The Most Famous Thing Nobody Ever Said

I was listening to a discussion of Voltaire the other day, and his most famous quote was mentioned:

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.
– Voltaire

… and of course, the fact that he never actually said this was also mentioned. This particular line has not been found in any of Voltaire’s works (although with 200 volumes of writings and correspondence, it’s possible we’ve just missed it.)

Right now the assumption is that these words were made up by one of his biographers, EB Hall. Her summation of Voltaire’s attitude was mistaken for an actual quote.

It got me thinking about the number people who are famous for saying something they never said. Probably the best example is this one:

Here I stand. I can do no other.
– Martin Luther

Again, it was a summation created by his biographer. Georg Rörer collected and published Luther’s works, and he threw in these two lines to sum up the ending to a letter. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that, “This can stand as the motto of all Protestants – ultimately, perhaps, of all Western civilization.” But Luther never said it.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton. Supposedly, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, Sutton replied:

Because that’s where the money is.
– Willie Sutton

Fortunately, Sutton reformed and so lived long enough to set the record straight. Not only did he never say it, but it’s not accurate either. He robbed banks for the thrill, not the money.

This kind of thing was part of the reason that I was never really happy with some of the arguments from the Jesus Seminar. The idea that certain catchy phrases would be remembered and passed down, and thus certain sayings could be traced back to Jesus, doesn’t hold water. We’re good at remembering sayings, bad at remembering who said them.

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