Aristotle? Elbert Hubbard? William Pitt? Fred Shero? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Receiving criticism is an unpleasant experience, but it is also inevitable. If your actions in the world are significant then you will draw detractors. This notion is cleverly expressed in the following pointed remark:
To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.
This statement of anti-advice has been attributed to two very different figures: the ancient Greek sage Aristotle and the American aphorist publisher Elbert Hubbard. Who do you think deserves credit?
Quote Investigator: QI has not found any substantive evidence to support an ascription to Aristotle.
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in an 1898 collection of short essays titled “Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen” by Elbert Hubbard. A piece about the abolitionist politician William H. Seward noted that he was the target of an assassination attempt. But Hubbard suggested that one must brave censure and danger to live a full and meaningful life. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
If you would escape moral and physical assassination, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing—court obscurity, for only in oblivion does safety lie.
Hubbard crafted multiple versions of the expression, and the saying was often attributed to him in the early decades of the 1900s.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1852 a compilation of quotations and aphorisms was published under the title “A Laconic Manual and Brief Remarker” by Charles Simmons. Someone named “N. Howe” was credited with a thematically related expression with overlapping vocabulary. However, the saying below did not mention criticism: 2
N. Howe. The way to be nothing, is to do nothing.
A thematically comparable saying “It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes” from Joseph Conrad in 1896 was discussed in this website entry.
In 1898 Elbert Hubbard published “Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen”, and the work included a version of the saying under investigation as noted previously in this article.
In 1903 Elbert Hubbard released a book focused on orators instead of statesmen titled “Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Orators”. The work included a section about William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, and Hubbard was dismissive when he discussed the father of William who was named Robert Pitt. Hubbard employed an instance of the saying, but it was not in the form of an aphorism: 3
Robert Pitt, son of Diamond Tom, escaped all censure and unkind criticism by doing nothing, saying nothing and being nothing.
In 1907 a politician named Thomas F. Doherty spoke during a City Council meeting held in Boston, Massachusetts. Doherty attributed the adage to William Pitt, Earl of Chatham who died in 1778. But QI has located no substantive support for this ascription. Perhaps Doherty was confused by an inexact memory of the previous citation: 4
But I am willing to cast all that aside, Mr. President, and say to the members of this body in the same manner that William Pitt, the great statesman of England, the great champion of the people’s rights in Parliament and Earl of Chatham, replied to the adverse criticism and unwarranted censure of the press of that day by saying: “The only way, my colleagues, to avert that is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
In March 1908 a newspaper in Hiawatha, Kansas printed a filler item that applied the saying to journalists. No ascription was given: 5
The newspaper man who escapes criticism does nothing, says nothing, and is nothing.
Also in March 1908 a newspaper in Eau Claire, Wisconsin printed an unattributed instance as a filler item. The compact phrasing of this version was similar to that used by the questioner at the beginning of this essay: 6
“TO ESCAPE CRITICISM, DO NOTHING. SAY NOTHING, BE NOTHING.”
In April 1908 the adage was modified to yield a statement exhorting businessmen to purchase advertisements in newspapers. The words were printed in a banner at the top of the front page of the “Evening Bulletin” in Honolulu, Hawaii: 7
To Court Business Disaster—Do Nothing, Say Nothing, Be Nothing, Advertise Nothing
Also in April 1908 the humor magazine “Life” printed a precise match. The adage was ascribed to “The Philistine” which was the magazine edited and published by Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft community: 8
To escape criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.—Philistine.
In June 1908 a newspaper in Salem, Oregon printed an unattributed filler item using a different phrasing. 9
“If you fear to be criticized, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
In July 1908 a variant instance was credited to Elbert Hubbard in a Hickory, North Carolina newspaper: 10
Elbert Hubbard says that a man in order to be well thought of, must think nothing, say nothing, do nothing.
In November 1909 Elbert Hubbard traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and delivered a lecture that was described in the pages of the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” newspaper. A journalist reported an elaborate version of the adage spoken directly by Hubbard: 11
“If a man is alive, if he’s tapping the reservoirs, he is sure to meet defeat. He’ll be knocked, he’ll be misunderstood, laughed at and perhaps called a foe to society.
