Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

The Eternal Stars Shine Out Again, So Soon As It Is Dark Enough

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Martin Luther King Jr.? Emily Faithfull? Amelia Edith Barr? Charles A. Beard? Thomas Carlyle? Norman Vincent Peale? Anonymous?

nightsky07Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular metaphorical expression that encourages people to maintain hope and optimism during times of unhappiness and trouble. Here are three versions:

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.

Continue reading


  1. 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

The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long But It Bends Toward Justice

Martin Luther King? Barack Obama? Theodore Parker? Freemason Commander? Seth Brooks? Jacob Kohn?

Dear Quote Investigator: Civil rights champion Martin Luther King, Jr. once delivered a powerful speech with this resonant line:

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

I was told that this metaphorical framework has a long history that stretches back to the 19th century. Could you examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810 who called for the abolition of slavery. In 1853 a collection of “Ten Sermons of Religion” by Parker was published and the third sermon titled “Of Justice and the Conscience” included figurative language about the arc of the moral universe: 1

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

The words of Parker’s sermon above foreshadowed the Civil War fought in the 1860s. The passage was reprinted in later collections of Parker’s works. A similar statement using the same metaphor was printed in a book called “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry” with a copyright date of 1871 and publication date of 1905. The author was not identified: 2

We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary to God’s real law of justice continually endure.

In 1918 a concise instance of the expression similar to the modern version was printed in a book titled “Readings from Great Authors” in a section listing statements attributed to Theodore Parker: 3

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1853, Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85, Crosby, Nichols and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1905 [Copyright 1871], Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry: Prepared for the Supreme Council of the Thirty-Third Degree, for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, Compiled by Albert Pike, XXXI GRAND INSPECTOR INQUISITOR COMMANDER, Section XXXI: Grand Inspector Inquisitor Commander, Start Page 825, Quote Page 838, Charleston. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1918, Readings from Great Authors by John Haynes Holmes, Harvey Dee Brown, Helen Edmunds Redding, and Theodora Goldsmith, Section: Justice: Theodore Parker, Start Page 17, Quote Page 18, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

An Eye for an Eye Will Make the Whole World Blind

Mohandas Gandhi? Louis Fischer? Henry Powell Spring? Martin Luther King?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mohandas Gandhi’s policy of non-violence was famously used during the campaign for independence in India.  There is a well-known quotation that helps to express the rationale for this non-retaliatory philosophy:

An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.

I have read that Gandhi spoke this statement or something similar, but I haven’t yet found a precise citation for this. Could you find out when and where Gandhi said this?

Quote Investigator: One of the world’s top quotation experts, Fred R. Shapiro editor of the Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ), has examined this question. This is what the YBQ says [YQG]:

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is frequently attributed to M. K. Gandhi. The Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence states that the Gandhi family believes it is an authentic Gandhi quotation, but no example of its use by the Indian leader has ever been discovered.

The YBQ notes that an important biographer of Gandhi, Louis Fischer, used a version of the expression when he wrote about Gandhi’s approach to conflict. However, Fischer did not attribute the saying to Gandhi in his description of the leader’s life. Instead, Fischer used the expression himself as part of his explanation of Gandhi’s philosophy. QI thinks some readers may have been confused and may have decided to directly attribute the saying to Gandhi based on a misreading of Fischer’s works.

The epigram is a twist on a famous Biblical injunction in the Book of Exodus [21:24]: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. These words appear in the King James English translation. There is a more elaborate version of the clever maxim based on these two phrases:

An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless.

QI has located relevant variants for this longer expression in 1914 and 1944. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading