A Hero Is No Braver Than an Ordinary Person, But the Hero Is Brave Five Minutes Longer

Marcel Proust? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lord Palmerston? Duke of Wellington? Japanese Proverb? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The difference between demonstrating bravery and cowardice can be surprisingly small. Perseverance under extreme duress can lead to success. Here are three instances from a family of sayings about heroism and tenacity:

  1. A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
  2. Victory is on the side that can hold out a quarter of an hour longer than the other.
  3. The conquering soldier is not braver than the soldiers of other countries, but he is brave ten minutes longer.

This saying has been attributed to the transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British military leader Arthur Wellesley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the May 1878 issue of a London periodical called the “Temple Bar”. An unnamed author penned a statement above bravery which was prefaced with a remark about success in the sport of fencing. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1878 May, Temple Bar: A London Magazine, Volume 53, Sticks, Stocks and Stones: Arma Virumque Cano, Start Page 50, Quote Page 54, Richard Bentley & Son, London.(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

If you can hit a man two inches farther than he can hit you, you are, in the truthful language of the “Fancy,” his better man physically. ‘Tis the same morally: all men are brave, but if one man is brave two minutes longer than the other he has a decided advantage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1898 the “Journal of the Royal United Service Institution” attributed the saying to Lord Palmerston, the British politician who was Prime Minster twice and who died in 1865:[ref] 1898 June, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Volume 42, Number 244, The Nation and the Army by Captain W. H. James, Statement by Colonel Stewart, Start Page 681, Quote Page 701, J. J. Keliher & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

He was talking with certain ambassadors of foreign Powers, and the question turned on the bravery of the Continental soldiers as compared with the British soldier, and at last Lord Palmerston was asked what his opinion was. “Well,” said Lord Palmerston, “I believe with you all that one is just as brave as the other, but with this reservation, that the British soldier remains brave for ten minutes longer than any other soldier.” [1]

[Footnote 1] “Reminiscences of a Cabinet Minister.” — Malmesbury. — H.H.A.S.

The footnote above suggested that the ascription of the quotation was supported by the reminiscences of “Malmesbury” which probably corresponded to James Harris, 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, but QI has not yet found documentation for this claim.

In 1907 the “Shipley Times and Express” of Yorkshire, England printed the following:[ref] 1907 August 30, Shipley Times and Express, Talks for a Quiet Hour by Rev. C. Silvester Horne, Quote Page 9, Column 3, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

Lord Palmerston was credited once with attributing in modest fashion the success of the British arms to this quality when he deprecated the statement that the British soldier was any braver than the French soldier; but he added, “He is brave five minutes longer.”

In 1912 “The Children’s Friend” of Salt Lake City, Utah attributed the saying to the Duke of Wellington who famously defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and who died in 1852:[ref] 1912 July, The Children’s Friend: Organ of the Primary Associations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 11, Number 7, Brave Five Minutes Longer, Quote Page 353, The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The Duke of Wellington is credited with saying that the British soldier was not braver than the soldiers of other countries, but he was brave five minutes longer, and, of course, the result could only be one thing, namely, victory

In 1915 “The Bicester Herald” of Oxfordshire, England also credited the Duke of Wellington. This instance used fifteen minutes instead of two, five, or ten minutes:[ref] 1915 February 5, The Bicester Herald, The Empire’s Splendid Response, Quote Page 2, Column 5,Oxfordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

When the Duke of Wellington was addressed by a friend, who complimented him on the courage of his troops at Waterloo, he said (with that downrightness which was one of his chief characteristics):–“I have fought against many forces in my time, and I find the men of all races in the hour of battle, brave. The only difference to other fellows is, that our men are brave fifteen minutes longer.”

In 1917 the “Manuel du Chef de Section d’Infanterie” was translated into English and published as the “Manual of the Chief of Platoon of Infantry” by the American Expeditionary Forces. An instance of the saying was included:[ref] 1917, Manual of the Chief of Platoon of Infantry, Comment: This translation of the main portion of the French “Manuel du Chef de Section d’Infanterie”, Edition of January 1917, is published for the information of all concerned, Quote Page 11, Publisher: Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

In dark hours, when discouragement appears, officers and non-commissioned officers act in unity in order to drive it from the company: they remind all that whatever happens, one must never despair, that there is no good reason why the enemy should not be quite as much reduced and depressed as anybody else, that in war, fortune has most sudden returns for those who do not give up and that a “complete victory belongs to him who can suffer one quarter of an hour longer than the other”.

Marcel Proust wrote a celebrated series of books called “A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time” or “Remembrance of Things Past”). The second volume was titled “A L’Ombre Des Jeunes Filles En Fleurs” (“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”), and it included an instance of the saying:[ref] 1919, A L’Ombre Des Jeunes Filles En Fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) by Marcel Proust, Series: A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, Tome 2, (In Search of Lost Time), Quote Page 49 and 50, Librairie Gallimard, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

On n’avait pas encore importé d’Orient: « La Victoire est à celui des deux adversaires qui sait souffrir un quart d’heure de plus que l’autre comme disent les Japonais ».

C. K. Scott Moncrieff translated the passage above into English a few years after its initial publication:[ref] 1924, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, Translated by Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, Volume 2 in the Series: Remembrance of Things Past, Section: Madame Swann at Home, Quote Page 46, Published by Thomas Seltzer, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

. . . we had not yet imported from the Far East: “Victory is on the side that can hold out a quarter of an hour longer than the other, as the Japanese say”.

In 1921 a religious text titled “Playing Square with Tomorrow” by Fred Eastman ascribed a version of the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson who had died in 1882:[ref] 1921, Playing Square with Tomorrow by Fred Eastman, Chapter 3: Where Does Service Begin, Quote Page 47, Published Jointly by Council of Women for Home Missions and Missionary Education Movement, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Emerson said, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”

Also, in 1921 “The Baptist” periodical of Chicago, Illinois specified an anonymous attribution for the saying:[ref] 1921 November 12, The Baptist, Volume 2, Number 41, Moral Calories and Spiritual Vitamines, Quote Page 1310, Column 3, Northern Baptist Convention, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Someone has said that a hero is no braver than other men, only he is braver five minutes longer!

In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Evan Esar credited Emerson with a version using “brave” instead of “braver”:[ref] 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Quote Page 71, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) [/ref]

EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882, American essayist, poet, and philosopher.

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.

In conclusion, based on current evidence QI would label this saying anonymous. The ascriptions to Lord Palmerston, the Duke of Wellington, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are weak because each occurred many years after death. Marcel Proust employed the saying after it was already circulating, and he labeled it Japanese. Perhaps future research results will clarify the ascription.

Image Notes: Painting by Evelyn De Morgan of “Hero Holding the Beacon for Leander” circa 1885. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Barry Popik, Jonathan Lighter, and Randall Houston whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Popik has an article discussing this topic on his website. Thanks to discussants Ben Zimmer, Mark Mandel, Benjamin Barrett, Laurence Horn, and Bill Mullins.)

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