“For the man who doesn’t want to be knocked and laughed at I give this recipe: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. Go in your hole and pull your hole after you and put up a sign ‘not at home.’ If any man follows this recipe, I assure you, he will never get turned down.
The February 1910 issue of “The Philistine” edited by Hubbard published a version of the saying that presented a phrasal ordering that was less common: 12
To avoid unkind criticism: say nothing, be nothing, do nothing.
In April 1914 the motto immediately above was printed again in the pages of “The Philistine”. This time the type size was very large, and an entire page was devoted to the expression. 13
Elbert Hubbard died with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. In 1920 The Roycrofters published a volume titled “The Motto Book: Being a Collection of Epigrams” by Fra Elbertus. The author name listed was a nickname used for Hubbard. An instance of the saying was included: 14
To escape criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing
In 1949 the industrious collector Evan Esar printed the adage with an ascription to Hubbard in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”: 15
To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.
In 1974 a newspaper in Pasco, Washington quoted a successful ice hockey coach employing the adage: 16
Fred Shero, coach of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team has advice for coaches sensitive to criticism, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing and be nothing.”
In 1977 the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” included the saying credited to Hubbard in a section devoted to the topic of criticism: 17
To escape criticism—do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.
In conclusion, QI believes that Elbert Hubbard should be credited with this saying. The version in the 1898 citation was written by him, and the version in the November 1909 citation was spoken by him. The version in the February 1910 issue of “The Philistine” that Hubbard edited would also be a reasonable choice. Other instances are supported, but the linkage is less direct.
Image Notes: Portrait of Elbert Hubbard from a Project Gutenberg eText via Wikimedia Commons. Title text from the cover page of “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” from the HathiTrust database. Image had been retouched.
(Great thanks to Andrew Old, Tom Joyce, Kat Caverly, Victor Arias Jr., and Clay Harris whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1898, Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen by Elbert Hubbard, Section: William H. Seward, Start Page 363, Quote Page 370, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York; The Knickerbocker Press, New York. (Edition copyright 1898; Reprint date November 1901) (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1852, A Laconic Manual and Brief Remarker by Charles Simmons, Topic: Nothing, Quote Page 376, IDLENESS, INDOLENCE, Topic: Idleness, Indolence, Quote Page 251, Published by Charles Simmons, North Wrentham, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903, Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Orators, Section: William Pitt, Start Page 163, Quote Page 167, Published by The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907, Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Twelve Months Commencing January 1, 1906 and ending January 5, 1907, (Proceedings of the Common Council on February 8, 1906, Speaker: Mr. Doherty (Thomas F. Doherty)), Quote Page 177, Column 1, Published by the Municipal Printing Office, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908 March 27, Brown County World, (Filler item without attribution), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Hiawatha, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1908 March 29, Eau Claire Sunday Leader (Eau Claire Leader), (Saying Spans three columns; no attribution listed), Section: 2, Quote Page 5, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1908 April 10, Evening Bulletin, (Banner at top of front page), Quote Page 1, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1908 April 23, Life, Volume 51, Aut Scissors Aut Nullus, Quote Page 438, Column 2, Published by Life Publishing Company at the Life Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908 June 22, Daily Capital Journal, (Filler item without attribution), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1908 July 23, Hickory Democrat, (Filler item attributed to Elbert Hubbard), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Hickory, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1909 November 7, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hubbard Praises Mayor Johnson: The Fra, Here on Lecture Bent, Quote Page 10-D, Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1910 February, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Volume 30, Number 3, (One saying in a miscellaneous set of sayings), Quote Page 96, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1914 April, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Volume 30, Number 3, (One saying in a miscellaneous set of sayings), Quote Page 96, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920, The Motto Book: Being a Collection of Epigrams by Fra Elbertus by Elbert Hubbard, Quote Page 56, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Elbert Hubbard, Quote Page 101, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1974 December 16, Tri-City Herald, Coaches’ Corner: Philly fans boo Santa by George Raveling (Washington State Basketball Coach), Quote Page 13, Column 3, Pasco, Washington. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: CRITICISM / CRITICS, Quote Page 144, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