When Swedish engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel died in 1896, his will stipulated that most of his vast fortune should be set aside for several annual prizes — the Nobel Prizes — that would be bestowed on the world’s most distinguished individuals. He selected five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. The first ceremony was in 1901, and in 1969, a sixth award was added to honor excellence in the economic sciences. Today, the Nobel Prizes are considered the most prestigious awards in the world.
Every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, the six Nobel Prizes are awarded at a ceremony in Sweden to individuals or organizations — selected by four Swedish and Norwegian institutions — who have made the greatest impact on society in the past year. The seven quotes below are some of the most famous, meaningful, and inspirational lines from Nobel Prize acceptance speeches through history.
I am in debt not only to people; there is the whole of nature as well. The animals that walk the earth, the birds in the skies, the trees and flowers, they have all told me some of their secrets.
— Selma Lagerlöf, 1909
When Selma Lagerlöf accepted her Nobel Prize for literature in 1909 — the first woman to win that prize — she used the speech to tell a story, a tale of missing her father and daydreaming what an encounter would be like with him at that moment. In the line above, she speaks of debts, and all the various people, places, and things she owed her inspiration to. These things allowed her to create stories full of life and vivid details. The quote shows that inspiration doesn’t come from one particular place; it can and does come from everything around you.
I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners — all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty — and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
— Martin Luther King Jr., 1964
This is the final line of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize. He won it for a lifetime of dedication to peace and nonviolent activism — but he felt the honor wasn’t his alone. Here, King is saying that working toward a societal goal takes a whole village. Behind every person who’s earned an award like the Nobel Prize is a long line of people who helped them get there.
Silence, too, can speak out.
— Lech Wałęsa, 1983
Before becoming the first Polish president ever elected by popular vote, Lech Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for his tireless efforts fighting nonviolently for human rights and trade unions in his country. This line from his acceptance speech shows that silence can carry a gravity of its own. You don’t need to shout or even speak to make your point; sometimes a well-placed silence makes it for you.
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
— Elie Wiesel, 1986
Writer, activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for being a spiritual leader and guide for speaking out against oppression. His poignant speech centered the importance of standing up for what’s right. Here, Wiesel notes that staying silent amid wrongdoing lets harm continue unchecked and empowers whoever is causing the harm. The best way to help someone who can’t help themselves is to raise your voice on their behalf.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
— Toni Morrison, 1993
In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize, which she earned in the literature category. Her novels showcase the realities and struggles of life as a Black American. The Nobel Committee specifically noted that “she delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race,” which we can see in this line from her acceptance speech. Whatever the actual meaning of life may be, how we communicate and tell our own stories sets us apart from all other living creatures on Earth.
Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”
— Wisława Szymborska, 1996
Wisława Szymborska’s poetry won her the Nobel Prize in 1996. Her speech was speckled with now-famous quotes, including the one above, as well this clever opener: “They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway.” In her speech, she reflected that life is full of challenges, difficulties, and setbacks, but in trying to find solutions and continuing to push forward, we also find inspiration.
If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it — what it all means.
— Bob Dylan, 2016
The 2016 Nobel Prize in literature went to master songwriter Bob Dylan for introducing a new type of poetry to American music through his lyrics. He spent his acceptance speech musing on how his songs relate to literature, and the meaning and messages behind them. Ultimately, he made the point that analysis and interpretation of art isn’t really all that important. As long as what you’re listening to, seeing, or experiencing has meaning to you personally, that’s what matters.
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