Category Archives: Confucius

Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness

Eleanor Roosevelt? Confucius? Chinese Proverb? William L. Watkinson? E. Pomeroy Cutler? James Keller? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Adlai Stevenson? John F. Kennedy?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the emphasis on constructive action in the following saying:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

These words have been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, and several other people. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

In September 1907 Watkinson’s sermon “The Invincible Strategy” was reprinted in a periodical called “China’s Millions” which was published by a Protestant Christian missionary society based in China. 2

Thus, the expression was disseminated to a group of people in China. Nowadays, the words are sometimes ascribed to Confucius or labeled a Chinese proverb, but QI has not found compelling evidence to support that assignment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1907 Copyright, The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America by W. L. Watkinson (William Lonsdale Watkinson), Sermon XIV: The Invincible Strategy, (Romans: xii, 21), Start Page 206, Quote Page 217 and 218, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907 September, China’s Millions, The Invincible Strategy by Rev. Wm. L. Watkinson, (Sermon printed by special permission of the Methodist Publishing House from the book “The Supreme Conquest” by W. L. Watkinson), Start Page 135, Quote Page 137, Column 2, Morgan and Scott, London. (Google Books Full View) link

I Think that I Shall Never See a Billboard Lovely as a Tree

Joyce Kilmer? Ogden Nash? Confucious? Anonymous?

freeway10Dear Quote Investigator: April is National Poetry Month in the U. S., and Arbor Day also occurs in this month. A famous poem by Joyce Kilmer begins with the following couplet: 1

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A comical riff on this work begins with the following lines:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.

I have seen multiple versions of this humorous poem that criticizes the massive signs next to highways. Would you please determine the proper text and the creator’s identity?

Quote Investigator: The October 15, 1932 issue of “The New Yorker” published a poem titled “Song of the Open Road” by Ogden Nash who was a popular wordsmith of light verse. This was the earliest publication known to QI: 2

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
—OGDEN NASH

Over the decades, variants of the text have evolved. By 1940 Ogden Nash had produced a modified version of his own verse. He published a collection of works titled “The Face is Familiar” containing an instance of the poem that replaced the word “perhaps” with the word “indeed”. This made the point of the poem more emphatic.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Date: 1913 October, Periodical: Boys’ Life, Poem title: Trees, Poem author: Joyce Kilmer, Quote Page 2, Publisher: Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Date: 1932 October 15, Periodical: The New Yorker, Poem title: Song of the Open Road, Poem author: Ogden Nash, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Publisher: F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online Archive of page scans of The New Yorker; accessed archives.newyorker.com April 11, 2015)

People Who Say It Cannot Be Done Should Not Interrupt Those Who Are Doing It

George Bernard Shaw? Puck? Saxby’s Magazine? Elbert Hubbard? Confucius? Anonymous?

wright07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is the perfect antidote to excessive negativity and obstructionism:

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

These words are often attributed to the acclaimed playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw; unfortunately, I have not been able to locate any solid data to back up this claim. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the Shaw ascription.

QI hypothesizes that the modern expression evolved from a comment about the rapidity of change and innovation at the turn of the century that was printed in multiple newspapers and journals in 1903. One instance appeared on March 7, 1903 in a periodical called “The Public” based in Chicago, Illinois. An acknowledgment to the humor magazine “Puck” was appended. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Puck.

On March 13, 1903 an instance was published in “The Evansville Courier” of Evansville, Indiana with an acknowledgement to “Saxby’s Magazine”. The statements above and below were both printed as filler items without additional contextual information: 2

Some philosopher takes time to remark that things move along so rapidly nowadays that people who say “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Saxby’s Magazine.

