Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Alfred North Whitehead

English-American Philosopher, Mathematician

"Defense of morals is the battle-cry which best rallies stupidity against change."

"Philosophy begins in wonder, and at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains."

"Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness."

"Religion is the reaction of human nature to its search for God."

"Seek simplicity and distrust it."

"The common character of all evil is that its realization in fact involves that there is some concurrent realization of a purpose towards elimination. The purpose is to secure the avoidance of evil. The fact of the instability of evil is the moral order in the world."

"The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things. This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama."

"Truth derives [its] self-justifying power form its services in the promotion of Beauty. Apart from Beauty, Truth is neither good, nor bad."

"Truth is a qualification which applies to appearance alone. Reality is just itself, and it is nonsense to ask whether it be true or false. Truth is the conformation of appearance to reality."

"The mind is never passive; it is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus. You cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it. Whatever interest attaches to your subject-matter must be evoked here and now; whatever powers you are strengthening in the pupil, must be exercised here and now; whatever possibilities of mental life your teaching should impart, must be exhibited here and now. That is the golden rule of education, and a very difficult rule to follow."

"The fact of instability of evil is the moral order of the world."

"Art can be described as a psychopathic reaction of the race to the stresses of existence."

"A clash of doctrines is not a disaster - it is an opportunity."

"A race preserves its vigor so long as it harbors a real contrast between what has been and what may be, and so long as it nerved by the vigor to adventure beyond the safeties of the past. Without adventure, civilization is in full decay."

"Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern."

"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."

"Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas."

"Each generation criticizes the unconscious assumptions made by its parents. It may assent to them, but it brings them out into the open."

"Goodness must be denied a place among the aims of art. For Goodness is a qualification belonging to the constitution of reality, which in any of its individual actualizations is better or worse. Good and evil lie in depths and distances below and beyond appearance. They solely concern inter-relations within the real world. The real world is good when it is beautiful. Art has essentially to do with perfections attainable by purposeful adaptation of appearance."

"In its broadest sense, art is civilization. For civilization is nothing other than the unremitting aim at the major perfection’s of harmony."

"Feelings are variously specialized operations, effecting a transition into subjectivity. An actual entity is a process, and is not describable in terms of the morphology of a ‘stuff’."

"Knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows."

"Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe."

"In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hardheaded clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions."

"Life is the enjoyment of emotion, derived from the past and aimed at the future."

"It is a tribute to the strength of the sheer craving for freshness, that change, whose justification lies in aim at the distant ideal, should be promoted by Art which is the adaptation of immediate Appearance for immediate Beauty. Art neglects the safety of the future for the gain of the present. In doing it is apt to render its Beauty thin. But after all, there must be some immediate harvest. The Good of the Universe cannot lie in indefinite postponement."

"Process is the becoming of experience."

"Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate sense which we term civilization. In each there is reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words. Poetry allies itself to metre, philosophy to mathematic pattern."

"Opposed elements stand to each other in mutual requirement. In their unity, they inhibit or contrast. God and the World stand to each other in this opposed requirement. God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities, seeking a perfected unity. Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimately metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty. Either of them, God and the World, is the instrument of novelty for the other."

"Modern science has imposed on humanity the necessity of wandering."

"That difference between ancients and moderns is that the ancients asked what have we experienced, and moderns asked what can we experience."

"Religion is what a man does with his solitariness."

"Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibly, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest."

"The “silly question” is the first intimation of some totally new development."

"The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience intimately cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature."

"The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change and order."

"The deepest definition of Youth is, Life as yet untouched by tragedy."

"The importance of an individual thinker owes something to chance. For it depends upon the fate of his ideas in the minds of his successors."

"The effect of the present on the future is the business of morals."

"The foundation of all understanding... is that no static maintenance of perfection is possible. This axiom is rooted in the nature of things. Advance or Decadence are the only choices offered to mankind. The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe."

"The riddle of the universe is not so simple. There is the aspect of permanence in which a given type of attainment is endlessly repeated for its own sake; and there is the aspect of transition to other things - it may be of higher worth and it may be of lower worth. Also there are aspects of struggle and of friendly help. But romantic ruthlessness is no nearer to real politics, than is romantic self-abnegation."

"The vitality of thought is in adventure. Ideas won't keep. Something must be done about them. When the idea is new, its custodians have fervor, live for it, and if need be, die for it."

"The great achievements of the past were the adventures of the past. Only the adventurous can understand the greatness of the past."

"The task of theology is to show how the world is founded on something beyond transient fact, and how it issues in something beyond the perishing of occasions. The temporal world is the stage of finite accomplishment. We ask of theology to express that element in perishing lives which is undying by reason of its expression of perfection proper to our finite natures. In this way we shall understand how life includes a mode of satisfaction deeper than joy or sorrow."

"The total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature."

"The worship of God is not a rule of safety - it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable."

"War can protect; it cannot create."

"Religion is the transition from God the Void to God the Enemy, and from God the Enemy to God the Companion."

"We think in generalities, but we live in detail."

"“Quality” is best measured by those who “use” a product rather than by those who make it."