Quotes Suitable for Framing: Thornton Wilder



Two quotations from Thornton Wilder’s Our  Town at the beginning of Act III:



“Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars… everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”  


“Over there are some Civil War veterans. Iron flags on their graves…New Hampshire boys… had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends – the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.”

The first quote reminds me of this passage from CS Lewis:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

How different our view of humanity if we view us as being merely intelligent animals or as immortal spirits sheathed in flesh.

The second quote is indicative of the old fashioned patriot that Wilder was, as demonstrated by his serving in the Army in World War I and in the Army Air Corps in World War II.  Civil War veterans in his day were as far in time from him as World War II veterans are from us.  Both groups of veterans, and the memory of them, serve as anchors for patriotism and heroism for the generations that came after them.

We are creatures of eternity but live in time and what we do in time echoes not only in eternity but for those who come after us.

Go here to view the quotes as performed in the 1940 film version of Our Town.  Start at 01:08:20.

More to explorer


  1. “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors”

    I don’t know if there’s any shame in Hell. It’s very possible there isn’t. But I can picture Hell as being nothing but shame, the knowledge that you made yourself into an immortal horror.

  2. Related, albeit mundane, thoughts from James Otteson by way of James Pethokoukis:

    Once you start thinking about human beings as members of classes–so, even if it’s classes that sound initially plausible or neutral, like the rich and the poor, immediately what you begin to do is to see human beings within those classes as being more or less interchangeable. [. . . .] [O]nce you begin to see people as being interchangeable, at least among classes, this religion, this nationality, this ethnicity, then you begin to dehumanize them. They don’t seem to you like individual centers of human dignity. [. . . .] But by contrast, when you see instead human beings as being individuals–which, by the way, I think is the correct way to view this, individual centers of human agency, individual centers of human dignity–that completely transforms our relationship to one another. [. . . .] And I think that’s captured by the individualism that you see in capitalism: that what we do is we see people, all people, any person as being unique, having dignity, and being uniquely precious in exactly this way. And when we see it that way–and this is what I call this triumph of human moral agency–that’s really a transformation in how we view other people.

    Not sure I agree with the idea that capitalists are less likely to instrumentalize people than are socialists, but then, Capitalism is a Marxist coinage.

  3. Ernst, I’d put it this way: there’s nothing in the capitalist system that requires opposition to the individual. It has the potential to be just in a way that statism can’t be. It can dehumanize people by lumping them into target markets, though, and it does not necessarily elevate.

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