You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

Ann Landers? Abigail Van Buren? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Samuel Johnson? Malcolm Forbes? Paul Eldridge? James D. Miles? Dan Reeves?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am attempting to verify the following quotation because it will appear in a forthcoming book, but I have discovered multiple attributions:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

As I searched further I found a similar quotation with additional attributions:

The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.

Can you help determine the origin of this saying?

Quote InvestigatorQI agrees that these two expressions and several others can be grouped together because they are semantically closely aligned. Interestingly, members of this set have been employed by (or attributed to) a wide variety of individuals including: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, Paul Eldridge, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.

The earliest close match for this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:

Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.

In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

A close variant of the saying under investigation was presented in the book and featured prominently in multiple advertisements that appeared in the New Yorker magazine for the collection in 1979 [SCMF] [NYMF]:

“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.”

—from The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm

Today a visitor to the Forbes magazine website can search a quotation database maintained by the publisher called “Thoughts on the Business of Life” that contains more than 10,000 entries. The version of the adage in “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” is available in the database [TBMF].

The famous advice giving sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers used versions of this saying in the 1970s. But QI has not yet located any evidence of use before 1974 for either woman. The attachment of the quotation to the notable figures Samuel Johnson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe appears to be unsupported by current evidence.

QI has also examined a related saying: If you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors. Click here to read the other article.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In the nineteenth century Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a leading preacher in England. The following passage appeared in a sermon that he delivered in 1876. QI believes that the central theme of the adage was prefigured in the words of Spurgeon [MTCS]:

I think you may judge of a man’s character by the persons whose affection he seeks. If you find a man seeking only the affection of those who are great, depend upon it he is ambitious and self-seeking; but when you observe that a man seeks the affection of those who can do nothing for him, but for whom he must do everything, you know that he is not seeking himself, but that pure benevolence sways his heart.

In 1948 the novelist Paul Eldridge published an aphorism that was thematically close to the statement under investigation [PEJF]:

A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.

QI believes this adage differed from the 1972 remark attributed to Malcolm Forbes because it included the notion of retaliation. However, it did semantically align with the 1974 advice of Abigail Van Buren and the 1978 statement of Malcolm Forbes listed below. The reader may learn more the Eldridge’s maxim by clicking this link which leads to a separate entry on this blog.

In 1972 a version of the maxim was printed in the widely-syndicated newspaper column of Earl Wilson as noted above [EWMF]:

Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.

In 1974 the “Dear Abby” advice column printed a response to a letter writer called ANIMAL LOVER. The column was written by Abigail Van Buren, the pen name of Pauline Esther Friedman, and it delineated Abby’s recommended method for assessing character [ALDA]:

We’ve all known animal lovers who lavish an excessive amount of affection on pets, but who are cruel to people. The best index to a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.

In 1975 the “Dear Abby” advice column printed the note below which again alluded to Abby’s recommended method for evaluating character [VBDA]:

CONFIDENTIAL TO S. J. L.: Make a mental note of it. You can tell a great deal about a person by observing how he treats someone who can’t do him any good.

In 1977 a very similar counsel was given to a letter writer in the widely-distributed advice-column of Ann Landers. The author name Landers was the pen name of Esther Pauline Lederer who was the sister of the “Dear Abby” columnist [ALEL]:

Confidential to Friend or Phony?: The best way to judge an individual is by observing how he treats people who can do him absolutely no good.

In 1978 “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” by Malcolm Forbes was released and it contained a version of the saying as discussed earlier in this article [SCMF] [NYMF]:

You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.

Also in July 1978 the “People” column of the Chicago Tribune printed yet another version of the maxim and credited Ann Landers [CTAL]:

Columnist Ann Landers: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

Ann Landers continued to refine the adage, and a variant was published in the massive two volume compendium “The Ann Landers Encyclopedia, A to Z” in 1978. A page in the encyclopedia was dedicated to the topic “Conduct (How to Get Along With Others)”, and Landers presented several guidelines. The final one was this [ALAZ]:

Keep in mind that the true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.

In 1993 the comments of football coach Dan Reeves were featured in an article in the New York Times. He employed a version of the saying when discussing moral character [DRNY]:

Character is the most important factor, I don’t care if you are a player or coach.

You can tell the character of a person by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. If you do something for somebody and they can’t do anything for you, that says a lot about you as a person.

