You Can Discover More About a Person in an Hour of Play than in a Year of Conversation

Plato? Richard Lingard? Anonymous?

games11Dear Quote Investigator: Plato’s philosophical thoughts were explicated using the format of a dialogue in which the participants expressed clashing ideas. The following quotation attributed to Plato seems to be a comical twist on his true attitude:

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have found no substantive evidence that Plato wrote or spoke this remark.

The earliest significant match known to QI was contained in a short pamphlet published in 1670 titled “A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaveing the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World” by Richard Lingard. The following passage referred to “game” instead of “play”; also “game” was used in the specialized sense of “gambling game”. In addition, the period mentioned was seven years instead of one. The spelling and grammatical irregularities were in the original text. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Take heed of playing often or deep at Dice and games of chance, for that is more chargeable than the seven deadly sinns; yet you may allow your self a certaine easy sum to spend at play, to gratifie friends, and pass over the winters nights, and that will make you indifferent for the event. If you would read a mans disposition see him game, you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven years conversation, and little wagers will try him as soon as great stakes, for then he is off his Guard.

An individual might react with anger, agitation, surprise, or indifference when he or she has lost a small sum or a great sum of money. Each one of these variable responses would help to illuminate that person’s character suggested Lingard.

In 1857 a compilation titled “A Polyglot of Foreign Proverbs” was published and the following anonymous concise saying was presented in Portuguese and English: 2

Mais descobre huma hora de jogo, que hum anno de conversação.

An hour of play discovers more than a year of conversation.

The statement above strongly matched the modern version of the expression, and it may have evolved from the advice given in 1670, but this connection remains hypothetical.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1903 an article in “The New York Times” referred to a 1696 reprint of the 1670 letter. The newspaper shared an excerpt of the letter which included the saying about gambling given earlier in this article. The grammar was improved to indicate possessives. The following introductory sentences were employed: 3

One of the most curious and interesting volumes hidden away in the vaults of the Columbia library is a small book said to be among the first few printed in New York. It is a “Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman upon Leaving the University,” and was printed by William Bradford in 1696. . . .

If you would read a man’s Disposition, see him Game, and you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven Years’ Conversation.

The adage in the 1857 citation continued to circulate. For example, in 1917 a newspaper in Boise, Idaho printed a column filled with “Proverbs for Parents” by H. Addington Bruce which included the following three items: 4

Give to a pig when it grunts and to a child when it cries, and you’ll have a fine pig and a bad child.

A suspicious parent makes an artful child.

An hour of play reveals more than a year of conversation.

In 1918 a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana printed an advertisement for a horse racing venue that included an instance of the saying without attribution: 5

“An Hour of Play Discovers More Than a Year of Conversation.”
The Adage Is True. Come Out and Learn Real, Healthful Sport.

By the 1950s the adage had been reassigned to the famous philosopher Plato. For example, in 1958 a paper in San Saba, Texas used the following as an epigraph in a column about agriculture: 6

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”—Plato.

In 1977 “Centre Daily Times” of State College, Pennsylvania printed the following filler item which showed that the linkage of the saying to Plato has continued to circulate for decades: 7

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, Plato wrote, than in a year of conversation.

In 2000 “The Oregonian” of Portland, Oregon printed an article about toys that included a comment from a purchaser together with the adage ascribed to Plato: 8

“Items such as interactive globes, jigsaw puzzles and games teach us to think and even help us to develop problem-solving skills. Aside from that, they’re lots of fun.”

Plato knew how important play could be: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

In conclusion, QI has found no substantive evidence that Plato employed this saying. A precursor was published in 1670 by Richard Lingard. This early instance referred to gambling and a time period of “seven years conversation” instead of “a year of conversation”. In 1857 a close match was published as an anonymous proverb.

Image Notes: Portrait of Plato: detail from of the fresco of “The School of Athens” by Raphael circa 1509 via Wikimedia Commons. Pool table from ifdreams at Pixabay. Hand of poker from gillnisha at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Andrew Old and Paul Rauber whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for accessing the 1670 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1670, Title: A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaveing the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World, Author: R. L. (Richard Lingard), Quote Page 50 and 51, Printed by Benjamin Tooke, Dublin, Ireland, Sold by Mary Crook. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 2)
  2. 1857, A Polyglot of Foreign Proverbs, comprising French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Danish with English Translations by Henry G. Bohn, Section: Portuguese Proverbs, Quote Page 281, Section: Index, Quote Page 422, Published by Henry G. Bohn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1903 February 22, New York Times Advice Given to College Graduate: Old Work in Columbia Library Which Contains Much Wisdom Which Might Be Applied To-Day. (Includes Text of Letter from R.L.), Quote Page 24, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1917 May 4, The Idaho Daily Statesman, Proverbs for Parents by H. Addington Bruce, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Boise, Idaho. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1918 January 23, New Orleans Item, (Advertisement for a horse racing venue: Fair Grounds: The Saratoga of the South), Quote Page 7, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1958 July 31, The San Saba News, Home Demonstration News, Views & Interviews by Mrs. Bernice B. Murray (County Home Demonstration Agent), Quote Page 8, Column 1, San Saba, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1977 March 28, Centre Daily Times, The Short Cut (Filler Item), Quote Page 4, Column 6, State College, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 2000 January 24, The Oregonian, Brain Games by Nancy Mayer (Oregonian Staff), Section: Living, Quote Page C01, Portland, Oregon. (NewsBank Access World News)