolerant.

The wound that injustice makes goes deeper and lasts longer than any other.

How We Should Act

If you want to go anywhere, start. If you want to do anything, begin.

Don’t look at your friends through a microscope, nor at yourself through a telescope.

A man who has made a mistake suffers enough. Don’t “throw it up” to him.

The man who does not laugh at himself, despise himself, and worship himself, knows nothing about himself.

Do you wish sympathy? Don’t seek it.
Do you want a secret kept? Don’t tell it.

The greatest possession,–self-possession.

Keep your voice down and you will keep your temper down.

Respect your limitations; your limitations will not respect you.

Look before you leap, but not when you leap.

To be sincere with others is easy; with one’s self, difficult.

Two standards, –one for yourself and one for your neighbor. The first should be fixed, the second flexible.

Recognize a fault, but don’t dwell on it.

Don’t stand shivering on the brink; take the plunge.

To know when to begin is easy; when to stop, difficult.

Censure is poor food, but we can extract some nourishment from it.

Take counsel of your fears, but don’t be controlled by them.

Courage consists in doing the thing you are afraid to do.

Bragging is an expensive luxury. Better not indulge in it.

If you work yourself down, sleep yourself up.

To have made one’s self ridiculous, and not to mourn over it, is a supreme test of virtue.

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