Our Greatest Glory Is Not in Never Falling, But in Rising Every Time We Fall

Confucius? Nelson Mandela? Vince Lombardi? Oliver Goldsmith? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Christian Nestell Bovee?

goldsmith08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about motivation and perseverance has been attributed to an oddly eclectic group: Chinese philosopher Confucius, football coach Vince Lombardi, activist politician Nelson Mandela, Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here are four versions. The fourth uses “failing” instead of “falling”:

1) The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

2) The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.

3) Our greatest strength lies not in never having fallen, but in rising every time we fall.

4) Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.

I have no idea if any of these ascriptions is correct because I have not seen any documentation listing a source. Would you please help me with this frustrating situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1760 and1761 a series of letters written by an imaginary Chinese traveler based in London named Lien Chi Altangi was published in “The Public Ledger” magazine of London. The actual author was an Irishman named Oliver Goldsmith who used the perspective of an outsider from China to comment on and satirize the life and manners of the city. Goldsmith later achieved fame with his novel “The Vicar of Wakefield” and his play “She Stoops to Conquer”. 1

The letters were collected and released in book form in 1762 under the title “The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East “. The seventh letter from Lien Chi Altangi included an instance of the adage: 2

Our greatest glory is, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

A different phrasing of the maxim was included in the twenty-second letter:

True magnanimity consists not in NEVER falling, but in RISING every time we fall.

QI has located no substantive evidence that the ancient sage Confucius constructed this saying in either form, and QI believes that Goldsmith crafted it. However, the context of these simulated exotic letters led many readers to believe that the author was relaying aphorisms from China. Indeed, the introductory note for the seventh letter specifically referred to Confucius:

The Editor thinks proper to acquaint the reader, that the greatest part of the following letter seems to him to be little more than a rhapsody of sentences borrowed from Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.

By 1801 an edition of “The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith” included the letters that were originally ascribed to Lien Chi Altangi. Hence, the words were properly credited to Goldsmith. 3

Yet, by 1831 the saying had been reassigned to Confucius. In later years, the phrasing evolved, and the adage was attributed to a variety of individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In modern times, there is evidence that both Vince Lombardi and Nelson Mandela used the expression. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1806 an instance of the saying was used as a punch line in a joke printed in a Boston, Massachusetts periodical called “The Emerald”. Goldsmith received credit, and the wording was slightly altered to use the word “virtue”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4

A ruby-nosed devotee of Bacchus, when reproved for the heinous sin of drunkenness, justified himself by quoting from Goldsmith, “that virtue consists not in NEVER FALLING, but in RISING every time we FALL.”

In 1824 an instance was printed in a book of religious instructions, and the expression was ascribed to Goldsmith: 5

We may say of Christianity, what Goldsmith says of magnanimity—“Magnanimity consists not in never falling, but in rising again every time we fall.” So Christianity (or the practice of it) consists not in never falling, (for no man ever escaped falling) but in rising every time we fall; which is recovering ourselves, repenting, and zealously repairing our failures…

In 1831 “The Royal Lady’s Magazine” of London printed an instance and ascribed the words to Confucius: 6

PERSEVERANCE.
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. — Confucius.

In 1893 the Reverend James Wood published a “Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources”, and he credited the expression to the epigrammatist Christian Nestell Bovee who was born in1820 after the phrase had already entered circulation: 7

The glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall. Bovee.

In 1899 a character in the novel “Across the Campus: A Story of College Life” employed the adage while crediting Confucius: 8

“I don’t think that we shall be judged for falling over the obstacles, but for the way in which we take the bumps. Don’t you remember, Confucius says ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.'”

“Such a quotation is like a hot-water bag to the emotions,” said Christine, solemnly.

In 1900 the saying was included in a collection called “Gems of Literature” where it was assigned to the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: 9

Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
—Emerson.

