What is this strange sentence by Walt Whitman?

The future is no more uncertain than the present. —Walt Whitman

This is supposed to mean "The future is certain, just like the present."

But it means the opposite...

I learnt in school that no more ... than... means negative...like

He is no more mad than you are. =You are not mad, nor is he.

Whats going on? Walt made a mistake?

• Hey @user13505, you generated a lot of interest; you only asked the question a few hours ago. Give it time. After all, you get to pick the one you like best :-) And you are getting answers from a lot of smart and knowledgeable people. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:24
• the present has a certain amount of uncertainty; the future also has the same amount of uncertainty Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:34
• If the present is uncertain by a certain amount x, future is uncertain by amount x or less.
– Lou
Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 10:44
• @HotLicks No, it says the future has no more uncertainty than the present. It is stated that the future has as much or less then the present. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 12:22
• @Clare That's one interpretation. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 18:42

The literal meaning

The meaning they told you in school is not the literal meaning.

"A is no more X than B" literally means that the degree of X possessed by A is no greater than the degree of X possessed by B. Or you could say that B has at least as much X as A. Usually there is an implication that both A and B possess X in approximately equal degree. For example:

Fresh spinach is no more expensive than canned spinach.

That is, the price of fresh spinach is not greater than the price of canned spinach. Probably you thought canned spinach was cheaper than fresh, but actually it's not.

Similarly for comparatives in -er rather than more:

My left shoe is no longer than my right shoe.

Figurative meanings

Often people use the expression "A is no more X than B" figuratively, to contradict the proposition that A possesses X in high degree.

"Jethro is crazy."
"Oh, come on. Jethro is no crazier than you are."

The idea here is to deny that Jethro is crazy, not directly, but by implying it. The listener is expected to understand the literal meaning, and to apply it on the assumption that "you" aren't crazy at all. Since "you" aren't crazy at all, and Jethro is not crazier than you are, it follows that Jethro is also not crazy at all.

Sometimes this indirect way of speaking is more effective than saying it directly, like "No, Jethro is not crazy". Asking the the listener to compare his level of craziness to Jethro's encourages him to pause and come to his senses. Maybe the listener is just upset. If he pauses and compares Jethro to himself, he might see that he is mistaken, whereas directly contradicting him might only escalate the difference of opinion.

What you were told in school was an attempt to skip understanding this figure of speech by telling you a literal substitute. That's hopeless. To understand the figure of speech, see how people play off the literal meaning. Then you'll be able to understand how people use it and vary it for rhetorical effect.

In fact, the same comparison can have the opposite meaning:

"Look at him ride that snowmobile straight into a fence. Jethro is crazy."
"No crazier than you, ha ha!"

This time, the second speaker means that the first speaker also rides around recklessly, courting danger. The second speaker is agreeing that Jethro is crazy, and saying that the first speaker is at least as crazy as Jethro—probably crazier.

By the way, this kind of figure of speech is called a "litotes": denying the opposite of what you mean in order to affirm it. It's a kind of understatement. A more ordinary example is "Walt Whitman was no fool." This really means "Walt Whitman was very wise."

Walt Whitman's meaning

Spelled out explicitly, Walt Whitman's sentence means:

You probably think that the present is certain and the future is uncertain. Well, think again! If you think about it carefully, you will see that the present is uncertain, too—and the difference between them is actually negligible.

Whitman doesn't mean that the future is certain. As in all the figurative uses of "no more than", he's calling upon the literal meaning. You know that the future is uncertain. Whitman is saying that the future isn't more uncertain than the present: that is, the present is also uncertain.

