Wilfred Thesiger? Apocryphal?
“The harder the life, the better the man,” the British desert explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger is popularly quoted as having said.
Thesiger led an extraordinary life as an explorer and travel writer, and he left behind a large trove of wonderful photographs recording his experiences. I would like to use this saying, but the phrase “popularly quoted” makes me wonder if Thesiger actually said the words. Could you examine this aphorism?
Quote Investigator: The book “Wilfred Thesiger in Africa” edited by Chris Morton and Philip Grover printed the transcript of an interview that naturalist David Attenborough conducted with Thesiger which was first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in August 1994. Bold face has been added here and to passages further below: 1
ATTENBOROUGH: Do you think that hardship and, indeed, suffering bring nobility?
THESIGER: I think the harder the life, the finer the type, yes, and I certainly felt this about the Bedu. When I went there, I felt that the difficulty was going to be living up physically to the hardships of their life. But, on the contrary, it was the difficulty of meeting their high standards: their generosity, their patience, their loyalty, their courage and all these things. And they had a quality of nobility.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Years before the broadcast mentioned above, in 1904, a profile of the prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky included an English translation of a passage from one of his works. The formulation used by Gorky was distinct from Thesiger’s comment. Gorky presented the converse statement: 2
I don’t know why it should be so, but so it is; the better the man, the cleaner and the more honest his soul, the less energy he has; the more he suffers and the harder is his life.
In August 1994 Wilfred Thesiger directly spoke a version of the adage in an interview as noted above. Also in 1994 a biography titled “Thesiger” by Michael Asher was reviewed in a UK newspaper, and the reviewer presented a similar version of the expression: 3
These tribesmen answered to his aristocratic ideal, as if they were an inverted image of his own class (to which he is fiercely loyal) – and in their material poverty and spiritual resilience confirmed Thesiger’s philosophy of ‘the harder the life, the finer the person’.
Wilfred Thesiger died in 2003 at age 93. The Telegraph (UK) newspaper printed an obituary containing the aphorism. The paper said that Thesiger’s reputation was built in the 1940s when he crossed “the Rub ‘al Khali, or Empty Quarter” in Arabia: 4
His motive for crossing it was not primarily to reap glory for himself, but to share the hardship of the life of the Bedu and to earn their comradeship. He was not in thrall to the desert itself but, like T E Lawrence, to his admiration of those who lived there: “The harder the life,” ran his credo, “the finer the person.”
In conclusion, Wilfred Thesiger did say “the harder the life, the finer the type”, and he lived most of his adventurous life in harsh terrains.
(In Memoriam: Great thanks to Stephen whose request initiated this exploration.)
- 2010, Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, Edited by Chris Morton and Philip Grover, Chapter 2: Heart of a Nomad: Wilfred Thesiger in Conversation with David Attenborough, [Interview first broadcast on Channel 4 in August 1994], Start Page 74, Quote Page 82, Pitt Rivers Museum, HarperPress imprint of HarperCollins, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1904 December 15, The Independent, Maxim Gorky by Prince Peter Kropotkin, Start Page 1378, Quote Page 1381, Column 1, Published by The Independent, New York. Link (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1994 September 25, The Independent (UK), “BOOK REVIEW: A lifelong search for just deserts” by Colin Thubron, [Review of: Thesiger by Michael Asher], Independent Print Limited, London, United Kingdom. (Online at independent.co.uk; accessed October 4, 2011) ↩
- 2003 August 26, The Telegraph (UK), Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Section: Obituary, Telegraph Media Group, London, United Kingdom. (Online telegraph.co.uk; accessed November 8, 2012) link ↩