Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People

Eleanor Roosevelt? Charles Stewart? Henry Thomas Buckle? James H. Halsey? Hyman G. Rickover? Anonymous?

topics08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is largely used to deride people who are preoccupied with gossip:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

The words are attributed to social activist and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have been unable to find a solid supporting citation. Similar statements have been ascribed to philosopher Socrates and U.S. Naval engineer Hyman Rickover. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. As a child in London, Stewart listened to the conversation of dinner guests such as history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle who would sometimes discourse engagingly for twenty minutes on a topic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

His thoughts and conversation were always on a high level, and I recollect a saying of his, which not only greatly impressed me at the time, but which I have ever since cherished as a test of the mental calibre of friends and acquaintances. Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”

Stewart was pleased with Buckle’s adage, but he did not let its implicit guidance dictate his conversations. He wished to avoid the tedium of monotonous dialogues:

The fact, of course, is that any of one’s friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs.

Buckle’s tripartite remark specified the categories: persons, things, and ideas. The questioner’s statement used the division: people, events, and ideas. So the statements did differ; indeed, the remark evolved during decades of circulation, and it was reassigned to a variety of individuals.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The saying printed in 1901 was rooted in a long tradition of advice about the proper topics of conversation. For example, in 1827 a book of “Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits” addressed to theological students suggested avoiding the discussion of people. Instead, one should focus on facts or ascend the ladder of abstraction to converse on principles and doctrines: 2

…let me recommend, that, in company, even with your most intimate friends, you avoid the discussion of PERSONAL CHARACTER AND CONDUCT as much as possible; and that you prefer dwelling on those principles, doctrines, and facts, which are always and to all classes in society, interesting and instructive, and the discussion of which, moreover, is always safe.

In 1849 students of theology were told to shift the topic of conversations from persons to things. These were the first two categories mentioned by Buckle: 3

The great temptation both to ministers and people, is to talk about persons. “Why,” said Dr. Rush to some one, “are you always talking about persons? Why do you not talk about things?” The answer is plain. It is so much easier to talk about persons than things. It is so much more gratifying to our evil natures to talk about persons, especially their faults. Any one can talk about persons.

In 1875 a church publication called “The Monthly Packet” commented on life in a religious community, and suggested that discussion of the “character, habits, or conduct” of others should be avoided. Conversational topics were split into three categories: persons, things, and ideas; the latter two found favor with the “unusually cultivated and thoughtful”: 4

Yet as talk about persons, rather than about things and ideas, is far the commonest and most popular staple of conversation everywhere—save amongst unusually cultivated and thoughtful people; the temptation to drift into it will prove very strong indeed in the early days of a Community, and almost irresistible at times.

In 1888 a sermon posited three conversational categories: “persons”, “things”, and “events”. Once again a hierarchy of intellect was alluded to because the latter two categories demanded “intelligence and reflection and information”: 5

It is easier, no doubt, to talk about persons, because so many disagreeable remarks spontaneously occur to one. It is more difficult to talk about things and events, because this requires a certain amount of intelligence and reflection and information. If we are to talk of things, we must know something about them. And it is our duty to see that we do.

In 1898 a religious journal based in Philadelphia called “The Friend” printed a pithy and forceful injunction about conversation: 6

“About things, not about persons,” may be almost styled a nursery maxim regarding the proper subjects of civilized conversation.

As noted previously, Buckle’s trichotomy was printed in a 1901 autobiography titled “Haud Immemor: Reminiscences of Legal and Social Life in Edinburgh and London 1850-1900” by Charles Stewart. The remark was further disseminated when it was reprinted within a review of Stewart’s book in a journal called “The Academy”: 7 8

Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”

In 1903 an epistolary volume presented a more concise version of Buckle’s statement while preserving the ascription: 9

I believe it was Buckle, he of the “History of Civilisation,” who claimed that men and women were divided into three classes mentally. The first and lowest class talk of persons; the second talk about things; the third and highest about ideas.

In 1918 “Origin of Mental Species” by Henry James Derbyshire included a rephrased instance of the saying with no attribution: 10

It has been said long ago that there were three classes of people in the world, and while they are subject to variation, for elemental consideration they are useful. The first is that large class of people who talk about people; the next class are those who talk about things; and the third class are those who discuss ideas. All of us are conscious of this and we have also realized how distasteful the lower thought is after we have accustomed ourselves to the higher.

In 1931 a reader of “The New York Times” sent in a question that was published in the “Queries and Answers” column. The descending trichotomy of ideas, events, and people was employed in this instance with an unknown ascription: 11

“Great and Small Minds”

H. A. M.—Wanted, the correct quotation and origin of this expression: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

The following month in April 1931 a statement matching the one in “The New York Times” was published without attribution in a newspaper in San Bernardino, California. 12 In subsequent years the saying was used as an anonymous filler item in multiple newspapers across the U.S.

In 1947 James H. Halsey, the President of the University of Bridgeport, included the saying in a convocation speech, but he disclaimed authorship with the epigram label: 13

Perhaps you have heard the little epigram which goes like this: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and little minds discuss people.” Those who spend most of their discussion time in talk about people and events are not intellectually mature.