• Normally, X is no more (whatever) than Y uses Y as the point of comparison and says something about X. In the OP's quote, X=future and Y=present. I'd like to see somewhat more justification for turning this around to say that the future (X) is the point of reference and that Walt Whitman is making a point about the present (Y). Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:09
• @Lawrence For more justification, see Song of the Broad-Axe, §§4–5. Whitman is reversing common understanding in line after line. I am hoping, though, that no further justification is needed, since the idea is that this is figurative speech, which turns things around from their normal way for rhetorical effect, and which depends on the listener's ability to take the jarringness of the literal meaning as a cue to search for a figurative interpretation. What do you think? Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:23
• Thanks for the link. The stanza that includes the quote seems to be talking about the certainty that nothing will endure (except personal qualities). The line immediately preceding the quote seems consistent with the normal reading, where "X as much as Y" uses Y as a reference for X. After briefly looking at the quote in context, I still think Walt is trying to say that the future is at least as certain as the present, not that the present is at least as uncertain as the future. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:30
• @Lawrence Good point! Now I find myself reading "the dead advance as much as the living advance" as "the living don't advance"—another reversal of the usual choice of which clause is the reference point, though this supports the interpretation that the future is certain, i.e. "nothing endures" (said literally a couple lines later). Well, I refer the OP to your excellent answer, which I might now prefer to my own. (Mostly I wanted to get on a soapbox about understanding figurative language in relation to the literal meaning instead of trying to shortcut it.) Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:44
• Haha! I had to look at a few more lines before convincing myself that Walt Whitman hadn't reversed the dead/living comparison. And thank you for your kind referral. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:57

The context

To understand the quotation, consider the context. It's from a poem called Song of the Broad-Axe. Here are the surrounding lines:

Muscle and pluck forever!
What invigorates life, invigorates death,
And the future is no more uncertain than the present,
And the roughness of the earth and of man encloses as much as the delicatesse of the earth and of man,
And nothing endures but personal qualities.
What do you think endures?
Do you think the great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best-built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d’oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments?

Away! These are not to be cherish’d for themselves;
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them;
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance.

The point, as I understand it, is that human attempts to create great, lasting, refined, and especially civilized things that impose collective order on individuals—great cities and economies, constitutions carefully designed to secure lasting law and order, elegant buildings made of stone and metal, brilliant works of civil engineering, etc.—all fail, for the only thing that endures is "muscle and pluck": just the innate ability of people to deal with their situation as well as they can, using plain physical strength and some cleverness and courage. The raw, instinctive roughness of life endures, not the attempts to reshape it into something "delicate".

The figure of speech

To understand the figure of speech, first you have to understand the literal meaning of "no more than", explained in my other answer. Now here's how the figure of speech works.

Normally you would say that the future is more uncertain than the present. That stands to reason: the further away something is from what you can directly observe right now, the less certain it is. The present is certain, the future is uncertain. By denying this, Whitman is trying to throw you for a loop: "What? That's crazy! Of course the future is more uncertain than the present. Is this guy an idiot or something?" Literally, Whitman is denying the obvious truth. That triggers a rapid mental search for a different interpretation, one that makes sense.

First, you realize that the present actually is uncertain. It's not at zero uncertainty, it's actually filled with uncertainty. Here are the previous few lines:

The sack of an old city in its time,
The bursting in of mercenaries and bigots tumultuously and disorderly,
Goods freely rifled from houses and temples, screams of women in the gripe of brigands,
Craft and thievery of camp-followers, men running, old persons despairing,
The hell of war, the cruelties of creeds,
The list of all executive deeds and words, just or unjust,
The power of personality, just or unjust.

Now that you see that the present is uncertain, this opens up some wiggle room for the future. They're both uncertain, future and present. He's not talking about the degree of confidence you can have about the future, he's talking about the quality of present and future life: filled with uncertainty. It's like saying "the future is no darker than the present."

But why use the present to set an upper bound on the uncertainty of the future? Why talk as if he's narrowing down the uncertainty of the future? Because his point is that it's going to stay this way. There will be no progress, at least none that matters, and even that won't last. Life is now, has always been, and always will be rough, brawny, unrefined.

