If You Want to Know What a Man’s Like, Look at How He Treats His Inferiors

J. K. Rowling? Lord Chesterfield? Sirius Black? Charles Bayard Miliken? M. C. B. Mason?

Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite quotation from the entire Harry Potter series was the brilliantly insightful remark spoken by the character Sirius Black:

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

Did the author originate this saying?

Quote Investigator: One theme in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling is the mistreatment of a class of servants called house elves. The term “inferiors” is used to refer to individuals who have a lower rank or status within a society. This group included house elves in Rowling’s fantasy universe.

In the book “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” the character Hermione Granger was unhappy with the treatment given to a house elf by Bartemius Crouch, a powerful official. Sirius Black concurred with Granger that Crouch’s actions revealed a character defect. Here is a longer excerpt in which Hermione Granger speaks of the dismissal of a house elf, and Black then addresses Ronald Weasley [GFSB]:

“Yes,” said Hermione in a heated voice, “he sacked her, just because she hadn’t stayed in her tent and let herself get trampled—”

“Hermione, will you give it a rest with the elf!” said Ron.

Sirius shook his head and said, “She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron.  If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The popularity of Rowling’s books provided wide-dissemination for this guideline about assessing character. But this general expression has a long history, and QI has located an example in 1910 that communicated the same idea using comparable language [CMRT]:

It is the way one treats his inferiors more than the way he treats his equals which reveals one’s real character.

—Rev. Charles Bayard Miliken, Methodist Episcopal, Chicago.

Below are additional selected citations on this theme in chronological order starting in the 1700s.

QI has also examined a related saying: You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. Skip to the end of this article for a comparison of these two sayings and/or click here to read the other article.

The Earl of Chesterfield’s letters to his son were published multiple times with editions available by the 1770s. These letters have historically been used to provide a model regarding proper manners and etiquette in the United Kingdom. A letter dated May 17, 1748 discussed the topic of communicating with inferiors [ECPS]:

The characteristic of a well-bred man is, to converse with his inferiors without insolence, and with his superiors with respect, and with ease.

In 1805 a book about unrest in Ireland discussed the general high-regard achieved by the Dean of Kilfenora, a member of the upper-class. The author presented an interesting definition for “gentleman” that hinged on the appropriate treatment of inferiors [WPDK]:

The Dean of Kilfenora is the only instance of complete success. The reason is this: that he is, in the best sense of the word, a gentleman; that is, he treats his inferiors, whatever their station, with civility and affability. This is the real secret of conciliating the Irish peasantry; it is not your money or your protection that will win their hearts, but the respectful kindness which removes from their minds the painful sense of degradation.

In 1852 The Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper of Amherst, New Hampshire printed an article titled “Courtesy to Inferiors” that contained a passage thematically similar to the quotation under investigation [FCCI]:

But apart from spiritual motives, a man’s true claim to refinement of character and good sense, is better tested by scarcely any social incident, than by the way he treats his inferiors in life. Nothing shows a greater abjectness of spirit than an overbearing temper. To insult or to abuse those who cannot resist, or dare not resent the injury, is a sure mark of cowardice, as it would be to draw a sword upon a woman.

In 1902 the periodical Printers’ Ink published a statement describing the behavior of a gentleman [GTPI]:

A gentleman is one who treats his inferiors with the greatest courtesy, justice and consideration, and who exacts the same treatment from his superiors. — New York Daily News.

In January 1910 an Ohio newspaper published an article titled “Religious Thought: Gems Gleaned from the Teachings of All Denominations” that included a statement similar to the one written by Rowling. This citation was also presented near the beginning of this post [CMRT]:

He will show his goodness in the kindly consideration he shows those less favored than himself. It is the way one treats his inferiors more than the way he treats his equals which reveals one’s real character.

—Rev. Charles Bayard Miliken, Methodist Episcopal, Chicago.

The words above of Reverend Miliken were published in multiple newspapers in 1910. By 1911 a comparable statement delivered by another religious speaker named Dr M. C. B. Mason was printed in newspapers [DRCB]:

The measure of a man is how he treats his inferiors and that will be the test of a man in the days to come.

In 1913 a book about San Francisco was published that included a profile of Leland Stanford, the prominent industrialist who founded Stanford University. The connection between character and the treatment of inferiors was mentioned [SFLS]:

All who knew him personally recognized his kindly disposition and he was held in great regard by his employes. The poorest man in his employ could go to him and be sure of considerate treatment. It has been said that the surest criterion of the character of an individual is the way in which he treats his inferiors. Mr. Stanford never let it be known that he considered an individual an inferior.

In 1930 an article in the Augusta Chronicle discussed the standards that should be used when judging a society or an individual [ICAC]:

One of these standards is the treatment that the weak and inferior receive from the strong and superior. It is a matter of no great importance as to what church a lady belongs but it is highly important as to how she treats the social inferior who enters at the back door and does the menial tasks about a home.

As a matter of fact there is no other standard of measurement more accurate than the manner in which a man treats his inferiors and dependents.

In conclusion, the adage spoken by Sirius Black in the 2000 book “Goblet of Fire” has a long historical resonance. A similar expression was employed by Charles Bayard Miliken in 1910, and the general theme can be traced back to at least the 1700s.

Comment: QI has received questions about the relationship between these two sayings:

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

2) If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

Although these expressions are similar they are discernibly distinct. For example, the servant of an individual is typically deemed an inferior. Servants usually do perform actions for an individual. It is also easy to see how maltreating servants can backfire. The edict that an individual should show consideration to a person who can do nothing for him or her is a more rigorous ethical principle it seems.

(Many thanks to Suzanne Watkins for her pioneering exploration of this saying. She pointed out the adage in Rowling’s book to QI, and she showed that the saying could be traced back to the early part of the twentieth century.)

[GFSB] 2000, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling, Page 525, Arthur A. Levine Books: Imprint of Scholastic Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[CMRT] 1910 January 29, Mansfield News, Religious Thought: Gems Gleaned from the Teachings of All Denominations, [Passage from Rev. Charles Bayard Miliken, Methodist Episcopal, Chicago], Page 15, Column 4, Mansfield, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)

[ECPS] 1774, Letters Written by the Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to His Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq: Late Envoy Extraordinary at the Court of Dresden, Volume 1, Fourth Edition Revised and Corrected, [Letter dated May 17, 1748], Start Page 288, Quote Page 289, Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, London. (Google Books full view) link

[WPDK] 1805, An Enquiry into the Causes of Popular Discontents in Ireland by An Irish Country Gentleman [William Parnell], Page 78, Printed by J. Milliken, London and Dublin. (Google Books full view) link

[FCCI] 1852 September 30, Farmer’s Cabinet, Courtesy to Inferiors, Page 1, Column 2, Volume 51, Number 8, Amherst, New Hampshire. (GenealogyBank)

[GTPI] 1902 September 03, Printers’ Ink, Volume 40, Number 10, Page 26, Column 2, Geo. P. Rowell & Co., Publishers, New York. (HathiTrust) link link

[DRCB] 1911 September 15, The Daily Review, Freedman’s Address, Page 1, Column 6. Decatur, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) (Many thanks to Suzanne Watkins who located this citation)

[SFLS] 1913, San Francisco: Its Builders, Past and Present: Pictorial and Biographical, Volume 2, Leland Stanford, Start Page 18, Quote Page 26, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois and San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link

[ICAC] 1930 August 15, Augusta Chronicle, Let’s Think This Over: Civilization’s Yard Stick by I. S. Caldwell, Page 6, Column 4, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)