Ralph Waldo Emerson? Martin Luther King Jr.? Emily Faithfull? Amelia Edith Barr? Charles A. Beard? Thomas Carlyle? Norman Vincent Peale? Anonymous?
1) Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
2) When the night is dark enough the stars shine out.
3) Not until it gets really dark do the beautiful stars appear.
Admittedly, there is considerable ambiguity when interpreting these sayings, and the most common meanings may have shifted over time.
The first version above is often attributed to the famous transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I searched a database of his complete works and was unable to find it. Would you please explore this adage?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the 1843 book “Past and Present” by the influential Scottish philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle. He employed an instance of the metaphor while discussing squalor, strikes, and revolts. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
As dark misery settles down on us, and our refuges of lies fall in pieces one after one, the hearts of men, now at last serious, will turn to refuges of truth. The eternal stars shine out again, so soon as it is dark enough.
Different versions of the expression have been circulating for more than a century and a half, but the meaning has been malleable. In the instance above QI believes that Carlyle was suggesting important truths emerged during times of tribulation.
QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson used the expression. Some writers of moral instruction and romantic fiction did use instances in the 1800s.
The prominent historian Charles A. Beard employed the saying in lectures and articles by 1909, but he credited Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, when Beard was asked to summarize his extensive knowledge of the past he produced a condensation that consisted of four laws of history, and one law was based on Carlyle’s words. The other three are listed further below.
The civil rights champion Martin Luther King used an instance in a speech, but he credited Charles A. Beard. The popular religious writer Norman Vincent Peale also helped to popularize the saying.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1852 a sermon by the Reverend Edward B. Moeran presented a metaphor that was thematically related to Carlyle’s usage. Moeran argued that sectarian and religious divisions would disappear over time. In the following passage the stars represented immutable verities whose emergence would enable a closer alignment of theological viewpoints: 2
The stars are visible only in darkness, but though equally set in the firmament during the light of day, they are lost in the brightness of the glorious sun.
So it is when the minds of Christians understand, and the hearts of Christians embrace the Gospel of peace, diversities tend to fade away, simply because they fail to attract.
In 1869 a book titled “Practical Composition: With Numerous Models and Exercises” printed the following sentence, but it was an isolated statement that was not part of a larger analogy: 3
The glittering stars of night are jewels that sparkle brightest when it is darkest.
In 1873 Emily Faithfull who was the editor of “The Victoria Magazine” printed a letter she had received from “A Workingwoman”. The shining stars represented a hope for positive change though the writer suggested that it was perhaps a forlorn hope: 4
To-day I saw the remark that “When the night is dark enough the stars shine out.” Beautiful thought! Well, my night can’t be much darker, it don’t seem to me; so perhaps there will soon shine out some stars.
In 1876 Amelia Edith Barr published “Romances and Realities: Tales of Truth and Fancy” which contained a short story about a woman named Ruby who rejected the marriage proposal of a man named John. Ruby loved John, but she was unhappy with his low social position. After suffering setbacks that reduced her to poverty, Ruby felt contrition and searched for John; they were reunited: 5
But when it is dark enough, the stars shine out; and, one miserably cold, dreary night, as she was feebly making her way up Broadway, almost fainting from exhaustion, some one put his hands upon her shoulder, and looking into her eyes, said, in tones tremulous with love and pity “O, Ruby! Ruby! Darling!”
The statement of Carlyle continued to circulate. In 1899 the reference “Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources” listed this entry. The phrasing was slightly altered: 6
The eternal stars shine out again, as soon as it is dark enough. Carlyle.
In 1909 the historian Charles A. Beard of Columbia University published a paper in the “Proceedings of the American Political Science Association”. Beard credited Carlyle with a shortened version of the adage that differed from Carlyle’s actual words: 7
In conclusion we may say, with Carlyle, when it grows dark enough we can see stars.
In 1915 “Illustrative Incidents for Public Speakers” by William Herbert Brown was published, and it included a short entry about a bereaved father who was grateful for the outpouring of sympathy and kindness from friends and acquaintances. A one-line summary was appended without attribution: 8
When it is darkest the stars shine brightest.
