I came across a quote from Quentin Crisp, "To my disappointment I now realized that to know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody. ", in a newsletter.

However, I can't figure out what it means. Does he mean if somebody claims to "know all", he's actually "despising everybody"? Or does he mean once somebody knows all, he will proceed to despise everybody instead of forgiving all?

I'm not sure if this would be more suited to this SE or the English Learner SE. Feel free to migrate it if it's not appropriate here.

  • 3
    Hello, Ji. As @user 159691 articulately expresses: '[S]orry, but in this site we deal with specific language issues (grammar, usage, meaning [of standard words and expressions] etc.) Interpretations of song lyrics, poetry or other forms of writing are subject to personal interpretations and personal preferences [and are thus off-topic on ELU].' Feb 24, 2018 at 17:18
  • "Feel free to migrate it if it's not appropriate here." exactly
    – Fattie
    Feb 24, 2018 at 23:00

2 Answers 2


“To my disappointment I now realized that to know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.”

          ‭ ― Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant

On Grammar (EL&U content)

Grammatically speaking, the key to understanding the actual meaning of this quotation is recognizing its parallel construction and the consequent equating of impersonal pronouns, or at least substantives if you prefer to call them that. Because of the parallelism of construction, the two uses of all as direct objects of their respective verbs are intended to co-refer to what the third direct object at the end refers to: everybody.

That’s as far as we can go to analyse the quotation as a matter of the language’s grammar and form. Anything beyond that is best understood only by knowing the broader context of his writing there. Here’s one possibility, but these things are better answered at our sister-site for Literature.

On Meaning (not EL&U content)

Crisp is saying that once you completely know people in all their private thoughts and histories and habits and peculiarities, the things that make each of us unique, rather than this intimate knowledge being a reason to find them all eminently human and therefore worthy of forgiveness, you instead find them worthy of contemptuous disregard. It is an application or elaboration of the familiar English-language proverb that runs:

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Which Wiktionary explains means that

The more acquainted one becomes with a person, the more one knows about his or her shortcomings and, hence, the easier it is to dislike that person.

Do not mistake that proverb or Crisp’s own statement as some universally recognized truth. Rather, they are only the speaker’s own perspective, one that has perhaps been shared by many others but which is not “true” in some logical sense like saying that east is the opposite of west. They may indeed say more about the speaker’s own point of view than about humanity in general.

Indeed a conclusion opposite to Crisp’s was reached by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he wrote:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

          ‭ ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • I think it's all a bit beyond the true scope of ELU, but you certainly make some good points eloquently! Feb 24, 2018 at 17:09
  • @FumbleFingers Thanks. That’s why I consider the ELU-worthy material to be the "On Grammar" portion alone, not the "On Meaning" portion.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24, 2018 at 17:18
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    @FumbleFingers You mean this one?
    – tchrist
    Feb 24, 2018 at 17:32
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    Indeed. Without it, I'd never have known what the guy at the counter replied when the Dalai Lama asked for the change from his $100 bill. Off-Topic, Closed, Deleted, Whatever,... - my world would have been the poorer if I hadn't caught that post in its brief public outing! Feb 24, 2018 at 17:46
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    @Fattie Unless you can be more specific you should not issue generalised complaints about the behaviour of people who contribute to this site. Whose answer are you criticising? Why? What do you mean by "totally off-topic"? If you look at the official definition of off-topic you will find that it is rather vague and that is difficult to reconcile with "totally". Please be more polite.
    – JeremyC
    Feb 24, 2018 at 23:37

It is a kind of joke to make a serious point. It is a play on the phrase "to know all is to forgive all" which is a translation from the French "Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner". Nobody seems to be sure where the French phrase comes from, but it meaning is that if you know all the circumstances about someone's actions then you will forgive him or her.

Quntin Crisp is saying that that is not how he sees things. The more he knows, the more he despises.

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