There Is No Expedient to which a Man Will Not Resort to Avoid the Real Labor of Thinking

Thomas Edison? Joshua Reynolds? Irving Babbitt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A piquant statement about mental laziness is attributed to the inventor and research laboratory pioneer Thomas A. Edison. Here are two versions:

There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.

This expression is also attributed to the prominent English painter Joshua Reynolds. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: In the eighteenth century Joshua Reynolds was the most successful portrait painter in England, and he was selected to be the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Between 1769 and 1790 Reynolds delivered an influential series of Discourses about art.[ref] The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Seventh edition) by Dinah Birch, Entry: Sir Joshua Reynolds (1701—1779), Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 15, 2014)[/ref] The Twelfth Discourse contained a prolix statement with a meaning that largely matched the adage under investigation.

Through a multistep process the expression of Reynolds was greatly simplified and condensed to yield a much pithier statement. This new phrase was reassigned directly to Reynolds by 1914. Thomas Edison saw a concise instance and was impressed enough to choose it as an admonitory didactic motto for his organization. By 1921 Edison had decided to have placards placed on the walls of his plant in Orange, New Jersey displaying the saying together with an ascription to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Later writers elided the name of Reynolds and attributed the words to Edison.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1784 Joshua Reynolds addressed the students of The Royal Academy, and his speech was later presented as the Twelfth Discourse in a 1797 collection of his written works. The following paragraph described the multifarious strategies individuals employed to avoid “the real labour of thinking”. The British spelling “labour” was used instead of “labor”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1797, The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knt., Late President of the Royal Academy, Volume 1 of 2, Discourse XII, (Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution of the Prizes, December 10, 1784), Start Page 241, Quote Page 247, Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, The Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In the practice of art, as well as in morals, it is necessary to keep a watchful and jealous eye over ourselves; idleness, assuming the specious disguise of industry, will lull to sleep all suspicion of our want of an active exertion of strength. A provision of endless apparatus, a bustle of infinite enquiry and research, or even the mere mechanical labour of copying, may be employed, to evade and shuffle off real labour, —the real labour of thinking.

The Discourses of Reynolds have been reprinted in many editions over the years and have continued to circulate up to the present day.

In 1902 an essay by literary critic Irving Babbitt in “The Atlantic Monthly” included a sentence credited to Reynolds that had been abridged via the omission of a phrase about copying:[ref] 1902 June, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 89, The Humanities by Irving Babbitt, Start Page 770, Quote Page 774, Column 1, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

It is hard to consider our prodigious educational activity — the laboratories and committees and conventions and endowments — without being reminded at times of the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds: “A provision of endless apparatus, a bustle of infinite inquiry and research, may be employed to evade and shuffle off real labor—the real labor of thinking.”

In 1910 Irving Babbitt published “The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts”, and he revisited the words of Reynolds. Babbitt produced a hybrid statement that was composed of a paraphrase together with a quoted phrase from Reynolds. This combination expression moved closer to popular modern versions of the saying:[ref] 1910, The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts by Irving Babbitt, Chapter VII: Conclusion, Quote Page 188, Houghton, Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In fact, as Sir Joshua Reynolds says, there is scarcely any expedient to which man will not resort in order to “evade and shuffle off real labor, — the real labor of thinking.”

In 1914 “The Conception of Art” by the painter Henry Rankin Poore was published, and he included an instance comparable to the modern adage ascribed to Reynolds as a chapter epigraph. This expression was a further streamlined version of Babbitt’s 1910 hybrid rendition although Poore did not indicate a source:[ref] 1914 (Copyright 1913), The Conception of Art by Henry Rankin Poore, (Epigraph to Chapter II: The Logic of Art), Quote Page 25, Second Edition, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“There is no expedient to which man will not resort to evade the real labor of thinking.” — Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The journalist and publisher B. C. Forbes visited the laboratory of Thomas Edison and wrote about the famous inventor in the January 1921 issue of “The American Magazine”. The article stated that Edison had created a sign that displayed the compact expression, but he attributed the words to Reynolds:[ref] 1921 January, The American Magazine, Volume 91, “Why Do So Many Men Never Amount to Anything?: Thomas A. Edison, the great inventor, answers this pointed question, Reported by B.C. Forbes, Start Page 10, Quote Page 10, The Crowell Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

We were sitting in his famous library, which is also his office, at his vast laboratories and plant at Orange, New Jersey, and the great inventor leaned over and picked up a placard from a newly-opened package on his desk.

“I’m going to have this put all over the plant,” he said, as he pointed to the large-type words. They read:

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
Sir Joshua Reynolds

“That is true. There is hardly a day that I do not discover how painfully true it is,” went on Mr. Edison. “What progress individuals could make, and what progress the world would make, if thinking were given proper consideration! It seems to me that not one man in a thousand appreciates what can be accomplished by training the mind to think.

In May 1921 the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams reported on the Edisonian sign, and did not mention Reynolds. The short item ended with a comical postscript:[ref] 1921 May 10, Greensboro Record, The Conning Tower by F.P.A. (Franklin Pierce Adams), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

On the door of Mr. Edison’s laboratory appears this truthful sign:


Indeed he will; including the expedient of reprinting signs.

Also in May 1921 a humor columnist in a New Jersey newspaper ascribed the saying to Edison:[ref] 1921 May 12, Trenton Evening Times. Said and Done, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

According to Thomas A. Edison, “a man will resort to almost any expedient to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Well, why should a man think when Mr. Edison reaches conclusions for him? Personally, we’d resort to any amount of thinking to avoid real labor.

The 1948 edition of the popular self-help book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie included an instance credited to Edison:[ref] 1948, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, Quote Page 30, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Thomas Edison said in all seriousness, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the labor of thinking”

In 1985 the collection “A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations” included an entry for the saying that used a slightly different phrasing without the word “resort”:[ref] 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Section Thinking, Quote Page 304, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking.
-Thomas A. Edison, motto posted throughout his laboratories (c.1895).

In conclusion, this single-sentence adage evolved from a complicated paragraph composed by the artist Joshua Reynolds. The literary critic Irving Babbitt apparently catalyzed the construction of the condensed expression. Edison employed the shorter statement, but he credited Reynolds.

Image Notes: Joshua Reynolds Self Portrait from the Project Gutenberg archives. Thomas Alva Edison by Abraham Archibald Anderson from Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped.

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

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