An incident that took place in the autumn of 1931 was discussed in an article of reminiscence published in 1954 titled “Charles Beard, The Public Man” by George S. Counts. The two professors, Beard and Counts, were friends, and both were faculty members at Columbia University for many years. In 1931 while “motoring over the hills of Connecticut in the vicinity of New Milford” Counts asked Beard about the lessons he had learned through his extensive research.
Beard responded with hand-picked aphorisms. Please note that Beard was not claiming that he had crafted these sayings: 9
Finally, bringing his hand down on his knee, he said: “I can tell you all I have learned in a lifetime of study in just three laws of history. And here they are:
“First, whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.
“Second, the mills of the gods grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.
“Third, the bee fertilizes the flower that it robs.”
About ten days later we took a stroll along Riverside Drive in New York City. Evidently he had been giving further thought to my question. At any rate, he said he would like to add a fourth law to his laws of history:
“When it gets dark enough you can see the stars.”
In 1932 the aphorisms chosen by Beard were published in the journal “Forum and Century”. This publication supported the veracity of the story told by Counts years later in 1954. The phrasing of the expressions was slightly different, and the ordering was also different: 10
Four Laws of Political Science
1. The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.
2. Those whom the gods are about to destroy they first make mad.
3. When it gets dark enough you can see the stars.
4. The bee fertilizes the flower that it robs.
—Charles A. Beard
In 1937 a student periodical at Northwestern University printed a version of the four apothegms and the framing tale. The saying about the stars was altered: 11
Charles Beard was talking with a Columbia University professor one night, who asked him how long it would take him to write a history of the world. Mr. Beard’s first estimate was in terms of years, but after some consideration he decided that it could be done in four sentences and here they are.
1—The mills of the Gods grind slowly but they grind exceedingly fine.
2—Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad.
3—The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
4—At night, sometimes, you can see the stars.
In June 1942 an inquiry about the saying was printed in “The New York Times: 12
E. R. desires a poem by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale that contains this line: “When it is dark enough, we can see the stars.”
A reply to the inquiry printed in July 1942 pointed to the 1937 edition of “The Art of Living” Norman Vincent Peale. 13 QI has examined the 1949 edition of the book and found the following instance from Peale: 14
All of which is to say that not until it gets really dark do the beautiful stars appear. Patience of the Christian variety teaches us in these dark days to look for the bright stars of hope. This is perhaps a hard lesson, but our generation will be better for it.
In 1950 Carlyle’s statement continued to circulate. For example, “Poor Richard’s Anthology of Thoughts on Charity and Relative Subjects” by C. F. Kleinknecht contained the following entry. The phrasing was slightly altered: 15
The eternal stars shine out as soon as it is dark enough. —Carlyle
In 1956 the “Los Angeles Times” printed a column by Dr. Hyman Judah Schachtel with an epigraph attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. This was the earliest linkage to Emerson found by QI. This evidence was very weak because Emerson died in 1882: 16
“When it is dark enough, men see the stars.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1963 the collection of sermons “Strength to Love” by Martin Luther King Jr. was published. The sermon titled “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore” presented the four aphorisms chosen by Beard together with an acknowledgment: 17
All of this reminds us that evil carries the seed of its own destruction. In the long run right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Historian Charles A. Beard, when asked what major lessons he had learned from history, answered:
First, whom the gods would destroy they must first make mad with power. Second, the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small. Third, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. Fourth, when it is dark enough you can see the stars.
In 1977 the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” attributed a version of the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson: 18
When it is dark enough you can see the stars.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
In 1986 “Ebony” magazine placed the saying in a compilation of sayings ascribed to King: 19
Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
In 2015 the reporter Therese Oneill posted “15 Great Quotes You Wish They’d Said (But They Didn’t!)” on the website of the magazine “Mental Floss”. She examined the quotation “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars”, and its ascription to Ralph Waldo Emerson. After searching a database of the complete works of Emerson she correctly concluded that the ascription was faulty. 20
In conclusion, QI believes that this family of sayings originated with the statement written by Thomas Carlyle in 1843. The saying has typically been employed as a metaphor, and unsurprisingly its meaning has been variable. Also, the wording has evolved over time.
