We Judge Ourselves by What We Feel Capable of Doing, While Others Judge Us by What We Have Already Done

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? William Nevins? Stephen M. R. Covey? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The way we judge ourselves often differs markedly from the way others judge us. We tend to evaluate ourselves based on what we are capable of doing, or what we intend to do, or what we say we will do. However, no one else has access to our internal thoughts and dreams. Hence, others judge us by what we have actually accomplished.

I believe this idea has been eloquently and compactly articulated in the past. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The eminent poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a novel in 1849 titled “Kavanagh” that included the following statement:

. . . we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.

One character in the story was a school teacher named Churchill. The text above appeared on the first page of the tale. Here is a longer excerpt starting with the first words of the book. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Great men stand like solitary towers in the city of God, and secret passages running deep beneath external nature give their thoughts intercourse with higher intelligences, which strengthens and consoles them, and of which the laborers on the surface do not even dream!

Some such thought as this was floating vaguely through the brain of Mr. Churchill, as he closed his school-house door behind him; and if in any degree he applied it to himself, it may perhaps be pardoned in a dreamy, poetic man like him; for we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done. And moreover his wife considered him equal to great things.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

There is a large class of adages about dual divergent judgments based on internal and external evaluations. For example, in 1836 a compilation of writings from the pen of the Reverend William Nevins was published, and the following saying was included: 2

In judging ourselves, we cannot be too severe; in judging others, we cannot be too candid. We should judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions.

There are some intriguing points of similarity with Longfellow’s later remark. Both statements referenced two disparate judgments, and the first was based on interior knowledge, i.e., feeling or motivation. The second judgment was based on observable actions.

Yet, there was a crucial difference. The second judgment in Longfellow’s statement was about others appraising the self; however, in the statement by Nevins the self was appraising others. A separate entry on this website will examine the class of expressions that can be closely grouped with the remark by Nevins.

In 1850 Longfellow’s “Kavanagh” was critically examined in “Brownson’s Quarterly Review”, and the reviewer thought that the adage employed in the character sketch was vivid and worthy of reprinting. The word “while” was changed to “whilst”: 3

By two fine touches he is brought vividly before us:—He thought himself a great man,–“for we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, whilst others judge us by what we have already done.”

In 1874 “The Yale Literary Magazine” published an article titled “Lessons of the Year” which included a strongly matching expression. No attribution was given: 4

We are inclined to judge ourselves by what we can do, but others judge us by what we have done.

The words of Longfellow were remembered by quotation mavens. In 1882 “The Cyclopaedia of Practical Quotations” edited by J. K. Hoyt and Anna L. Ward contained an entry that properly pointed to “Kavanagh”: 5

We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while, others judge us by what we have already done.
Longfellow — Kavanagh. Ch. I.

In 1885 the “Indian Journal” newspaper of Muskogee, Oklahoma printed a version of the saying that contrasted “our words” reflecting internal thoughts and “our actions” evincing observable behavior: 6

While the men who are to come will judge us by our actions, we judge ourselves by our words.

Longfellow’s saying has continued to circulate. In 1942 the notable curmudgeon H. L. Mencken placed the phrase in “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” within the category “Self-Judgment”. 7 Also, in 1952 the influential columnist Franklin Pierce Adams included it in his collection “FPA Book of Quotations”. Both wordsmiths carefully cited “Kavanagh”. 8

In 1987 “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” placed the saying in the category “Ability and Achievement” and credited Longfellow. 9

In 2012 Stephen M. R. Covey, son of the well-known self-improvement author Stephen R. Covey, published a book titled “Smart Trust” which included a concise version of the thought without attribution: 10

The reality is that we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others judge us by our actions. So when our actions carry out our declared intent, they close the trust-building loop of promises made and kept.

In conclusion, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow should be credited with the words he wrote in 1849. In 1836 William Nevins wrote an expression that exhibited some points of similarity, but the two statements were clearly distinct.

Image Notes: Gavel from succo at Pixabay. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow circa 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Karta Kosasih whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. This is the first of two entries.)

Notes:

  1. 1849, Kavanagh: A Tale by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Quote Page 3, Published by Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (University of Virginia Library: Ebooks) link
  2. 1836, Select Remains of the Rev. William Nevins with a Memoir, Quote Page 383, Published by John S. Taylor, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1850 January, Brownson’s Quarterly Review, Longfellow’s Evangeline and Kavanagh, Start Page 56, Quote Page 72,Published by Benjamin H. Greene, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1874 June, The Yale Literary Magazine, Conducted by the Students of Yale College, Volume 39, Number 9, Lessons of a Year, Start Page 407, Quote Page 410, Published by the Editors, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1882, The Cyclopaedia of Practical Quotations: English and Latin Edited by J. K. Hoyt and Anna L. Ward (Jehiel Keeler Hoyt and Anna Lydia Ward), Section: Judgment, Quote Page 218, Column 1, Published by I. K. Funk and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1885 August 13, Indian Journal, Modern Vandalism, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Muskogee, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Self-judgment, Page 1079, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: Self-Judgment, Quote Page 712, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Ability and Achievement, Page 2, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 2012, Smart Trust: Creating Prosperity, Energy and Joy in a Low-Trust World by Stephen M. R. Covey and Greg Link with Rebecca R. Merrill, Sub-Section: The Principle of Behavior, Unnumbered Page in Preview, Published by Free Press : A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)