Plato? Philo of Alexandria? Ian MacLaren? John Watson?
This blog post is based on a question that was posed at the wonderful blog used by the quotation expert Fred Shapiro who is the editor of one of the best reference works in this area: The Yale Book of Quotations. Fred Shapiro’s posts appear on the Freakonomics blog.
Question: This question is from Glossolalia Black.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
It is attributed to Plato on this little thing I have up in my office, but I was told by a friend that it wasn’t him.
Fred Shapiro replied “this sounds anachronistic for Plato by almost 2500 years” and then invited readers to attempt to trace the quotation.
Philo of Alexandria is another popular choice when assigning attribution, e.g., QuotationsBook credits Philo. Sometimes Anonymous gets the nod. QI was able to trace the saying back more than one-hundred years to its likely origin. The original aphorism did not use the word “kind”. Instead, another surprising word was used.
The citations below are a select subset in reverse-chronological order. A 1995 book of daily meditation topics contains an epigraph that credits the saying to a figure whose name does not sound ancient [PCM]:
Day 198: Charity
Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. –JOHN WATSON
John Watson is a relatively common name so this attribution is of limited help without further information. Continuing backward in time, in 1984 a newspaper in Seattle, Washington contains a quote that is somewhat similar to the target quote. In the following passage sympathy for fellow men and women is evoked because each is carrying a heavy burden [STM]:
Ian MacLaren, a noted Scotsman, author of “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush,” cared deeply about those around him. His oft-quoted words offer wise counsel: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”
Ian MacLaren was the pseudonym or pen name of Rev. John Watson. Wikipedia has an entry for MacLaren. His book “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush” was a best seller in the 1890s. In 1965 in the Chicago Tribune the words attributed to Ian MacLaren are a close match to the quotation we are tracing [CTM]:
Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”
In 1957 a curious letter appears in Trenton Evening Times in New Jersey [TTM]:
Sir–A thought to help us through these difficult times: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
This provides more evidence that the quote of interest is associated with Ian MacLaren. But the Scottish author died in 1907, and so the writer who signed the letter with his name was perhaps reusing the old pseudonym. In 1947 the saying appears in a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper [SCM]:
Not until trouble and heartache and sorrow came into my own life could I fully comprehend the words of Ian McLaren: “Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”
The next instance appears in a letter in a Canadian newspaper in 1932, but the meaning of the quotation given is not obvious to most modern readers. The word “pitiful” is used in a way that is now rare. Here is the appropriate definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:
pitiful, A. adj. 1. Full of or characterized by pity; compassionate, merciful, tender. Now rare.
The excerpt below mentions the Great War. This is a reference to World War I, as World War II begins in 1939. In the quote, MacLaren urges people to be compassionate to one another using the now uncommon meaning of the word pitiful. The name “MacLaren” is spelled “Mclaren” in this cite [WFM]:
Years before the Great War and all the problems that have hurtled down on us poor mortals in consequence thereof, Ian Maclaren wrote: “Be pitiful, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”
The next citation skips all the way back to 1898. A Boston, Massachusetts periodical, Zion’s Herald, contains a story about a Christmas message from MacLaren. This article is dated January, but it seems likely that the message was published in England before December 25, 1897 [ZHM]:
“IAN MACLAREN,” along with other celebrities, was asked to send a Christmas message to an influential religious weekly in England. He responded by sending the short but striking sentence: “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.” No message is more needed in our days of stress and storm, of selfish striving and merciless competition.
Another citation in 1898 provides the name of a publication in Britain that published the message of MacLaren. The name “MacLaren is spelled “Maclaren” in this cite also [CM]:
“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle,” was the tender Christmas message sent by Ian Maclaren to the readers of The British Weekly.
An extended discussion of the theme of the aphorism is present in a book published under MacLaren’s real name John Watson in 1903. The book section is titled “Courtesy” [HV]:
This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.
Thanks to Glossolalia Black and Fred Shapiro for the question.
[PCM] 1995, The Personal Companion: Meditations and Exercises for Keeping the Love You Find by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, Day 198 (instead of page number), Pocket Books: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Google Books limited view) link
[STM] 1984 July 21, The Seattle Times, Quiet Wounds: Be Kind, the Pain is Heavy by Rev. Dale Turner, Page A-8, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (Genealogybank)
[CTM] 1965 September 17, Chicago Tribune, Living Faith by Harold Blake Walker, Page B10, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
[TTM] 1957 January 3, Trenton Evening Times, Letters: Urges Kindness, Page number difficult to read, may be 10 or 16 (GB Page 4), Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
[SCM] 1947 November 27, News And Courier, Rob’t Quillen, Page 4, Charleston, South Carolina. (Google News archive)
[WFM] 1932 March 12, Winnipeg Free Press, Letter to the Editor: City Teachers and the Lawrence Lecture, Page 16, Column 8, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
[ZHM] 1898 January 26, Zion’s Herald, Be Pitiful, Page 101, Volume 76, Issue 4, Boston. (ProQuest American Periodical Series)
[CM] 1898 January 6, Congregationalist, In Brief, Page 9, Volume 83, Issue 1, Boston. (ProQuest American Periodical Series)
[HV] 1903, The Homely Virtues by John Watson, Courtesy, Page 168, Hodder & Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link