The following quotation is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein:

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

However, I've been unable to find a reliable source confirming the quote. Can anyone confirm or reject the genuiness of this citation?

  • 2
    This item at Quote Investigator may be a useful source. – Compro01 Oct 20 '13 at 22:29
  • @Compro01: I think there is enough there to make that an answer. – Oddthinking Oct 20 '13 at 23:44
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    As an aside, I'm not sure Einstein believed in an infinite universe as such. Prior to Hubble's results (circa 1929), he seems to have leaned towards a static universe, which would lead then to Olbers' paradox (which was well known) if it was infinite and eternal at the same time. Later on, he seems to have been convinced by the evidence that it is expanding. I'm not sure how an infinite universe can expand, but perhaps that's just me :) A good summary of some of these topics can be found here. – Daniel B Oct 22 '13 at 5:56
  • Yeah Daniel I agree Einstein held to finite universe till the day he died. It was the common view among Physicist at the time. – Neil Meyer Oct 28 '13 at 10:16
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    There is a typo "the the". – j4n bur53 Nov 12 '15 at 21:01
up vote 53 down vote accepted
+50

Unable to determine veracity of quote. It pretty much depends on whether or not you believe a single man's claim about a personal conversation with Einstein.

According to Quote Investigator, the origin of the quotation being attributed to Einstein is the book Gestalt Therapy Verbatim by Frederick S. Perls.

As Albert Einstein once said to me: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.” But what is much more widespread than the actual stupidity is the playing stupid, turning off your ear, not listening, not seeing.

Further context on the quote is given in another Perls book, In and Out the Garbage Pail.

I spent one afternoon with Albert Einstein: unpretentiousness, warmth, some false political predictions. I soon lost my self-consciousness, a rare treat for me at that time. I still love to quote a statement of his: “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.”

He also used the quote in a previous book Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method, though did not cite it to Einstein, but rather to "a great astronomer"

Wikiquote lists the quote as "disputed" and also notes similar quotations from various people dating back to 1880.

  • 17
    +1 for noting that there are earlier (pre-Einstein) versions of the quote. – ChrisW Oct 21 '13 at 17:04
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    However, the fact that there's a pre-Einstein version of the quote does not mean Einstein did not say it. It just means that he might have heard it from someone else. – yo' Dec 30 '17 at 19:25

In his 1920 book My Second Country, political theorist and Francophile Robert Dell quotes Ernst Renan as saying:

The only thing that gave me any conception of infinity was human stupidity.

In 1915, five years before he published My Second Country, Dell had attributed that quote to a "great astronomer." It read:

It isn't the stars that give me an idea of infinity―it is man's stupidity.

The problem with this quote is that the Ernst Renan whom Dell quotes in My Second Country was not an astronomer, but rather, a French philosopher, who apparently had an interest in the idea of an infinite universe. The saying that Dell misremembers is however, one that Renan actually wrote, in his book titled Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques. It said:

"La bêtise humaine est la seule chose qui donne une idée de l'infinie." (Human stupidity is the only thing that gives an idea of the infinite.)

Going back even further in time, Guy de Maupassant's 1880 book Des Vers has a quote from a letter by Gustav Flaubert which reads:

"Ce pendant, qui sait? La terre a des limites, mais la bêtise humaine est infinie!" (But who knows? The earth has limits, but human stupidity is infinite!)

Here we have Guy de Maupassant, like Dell, misremembering a quote almost word-for-word. Flaubert's actual historical text from his letters reveals the saying as:

"Aujourd'hui je sais qu'il n'y a pas de limites à la bêtise humaine―qu'elle est infinie." (Today I know that there is no limit to human stupidity―it is infinite.)

Further complicating matters is the attribution in 1904 by British member of Parliament John Morley, of the quote not to Renan or Flaubert, but to a third Frenchman―Voltaire―from his Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version Critique and Biography. In it, Voltaire says:

"Ce n'est pas l'immensité de la vôute étoilée qui peut donner le plus complétement l'ideé de l'infini, mais bien la bêtise humaine." (It is not the starry sky that can give the most complete idea of the infinite, but human stupidity.)

That quote, like all the others, sounds a lot like the one attributed to Einstein. And yet, if Morley's 1904 book is correct, it was said by Voltaire over 100 years before Einstein was even born. With all of these different variations, one can't help but wonder: from where did this quote actually originate, and from whom?

In the end, be it Einstein, Renan, Flaubert or Voltaire, I believe that the occasional reappearance of this saying in various historical texts—all quite similar in meaning but by different authors—is strong evidence that the saying itself might just have been a standard cliché of the period, rather than something that one person singularly said on their own.

  • Wow! An excellent analysis. Deserves a lot more votes than I can give it. – matt_black Dec 18 '16 at 11:48
  • On the other hand, if Einstein (or anyone) said this exact quote, the first part might be a paraphrasing of the quotes you quote. Einstein was indeed an outspoken pacifist against both world wars, and wrote about the gargantuan stupidity of these conflicts. – Ernie Dec 21 '16 at 19:14
  • See also: ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/people/pp-einstein.html – Ernie Dec 21 '16 at 19:17
  • I can't find the Voltaire quote here : artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/toutvoltaire/… (Should in any case read in current orthography : « Ce n'est pas l'immensité de la voûte étoilée qui peut donner le plus complètement l’idée de l'infini, mais bien la bêtise humaine. » ) – Patrick Andries Dec 29 '17 at 9:18

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