Plotinus? Herodotus? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many are familiar with the ancient Latin injunction of the poet Horace: “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day”. The following thematically similar statement has been attributed to other figures of the ancient world: the philosopher Plotinus and the historian Herodotus:
Not to be involved with the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of having not really lived at all.
Oddly, the same saying has been ascribed to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence linking the statement above to Plotinus or Herodotus. Unsupported attributions appeared in the 2000s, i.e., very recently.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered a Memorial Day address on May 30, 1884 in Keene, New Hampshire. He spoke about a pivotal event in U.S history, the Civil War, which had ended nineteen years earlier. The speech of Holmes included the original instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take his part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right—in the South as in the North. I think that as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. Many instances in circulation have been simplified and streamlined.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1951 a columnist named Charles E. Tracewell writing in “The Evening Star” of Washington, D.C. presented a concise version of the saying and ascribed the words to an unnamed “famous American”. Tracewell strongly disagreed with the sentiment expressed: 2
“A man should share the action and passion of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”
So wrote a famous American, and every reader can understand what he meant. But the truth is that countless happy, earnest and useful persons have not so shared, and yet they have lived. They have lived happily, earnestly and usefully, to their own complete satisfaction and those they loved.
Tracewell repeated the compact adage twice in his column, but he altered the text slightly. The phrase “action and passion” was pluralized to “actions and passions” in the second version:
Such retiring persons will laugh lightly at the awful old face, quoted as saying, “A man should share the actions and passions of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”
“Says you!” might be the best answer.
In 1952 the “Illinois State Journal” reported on a funeral eulogy that had been delivered by Wayland Brooks, a former U.S. Senator. Brooks included a version of the saying in his oration while crediting Holmes. The phrasing and vocabulary differed somewhat from the source, but the semantics matched: 3
. . . based his eulogy on this famous quotation by the late Oliver Wendell Holmes, noted soldier, statesman and jurist:
“All life is action and passion; unless you play a part in the action and passion of the day in which you live you run the risk of being accused of not having lived at all.”
The above instance displayed a common modification. The original text from Holmes included the phrase “action and passion” followed by the reordered phrase “passion and action”. As the expression evolved over the decades some transmitters enforced a parallel structure. For example, the version above did not reorder the phrase; instead, “action and passion” appeared twice.
In 1958 “The Evening Star” of Washington, D.C. published an article titled “Prose from the High Bench” that included an instance credited to Holmes. The saying was slightly condensed, and the phrase “action and passion” was used twice: 4
The Supreme Court justice most often quoted for the literary quality of his writings was the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some Holmes quotations, from opinions and other documents:
Life is action and passion, I think it is required of a man that he should share the action and passion of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
In 1969 a letter writer in a Marietta, Georgia newspaper employed an instance that used plurals: “actions and passions”: 5
In conclusion, I would recommend that those who are interested in their own progress, make their reservations early for Symposia ’69 as Justice Holmes said, “It is required of a man that he should take part in the actions and passions of his time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived.”
In 1974 “Forbes” magazine published a compact version attributed to Holmes in a section called “Thoughts on the Business of Life”: 6
Since life is action and passion, a man must share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
In 1979 the actress and comedian Barbara Feldon, Agent 99 in the television series “Get Smart”, was interviewed. She described her political activism and presented a compressed instance of the expression: 7
Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Not to have participated in the actions and passions of one’s time is to be judged not to have lived”.
In 2002 the popular motivational author Brian Tracy wrote “Focal Point: A Proven System to Simplify Your Life, Double Your Productivity, and Achieve All Your Goals”. Tracy ascribed an instance of the saying to the ancient historian Herodotus: 8
Herodotus once wrote, “All of life is action and passion. Not to be involved with the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of having not really lived at all.”
In 2005 Brian Tracy released “Something for Nothing: The Attitude That Turns the American Dream into a Social Nightmare”. The statement was reassigned to the ancient philosopher Plotinus: 9
“All of life is action and passion, and not to be involved in the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of not having truly lived.”
Some modern references include the correct form of the quotation together with a precise citation. For example, “The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations” (1993) compiled by top expert Fred R. Shapiro listed the following: 10
I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Memorial Day Address, 30 May 1884, in Speeches 1, 11 (1913)
In conclusion, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. should be credited with the statement given in the 1884 citation. QI has found no other substantive rival ascriptions.
The “Jr.” suffix is recommended because Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was also a well-known quoteworthy figure.
Image Notes: Head of Herodotos circa 2nd century AD located in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Cannon at sunset from tpsdave at Pixabay. Portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes circa 1902 via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized.
(Great thanks to the artist, entertainer, and thinker Zero Dean @ZeroDean whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1884, Dead, Yet Living: An Address Delivered at Keene, New Hampshire on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, Speaker: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, (Reprinted from the Boston Daily Advertiser by the Author’s Permission), Published by Ginn, Heath, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1951 July 5, Evening Star, This and That by Charles E. Tracewell, Quote Page A18, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1952 March 7, Daily Illinois State Journal, Wayland Brooks Eulogizes Milton E. Jones in Rites, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1958 November 30, Evening Star, Not What But How They Say It: Prose from the High Bench by Daniel M. Berman, Sub-section: The Greatest Stylist, Washington, D.C. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1969 February 7, Marietta Journal, Section: Reader Comment, (Letter to the Editor titled “Praises Work of Symposium Leaders” from William H. All of Marietta, Georgia), Quote Page 4, Column 3 and 4, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1974 August 15, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 108, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1979 February 4, Times-Picayune, Barbara Feldon Got Smart—and Stayed That Way by Benjamin Morrison, Quote Page 30, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 2004 (2002 Copyright), Focal Point: A Proven System to Simplify Your Life, double your productivity, and achieve all your goals by Brian Tracy, Quote Page 179, Published by AMACOM: A Division American Management Association, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2005, Something for Nothing: The Attitude That Turns the American Dream into a Social Nightmare by Brian Tracy, (Epigraph of Chapter 5: The Current Dilemma), Quote Page 87, Published by Nelson Current: Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1993, The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, Compiled by Fred R. Shapiro, Topic: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Quote Page 182, Column 2, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