Tag Archives: Thomas Carlyle

Clear Your Mind of Cant / Clear Your Mind of Can’t

Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Thomas Carlyle? Apocryphal?

mind08Dear Quote Investigator: Two statements that sound the same but have very different meanings have been attributed to the esteemed dictionary maker and man of letters Samuel Johnson:

1) Clear your mind of cant.
2) Clear your mind of can’t.

In the first statement the noun “cant” referred to insincere, trite, or sanctimonious speech. Johnson was telling a friend not to dwell on this form of verbal nonsense.

In the second statement the term “can’t” referred to negative thoughts that undermine one’s self-confidence. But I think that this phrasing was too modern for Johnson who died in 1784. It sounds like a maxim from a current motivational book or poster. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The first expression was spoken to James Boswell by Samuel Johnson on May 15, 1783 as recorded in the famous biographical work “Boswell’s Life of Johnson”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

JOHNSON. “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do. You may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The second phrase was attributed to Johnson by 1929, but that was a very late date; clearly, the attribution was a mistake caused by confusion of the homophones: cant and can’t..

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: May 15, 1783, Quote Page 454 and 455, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

Nearly All Men Can Stand Adversity, But If You Want To Test a Man’s Character, Give Him Power

Abraham Lincoln? Thomas Carlyle? Robert G. Ingersoll? Horatio Alger Jr.? Apocryphal?

lincoln07Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following quotation on the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Lincoln was credited, but I have seen skepticism expressed on other websites. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this statement was spoken or written by Abraham Lincoln. The famous orator and free thinker Robert G. Ingersoll employed similar phrases when he was describing Lincoln. QI conjectures that this was the primary nexus of confusion: something that was said about Lincoln was transformed into something that was said by Lincoln.

The overall history and evolution of the saying is long and complex. Part of the semantics can be traced back to a remark by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in 1841. An exact match for the modern instance with an ascription to Lincoln appeared by 1931.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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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.

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Notes:

  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 Purpose of Life Is Not To Be Happy But To Matter

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Leo Rosten? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?

happy11Dear Quote Investigator: On Facebook and the web the following quotation has been circulating widely:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

The words are attributed to the famous philosophical essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have not been able to find a proper citation to an essay by the transcendentalist. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. Instead, QI believes that the passage was derived from a series of similar statements written and spoken by Leo Rosten who was a teacher and humorist.

In 1962 “The Sunday Star” newspaper of Washington D.C. published the text of an address recently delivered by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards held in New York. The following excerpt strongly matched the target quotation though it was not identical: 1

The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.

Rosten restated this anti-hedonic proposition multiple times, and he used similar language to communicate his ideas. Detailed references are provided further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1962 April 8, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: E-Editorial, On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity (Text of an address by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards in New York), Quote Page E-2, Column 7, Washington (DC), District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank)

Teach a Parrot to Say ‘Supply and Demand’ and You Have an Economist

Thomas Carlyle? Irving Fisher? Joseph Schumpeter? Anonymous?

carlyle02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorous saying about parrots and economists that is often attributed to the philosopher and satirist Thomas Carlyle. Sometimes the joke is simply ascribed to Anonymous. Here are three versions:

1: Teach a parrot the terms ‘supply and demand’ and you’ve got an economist.
2: It’s easy to train economists. Just teach a parrot to say ‘Supply and Demand’.
3: You can make even a parrot into a learned political economist. All he must learn are the two words ‘supply’ and ‘demand’.

I have not seen any precise references supporting the linkage to Thomas Carlyle. Would you be willing to attempt to trace this comical barb?

Quote Investigator: In the 1800s the words ‘supply and demand’ were sometimes derided as “parrot words”. In addition, disapproving terms such as “parrot-like” and “parrot-cries” were used in critiques aimed at economic analyses invoking “supply and demand”. In 1897 an individual using the phrase “supply and demand” was said to be acting “like a trained parrot”.

In 1907 the prominent Yale economist Irving Fisher included a version of the parrot joke in a book about interest rates. Fisher did not claim credit for the jibe, and he left the attribution anonymous. In 1931 an author used the following statement to present a tentative ascription for the parrot jest: “It was probably Thomas Carlyle’s none too gentle pen”. That was the earliest connection to Carlyle located by QI. Since Carlyle died in 1881 this late attribution provided very weak evidence.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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