Historian Charles A. Beard selected a version of the adage and combined it with three other sayings to produce a very compressed lesson in the essence of history. Martin Luther King Jr. further shared the thoughts of Beard.
Image Notes: Trees, stars, and part of Milky Way from casualeye at Pixabay.
(Many thanks to Nina Gilbert who requested a trace of a similar saying when a student expressed a desire to use it in a yearbook. Thanks also to Project Wombat discussants. Additional thanks to Therese Oneill whose article at Mental Floss mentioned this adage.)
- 1843, Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, Book IV: Chapter VIII: The Didactic, Start Page 251, Quote Page 251, Published by Chapman & Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1852, Eight Sermons on the Nature of Faith in Christ Jesus by the Rev. Edward B. Moeran (Edward Busteed Moeran), Sermon VI, Quote Page 31, Published by Thomas R. Dunckley, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1869, Practical Composition: With Numerous Models and Exercises by Mrs. Mary J. Harper (Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, New York), Quote Page 158, Charles Scribner & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1873 June, The Victoria Magazine, Conducted by Emily Faithfull, Volume 21, Miss Faithfull in America, Start Page 116, Quote Page 126, Victoria Press, Paddington, London. (HathiTrust Full View) ↩
- 1876, Romances and Realities: Tales of Truth and Fancy by Mrs. Amelia E. Barr (Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr), Chapter VII: The Sacrament of Poverty, Start Page 77, Quote Page 83, Published by J. B. Ford and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1899, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources, Selected and Compiled by Rev. James Wood, Quote Page 426, Column 1, Published by Frederick Warne and Company. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1909, Proceedings of the American Political Science Association, Volume 6, Sixth Annual Meeting, Tendencies Affecting the Size of the Ballot by Charles A. Beard (Columbia University), Start Page 93, Quote Page 99, Published by American Political Science Association. (Footnote: This paper is based largely upon an article published by the author in the Political Science Quarterly for December 1909) (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1915 Copyright, Illustrative Incidents for Public Speakers by William Herbert Brown, When the Stars Shine, Start Page 250, Quote Page 251, Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1954 Copyright, Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal, Edited by Howard K. Beale (Howard Kennedy Beale), “Charles Beard, The Public Man” by George S. Counts, Start Page 231, Quote Page 251 and 252, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, Kentucky. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1932 February, Forum and Century, Volume 87, Number 2, Four Laws of Political Science by Charles A. Beard, Quote Page 89, Forum Publishing Company, New York. (The Forum combined with The Century Magazine) (Unz) ↩
- 1937 July 30, Summer Northwestern: News Magazine (Daily Northwestern), Column One by Florence Loebell, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Evanston, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1942 June 14, New York Times, Queries and Answers, (“We Can See the Stars”: Question from E. R.), Quote Page BR23, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1942 July 19, New York Times, Queries and Answers, (“We Can See the Stars”: Answer from Jesse M. Parsons, Cleveland, Ohio), Quote Page BR23, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1949, The Art of Living by Norman Vincent Peale, Chapter 8: How to Live in a Time Like This, Start Page 135, Quote Page 148, Published by Permabooks, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1950, Poor Richard’s Anthology of Thoughts on Charity and Relative Subjects by C. F. Kleinknecht (Christian Frederick Kleinknecht), Section: Trouble, Quote Page 228, Published in Washington D. C. (HathiTrust Full View) ↩
- 1956 May 6, Los Angeles Times, How To Be Mature by Dr. Hyman Judah Schachtel, (Epigraph for article), Quote Page M2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1963, Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon: The Death of Evil upon the Seashore, Start Page 58, Quote Page 63, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Space, Quote Page 450, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986 January, Ebony, Volume 41, Number 3, The Living King: Selected quotations speak to contemporary problems and struggles, Start Page 62, Quote Page 63, Column 1, Published by Johnson Publishing Company. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- Website: Mental Floss, Article title: 15 Great Quotes You Wish They’d Said (But They Didn’t!), Article author: Therese Oneill, Date on website: January 15, 2015, Website description: “For the record: mental_floss magazine is an intelligent read, but not too intelligent. We’re the sort of intelligent that you hang out with for a while, enjoy our company, laugh a little, smile a lot and then we part ways.” (Accessed mentalfloss.com on January 19, 2015) link ↩