J. K. Rowling? Anaïs Nin? Plutarch? Otto Rank?
Dear Quote Investigator: J. K. Rowling created the beloved fantasy universe of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. She delivered a humorous and touching commencement address at Harvard University in 2008. While in college she studied the classics, and her address included a quotation from a prominent ancient Greek essayist: 1
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.
Did Plutarch really write this? Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have not yet found this statement in Plutarch’s writings.
The earliest match located by QI appeared in an essay by the prominent diarist and eroticist Anaïs Nin published in the “Journal of the Otto Rank Association” in 1973. The text was based on a talk delivered by Nin during an Association meeting in October 1972. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
Just as the deep sea diver carries a tank of oxygen, we have to carry the kernel of our individual growth with us into the world in order to withstand the pressures, the shattering pressures of outer experiences. But I never lost sight of their interdependence, and now I find in Dr. Rank the following statement: “Whatever we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”
Nin credited psychoanalyst Otto Rank who was an influential early colleague of Sigmund Freud. QI has not yet found the statement in Rank’s voluminous German writings, but the search has been restricted by limited access. Nin read a French translation of Rank’s “Truth and Reality” in the 1930s. Rank was her therapist and ultimately her lover.
Based on current evidence QI would provisionally credit Otto Rank with the quotation under examination. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1993 the best-selling author and life coach Dan Millman published “The Life You Were Born to Live: A Guide to Finding Your Life Purpose” which included a free-standing instance of the saying ascribed to Rank: 3
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. OTTO RANK
The website cybernation.com posted the quotation on a webpage together with a collection of “Great quotes to inspire, empower and motivate you to live the life of your dreams…” A copy of the webpage was captured by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine on May 4, 1998. Hence, it was available to visitors by that date or earlier.
Interestingly, the adage was adjacent to both the names “Otto Rank” and “Plutarch”. This type of ambiguity facilitates a known mechanism for the creation of misattributions. Each quotation was supposed to be paired with the name below it, but an inattentive reader might ascribe the words to the name above. Here is an excerpt showing four quotations from the webpage: 4
You will soon break the bow if you keep it always stretched.
~ Phaedrus ~
The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.
~ Plutarch ~
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
~ Otto Rank ~
The whole point of getting things done is knowing what to leave undone.
~ Lady Stella Reading ~
In October 1998 a fitness columnist in the “Lassen County Times” of Susanville, California ended her piece with the saying: 5
I leave you with this:
“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”–Otto Rank
In June 2008 J. K. Rowling employed the saying when she delivered an address at Harvard as mentioned previously:
. . . written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
Also in June 2008 literary critic John Granger wrote about Rowling’s speech on his website “Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for Serious Readers”. Granger pointed to the webpage at cybernation.com and noted the linkage of the saying to Otto Rank: 6
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of currently incomplete knowledge. QI has not found a substantive supporting citation for the attribution to Plutarch. In 1972 Anaïs Nin ascribed the saying to Otto Rank who died in 1939, and he is now the top candidate although QI has not yet located the statement in his writings.
Image Notes: Picture of J. K. Rowling by Daniel Ogren; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image representing thinking from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Bust of Plutarch at Chaeronea from Odysses; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Rowling and Plutarch images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Beatrice Groves whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bonnie-Taylor Blake who accessed the 1973 citation.)
- 2008 June, Harvard Magazine, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination (Commencement Address delivered at Harvard University by J. K. Rowling on June 5, 2008), Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Accessed harvardmagazine.com on December, 13 2016) link ↩
- 1973 June, Journal of the Otto Rank Association, Volume 8, Number 1, On Truth and Reality by Anaïs Nin (From a tape recording of talk given by Anaïs Nin at the meeting of The Otto Rank Association held on October 28, 1972 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania), Start Page 51, Quote Page 56, Otto Rank Association, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of University of North Carolina) ↩
- 1993 Copyright, The Life You Were Born to Live: A Guide to Finding Your Life Purpose by Dan Millman, Section: Inside Out: Fulfilling Our Life Purpose, Quote Page 23, An H J Kramer Book, Tiburon, California, Jointly published with New World Library, Novato, California. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Website: The People’s Cyber Nation, Article title: Achievement: Quotes To Inspire You, Date of Capture in Wayback Machine: May 4, 1998, Website description: Cyber Nation International, Blaine, Washington, The Mission Of The People’s Cyber Nation Is To Provide YOU And Your Family With Powerful And Unique Tools And Products To Improve And Enhance All Aspects Of Your Life. (Accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine December 13, 2016) link ↩
- 1998 October 27, Lassen County Times Keeping Fit: Why we should get in shape by Jessica Thompson, Quote Page 6C, Column 2, Susanville, California. (Newspapers.com) ↩
- Website: Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for Serious Readers, Article title: Rowling Rocks Harvard: On Failure & Imagination, Article author: John Granger, Date on website: June 5, 2008, Date of Wayback Machine capture: February 6 2010, Website description: Articles about the Harry Potter series of books from John Granger. (Accessed hogwartsprofessor.com on December 14, 2016) link (Link to the Wayback machine capture) link ↩