The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Warren Buffett? Samuel Johnson? Maria Edgeworth? Bertrand Russell? Anonymous?

edgeworth01Dear Quote Investigator: I recall seeing a lecture by the famed investor Warren Buffett during which he cautioned his audience to avoid falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. He used this eloquent analysis:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

While searching for a source I found some other versions of the statement. Here are two that are credited to the brilliant dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson:

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

I was unable to find a precise citation to Dr. Johnson’s works. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: Investor Warren Buffett did use this phrase more than once during speeches, but he did not claim credit for originating the saying. Detailed citations are given further below.

The expression has a long history, and the famous lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson did write a prolix passage that was transformed and simplified in an evolutionary process that ultimately produced the concise modern aphorism used by Buffett.

In 1748 Johnson published an allegorical fable about the path to the Temple of Happiness titled “The Vision of Theodore”. The story warned readers using a symbolic figure named Habit who would bind the unwary in chains. A bound individual would be taken to a grim destination called the caverns of Despair. The following excerpt displayed a conceptual match to the modern saying. In addition, Johnson used the phrase “too strong to be broken” which was retained in some modern instances. Boldface has been added below: 1

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

In the early 1800s an influential Irish writer named Maria Edgeworth crafted a compact version of the sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson. Her book “Moral Tales for Young People” (second edition 1806) included a story called “Forester”, and in one scene the title character picked up a pair of scissors and twirled them on his finger absentmindedly. The character believed that this habit was undesirable: 2

He was rather ashamed to perceive that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.

Maria Edgeworth placed a footnote asterisk after the phrase “chains of habit”, and in the footnote she referenced “Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.” Edgeworth’s concise summary statement was clearly derived from Johnson’s story, but her expression was distinctive and did not appear directly in the fable’s text. Her forthright acknowledgement of Johnson probably facilitated some later confusion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1847 “The Teetotaler’s Companion; or, A Plea for Temperance” was published, and the author Peter Burne credited Samuel Johnson with a phrase that closely matched the compact statement of Edgeworth: 3

How admirably did the immortal Johnson express the truth when he said, “The diminutive chain of habit is scarcely heavy enough to be felt, till it is too strong to be broken.” Let each one, then, who drinks his cordial, for whatever reason, consider himself as walking on a sea of glass, where his discretion is ever required, and where, notwithstanding, he is for ever liable to fall.

Also in 1847 “The Churchman’s Monthly Penny Magazine” ascribed a statement very similar to Edgeworth’s summary directly to Samuel Johnson: 4

POWER OF HABIT.—The diminutive chain of habit is scarcely heavy enough to be felt, till it is too strong to be broken.—Dr. Johnson.

In 1857 the essays of the philosopher Francis Bacon were republished with extensive annotations by Richard Whately, the Archbishop of Dublin. Whately credited Johnson with another version of the saying as the phrasing continued to evolve: 5

It is important to keep in mind that—as is evident from what has been said just above—habits are formed, not at one stroke, but gradually and insensibly; so that unless vigilant care be employed, a great change may come over the character without our being conscious of any. For, as Dr. Johnson has well expressed it, ‘The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.’

Jumping forward in time, in 1921 another instance of the saying was ascribed to Johnson in a book with a religious theme “The Portrait of the Prodigal”: 6

Samuel Johnson once said that “the diminutive chains of habit are seldom felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

In 1968 the quotation collector Evan Esar included the saying in his compendium “20,000 Quips and Quotes”. This version did not use the word “diminutive”. An exactly matching instance appeared in “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” (1977) and “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” (1987). Johnson was credited in all three works: 7 8 9

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
– Samuel Johnson

In 1996 an article in the Salt Lake Tribune of Salt Lake City, Utah described a talk given by Warren Buffett at a nearby university during which he employed the adage: 10

And about 1,000 Weber State University students who attended a rare appearance by Buffett on campus Tuesday learned his advice to would-be moguls is the same wisdom Fred Rogers shares: Be nice, be honest, respect others and get along.

“What matters in the end is what kind of human being you are,” said Buffett, whose wealth USA Today earlier this year estimated at $16.6 billion.

“You can transform yourself into the person you want to be, but you have to decide early,” he said. “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.”

The 2006 book “The Tao of Warren Buffett” noted that Buffett employed the saying about habits. The authors ascribed the words to the philosopher Bertrand Russell: 11

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

This is Warren quoting the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, because his words so aptly describe the insidious nature of bad business habits that don’t become apparent until it is too late.

A video of Warren Buffett giving a speech was uploaded to YouTube in 2007. The text on the podium suggested that the venue was the University of Florida. Buffett employed the saying with a prefatory phrase disclaiming credit: “and they say”: 12

Most behavior is habitual, and they say that the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

And there is no question about it. I see people with these self destructive behavior patterns, at my age or even ten or twenty years younger, and they really are entrapped by them.

In conclusion, in 1748 Samuel Johnson published an allegorical tale that included a short passage expressing the central idea of the saying. By 1806 Maria Edgeworth had constructed a gracefully compact statement presenting this idea in a story called “Forester”, and she credited Johnson in a footnote. Edgeworth’s version was later reassigned to Johnson. Over the years the phrasing has been streamlined, and the vocabulary has been changed. Warren Buffett used a modern version in some of his speeches.

(Great thanks to Andrew Milmore whose thoughtful email query included an attribution in 1895 to Samuel Johnson. This inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1748 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 18, “The Vision of Theodore, The Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (by Samuel Johnson), Start Page 159, Quote Page 160, Printed by E. Cave, St John’s Gate, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1806, Moral Tales For Young People by Miss Edgeworth (Maria Edgeworth), Volume 1, Second Edition, Forester, Quote Page 86, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1847, The Teetotaler’s Companion; or, A Plea for Temperance by Peter Burne, Quote Page 117, Arthur Hall and Co., London.
  4. 1847, The Churchman’s Monthly Penny Magazine and Guide to Christian Truth, Volume 2, The Treasury, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 164, B. Wertheim, London. (The date is displayed on a limited number of pages. The quotation lies within an issue after July 1847 and before December 1947, inclusive) (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1857, Bacon’s Essays with Annotations by Richard Whately (Archbishop of Dublin), (Third Edition Revised), Quote Page 380, John W. Parker and Son, London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1921 Copyright, The Portrait of the Prodigal: Life Studies in the Experiences of the Prodigal Son by Joseph Nelson Greene, Quote Page 139, Published by The Methodist Book Concern, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Section: Habit, Quote Page 363, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Quote Page 147, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Custom, Habit and Tradition, Page 99, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1996 September 25, Salt Lake Tribune, Wizard of Wall Street Holds Audience Spellbound in Rare Appearance at WSU by Lisa Carricaburu, Page D5, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewsBank Access World News)
  11. 2006, The Tao of Warren Buffett: Warren Buffett’s Words of Wisdom: Quotations and Interpretations to Help Guide You to Billionaire Wealth and Enlightened Business Management by Mary Buffett and David Clark, (Saying Number 14), Quote Page 16, Scribner, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  12. YouTube video, Title: Warren Buffett MBA Talk – Part 1, Uploaded on May 23, 2007, Uploaded by: leizhg, (Quotation starts at 5 minutes 40 seconds of 9 minutes 52 seconds), (“University of Florida” is written on the podium; the exact location and time is not known to QI) (Accessed on youtube.com on July 13, 2013) link