The "double-reversed" expression makes the sentiment seem, at least to me, like a profound basis for optimism, unlike if he had said "The future is as certain as the present." Uncertainty is usually thought of as a bad thing, and the wording denies the greater uncertainty that we normally associate with the future, paradoxically encouraging a kind of appreciation of the uncertainty of the present.

• A grand poem indeed, for our lives and times! The crucial line is all does very well till one flash of defiance. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:59
• @Wildcard I didn't want a longer wording, say, adding another sentence, because I thought that would draw too much attention to itself and distract from the main ideas about the choice of words. I'm open to other ideas, though. Can you suggest another wording? Or even a vague idea for a new approach that might break me out of my mental rut? OK, I just had a new idea. Editing… Please let me know what you think. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 12:59
• @EnglishStudent Thanks! I think the rep cap truncated about 400 of those points, but I consider that an honor. :) Regarding "cult of the brain": Some people try to be "scientific" when talking about everyday mental phenomena like language by speaking of brain regions and the like—"synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus"—instead of talking about the mind in plain language: "you come to see it differently." The reasons for the revulsion could fill a book, but briefly, I think it's unnecessary technicality, it's pretentious, and it's bad science. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 15:56
• Nice edit. (Upvoted.) And nice explanation of "cult of the brain," too. :) Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 22:20
• @EnglishStudent I assume that Wildcard invented the phrase "cult of the brain" while writing the comment. To someone who's seen it, it's a clear way to point out the phenomenon, at least in this context. It tersely and even poetically evokes parallels with religious cults: the group-think, the unnecessary jargon, the crazed denial or ignoring of the obvious, the "revolutionary" attitude of replacing the present order totally. Judging by the previous comment, I understood correctly. :) Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 23:11

It means "the future is not more uncertain than the present"

The present is uncertain; so is the future.

• Well, that was easy. Next. :) Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 5:21
• Does changing "no" to "not" really do anything to elucidate the meaning? And the summary is very poor, since the sentence doesn't mean that. For example, the situation that the present and future are both completely certain is consistent with the sentence. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:42
• It changes insight. So, yes. You seriously think Walt Whitman is saying that both the present and the future are certain? C'mon. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:59
• @BenKovitz I'm beginning to change my interpretation too. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:45
• I've come full circle. (A couple times, even!) Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 11:09

Since Xanne and Ben Kovitz have already given an excellent answer each, I will keep it simple and just add this point: taking it literally, IF THE FUTURE IS NOT MORE UNCERTAIN than the present, then it logically follows that the future is either as uncertain as the present, or less uncertain than the present: in either case,

the present is no more certain than the future (!)

This is what Whitman means, in a nutshell:

The present and future are equally uncertain.

(Whether this is true is of course debatable, but in my experience the present is as uncertain as the future.)

Note 2: regarding your last point

I learnt in school that no more ... than... means negative...like

He is no more mad than you are. =You are not mad, nor is he.

Whats going on? Walt made a mistake?

Your teachers were right to teach you this sense of the usage, which is the more common meaning. However, great writers don't make mistakes! Walt Whitman was merely twisting the conventional usage meaning of 'no more...than' for the purposes of poetic irony and has chosen to be profoundly literal here in actually saying and meaning that the future is not more uncertain than the present: the present and future are equally uncertain.

• When you say "in my experience the present is as uncertain as the future" can you give an example? I know what I am doing now, but I've no idea what I'll be doing in twenty year's time. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 9:06
• @dumbledad You are right in your own sense but I am talking about the day-to-day uncertainties on the ever-moving border of present and future. In fact a dynamic definition of 'present' would encapsulate only a few minutes of the literal present at a time but in those few minutes anything happens with ourselves basically being able only to react to what is happening; EXTREME EXAMPLE: when a railway bridge collapses without warning, everybody who is on the train is going through a 'most uncertain present' - this actually happened in my home state 16 years back and 55 perished. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 10:01

Yes, the construction no more ... than is usually negating; you can generally replace it with as not ... as:

This construction is no more confusing than irony.

