Category Archives: John Dryden

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. Continue reading

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