There Is Nothing Noble in Being Superior to Some Other Man. The True Nobility Is in Being Superior to Your Previous Self

Ernest Hemingway? W. L. Sheldon? Hindu Proverb? Khryter? Seneca? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about “true nobility” attributed to the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway suggests that one should avoid comparing oneself to others. I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please trace this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899, and the first strong match known to QI appeared a couple years before in 1897. A collection of “Ethical Addresses” included a piece titled “What to Believe: An Ethical Creed” by W. L. Sheldon who was a Lecturer of the Ethical Society of St. Louis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Remember that in the struggle of life it is always possible to turn one kind of defeat into another kind of victory. Try it and see!

Remember that if you cannot realize the ends of your being in one way, you can in another. Realize something! You will have to render an account somehow.

Remember that there is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.

Remember that you show what you are by the way you talk about people.

Remember that, as you grow older, nature’s tendencies are laying their grip upon you. Nature may be on your side when you are young, but against you later on.

In January 1963 “Playboy” magazine published a controversial posthumous article titled “A Man’s Credo” by Ernest Hemingway which included an instance of the adage. However, Hemingway expert Peter L. Hays believes that the luminary did not write the article.

Details are provided further below together with selected citations in chronological order.




The article in “Ethical Addresses” appeared in April 1897 and it was reprinted shortly afterwards with the same byline in the religious periodical “The Unitarian” in June 1897. 2

In March 1898 the medical journal “The Clinical Reporter” of St. Louis, Missouri printed a column titled “Points and Pointers” containing miscellaneous quotations and observations. The adage was slightly altered with “former self” replacing “previous self”. In addition, a non-specific Hindu origin was suggested: 3

There is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your former self. Hindu Proverb.

In 1909 a filler item in the “Marion Record” of Marion, Kansas credited the saying to someone or something named Khryter. 4 The same item and ascription appeared in other newspapers such as “The Fairmount News” of Fairmount, Indiana: 5

There is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.—Khryter.

In 1921 the students of Râja-Yoga College in Point Loma, California published an issue of “Râja-Yoga Messenger” that included a section of miscellaneous quotations called “Stray Beams”. A version of the saying was credited to Sheldon, i.e., the author of the 1897 address: 6

“Remember that there is nothing in being superior to some other man. The true nobility lies in being superior to your own previous self.”—Sheldon

In 1922 the adage and ascription above also appeared in “The New Way”, a monthly from “The International Theosophical League of Humanity”. The two publications: “The New Way” and the “Râja-Yoga Messenger” shared an editor named Katherine Tingley. 7

Hemingway died in 1961, and in January 1963 “Playboy” magazine printed “A Man’s Credo” with the suspicious byline of Ernest Hemingway. The article included an instance of the saying: 8

To regret one’s errors to the point of not repeating them is true repentance. There is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.

In the affairs of life or of business, it is not intellect that tells so much as character, not brains so much as heart, not genius so much as self-control, patience and discipline regulated by judgment.

The editors of the magazine lauded themselves in the introductory “Playbill” section and discussed the provenance of the Hemingway piece: 9

Its contents are certain to be prized for (among other reasons) a literary coup of considerable magnitude — a series of previously unpublished observations on life and art, love and death by Ernest Hemingway, who gave them shortly before his death to California’s nonprofit Wisdom Foundation.

“Playboy” purchased the publication rights from the Wisdom Foundation and shared the material with its readers, but Professor of English Peter L. Hays, a Hemingway specialist, has expressed serious doubts about the authenticity of the text. Hays’s 2014 book contained a chapter “Hemingway’s Playboy Interviews: Are They Genuine” that examined two pieces published in the magazine in January 1963 and January 1964. Hays stated that the vocabulary, punctuation, and opinions in the articles deviated substantially from Hemingway’s other writings. He concluded the pieces were not from Hemingway. 10

In 1973 “A Speaker’s Treasury for Educators” compiled by Herbert V. Prochnow assigned the saying to the ancient Roman sage Seneca although no distinction was made between Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger: 11

There is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. True nobility is being superior to your previous self. Seneca

In conclusion, QI tentatively credits W. L. Sheldon with the expression. Sheldon’s essay was clearly influenced by other thinkers, but this precise adage might be novel. Perhaps there is a precursor in the Hindu literature, but QI was unable to find a citation. In addition, QI agrees with Hays that the posthumous pieces ascribed to Ernest Hemingway in “Playboy” are questionable. In any case, the saying was circulating before Hemingway’s birth.

Image Notes: Illustration of one figure helping another to ascend from Peggy_Marco at Pixabay. Portrait of Ernest Hemingway typing; public domain image accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Daniel Voshart and Keith Inman whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Voshart located the earliest citation and several other valuable citations.)

Notes:

  1. 1897 April, Ethical Addresses, Series 4, Number 4, What To Believe: An Ethical Creed by W. L. Sheldon (Lecturer of the Ethical Society of St. Louis), Start Page 57, Quote Page 61, S. Burns Weston, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1897 June, The Unitarian, Volume 12, Number 6, What To Believe: An Ethical Creed by W. L. Sheldon (Lecturer of the Ethical Society of St. Louis), Start Page 269, Quote Page 270, Column 2, Geo. H. Ellis, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1898 March, The Clinical Reporter, Points and Pointers, Start Page 40, Quote Page 41, P. H. Felker, St. Louis, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1909 September 30, Marion Record, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Marion, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1909 December 17, The Fairmount News, With the Sages, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Fairmount, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1921 September, Râja-Yoga Messenger: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Higher Education of Youth Conducted by Students of the Râja-Yoga College, Edited by Katherine Tingley, Volume 17, Number 5, Stray Beams, Quote Page 236, Point Loma, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1922 January, The New Way, Volume 11, The New Way Quotebook, Quote, Page 8, Published Monthly by The International Theosophical League of Humanity under the direction of Katherine Tingley, Point Loma, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1963 January, Playboy, Volume 10, Number 1, A Man’s Credo by Ernest Hemingway, Start Page 120, Quote Page 124, Column 2 and 3, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1963 January, Playboy, Volume 10, Number 1, Playbill, Quote Page 5, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2014, Fifty Years of Hemingway Criticism by Peter L. Hays, Chapter 30: Hemingway’s Playboy Interviews: Are They Genuine?, Start Page 215, End Page 220, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland. (Google Books Preview)
  11. 1973, A Speaker’s Treasury for Educators, Convocation Speakers, Baccalaureate Speakers, and Others, Compiled by Herbert V. Prochnow, Topic: True Nobility, Quote Page 269, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified on paper)