In 2003 a collection of quotations included a version of the maxim that was identical to the one given in 1972. However, this work ascribed the words to James D. Miles instead of Malcolm Forbes. No citation was provided [BKJM]:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. — James D. Miles

In the 2000s the maxim was sometimes credited to Goethe. For example, the 2004 book “ZenWise Selling” has a box with the following [ZSJG]:

Words from the Wise

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832, German poet, novelist and philosopher

In 2006 the quotation expert Ralph Keyes wrote about this saying in the key reference work “The Quote Verifier” [JCQV]. He noted that versions of the quote were used by the famous advice-giving columnists Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers. He also examined the common ascription to the eminent lexicographer Samuel Johnson of the following version:

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

Keyes pointed to a valuable website dedicated to Samuel Johnson quotations. The proprietor, Frank Lynch, has a page about the adage in the Apocrypha section. Lynch states that he has been unable to locate the maxim in the works of Samuel Johnson [SJFL].

In conclusion, based on current evidence QI would credit this quotation to Malcolm Forbes. However, the reader should also consider the distinct yet similar maxim of Paul Eldridge which appeared years earlier. Future discoveries may improve knowledge of this topic. However, QI thinks it is unlikely that the quote will be found in the works of Samuel Johnson or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

(Many thanks to Beth Pelkofsky who has conscientiously been working to determine a proper ascription for this adage. Her query inspired the formulation of this question and motivated this exploration.)

Update History: On August 21, 2012 a discussion of the citation for Paul Eldridge was added along with a link to a blog entry for Eldridge’s saying.

[EWMF] 1972 August 6, Hartford Courant, Coco Offered Fatty Arbuckle Role by Earl Wilson, Page 10F, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) [The word “easily” is misspelled as “esaily” in the newspaper scan.]

[SCMF] 1978, The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm by Malcolm S. Forbes, Page 45, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)

[NYMF] 1979 October 29, The New Yorker, Advertisement for the book The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm, Page 162, Column 3, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Accessed in The New Yorker archive 2011 October 21)

[TBMF] Forbes magazine website, Thoughts on the Business of Life database. Quotation: “You can easily judge the character…” by Malcolm Forbes. (Accessed thoughts.forbes.com 2011 Oct 27) link  link

[MTCS] 1877, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C. H. Spurgeon During the Year 1876 by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Volume XXII, [A Sermon Delivered June 15th, 1876 at Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington], Page 373, Passmore & Alabaster, London. (Google Books full view) link

[PEJF] 1948 August, The Jewish Forum: Devoted to Safeguarding Democracy by the United Aid of Jew and Non-Jew, “Lanterns in the Night” by Paul Eldridge, [Maxim 41], Quote Page 180, [Author name is spelled “Paul Eldrige” on the article page and “Paul Eldridge” on the cover], The Jewish Forum Publishing Co., New York. (Verified with digital scans; Great thanks to the librarians at the Main Library of the University of Iowa in Iowa City)

[ALDA] 1974 May 16, Springfield Union, Dear Abby: Animal-Lover Not Necessarily Best Mate, Page 39, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)

[VBDA] 1975 May 16, Chicago Tribune, Dear Abby: Suicidal wife is ‘crying for help’ by Abigail Van Buren, Page B10, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[ALEL] 1977 February 1, Omaha World Herald, Dog’s Sad Tale: ‘I’m Lonesome’, Page 10, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

[CTAL] 1978 July 25, Chicago Tribune, People, Page 10, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[ALAZ] 1978, The Ann Landers Encyclopedia, A to Z: Volume 1 of 2, Conduct (How to Get Along with Others), Page 296, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

[DRNY] 1993 February 7, New York Times, Backtalk: The Game Plan According to Dan Reeves, Comments by Dan Reeves, Page S9, New York. (ProQuest)

[BKJM] 2003, Worth Repeating: More Than 5000 Classic and Contemporary Quotes by Bob Kelly, Page 41, Column 2, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Google Books preview)

[ZSJG] 2004, ZenWise Selling by Lee Godden, Page 123, Telsius Publishing LLC, Signal Hill, California. (Google Books preview)

[JCQV] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 106, 116 and 301, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SJFL] The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page, Editor Frank Lynch, Apocrypha section, Quote: The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good. (Accessed samueljohnson.com 2011 October 28) link

[ZSJG] 2004, ZenWise Selling by Lee Godden, Page 123, Telsius Publishing LLC, Signal Hill, California. (Google Books preview)

2 thoughts on “You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

  1. Somewhere or another I got this reference for this quote (or a very close parallel):

    “A man is most accurately judged by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or to reciprocate.”
    — Paul Eldridge (1888-1982) American educator, novelist, poet
    _Maxims for a Modern Man_, #1198 (1965)

    Which seems to predate the Forbes reference.

  2. Dave Hill: Thank you for visiting the QI website and leaving a very valuable comment. I have created a new blog entry for the maxim of Paul Eldridge here:

    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/08/22/retaliate-reciprocate/

    I have also updated the entry above to include a short discussion and a pointer to the new blog entry.

    Comment update history: This comment was modified on August 21, 2012 after the new entry was added to the blog.

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