The Great Use of a Life Is to Spend It for Something That Outlasts It

William James? Ralph Barton Perry? Henry James? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been working to confirm the source and accuracy of a quotation that is attributed to the famous philosopher and educator William James. Here are three versions:

  1. The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  2. The best use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  3. The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

A version of this saying was listed in the Wikipedia entry for James, but more recently it has been removed. Perhaps you can verify this quote and determine the correct version.

Quote Investigator: William James died in 1920, and the earliest evidence QI has located for this statement is in the reference work “The Thought and Character of William James: As Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together with His Published Writings” which was released in 1935. This massive two volume compendium included a large amount of material written by James that was not published during his lifetime. Extensive notes and annotations were provided that carefully listed sources and dates. A version of the quotation was presented together with a year, but oddly no source was given by the editor Ralph Barton Perry. The precise wording differed from the three instances given by the questioner: 1

“The great use of a life,” James said in 1900, “is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” This outlasting cause was then, as in earlier days, the happiness of mankind.

QI has not yet identified a text dating to 1900 containing the quote, and does not know why the editor did not provide a footnote or annotation for the saying.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The notion that an individual should do something that will outlast his or her life was communicated in religious advice in the 1800s. The idea was well-known enough that it was subject to parody. In 1888 a newspaper in Watertown, New York printed the following joke: 2

“Do something my brother,” said the pastor earnestly, “something that will stand the test of time; something that will outlast your life, and live for generations after you are dead and gone.” And the elder said he would; he had gone into a real estate and railroad deal, and expected to leave his children a law suit that would keep them busy about 200 years.

In 1935 the quotation was published in “The Thought and Character of William James” edited by Ralph Barton Perry as noted previously in this article. The words were assigned a date of 1900.

In 1942 one-hundred years after the birth of William James the periodical “The Humanist” printed an article by M. C. Otto discussing the centenary. The author presented in instance of the  saying in which the article “a” was omitted: 3

Here are two that always recur to me together:
“The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”
“Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant.”

Also in 1942 a reference titled “As William James Said: Extracts from the Published Writings of William James” printed a version of the quotation that matched the one given in 1935. 4 The meticulous page notes for the text indicated that the words were from “T.C.W.J., II, 289”. This abbreviated code referred to “The Thought and Character of William James”, Volume 2, Page 289. So this instance is actually based on the 1935 reference given previously in this article.

In February 1943 the “Ladies’ Home Journal” printed the saying and credited William James. The magazine stated that the words were from the book “Doctors in Shirt Sleeves” which had been published in 1940. The word “a” was omitted in this version: 5

The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.   —WILLIAM JAMES:
Quoted in Doctors in Shirt Sleeves, Edited by Sir Henry Bashford.  (Veritas Press.)

In March 1943 the Baptist minister and Masonic author Joseph Fort Newton wrote a newspaper column titled “Everyday Living” that contained a variant of the saying without ascription. The column contained multiple adages and several were unattributed: 6

The highest use we can make of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it—that is the surest token of immortality.

In April 1943 a Michigan newspaper printed a column called Sermonograms that included the quote without attribution: 7

The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it. Faith knows more than wisdom.

In May 1943 the adage appeared in newspapers in multiple locations throughout the U.S. as a filler item, and it was credited to James, e.g., in Cuba, New York; 8 Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; 9 and Lumberton, North Carolina: 10

The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.—William James.

In December 1943 Eleanor Roosevelt included a version of the aphorism in her newspaper column, and she credited James. The word “a” was omitted and the phrase “will outlast” was used instead of “outlasts”: 11

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” (William James).

In 1959 an instance of the expression was printed in the “New Treasury of Stories for Every Speaking and Writing Occasion” by Jacob M. Braude. In a curious twist, the words were ascribed to the brother of William James: 12

1461. The greatest use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.       —Henry James

In conclusion, based on current evidence QI would provisionally credit William James with the version of the adage listed in the 1935 reference. Perhaps future researchers will improve the evidentiary basis by uncovering a text in 1900 (or before 1935) containing the statement.

(Thanks to Kurt Wolbrink whose inquiry was used by QI to fashion this question.)

Notes:

  1. 1935, “The Thought and Character of William James: As revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes, together with his published writings”, Edited by Ralph Barton Perry, Volume II: Philosophy and Psychology, Quote Page 289, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper) (Internet Archive has an Oxford University Press edition in full view) link  link
  2. 1888 July 28, Watertown Daily Times, Something for all Time, Page 3, Column 3, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1942 Winter, The Humanist, The William James Centenary by M. C. Otto, Start Page 137, Quote age 138, Published by the American Humanist Association, Schenectady, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  4. 1942, As William James Said: Extracts from the Published Writings of William James, Selected and edited by Elizabeth Perkins Aldrich, [Freestanding quotation], Quote Page 51, Vanguard Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1943 February, Ladies’ Home Journal, [Freestanding quotation coupled with attribution], Quote Page 103, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1943 March 11, Schenectady Gazette, Everyday Living by Joseph Fort Newton, Page 20, Column 3, Schenectady New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1943 April 23, Marshall Evening Chronicle, Sermonograms, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Marshall, Michigan. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1943 May 13, The Patriot and Free Press, [Freestanding untitled quotation], Page 6, Column 5, Cuba, New York. (Old Fulton)
  9. 1943 May 21, Huntingdon Daily News, [Freestanding untitled quotation], Quote Page 13, Column 6, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1943 May 26, Lumberton Robesonian, [Freestanding untitled quotation], Quote Page 6, Column 5, Lumberton, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  11. 1943 December 24, The Canton Repository, My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt, Page 23, Column 4, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1959, New Treasury Of Stories For Every Speaking And Writing Occasion by Jacob M. Braude, Section: Life, Page 215, Quotation Number 1461, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Internet Archive) link  link