Short world-changing documents written in English.
October 29, 2007 2:17 PM   Subscribe

What essays, papers, or declarations were written in English and have changed the world.... and are short enough to memorize?

Memorization helps prevent the early onset of dementia. My roommate brought this up at a house dinner last night, and -- after a rousing recitation of the declaration he's memorizing -- convinced several of us to memorize something ourselves. Now we're all trying to come up with good selections.

The rules:
* It must have "changed the world" or "changed history."

* It must have been written in English. It can have been simultaneously written in another language, but the translation cannot have been an afterthought. So, the Bible and the Koran are out. (Some people were open to exceptions here.)

* It must be short enough to memorize but long enough to be a challenge. My roommate tested his -- it was 17,000 words long and took him 90 minutes to read out loud. So I'd say 20,000 words is the outside limit. Shorter is fine, but we don't want it so incredibly short that it's too easy.

* Ideally, we'd memorize the entirety of the document, rather than a sub-section.

We were surprised -- the group of us could only brainstorm half a dozen documents that really met all the criteria. I thought perhaps you all might have a few to suggest.
posted by salvia to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
declaration of independence. the most obvious one, i know.
also, bill of rights.


declaration of sentiments.


declaration of the rights of man

posted by buka at 2:24 PM on October 29, 2007


I think that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address fits your requirements. But I don't think you're going to find much else. It's the "changed the world" part that you're going to have trouble with. Essayists don't generally have that kind of influence.

Another possibility is Churchill's "We will fight them on the beaches" speech to Parliament.

Or "Blood, toil, tears, sweat". (Same link)
You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:24 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


And as soon as I posted that, I thought of something else: the Bill of Rights.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:25 PM on October 29, 2007


martin luther king's letter from birmingham jail


gettsburg address.

churchhill's 'never was so much owed by so many to so few, iron curtain speech.
posted by buka at 2:28 PM on October 29, 2007


ah, that's actually Churchill, not "churchhill."
posted by buka at 2:29 PM on October 29, 2007


The preamble to the U.S. Constitution. "We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union..." You can even sing it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:31 PM on October 29, 2007


kennedy's televised speech to the nation during the cuban missile crisis.

also, his inaugural address.
posted by buka at 2:35 PM on October 29, 2007




http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/previous.htm

http://www.famousquotes.me.uk/speeches/

i agree with most of the lists found at the above pages, most especially:

The Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5 - 6 - 7

The Spanish Armada Speech
Queen Elizabeth 1st of England - 1588

The Farewell Speech
Queen Elizabeth I - 30th November 1601

wikipedia has a good page, as well.

posted by buka at 2:43 PM on October 29, 2007


I think some people are missing this part of the question:

It must be short enough to memorize but long enough to be a challenge. My roommate tested his -- it was 17,000 words long and took him 90 minutes to read out loud. So I'd say 20,000 words is the outside limit. Shorter is fine, but we don't want it so incredibly short that it's too easy.

Given that, I think the preamble to the constitution and the Gettysburg address would qualify as "too easy." Try the entire U.S. constitution, if you're looking for soemthing more on the order of what your roomate did.

Another possibility is Washington's Farewell Address.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:48 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]




I have a book entitled - appropriately enough - Speeches that Changed the World. If you're willing to forego the "document" criterion (though I do doubt most of these speeches were spoken off-the-cuff..), you'll find plenty in that.
posted by PuGZ at 2:53 PM on October 29, 2007


Great Speeches of the 20th Century.
posted by bonaldi at 2:53 PM on October 29, 2007


Obligatory Amazon link.
posted by PuGZ at 2:54 PM on October 29, 2007


Yeah, I totally missed the "long enough to be a challenge" bit. Oops. And here I thought I was being so clever.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:55 PM on October 29, 2007


also, khrushchev's secret speech and lenin's last testament and "A Letter to a Congress."
posted by buka at 2:58 PM on October 29, 2007


the magna carta
posted by kanemano at 3:07 PM on October 29, 2007


the magna carta

... was originally written in Latin, so doesn't count. The same disqualification applies to Khruschev and Lenin. As the OP says, "it must have been written in English".

My first thought (slightly banal I know) was the codification of the rules for association football - which changed the sport into something that went on to be huge across most of the world.
posted by greycap at 3:14 PM on October 29, 2007


Treaty of Westphalia.
posted by yeti at 3:17 PM on October 29, 2007


I googled famous english speeches.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:25 PM on October 29, 2007


Actually, there's more documents at this site that you could shake a parchment at.
posted by yeti at 3:27 PM on October 29, 2007


Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:40 PM on October 29, 2007


Federalist 10 might qualify.
posted by shanevsevil at 3:52 PM on October 29, 2007


Of Miracles is strictly part of Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, but has often been published separately.
The works of Bertrand Russell. e.g. 'Why I am not a Christian' has been a strong influence on 20th/21st century 'evangelical' atheism. And the 'Russell-Einstein Manifesto' was important in the early nuclear disarmament movement.

