If We Are Here to Help Others, I Often Wonder What the Others Are Here For

W. H. Auden? George Herbert Palmer? Young Boy? Thomas Robert Dewar? John Foster Hall? Anonymous?

auden09Dear Quote Investigator: Altruism is a cornerstone of many religions and philosophies. Here are two versions of a humorous comment on this topic:

If we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for.

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

This quip has been attributed to the prominent poet W. H. Auden and the Scottish whisky distiller Thomas Dewar. Do you know who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: The first expression listed above was attributed to Thomas Robert Dewar in 1926. The joke was included in a set of sayings printed in a newspaper under the title “A Peer’s Epigrams” with a concluding ascription to “Lord Dewar”. The details for this cite are given further below

In addition, W. H. Auden did write the second expression in a 1942 essay, but the context indicated that he was repeating an existing joke. Details are further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared before the above two citations in the “Year Book of the Brookline Education Society” in1897. A lecture was delivered in Brookline, Massachusetts by a Harvard Professor named George Herbert Palmer, and he spoke about the complex nature of altruism:

We must be altruists—although I am not sure that altruism is not a sort of contradiction.

Palmer told a version of the joke in which a child spoke the punch line: 1

Professor Palmer here related an anecdote of two children who were overheard talking one night on the end of living. Such a narrow subject for children! The girl said that she knew what she was here for—”to help others.” “Well,” remarked the boy, “what are the others here for?” This is the weakness of altruism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1904 the anecdote recounted by Palmer was presented in the “Cleveland Leader” of Ohio. The same item appeared in other papers in 1904 such as the “Duluth Evening Herald” of Minnesota and the “Bolivar Breeze” of New York. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3 4

Professor George Herbert Palmer, of Harvard College, says that the masculine habit of rigid, logical reasoning is contracted very early, and in illustration he tells the following story:

A little boy and girl of my acquaintance were tucked up snug in bed when their mother heard them talking. ‘I wonder what we’re here for?’ asked the little boy.

The little girl remembered the lessons that had been taught her and replied sweetly, ‘We are here to help others.’ The little boy sniffed, ‘Then, what are the others here for?’ he asked.

By September 1904 a modified and compressed version of the tale was in circulation. A New York magazine called “Recreation” printed an item in which the boy was given a name. The periodical “Argonaut” was acknowledged: 5

Johnny: I wonder what we’re here for?
Little Sister: To help others.
Then, what are the others here for?
—Argonaut.

In 1911 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania printed an instance of the joke under the title “Fair Question”. The interaction was between a father and son instead of a sister and brother. A Chicago paper was acknowledged, and this version appeared in multiple newspapers: 6

Willie: Pa?
Pa: Yes.
Willie: Teacher says that we’re here to help others.
Pa: Of course we are.
Willie: Well, what are the others here for?
—Chicago News.

In 1921 an instance with a member of the clergy appeared in a periodical called “Co-operation” under the title “What Are the Others To Do?”: 7

A little boy said to his father, who was a clergyman, “You say that we are to help others?” “Yes, my son, we are to help others.” “Then,” said the little boy, “what are the others to do?”

Edward Mendelson is a Professor of English at Columbia University who has expertise concerning the life and works of the poet W. H. Auden. Mendelson wrote a brief article about this quip at the website of “The W. H. Auden Society”. He noted that a version was employed by an English music-hall and radio comedian named John Foster Hall. A 1923 audio recording titled “The Parson Addresses His Flock” in which Hall portrayed a comical Vicar included the following line: 8

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

A 26-second audio with the joke in MP3 format can be downloaded and played by visiting a webpage of the society located here.

In 1925 a New York newspaper linked the jape to a modern “Klods Hans”, a character featured in a fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen: 9

“Father, teacher says we are in the world to help others,” “That’s right, sonny!” “Then what are the others here for?”—Klods Hans, Copenhagen.

In 1926 “The Malayan Saturday Post” of Singapore printed a set of statements under the title “A Peer’s Epigrams”. The ascription to Lord Dewar was ambiguous because both Arthur Dewar and Thomas Robert Dewar were addressed as Lord Dewar. However, Thomas was known for epigrams such as the following three which were part of the set: 10

Life is full of trials, with an occasional conviction.
We want less artillery rattle and more baby rattles.
If we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for.
—Lord Dewar

In 1942 W. H. Auden published an essay about George Bernard Shaw titled “The Fabian Figaro” in the journal “Commonweal”. Auden employed the quip as a rhetorical aside in his essay, and the text matched the words spoken by the comedian John Foster Hall. Indeed, Auden was apparently deliberately quoting Hall, and the expression was not meant to be considered original: 11 12

Moreover, if great men are the only hope of the Evolutionary Process, they are morally bound to rule the masses for their own good—we are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know—and the masses have no right whatsoever to resist them.

