I was copy-editing my book this week, which is about ancient philosophy. To my surprise, and mild horror, I discovered that one of my favourite quotes is mis-attributed to Aristotle. The quote is:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
It sounds like something Aristotle would say. He, like other ancient Greeks, insisted on the importance of habit in ethics (in fact, the word 'ethics' comes from the word 'ethos', which means habit). But he never wrote that phrase. It's actually a paraphrase of Aristotle's ideas by a modern writer called Will Durant, in his 1926 book, The Story of Philosophy. Durant so successfully translated Aristotle's ideas into a modern catchphrase, that you can now find that phrase in any number of self-help, business coaching and counseling books (type it into Google books and have a look). And I was about to pass it on. Oops!
So what other famous quotes are actually misquotes? Remember this one by Martin Luther King going round the internet after the assassination of Osama bin Laden:
I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.
Moving words, shared by hundreds of thousands of people through social networking sites in the days after Osama's death. Except MLK didn't say them. As a journalist at the Atlantic magazine discovered, they were said by a 24-year-old graduate of Penn State University, Jessica Dovey, who wrote them at the beginning of a genuine MLK quote which she posted as a Facebook update. The whole quote was then shared by thousands of people and attributed to MLK:
I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. [The next lines are by MLK] Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Or what about this enchanting little quote:
Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
This is a favourite quote for self-help and happiness books, and authors either attribute it to John Stuart Mill or Nathaniel Hawthorne. But I can't find it in either of their books. It's too neat, too much of a jingle, for either of them - but perfectly compact to be circulated ad infinitum on the internet and in self-help manuals and presentations.
Or you might know this dazzling quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will ever be.
Rhonda Byrne uses this quote in her blockbuster self-help book, The Secret, to support her claim that all the great minds of the past - Emerson, Newton, Plato etc - believed in the Law of Attraction. Except, again, the quote is made up, or mis-attributed. There's no record of Emerson saying or writing it - nor any of the other Emerson quotes in Byrne's book.
How about this feel-good quote, often attributed to Nelson Mandela:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
Fabulous huh? But once again, Mandela never said that. Read it again: is it likely a hard-boiled former guerrilla would give a speech telling us all to be fabulous children of God? It actually comes from a New Age guru called Marianne Williamson, from the Course of Miracles movement. But it sounds better if it comes from Mandela.
Gandhi is another 'wise old man' archetype who's had a lot of quotes attached to his name to help their circulation. For example, one of the most popular catchphrases for self-help gurus -
Be the change you wish to see.
- actually comes from an interview with Mahatma's grandson, Arun. There's no record of Mahatma saying it.
Perhaps the most popular quote among self-help authors is Shakespeare's 'to thine own self be true'. It is, in fact, an authentic quote, from Hamlet. But it is said by one of the more pompous characters in Shakespeare - Polonius, a foolish courtier who spends most of the play lying, dissembling, and being untrue to himself and everyone else. The quote in its original context is soaked in irony. But that doesn't matter. It's a perfect little soundbite for our impatient age to circulate.
Any other popular mis-attributions you can think of?