Some other important documents, which may not be as good for oration:
Charter of the UN
UK Attorney General's opinion (pdf) on UN resolution1441 as a justification for use of force against Iraq
The Death Warrant of Charles I of England is maybe a bit short, but definitely important.
Treaty of the Act of Union, 1707 uniting Scotland and England and paving the way for the British Empire.
posted by Jakey at 4:13 PM on October 29, 2007


Elizabeth Cady Stanton's speech The Solitude of Self, which is 4,000 words. It may fairly be considered less world-changing than other speeches and documents from the Women's Suffrage movement, but it's an amazing piece of rhetoric.
posted by lorenzism at 4:19 PM on October 29, 2007


John Winthrop's "A modell of Christian charity"/"City on a hill" speech, 1630
Wilson's "14 points" speech, 1918
Gandhi's "Quit India" speeches, 1942
Nehru's "Tryst with destiny" speech on the eve of Indian independence, 1947
Harold Macmillan's "Wind of change" speech to the South African parliament, 1960
Nelson Mandela's "I am prepared to die" speech in the dock during his trial in 1964
posted by mdonley at 4:35 PM on October 29, 2007


Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream." My copy of Microsoft Word clocks it at 1,651 words.
posted by princesspathos at 4:37 PM on October 29, 2007


Oh, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
posted by mdonley at 4:37 PM on October 29, 2007




Watson and Crick's 1953 paper in Nature describing the structure of DNA. Not only did it change the world, it's an absolute paragon of concision in science writing. The PDF here is two pages, but their paper only includes the first three lines on the second page.
I promise that you will be spared the embarrassment of having memorized the same thing as someone else.
Here's a version annotated with some of the story behind their discovery. For bonus points, be able to extemporize on Rosalind Franklin's role, and how she (very likely) got raw deal because she was a woman.
posted by pullayup at 5:25 PM on October 29, 2007


Many great suggestions so far! Thank you.

And good clarification, DevilsAdvocate. If it helps, let's use 1000 words as the lower limit. (The Declaration of Independence was suggested as a good place to start, and it's about 1300 words long, so I know the group would accept that, perhaps while considering it a "warm up.")

I personally think "changed the world" is the hardest criteria to meet, and I'm really excited about how some of these suggestions get at that portion of the question. Thanks!
posted by salvia at 5:32 PM on October 29, 2007


I'd chuck in the Bill of Rights: the 1689 one. And the Slave Trade Act 1807. Oh, and you could learn the Thirty-Nine Articles.

I'd be tempted to throw in The Communist Manifesto, as a work that's 'honorary English': the first translation appeared a couple of years after its publication in German, and after Marx moved to London. About 17,000 words, so it may have have been your friend's choice.

(What's interesting here is that the idea of texts capable of 'changing the world' really only emerges with widespread printing.)
posted by holgate at 6:26 PM on October 29, 2007


If you like concise important academic papers, here's Edmund Gettier's paper "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" -- three pages which overturned the consensus since Plato on one of the core questions in epistemology.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:27 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


For a more recent option, one that at least aspires to change the world (whether it has yet or not is debatable) is the "95 theses" portion of the Cluetrain Manifesto. At 2100 words, it might still be in your "warm-up" class though.

Great literature can change the world. I don't know if it meets your "essays, papers, or declarations" criteria, but it would be way cool to do a one-person recitation of Macbeth, which clocks in at 16434 words, according to MS Word, counting only the spoken lines (i.e., not the stage directions nor the indication of the speaker). Many of Shakespeare's plays would be over your upper limit, but Macbeth is his shortest, and also one of the best-known.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:44 PM on October 29, 2007


Civil Disobedience, by Thoreau
posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:44 PM on October 29, 2007


George Kennan's "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," at about 5, 300 words.
posted by notswedish at 7:48 PM on October 29, 2007


Miranda v. Arizona or Brown v. Board of Education, majority opinion.
posted by eritain at 7:49 PM on October 29, 2007


How about a little Shakespeare? Both "The Tempest" and "Macbeth" are under the 20,000 word limit, as are others.
posted by Marky at 8:28 PM on October 29, 2007


William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech is about 3200 words.

The fifth section of Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia is about 2600 words, and that's only one section (probably the most famous).

TS Eliot's Four Quartets has about 6700 words, and The Waste Land has about 3000.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 12:32 AM on October 30, 2007


Thanks again, everyone. There are so many good answers here that I never would have thought of!

For myself, I decided to exclude things that are famous mostly because they are inspirational or models of great rhetoric and focus on the actual ideas. holgate, you were right that my downstairs roommate is memorizing The Communist Manifesto. (A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism. What party does not paint its adversaries as communist? The time has come to declare what being communist really means.) (Or something -- I'm not the one memorizing it!) I didn't want to send the discussion in one particular direction right from the start by mentioning that, especially since I'd been thinking more of philosophy and science (I'd been looking for any papers Einstein might've written in English).

This has been great so far. Even deciding what would be worth memorizing has been an interesting exercise. And being only three sentences into the Declaration of Independence, just as an early experiment, is fascinating. Having to recite a document makes you get into its internal logic in a much deeper way. I recommend it to anyone. Thanks again!
posted by salvia at 11:22 PM on October 30, 2007


Oops. This didn't make sense: "For myself, I decided to exclude things that are famous mostly because they are inspirational or models of great rhetoric and focus on the actual ideas." What I meant was "instead focus." As I've narrowed down, I've found myself looking for the turning points of science, worldview, and philosophy, which I didn't necessarily expect, but it was what came out as I tried to sort through all of these great suggestions. Thank you again.
posted by salvia at 11:37 PM on October 30, 2007


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