Auden also included the remark in a 1948 piece titled “Squares and Oblongs”: 13

The poet is capable of every form of conceit but that of the social worker:—“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”

In 1954 an instance was printed in a widely-distributed Sunday newspaper supplement called “The American Weekly” in a humor column called “The Wit Parade”. A mother lectured her young son about selfishness: 14

“You know, darling,” she pointed out, “we are in this world to help others.”

He considered this for several seconds, then asked soberly: “Well, then, what are the others here for?”

In conclusion, this popular joke has been circulating for more than one hundred years. The earliest printed evidence in 1897 suggests that Professor George Herbert Palmer of Harvard first popularized the anecdote in which a child speaks the punch line.

A version of the jape was ascribed to Lord Dewar by 1926, and he may have used it, but he did not originate it. W. H. Auden did employ the quip more than once, but it was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Photo of a bottle of Dewar’s whisky by author Nfutvol from Wikimedia Commons. The photo has been cropped. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Red and blue hands from Nemo on Pixabay. Portrait of W.H. Auden by Carl Van Vechten from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Update History: On April 28, 2014 a direct citation for the 1942 “Commonweal” article was added to supplement the citation for the 1953 reprint.

(Special thanks to Dennis Lien who pointed to an article in the November 1927 issue of “Pearson’s Magazine” containing a collection of “The Witty Sayings of Lord Dewar, King of Epigrammatists”. This gave impetus QI to explore the saying under investigation which was listed in the article.)

Notes:

  1. 1897, Year Book of the Brookline Education Society, Second Year: 1896-1897, Third Lecture, January 27th: Subject: “The Profession of the Teacher”, (Date of lecture January 27, 1897), Start Page 14, Quote Page 16, Published by The Riverdale Press: C.A.W. Spencer, Brookline, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1904 May 25, Cleveland Leader, To Be Told After Dinner, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1904 July 19, Duluth Evening Herald, Logical, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Duluth, Minnesota. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1904 August 11, Bolivar Breeze, (Untitled item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Bolivar, Allegany County, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. September 1904, Recreation, Volume 21, Section: Advertising, Some Good Guides, Quote Page lviii (decimal 58), Column 2, Published by G. O. Shields (Coquina), New York. (The advertising section appeared between the August 1904 and the September 1904 issues, and it was unclear which issue included the section) (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1911 June 23, Philadelphia Inquirer, Fair Question, Quote Page 11, Column 6, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1921 January, Co-operation (formerly “The Co-operative Consumer”), Volume 7, Number 1, Vital Issues: What Are the Others To Do?, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Published by The Co-operative League of America, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. Website: The W. H. Auden Society, Article title: “We are all here on earth to help others . . .”, Author: Edward Mendelson, Date on website: No date specified, Date available in Internet Archive Wayback Machine: August 4, 2004, Website description: Website of “The W. H. Auden Society” which “commemorates the life and work of one of the greatest poets in the English language”. (Accessed audensociety.org on April 21, 2014) link
  9. 1925 March 24, Cortland Standard, Just for Fun, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Cortland, New York. (Old Fulton)
  10. 1926 June 12, Malayan Saturday Post, current Opinion, A Peer’s Epigrams, (Attributed to Lord Dewar), Quote Page 19, Column 2, Singapore. (Singapore Government database; NewspaperSG eresources.nlb.gov.sg)
  11. 1942 October 23, Commonweal, Volume 37, The Fabian Figaro by W. H. Auden, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Commonweal Publishing Co., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  12. 1953, George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey, Edited by Louis Kronenberger, The Fabian Figaro by W. H. Auden, (Reprinted from The Commonweal, October 23, 1942), Start Page 153, Quote Page 155, The World Publishing Company. (Verified with scans)
  13. 2002, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose, Volume 2: 1939-1948, Authored by W. H. Auden, Edited by Edward Mendelson, (Spares and Oblongs: Essays Based on the Modern Poetry Collection at the Lockwood Memorial Library, University of Buffalo, 1948), Start Page 339, Quote Page 347, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Amazon Look Inside)
  14. 1954 August 29, Boston Record American, Section: The American Weekly, The Wit Parade by E. E. Kenyon, Quote Page 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)