In April 1903 a journal for educators and parents called “Kindergarten Magazine” printed an instance that exactly matched the statement in “The Public”. The “Puck” acknowledgement was included: 3

During the ensuing decades the expression was reshaped. In 1914 a charismatic aphorism constructor named Elbert Hubbard printed a variant in his journal “The Philistine”, but he disclaimed authorship. By 1962 a pseudo Confucian version had been fabricated, and by 2004 a version attributed to George Bernard Shaw was circulating. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1903 March 7, The Public, Number 257, Editor Louis F. Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 766, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1903 March 16, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1903 April, Kindergarten Magazine, Volume 15, Number 8, (Filler item), Quote Page 488, Kindergarten Magazine Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

Choose a Job You Love, and You Will Never Have To Work a Day in Your Life

Confucius? Arthur Szathmary? An Old-Timer? Janet Lambert-Moore? Harvey Mackay? Anonymous?

jobchoice11Dear Quote Investigator: I assist students in the selection of accurate and properly credited quotations for the school yearbook. One student would like to use a popular adage about career choice:

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

This statement is often attributed to the ancient Chinese sage Confucius, but the student considers this assertion anachronistic because job choice flexibility was sharply limited in the era of Confucius. Would you please explore this issue?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have found no substantive support for the claim that Confucius made this statement.

The earliest strong match located by QI was published in the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” in 1982 which quoted a Professor of Philosophy named Arthur Szathmary who employed the saying; however, Szathmary attributed the words to “an old-timer” who was not identified. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

An old-timer I knew used to tell his students: ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’

The expression has sometimes been attributed to the entrepreneur and top-selling author Harvey Mackay who did use the adage in 1989 as shown in the citation given further below, but QI believes that he did not craft it.

This article presents a snapshot of current knowledge on this topic; and future research may uncover citations which antedate the 1982 passage above. QI suspects that earlier instances exist that use a different phrasing.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1982 October 6, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Article Title: Toshiko Takaezu, Article Author: Ann Woolfolk, Start Page 31, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)

Our Greatest Glory Is Not in Never Falling, But in Rising Every Time We Fall

Confucius? Nelson Mandela? Vince Lombardi? Oliver Goldsmith? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Christian Nestell Bovee?

goldsmith08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about motivation and perseverance has been attributed to an oddly eclectic group: Chinese philosopher Confucius, football coach Vince Lombardi, activist politician Nelson Mandela, Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here are four versions. The fourth uses “failing” instead of “falling”:

1) The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

2) The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.

3) Our greatest strength lies not in never having fallen, but in rising every time we fall.

4) Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.

I have no idea if any of these ascriptions is correct because I have not seen any documentation listing a source. Would you please help me with this frustrating situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1760 and1761 a series of letters written by an imaginary Chinese traveler based in London named Lien Chi Altangi was published in “The Public Ledger” magazine of London. The actual author was an Irishman named Oliver Goldsmith who used the perspective of an outsider from China to comment on and satirize the life and manners of the city. Goldsmith later achieved fame with his novel “The Vicar of Wakefield” and his play “She Stoops to Conquer”. 1

The letters were collected and released in book form in 1762 under the title “The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East “. The seventh letter from Lien Chi Altangi included an instance of the adage: 2

Our greatest glory is, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

A different phrasing of the maxim was included in the twenty-second letter:

True magnanimity consists not in NEVER falling, but in RISING every time we fall.

QI has located no substantive evidence that the ancient sage Confucius constructed this saying in either form, and QI believes that Goldsmith crafted it. However, the context of these simulated exotic letters led many readers to believe that the author was relaying aphorisms from China. Indeed, the introductory note for the seventh letter specifically referred to Confucius:

The Editor thinks proper to acquaint the reader, that the greatest part of the following letter seems to him to be little more than a rhapsody of sentences borrowed from Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.

By 1801 an edition of “The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith” included the letters that were originally ascribed to Lien Chi Altangi. Hence, the words were properly credited to Goldsmith. 3

Yet, by 1831 the saying had been reassigned to Confucius. In later years, the phrasing evolved, and the adage was attributed to a variety of individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In modern times, there is evidence that both Vince Lombardi and Nelson Mandela used the expression. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (Third edition), Entry: The Citizen of the World, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 26, 2014)
  2. 1762, The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East by Lien Chi Altangi (Oliver Goldsmith), Letter VII and Letter XXII, Printed for George and Alex. Ewing, Dublin, Ireland. (ECCO TCP: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Text Creation Partnership) link link link
  3. 1801, The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Volume 3 of 4, Letter VII, Quote Page 21, Letter XXI, Quote Page 75, Printed for J. Johnson, G. and J. Robinson, W. J. and J. Richardson, et al, Printed by Nichols and Son, Red Lion Passage, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link