“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
― Rudyard Kipling
Right now, you’re staring at some squiggly black symbols on a supercomputer.
Particular sequences of these symbols are linked with concepts in your mind. As a result, you’re able to see this intricate, loopy labyrinth of letters as something more than an arbitrary jumble of hieroglyphics. You’re able to interpret this code I’ve typed and to construct a complex understanding of its meaning, its significance to you.
Pretty wild, right? Even wilder is to consider the notion that there exist innumerable sequences of symbols that I could type right now that would lead you to some kind of epiphany. That is, there are particular arrangements of words that would signify a meaning that would turn your present worldview on its head, causing you to see things in a different way. If those words happened to come to you at just the right time, they might permanently alter your perspective, your direction, your character.
Language = Mind-Altering Substance
That words have this almost magical ability to reshape the contours of our minds is at once wondrous and terrifying. It’s astonishing that our words have such power, but with that power comes a certain amount of danger. On one hand, it’s beautiful that poets, sages, and philosophers might utilize language to push us toward more a more contemplative, compassionate, appreciative, and meaningful existence.
Contrarily, it’s frightening to consider that there are all sorts of entities—corporate advertising departments, certain religious organizations, politicians, major news media outlets, etc.—who are constantly disseminating messages that are intended to push our feelings or perspective in directions that are not in our best interests.
They’re trying to trigger anxiety so we’ll buy their product, or convince us to subscribe to their ideology, or make us blindly patriotic so we won’t question our government’s actions, or foment strong emotions so we’ll keep watching their “breaking news” and make them more money.
To speak bluntly, the direct or indirect aim of many entities in the world is to deceive and disempower us in some way—manipulate us into sacrificing our autonomy, our ability to determine our own values, in favor of adopting a prepackaged worldview that will probably depress, repress, or oppress us. And unfortunately, disempowering messages and dysfunctional worldviews can sometimes be just as persuasive as those of a more benevolent nature, especially when you pay teams of people a lot of money to use rhetoric and psychology to engineer optimally convincing prose. A deeply unsettling state of affairs, to be sure.
The responsibility of writers, artists, and intellectuals, as I see it then, is to help people to machete-chop their way out of the artificial jungle of propagandist bullshit. To disillusion us of the mind-numbing and deleterious noise that pelts our ears and eyeballs from all angles. And to push humanity toward rich and original inner lives of genuine creativity, free thought, self-actualization, compassion, and understanding—characteristics that might be useful as we confront the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.
In accordance with that objective, I’ve put together this list of 30 of the most profound and perspective-broadening quotes I’ve ever read. The hope is that these pebbles of thought will disrupt your worldview and challenge you to claim a more thoughtful, creative, compassionate existence. Or something like that. Just let these potent drops of meaning soak into your bones and cartilage and see what happens. And, you know, pass them onward. Douse the Internet in potential epiphanies! For our grandchildren’s grandchildren! Grrraahhh!
30 Quotes of Genius
― Eduardo Galeano, Walking Words
“The first step — especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money — the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.”
― Chuck Palahniuk
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
― Mary Oliver, Dream Work
“What labels me, negates me.”
― Søren Kierkegaard
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
―Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him.”
― Ezra Pound
“The more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts.”
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― D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Buddhism, First Series
“How wrong is it for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself?”
― Anaïs Nin
— Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story
“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
― Charles Bukowski
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague
“Do not believe. Ideology has poisoned this planet. Ideology is bankrupt. It’s a skin game. It’s a shell game. . . . It is beneath your dignity, as a body, to get mixed up in ideology. I mean, after all, where is it writ large that talking monkeys should understand the nature of being anyway? So belief is an incredible cop-out on intellectual truth-seeking – because belief precludes believing in its opposite and so this is a self-limitation. You become your own cop. And the ideologies of the 20th century are so shoddy and hobbled-together, or toxic to human values, that they’re not worth believing in anyway.”
― Terence McKenna
“Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?”
― Zhuangzi, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings
“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”
― Alan Watts
True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.
If this essay is resonating, you may enjoy my Radically Honest Newsletter and my list of Mind-Destroying Books.
One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.
In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”
― Wendell Berry, What are People For?
“As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the upper Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.”
― Gary Snyder
“I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.
But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.
Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge — forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young
“I don’t know how to fix the system, but I am pretty sure that one of the ingredients is kindness. I think of kindness not only as the moral virtue of volunteering at a soup kitchen or even of living your life to help as many other people as possible, but also as an epistemic virtue. Epistemic kindness is kind of like humility. Kindness to ideas you disagree with. Kindness to positions you want to dismiss as crazy and dismiss with insults and mockery. Kindness that breaks you out of your own arrogance, makes you realize the truth is more important than your own glorification, especially when there’s a lot at stake.”
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
“He who does not answer the questions has passed the test.”
— Franz Kafka
― Isabel Allende, Paula
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
― William Blake
“There is only one thing that arouses animals more than pleasure, and that is pain. Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old. What you can do when you’re young and what you can do when you’re old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you’re a woman or what you can do if you’re a man.”
― Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Basis of Morality
“All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
― Octavia E. Butler
“Sitting there on the heather, on our planetary grain, I shrank from the abysses that opened up on every side, and in the future. The silent darkness, the featureless unknown, were more dread than all the terrors that imagination had mustered. Peering, the mind could see nothing sure, nothing in all human experience to be grasped as certain, except uncertainty itself; nothing but obscurity gendered by a thick haze of theories. Man’s science was a mere mist of numbers; his philosophy but a fog of words. His very perception of this rocky grain and all its wonders was but a shifting and a lying apparition. Even oneself, that seeming-central fact, was a mere phantom, so deceptive, that the most honest of men must question his own honesty, so insubstantial that he must even doubt his very existence.”
― Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker
“To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he or she has been born — the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it be-devils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.”
― Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception
“I am nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I couldn’t want to be something.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.”
― Fernando Pessoa
If this was splendid, read 25 Profound Quotes That Will Make You Question Everything.
A version of this essay was first published at HighExistence.