Becomes

This construction is as not confusing as irony.

The key issue here is that un- is also negating, so in this sentence we have a double negative:

The future is no more uncertain than the present.

The two negatives cancel each other out, creating a positive. To see how this works, first take out the no more ... than construction:

The future is as not uncertain as the present.

Now, it should be clear that the not un- just drops out. Thus our final interpretation becomes:

The future is as certain as the present.

Whether you go from there to the interpretation the future is certain, just like the present will depend on how certain you believe the present to be. If you think that the present is definitely certain, then that interpretation makes sense; on the other hand, if you think that the present is not certain, then neither is the future. Ultimately, there is enough ambiguity in the line to make for a good debate topic.

• Your interpretation is fair and neutral. I have recommended it to OP in my comment under another answer as follows: "@user13505 the simple reply is that as 1006a suggests in the earlier answer, "the future is as certain or as uncertain as (you think) the present is". All that debate here arose because we love our language discussions here, and also because literary writings follow their own internal logic which is difficult to interpret from a grammatical point of view." Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 9:47
• Taken literally and out of context, it does not say the present is certain, nor uncertain. Nor does it say they are equal. One thing is certain: the meaning of almost any language is uncertain. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 10:07

I'll jump in with a dissenting opinion as I disagree with at least 2 of the 3 existing answers. Note that as this isn't a forum on forecasting or even literary criticism, I'll just stick with the plain English reading of the quote taken without any further context.

Your understanding of the "no more ... than" idiom is correct:

no more ... than used to emphasize that someone or something does not have a particular quality or would not do something - Longman

The quote you're interested in is:

The future is no more uncertain than the present.

The quality under consideration is something being uncertain, and the plain reading is that the future doesn't have this quality. That is, the quote asserts that the future isn't uncertain, at least when compared with the present.

In other words, the quote asserts that the future is at least as certain as the present.

• +1 for finding another reasonable way to interpret the figure of speech! (I misunderstood your first comment to my answer.) Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:31
• You are of course right: this interpretation is entirely valid from the perspective of grammar and usage, but possibly creates an element of cognitive dissonance in the unwary reader (how can the future be less uncertain than the present, the less discerning reader thinks) and also misses the literary irony entirely. If the source of the quote is known, we might factor that into the interpretation if its meaning, methinks. If OP had not mentioned Whitman your answer would be entirely sufficient for the purposes of this website! Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:33
• @EnglishStudent Ben Kovitz kindly provided a link to the source. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, the author seems to be trying to assert the (dark) certainty of the future, where "nothing endures [except] personal qualities". The assertion is not that the future is less uncertain than the present, it's that it's just as certain as the present. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:35
• @Lawrence "dark certainty of the future" -- this interpretation I can agree with! The future is darkly certain in being fundamentally uncertain. (and so is the present.) In your wide experience here, I should think that literary quotes have been by far the most complicated to interpret from a language & usage perspective! (Let me also clarify that my whole background in English is literary, based on 33 yasrs of constant reading from the age of 4, which would explain how or why, although not at all a reader of Whitman, I have interpreted the writer's original sentence the way I did.) Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 7:42
• @Ben Kovitz thanks for directing me to your second answer which really identifies Whitman's meaning -- since this new answer is very much a literary interpretation whereas your first answer uses a linguistic approach, I would suggest you retain both answers whuch are entirely different but equally valid, and illustrate how a question can be approached from 2 contrasting angles to yield fresh and intriguing meanings. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:57

The context

To understand the quotation, consider the context. It's from a poem called Song of the Broad-Axe. Here are the preceding couple lines:

What invigorates life, invigorates death,
And the future is no more uncertain than the present.

The figure of speech

The meaning is simple: you're going to die.

Here are the same lines, with glosses added:

What invigorates life, invigorates death, [The more people who live, the more people will die.]