Aristotle? Robert T. Oliver? John Patrick Ryan? Loren Reid? Gerald M. Phillips? Julia T. Wood? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most effective way to persuade other people is to downplay your own motivations and appeal to their motivations. The following adage expresses this notion:
The fool tells me his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.
Aristotle sometimes receives credit for this saying, but I have been unable to find a proper citation. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Aristotle employed this expression. The earliest close match located by QI occurred in 1942 within a textbook about public speaking and argumentation titled “The Psychology of Persuasive Speech” by Robert T. Oliver. The first chapter referred to the target audience of the book. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The question he brings to the study of persuasion is not, “How can I reach a right conclusion?” but, “How can a given audience be influenced to accept my conclusion?” This point of view deserves the sharpest emphasis it can receive, for it is the catalytic which precipitates the principles set forth in this book.
An old proverb of uncertain origin states the essence of this point of view in one sentence: “The fool tries to convince me with his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.”
Oliver used the descriptor “old proverb”; hence, he disclaimed authorship and presented an anonymous ascription. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A thematic precursor appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” for 1734: 2
Would you persuade, speak of Interest, not of Reason.
The saying appeared interspersed within astronomical information for the month of June. The text is underlined in red below:
This compact statement may be interpreted as follows: Convincing another person is more easily accomplished by appealing to the interests of that person and not depending on reasoning skill or abstract motivations.
Fools try to convince a woman, but wise men persuade her.
The meaning of the expression hinges on the connotations of the words “convince” and “persuade”. The term “convince” suggests appeals to reason, whereas “persuade” suggests appeals to motivation.
In 1942 a close match appeared in a book by Robert T. Oliver as mentioned previously.
In 1959 the journal “The Speech Teacher” published a profile of Professor John Patrick Ryan of Grinnell College who employed several sayings that his students and colleagues found memorable: 5
He would state an idea succinctly and often repeat it. “Do not make the gods weep,” was his reminder to make speeches compelling. “A fool convinces me with his reasons—a wise man with my reasons. Seventy-five per cent of your speech is made by the audience.” And “approach the idea, state the idea, develop the idea, leave the idea.”
Also, in 1959 Robert T. Oliver published “Effective Speech for Democratic Living”, and he repeated the expression he used back in 1942: 6
There is an old saying: “The fool tries to convince me with his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.”
The wise persuasive speaker studies the question of how he may induce his listeners to want to agree with him.
In 1975 “The Process of Persuasion: Principles and Readings” by Wayne N. Thompson included an instance and acknowledged Ryan. The accompanying footnote pointed to the article in “The Speech Teacher”: 7
“A fool convinces me with his reasons,” John P. Ryan supposedly observed, “—a wise man with my reasons. Seventy-five percent of your speech is made by the audience.”
The 1977 edition of “Speaking Well” by Loren Reid contained an instance: 8
Your responsibility is to present the evidence fairly; your listeners’ responsibility is to weigh this evidence. Hence good persuasive speaking allows the listener to persuade himself or herself. “A fool convinces me with his reasons, a wise man convinces me with my reasons.”
The 1981 book “Help for Shy People: and anyone else who ever felt ill at ease on entering a room full of strangers” by Gerald M. Phillips attributed the saying to the ancient sage Aristotle. Phillips was a Professor of Speech Communication at Pennsylvania State University: 9
We must proceed through Aristotle’s dictum “The fool tells me his reasons, the wise man persuades me with my own.” When we seek to influence others, we must be considerate of their needs and wants.
In 1982 “Human Communication: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective” by Julia T. Wood attributed the adage to an unnamed ancient thinker: 10
The fool persuades me with his reasons, the wise man with my own.
This idea is as insightful today as it was thousands of years ago when an ancient Greek rhetorician is said to have used it in a lecture to his students.
Also, in 1982 Phillips published an article titled “The Decay of Purposive Communication”, and he again attributed the saying to Aristotle: 11
Skilled rhetorical speech is directed at the needs of an audience, following Aristotle’s dictum, “the fool tells me his reasons, the wise man persuades me with my own.” Democratic societies are considerate and protective of the rights of minorities.
In conclusion, the earliest evidence of this saying located by QI appeared in 1942. The educator Robert T. Oliver described the expression as an “old proverb of uncertain origin”; hence, earlier citations may be uncovered by future researchers. The ascription to Aristotle is currently unsupported.
Image Notes: Cropped image from Raphael’s 1509 fresco “The School of Athens” showing Plato and Aristotle; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Gijs Kruitbosch whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kruitbosch noted the common unsupported ascription to Aristotle.)
- 1942, The Psychology of Persuasive Speech by Robert T. Oliver (Bucknell University), Chapter 1: The Problems of Persuasion, Quote Page 9, Longmans, Green and Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1734, Poor Richard, An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1734, Being the Second after Leap Year (Poor Richard’s Almanac), Benjamin Franklin, Month: June, Column: 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Images from American Antiquarian Society; accessed at rarebookroom.org on December 4, 2018) link ↩
- 1897 October 30, The Pantagraph, All Sorts, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1897 March 11, Marthasville News, Tangled Threads, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Marthasville, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1959 November, The Speech Teacher, Number 4, Volume 8, “John P. Ryan’s Art of Teaching” by Loren Reid, Start Page 288, Quote Page 296, Column 1, Speech Association of America, Falls Church, Virginia. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1959, Effective Speech for Democratic Living, Robert T. Oliver (Robert Tarbell Oliver), (Head, Department of Speech, The Pennsylvania State University), Chapter 8: How to Make Your Ideas Persuasive, Quote Page 81, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1975, The Process of Persuasion: Principles and Readings by Wayne N. Thompson, Quote Page 55, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977, Speaking Well by Loren Reid, Third Edition, Quote Page 351, McGraw-Hill, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986 (1981 Copyright), Help for Shy People: and anyone else who ever felt ill at ease on entering a room full of strangers by Gerald M. Phillips, Chapter 5: Starting to Change, Quote Page 44, (First published by Prentice-Hall in 1981), Dorset Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1982, Human Communication: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective by Julia T. Wood (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), (Preface by Julia T. Wood is dated October 1981), Chapter 11: Planning Public Speeches, Quote Page 252, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1982, Communications and the Future: Prospects, Promises, and Problems, Edited by Howard F. Didsbury Jr., The Decay of Purposive Communication by Gerald M. Phillips (Professor of Speech Communication at Pennsylvania State University), Start Page 337, Quote Page 339, World Future Society, Bethesda, Maryland. (Verified with scans) ↩