We First Make Our Habits and Then Our Habits Make Us

John Dryden? Frederick Langbridge? Tryon Edwards? Nathanael Emmons? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A remarkably insightful statement about patterns of behavior is usually credited to the famous English poet John Dryden who died in 1700:

We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.

I have not been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that John Dryden said or wrote the statement above, and QI believes that the misattribution resulted from a misreading that occurred more than one hundred years ago; details are supplied further below.

Dryden did pen a vivid statement about poor habits that appeared in a collection published in 1700 titled “Fables Ancient and Modern Translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer, with Original Poems by Mr. Dryden”. The following lines are from Dryden’s translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

To kill Man-killers, Man has lawful Pow’r,
But not th’extended Licence, to devour.

Ill Habits gather by unseen degrees,
As Brooks make Rivers, Rivers run to Seas.

In 1884 a partial match for the expression under examination appeared in “The Central News” of Perkasie, Pennsylvania: 2

We are all what our habits make us, and what better work can we do for those committed to us than to see that these right habits are formed? A little decision will bring this about.

In 1888 the religious writer Frederick Langbridge authored “The Happiest Half-Hour: Sunday Talks with Children” which contained a strong match for the quotation. Langbridge employed the metaphorical domain of pottery while discussing human growth and moral character: 3

Every time you go to bed your clay is so many hours nearer to its final mould. A few years of such days—a long time to look forward, but a short time to look back upon—and there you will be: a beautiful goodly vase, or a cracked, misshapen vessel, fit only for base and vulgar uses. We are our own potters; for our habits make us, and we make our habits.

Langbridge used antimetabole, but the two phrases of the adage were reversed when compared to the popular modern version. Also, he suggested that the two activities actually occurred in parallel.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1891 Tryon Edwards published a compilation titled “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations” that included the saying. The four entries below were contiguous within the book: 4

Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steadily gains in strength.—At first it may be but as the spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel.—Tryon Edwards.

We first make our habits and then our habits make us.

All habits gather, by unseen degrees, as brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas.—Dryden.

Habit is a cable.—We weave a thread of it every day, and at last we cannot break it.—H. Mann.

Only three of the four entries provided attributions. The quotation being traced was unattributed, but QI conjectures that some readers misread the passage and ascribed both the second and third entries to John Dryden. The quotation collection assembled by Tryon Edwards was quite popular, and it was reprinted with revisions for decades.

On the same page of his reference work Edwards included another remark about habits ascribed to “Emmons” which was probably a reference to the theologian Nathanael Emmons who died in 1840:

Habit is either the best of servants, or the worst of masters.—Emmons.

In 1894 the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio printed a collection of “Truths Handed Down” which included the three items below. 5 These items also appeared in other newspapers such as the “Democrat and Chronicle” of Rochester, New York listed within a column called “Multum in Parvo” which meant “a great deal in a small space”: 6

—Nothing can be truly great which is not right.—Johnson.
We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.—Anon.
—Speech is but broken light on the depth of the unspoken.—George Eliot.

In 1899 a book aimed at school teachers called “The Plan Book for Intermediate Grades” included the saying incorrectly ascribed to Dryden: 7

“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”—Dryden.

In 1903 “The New Orleans Item” newspaper of New Orleans, Louisiana printed a column listing aphorisms which included an instance of the saying implausibly credited to Emmons: 8

We first make our habits and then our habits make us.—Emmons

In 1907 a sermon published in “Expositor and Current Anecdotes” employed a variant of the saying: 9

When Luther said, “Here I take my stand: I can do no other,” he expressed the incapacity for cowardice which was the result of the habit of courage and clear thinking. If our habits make us, we make our habits; and it is possible for us to acquire habits that in the day of temptation are our defense, our anchorage, our invincible city of refuge.

In 1915 “Good Health” magazine printed an instance without attribution: 10

Someone has aptly said, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” This is especially true of health habits.

In 1918 “The Progressive Teacher” journal ascribed the saying to Dryden: 11

Dryden said: “We make our habits and then our habits make us.” A good, well-balanced character is a person with an accumulation of good mental, moral and physical habits, while a bad character is one with an accumulation of bad mental, moral and physical habits.

In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Frederick Langbridge with the adage he wrote in the 1888 citation although it was possible that he was employing a pre-existing saying. There was no substantive support for ascribing the adage to John Dryden. QI conjectures that the linkage to Dryden was caused by a misreading of Tryon Edwards’ collection of quotations.

Image Notes: Portrait of John Dryden by John Michael Wright circa 1668; source National Portrait Gallery, London; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Blue repeat circle from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Portrait of Tryon Edwards from frontispiece of 1908 edition of “A Dictionary of Thoughts”. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Craig Collins whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1700, Title: Fables ancient and modern translated into verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer, with original poems by Mr. Dryden, Author: John Dryden (1631-1700), Section: Of the Pythagorean Philosophy: From Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Book XV, Quote Page 509, Publication Information: Printed for Jacob Tonson, London. (Early English Books Online)
  2. 1884 December 4, The Central News, Regard for Order, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Perkasie, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1888, The Happiest Half-Hour: Sunday Talks with Children by Frederick Langbridge, Chapter IX: Twigs and Trees, Start Page 63, Quote Page 65, The Religious Tract Society, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1891, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations, Compiled by Tryon Edwards, Topic: Habit, Quote Page 212, Column 2, Cassell Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1894 February 13, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Domain of Woman: Truths Handed Down, Quote Page 3, Column 7, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1894 February 19, Democrat and Chronicle, Multum in Parvo, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1899, September: The Plan Book for Intermediate Grades by Marian M. George, Memory Gems: Habits, Start Page 124, Quote Page 125, A. Flanagan Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1903 May 02, The New Orleans Item, Aphorisms, Quote Page 7, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1907 February, Expositor and Current Anecdotes, Volume 8, Number 5, Homiletic Department edited by G. B. F. Hallock, The Tyranny of Habit by Rev. William J. Dawson, Start Page 225, Quote Page 227, Column 1, F. M. Barton Publisher, Cleveland, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1915 April, Good Health, Volume 50, Number 4, Health Habits for the Child by Mrs. E. E. Kellogg, Start Page 153, Quote Page 153, Good Health Publishing Company, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1918 April, The Progressive Teacher and Southwestern School Journal, Volume 24, Number 4, The Minds of Normal Children by Mabel Lee Cooper (Psychologist, Memphis City Schools), Start Page 9, Quote Page 9, The Progressive Teacher, Nashville, Tennessee, (Google Books Full View) link