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This is a Mark Twain aphorism:

The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right.

This is apparently intended to be easily understood, but the connection between fools and lightning is not clear to me.

Is this based on some idiom? Is it to do with being struck by lightning or lightning as a metaphor for a flash of inspiration or luck? I'm leaning towards the former, as lightning must have been a more serious nuisance in those days than it is today, with lightning rods and all.

  • Are you sure Mark Twain said it? I can only find it in unsourced quotations attributed to Mark Twain, but it's not found in Google Books earlier than 1980. – Peter Shor Oct 4 '14 at 0:00
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    @PeterShor It was first published in Merle Johnson, More Maxims of Mark, privately printed, 1927. No notice of its source is given; but Johnson, a rare book collector and Twain bibliographer, appears to be regarded as reliable by Twain scholars. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 4 '14 at 2:07
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On its face, I take the underlying meaning of this quip to be "If lightning bolts struck people down according to their deserts, they would target more of the world's idiots".

(I suspect that most of us have some sympathy for this sentiment.)

2

If the lightning were correctly distributed it would keep fools down to a manageable number.

  • It's not clear to me how this answer differs substantively from Erik Kowal's answer from two years ago. It is neatly expressed, however. – Sven Yargs Sep 22 '16 at 19:24
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I always thought the quote read "the lighting ain't"... which actually makes more sense to me, since it's so often the foolish (or narrow-minded) people who strive to be in the spotlight as opposed to the knowlegeable people who keep quiet and focus on their own work/lives.

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