Today’s Quote, Via Jonathan Swift: ‘It Is Useless To Attempt To Reason A Man Out Of A Thing He Was Never Reasoned Into’

The great English satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was, of course, not thinking of climate science deniers when he wrote:

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.

This is of a kind with the Upton Sinclair quote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And this is not entirely dissimilar to the quote widely attributed to Mark Twain (as Al Gore does in An Inconvenient Truth): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” But there appears to be no actual evidence Twain ever said it or something close to it. Who actually said it first remains something of a mystery.

Finally, and only partially unrelated, we have my favorite Swift quote, which I use to begin the discussion of the figure of speech “Enigma” in my book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga:

There are certain common privileges of a writer, the benefit whereof, I hope, there will be no reason to doubt; particularly, that where I am not understood, it shall be concluded, that something very useful and profound is couched underneath; and again, that whatever word or sentence is printed in a different character, shall be judged to contain something extraordinary either of wit or sublime.

I do hope you will hold me to that same standard!


10 Responses to Today’s Quote, Via Jonathan Swift: ‘It Is Useless To Attempt To Reason A Man Out Of A Thing He Was Never Reasoned Into’

  1. Mike says:

    Correction: the great IRISH satirist, Jonathan Swift…………..

  2. Raul M. says:

    Hi Joe,
    Is a post on projected uv ray capacity on the Earth’s surface doable in today’s cultures? Possibly a post on the likelyhood of underground lifestyles by the year 2022?
    certainly you wouldn’t want to do a post on it if you know you have to completely deceive for the post to be acceptable.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I have rarely encountered a Rightwinger who uses reason. It simply refutes so many of their most beloved canards that it provokes outbreaks of individual and group hysteria amongst them. They much prefer magical thinking dictated by ideological rigidity, of course. Denial of the facts because they cannot be forced into the ideological straitjacket, indubitably appeals. Pavlovian reflexive response to noxious stimuli, the worst being losing a rational debate with the hated Leftists, the even more despised ‘Greenies’ or even a less deluded fellow Rightwinger. Amongst the more gifted, casuistry and crude sophistry are much admired, as are diversionary rhetorical flourishes. Of course, very quickly it descends into abuse and invective, but that’s their nature, as immutable as the lead in their intellectual and spiritual saddle-bags.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I wish I could hold all your commentators to that standard Joe, myself included, but…ME

  5. Peter Baker says:

    But I think Twain did say: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  6. What a relief. I am seldom understood. Now I know that something useful and profound is couched…

  7. Joe Romm says:


  8. Bob-O says:

    A quote that cuts both ways….

    “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

    Marshall McLuhan – The Guttenberg Galaxy

  9. kca says:

    “I believe because it IS absurd.” –Anthony Watts

  10. Chris Winter says:

    I don’t know if he was the first to say it (and I doubt that he was) but I remember Will Rogers saying something very like that possible Mark Twain quote.