In 1908 “A Dictionary of Thoughts” was published by the editor Tryon Edwards who was sufficiently impressed by the saying that he included it three times. The first instance appeared in a section dedicated to the theme “Error” where it was embedded within a passage credited to C. N. Bovee who connected the aphorism to China: 10

It is only an error of judgment to make a mistake, but it argues an infirmity of character to adhere to it when discovered. The Chinese say, “The glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.” — Bovee.

The second instance was credited to Oliver Goldsmith and printed in a thematic section for “Glory”: 11

Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall—Goldsmith.

The third instance appeared in a section about “Repentance”. The additional word “may” was inserted, and Oliver Goldsmith was again credited: 12

Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we may fall—Goldsmith.

There is good evidence that the prominent football coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin employed this adage. For example, in 1969 the top quarterback Bart Starr relayed the words that he heard from his coach to a newspaper reporter: 13

“Coach Lombardi made a statement a few years ago which, I think, applies perfectly now. He said our greatest glory here in the Packer organization was not in never falling, but in rising every time we fell. I think there is a great deal in that.

In September 1998 South African President Nelson Mandela visited U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington and expressed support for the beleaguered chief. During a White House reception Mandela employed the adage to emphasize the need for resilience when facing adversity: 14

“If our expectations, if our fondest prayers and dreams, are not realized,” he said, “then we should all bear in mind that the greatest glory of living lies not in never falling but in rising every time you fall.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Oliver Goldsmith should receive credit for this adage, and the two forms he wrote in the 1760s were the earliest. It is conceivable that Confucius wrote something similar, but at this time QI has not located a matching statement to support this claim.

In more recent decades the adage has been spoken or written by others such Vince Lombardi and Nelson Mandela.

Image Notes: Confucius image gouache on paper, circa 1770 via Wikimedia Commons. Oliver Goldsmith image via Wikimedia Commons. Nelson Mandela in 2008. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with attribution: South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za. The three images have been cropped.

(Great thanks to Maree Robertson whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (Third edition), Entry: The Citizen of the World, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 26, 2014)
  2. 1762, The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East by Lien Chi Altangi (Oliver Goldsmith), Letter VII and Letter XXII, Printed for George and Alex. Ewing, Dublin, Ireland. (ECCO TCP: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Text Creation Partnership) link link link
  3. 1801, The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Volume 3 of 4, Letter VII, Quote Page 21, Letter XXI, Quote Page 75, Printed for J. Johnson, G. and J. Robinson, W. J. and J. Richardson, et al, Printed by Nichols and Son, Red Lion Passage, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1806 November 29, The Emerald, or Miscellany of Literature, Number 31, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 369, Printed and published by Belcher & Armstrong, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1824, A Familiar and Explanatory Address to Young, Uninformed, Scrupulous Christians, On the Nature and Design of The Lord’s Supper, Chapter: Faith and Morality; or, Faith and Works, Start Page 98, Quote Page 104, Published by John Letts, Cornhill, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1831 May, The Royal Lady’s Magazine, and Archives of the Court of James’s, Volume 1, Facts and Scraps by A Bookworm, Start Page 330, Quote Page 331, Published by W. Sams, St James’s Street and Sherwood and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1893, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources, Selected and compiled by Rev. James Wood, Quote Page 430, Published by Frederick Warne and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1899, Across the Campus: A Story of College Life by Caroline M. Fuller, Quote Page 178, Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1900, Gems of Literature: Liberty and Patriotism, Selected and arranged by Paul DeVere, Quote Page 83, Gem Publishing Company, Highmore, South Dakota. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Section: Error, Quote Page 149, column 1, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Section: Glory, Quote Page 195, Column 1, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Section: Repentance, Quote Page 483, Column 2, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1969 July 27, Marietta Journal, NFL News and Notes: Irish, Big 10 Lead in Active Pros, Quote Page 9A, Column 6, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  14. 1998 September 23, New York Times, Mandela, at White House, Says World Backs Clinton by James Bennet, Quote Page A26, New York. (ProQuest)