In 1959 Hyman G. Rickover who pioneered nuclear propulsion in the Navy employed the adage, but he credited an “unknown sage”: 14

To the uneducated, abstract ideas are unfamiliar; so is the detachment that is necessary to discover a truth out of one’s own knowledge and mental effort. The uneducated person views life in an intensely personal way—he knows only what he sees, hears or touches and what he is told by friends. As the unknown sage puts it, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

In 1960 the well-known columnist Walter Winchell reported on a sign he saw at the home of a popular entertainer: 15

Arthur Godfrey’s wall includes this reminder: “Great Minds Discuss Ideas. Average Minds Discuss Events. Small Minds Discuss People.”

In 1977 Laurence J. Peter included a version matching the one above in his influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time”. The statement was used as unattributed parenthetical commentary on a quotation by John Milton. 16

By 1987 the saying had been reassigned to Eleanor Roosevelt, e.g., in a Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper: 17

QUOTABLE
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

In conclusion, Henry Thomas Buckle was the originator of the three-part maxim published in 1901. He was building on earlier guidelines about desirable forms of conversation. After 1901 the statement evolved, and the category “things” was changed to “events” in the most common modern version. James H. Halsey and Hyman G. Rickover employed instances of the adage but did not craft it. The connection to Eleanor Roosevelt was spurious.

Image Notes: Screen images depicting persons, things, events, and, ideas from geralt at Pixabay. Light bulb-brain image from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mille Stelle, Inge Formenti, and Jay Dillon whose inquiry and valuable discussion on this topic gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and reactivate this exploration. Thanks also to Andrew for his inquiry. Many thanks to top researcher Barry Popik for his great work on this topic. Special thanks to Victor Steinbok for his excellent findings. The 1901 Buckle citation and other early cites were located and shared with other researchers by QI back in March 2011.)

Notes:

  1. 1901, Haud Immemor: Reminiscences of Legal and Social Life in Edinburgh and London 1850-1900 by Charles Stewart, Quote Page 33, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1827, Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits: Addressed to a Student in the Theological Seminary, at Princeton, N. J. by Samuel Miller (Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government in said Seminary), Letter 4, Start Page 88, Quote Page 95 and 96, Published by G. & C. Carvill, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1849, Lectures on the Pastoral Office: Delivered to the Students of the Theological Seminary at Alexandria, Virginia by Right Rev. William Meade, D.D. (Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Virginia), Lecture XVIII: On Other Hindrances to Usefulness, Start Page 205, Quote Page 205, Published by Stanford and Swords, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1875 June, The Monthly Packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, Volume 19, Papers On Sisterhood: XII: The Training of the Family, Start Page 595, Quote Page 597 and 598, Published by Mozley and Smith, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1888, Preaching and Hearing: And Other Sermons by Rev. A. W. Momerie (Alfred Williams Momerie), Second Edition, Common Sins: III Evil Speaking, Quote Page 174, Published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, United Kingdom. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1898, Seventh Month 23rd Day, The Friend: Religious and Literary Journal, Volume 72, Principle and Personality, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Published by Edwin P Sellew, Printed by Wm. H. Pile’s Sons, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1901, Haud Immemor: Reminiscences of Legal and Social Life in Edinburgh and London 1850-1900 by Charles Stewart, Quote Page 33, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1901 December 21, The Academy, The Quiet Man as Autobiographer, Page 610, Publishing Office: Chancery Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1903, A Parish of Two by Henry Goelet McVickar and Price Collier, Quote Page 142, Lothrop Publishing Company, Boston. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1919, Origin of Mental Species by Henry James Derbyshire, Quote Page 95, H. J. Derbyshire, Flint, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1931 April 19, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Queries and Answers, Quote Page 29, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. 1931 May 2, San Bernardino County Sun, (Quotation inside box with date title “May 2”), Quote Page 12, Column 2, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1947, Vital Speeches of the Day, Issue Date: October 15, 1947, Volume 14, Issue 1, Speech title: Education for Freedom: Achieve an Adult Maturity, Speech date: September 29, 1947, Speaker: James H. Halsey (President, University of Bridgeport), Event: Opening Student Convocation, University of Bridgeport, Location: Bridgeport, Connecticut, Start Page 25, Quote Page 25, Column 2, Published by McMurry Inc., Phoenix Arizona. (EBSCO Academic Search Premier)
  14. 1959 November 28, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 232, Issue 22, The World of the UNEDUCATED by Vice Adm. H. G. Rickover, Start Page 19, Quote Page 59, Column 2, Saturday Evening Post Society, Inc., Indianapolis Indiana. (EBSCO Academic Search Premier)
  15. 1960 February 13, The Pocono Record, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 8, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. (The original image has the misspelling “Evants” instead of “Events”)(Newspapers_com)
  16. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Mind, Quote Page 334, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1987 October 28, The Hutchinson News, Quotable, Quote Page Unspecified, Hutchinson, Kansas. (NewsBank Access World News)