John F. Kennedy? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: In 1960 President John F. Kennedy spoke at that Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah and used a quotation that he attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson [JKU]:
What we are speaks louder than what we say, as Emerson said.
I was surprised when I came across this because my favorite saying about hypocrisy is the following:
What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.
I thought these words were written by Emerson, but now I am not so certain. Did Emerson express this idea in more than one way? Did Kennedy employ a misquotation? Surprisingly, I could not find either of these statements in a database of Emerson’s essays. Could you help me to unravel this?
Quote Investigator:The first quotation below is directly from an essay titled “Social Aims” by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1875. The other six quotes appeared in the years afterward. Most are credited to Emerson, but one is ascribed to a “great man”, and another is anonymous. It is remarkably commonplace for a popular saying to be simplified and streamlined over time:
1) Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.
2) Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.
3) Be still, for what you are stands over you and speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.
4) What you are stands over you and thunders, and denies what you say.
5) What you are, thunders so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
6) What you are speaks so loud I can not hear what you say
7) What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.
The ordering of the sayings given above is based on perceived simplification and not chronology. All of these items were published on or before 1900. The last item appeared in a sermon published in 1900, and the parishioners were told that the wisdom emanated from Emerson.
The variant that is the questioner’s favorite is nearly identical to item seven which has been ascribed to Emerson for more than one-hundred years. The words “loud” and “loudly” have been swapped. QI thinks that both quotations presented by the questioner are abridged and simplified forms of what Emerson actually wrote.
This belief concurs with quotation expert Ralph Keyes who identified saying number one above as the likely impetus for the modern sayings numbered six and seven [QVRE]. Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1841 Emerson published the essay “The Over-Soul” in his collection “Essays: First Series”. QI believes that the idea expressed in the saying under investigation is nascent in the following essay excerpt from years earlier. The phrase “that which we are” is reflected in the later phrase “what you are”, and the phrase “over our head” is reflected in “stands over you” [RWEO]:
That which we are, we shall teach, not voluntarily, but involuntarily. Thoughts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and thoughts go out of our minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened. Character teaches over our head.
In 1875 Emerson published the work “Letters and Social Aims”. The following excerpt is from the “Social Aims” section and this larger excerpt provides additional context for saying number one listed above [SAE]:
Let us not look east and west for materials of conversation, but rest in presence and unity. A just feeling will fast enough supply fuel for discourse, if speaking be more grateful than silence. When people come to see us, we foolishly prattle, lest we be inhospitable. But things said for conversation are chalk eggs. Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary. A lady of my acquaintance said, “I don’t care so much for what they say as I do for what makes them say it.”
In 1887 an article appeared in a Michigan newspaper reprinted from a San Francisco paper. The article purported to give several unpublished sayings of Ralph Waldo Emerson taken from direct conversation between C. J. Woodbury and Emerson. (The spelling of “commiserate” is taken from the newspaper text) [JCP]:
I commisserate any one who is subject to the misery of being overplaced. What you are stands over you and thunders, and denies what you say.
In January 1890 a shortened version of the apothegm was published in the Baptist Quarterly Review. The saying was in quotation marks, but it was not credited to anyone by name [BQR]:
What you are, thunders so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
Also in 1890 a sermon was published titled “Ahab’s Covetousness” that included a version of the quotation attributed to Emerson [SSL]:
By unconscious influence, our character often outwits our purposes. “What you are speaks so loud I can not hear what you say,” writes Emerson; …
A romance novel from 1892 contained a version of the saying attributed to “a great man” [MBS]:
A great man has vigorously said: “Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.”
In 1896 an interview of presidential candidate William McKinley by Mary E. Lease was published in the New York World. Lease used a version of Emerson’s quotation which was only slightly simplified [NYW]:
… one can say with Emerson, “Be still, for what you are stands over you and speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”
In 1900 a sermon titled “The Life That Lasts” was published and it contained a version of Emerson’s quote that replaced “What you are” with “What you do” [TT]:
Many say they believe, who are practically infidels. “What you do speaks so loud,” said Emerson, “that I cannot hear what you say.”
There are many more variants of the adage in the literature, but this sampling illustrates the ways in which a phrase can be abridged and streamlined. The saying labeled number one above was definitely written by Emerson. Saying number four might have been used by Emerson during a conversation. The short expressions, numbers 6 and 7, are punchy, but they probably do not represent the words that Emerson spoke or wrote directly. Thanks for your question.
The image of the Jardin des Plantes is used above because Emerson was deeply moved when he visited that botanical garden when he was in France. The exhibits influenced his perception of the interconnectedness of the natural world according to biographer Robert D. Richardson [EMF].
(Many thanks to Alan Hesketh whose email provided the inspiration for the construction of this question and the performance of this investigation.)
[JKU] John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website, jfklibrary.org, Question and Answer Session with Senator John F. Kennedy at Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, September 23, 1960. (Accessed 2011 January 19) link
[QVRE] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 56 and 110, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.
[RWEO] 1841, Essays [First Series] by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay IX: The Over-Soul, Page 236, James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google full view) link
[SAE] 1876 (copyright 1875), Letters and Social Aims by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Social Aims, Page 80, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google full view) link
[JCP] 1887 April 27, Jackson Citizen Patriot, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Unpublished Sayings, Page 2, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
[BQR] 1890 January, Baptist Quarterly Review, The Sanctification of the Church by A.C. Peck, Page 115, Volume 12, (Google Books full view) link
[SSL] 1890, Sermons on the International Sunday-school Lessons for 1891 by The Monday Club, 16th Series, Ahab’s Covetousness by Charles M. Southgate, Page 56, Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, Boston and Chicago. (Google Books full view) link
[MBS] 1892, Miss Bagg’s secretary: a West Point Romance by Clara Louise Burnham, Page 177, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York. (Google Books full view) link
[NYW] 1896 October 11, The (New York) World, The World’s Sunday Magazine, Mary E. Lease Interviews M’Kinley for the Sunday World, Page 17, New York, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
[TT] 1900, The Two Talents, with Other Papers, Sermons, Leaders by John Barnett Donaldson, The Life That Lasts, Page 205, North & West Publishing Co., Minneapolis. (Google Books full view) link
[EMF] 1996, Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Page 139-142, Centennial Book, University of California Press. (Google Books preview) link