It Is the Responsibility of Every Human Being To Aspire To Do Something Worthwhile

Albert Einstein? Armand Hammer? Apocryphal?

med08Dear Quote Investigator: A hospital in Rhode Island has a display in the main lobby listing the names of generous donors. The following quotation attributed to Albert Einstein is also printed on the display:

It is the responsibility of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he found.

I researched this statement because I wished to know what prompted Einstein to deliver this encouragement. Oddly, I was unable to find any direct evidence that he said or wrote these words. Is this Einstein’s instruction?

Quote Investigator: No. This statement was made by the businessman and philanthropist Armand Hammer and not by Albert Einstein.

In December 1988 “Life” magazine published a cover story called “The Big Picture: The Meaning of Life” which compiled comments from a variety of “philosophers, pundits and plain folk” who pondered “what it’s all about”. The confusion about the source of the quotation stems from the entry listed for Hammer excerpted here: 1

Industrialist/physician ARMAND HAMMER

The first thing I look at each morning is a picture of Albert Einstein I keep on the table right beside my bed. The personal inscription reads: “A person first starts to live when he can live outside of himself.” In other words, when he can have as much regard for his fellow man as he does for himself. I believe we are here to do good. It is the responsibility of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he found.

Only the short inscription sentence enclosed in quotation marks was ascribed to Einstein. The passage after the quoted words should be credited to Hammer. Thus, the expression under investigation was attributed to Hammer in the pages of “Life”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1991 a book using material from the “Life” magazine cover story was published under the title “The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here”, and the remarks of Armand Hammer were reprinted. 2

The words are often assigned to Einstein. Here is an April 2009 example from a newspaper in Rochester, Minnesota: 3

Albert Einstein once said, “It is the responsibility of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he or she found.”

Also in 2009 a compilation titled “Topsy Turvy: A Book of Quotations” was released, and it included a version of the passage which was ascribed to Einstein. The words actually matched the text in “Life” magazine in 1988: 4

It is the responsibility of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one we found. Life is a gift, and if we agree to accept it, we must contribute in return.

In conclusion, QI believes that the expression should not be ascribed to Albert Einstein. Evidence indicates that Armand Hammer used the words in 1988, and he can be credited. However, the remark does not sound particularly original, and an earlier similar statement may be uncovered in the future.

Image Notes: Arm and Hammer graphic from Nemo on Pixabay. QI was unable to find a public domain image of Armand Hammer. Caduceus Symbol created by Rama and Eliot Lash and released into the public domain. Albert Einstein in 1921 by F Schmutzer. Latter two images obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

Update History: On April 3, 2014 the 1991 citation was added.

(Great thanks to Matt Schiavo whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1988 December, Life, The Big Picture: The Meaning of Life: Philosophers, pundits and plain folk ponder what it’s all about, (Answer by Armand Hammer), Quote Page 89, Column 2, Published by Time, Inc, Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1991, The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, Compiled by David Friend and the Editors of Life, Entry for Armand Hammer, Quote Page 29, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, (Verified on paper)
  3. 2009 April 17, Post-Bulletin, Section: State and regional, “Hormel Nature Center volunteer earns kudos” by Karen Colbenson, Quote Page not given, Rochester, Minnesota. (NewsBank Access World News)
  4. 2009, Topsy Turvy: A Book of Quotations, Compiled by J. Michael Mahoney, Quotation number 351, Quote Page 135, (Quotation number 350 in some editions), (First published September 3, 2009), Published by AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, (Google Books Preview)