Find the Good and Praise It

Alex Haley? Madison Babcock? William Paton Ker? Charles W. Leadbeater? Jesse Owens? Nathan Rotenstreich? Ovid? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Cynicism and pessimism are commonplace. Yet, an alternative optimistic attitude has been expressed with the following saying:

Find the good and praise it.

This precept has been attributed to bestselling U.S. author Alex Haley and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Alex Haley did present this guidance within an article he wrote in 1982, but he did not claim to be its originator.

This general notion is reflected in Ephesians 4:29 of the Bible. Here is the statement in the King James translation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] Website: Bible Gateway, Bible Verse: Ephesians 4:29, Translations: King James Version (KJV) and New Living Translation (NLT), Website description: Bible Gateway is a searchable online Bible; a division of Zondervan which is part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. (Accessed on February 24, 2022) link [/ref]

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.

Here is the version in the New Living Translation:

Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.

The exact expression can be traced back into the nineteenth century. A match occurred in 1896 within a report published by Madison Babcock who was the Superintendent of Schools in San Francisco, California:[ref] 1896, Annual Report of the Public Schools of the City and County of San Francisco for the School and Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1896, Superintendent’s Report by Madison Babcock (Superintendent Schools), Quote Page 186, The Hinton Printing Company, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Don’t label your class “the meanest in school.” If you do, it will strive to live up to the reputation you give it. Be not as some teachers who speak only to snarl at faults. Find the good and praise it, speak sparingly of the bad. None of us desire our wrong deeds oft spoken of; we are always better for the kindly words of our good actions.

QI tentatively credits Madison Babcock with this precise formulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1899 “The Christian Register” published a collection of remarks under the title “Brevities”. The following statement offered a different balanced viewpoint about praise and condemnation:[ref] 1899 January 12, The Christian Register, Volume 78, Number 2, Brevities, Quote Page 34, Column 2, Christian Register Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The critic is the one who sees and judges. He may see the good and praise it, he may see the evil and condemn. It does not follow that one is unkind because he criticises it.

In 1919 Scottish literary scholar William Paton Ker published a piece in “The Times Literary Supplement”. While discussing the work of another scholar, Ker suggested that criticism should focus on highlighting good works:[ref] 1919 February 13, The Times Literary Supplement, Review by W. P. Ker (William Paton Ker) of George Wyndham’s Essays in Romantic Literature, Start Page 73, Quote Page 73, Column 4, London, England. (Gale Digital Archive of The Times Literary Supplement) [/ref]

Wyndham’s criticism is almost always praise; ridicule and rejection may be amusing, but the real task of criticism is to find out the good and praise it rightly.

In 1920 “The Hidden Side of Christian Festivals” by Charles W. Leadbeater offered the following instruction:[ref] 1920, The Hidden Side of Christian Festivals by Charles W. Leadbeater (Regionary Bishop of The Liberal Catholic Church for Australasia), Chapter 7: Lent, Quote Page 139, The St. Alban Press, London. (Verified with scans) link [/ref]

St. Peter is said to have remarked: “He that would fain see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile.” So it is best to talk as little as we can about other people unless we have something good to say. Watch for what is good and praise it—the reason for doing so being that when we speak and think about another person, the force of our thought acts upon that person.

William Paton Ker’s 1919 article containing the saying was reprinted in a 1925 collection of his essays.[ref] 1925, Collected Essays of W. P. Ker by William Paton Ker, Edited by Charles Whibley, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 16: Essays in Romantic Literature, (Reprinted from Times Literary Supplement, No. 891, 13th Feb., 1919), Start Page 294, Quote Page 299, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref] Ker’s collection was examined in “The Contemporary Review” of London in 1926, and the reviewer found the remark memorable enough to reprint it:[ref] 1926 November, The Contemporary Review, Volume 130, Section: Literary Department – Reviews, Review by S. De M. of two volumes of collected essays of W. P. Ker (Walter Paton Ker), Start Page 669, Quote Page 670, London, England. (ProQuest) [/ref]

He says in his essay on George Wyndham that “the real task of criticism is to find out the good and praise it rightly,” and he follows his own teaching throughout.

A thematically similar remark was penned by Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in his 1970 book “Blackthink”:[ref] 1970, Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man by Jesse Owens With Paul G. Neimark, Chapter 8: Showcase the Good, Quote Page 166, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it and you’ll start believing in it. And so will most of the people who come into contact with you.

A separate Quote Investigator article about the above quotation is available here.

In 1972 Professor of Philosophy Nathan Rotenstreich attributed a variant remark to the ancient Roman poet Ovid:[ref] 1972 Copyright, Philosophy: The Concept and Its Manifestations by Nathan Rotenstreich (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Chapter 8: Philosophy and Life, Quote Page 158, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

An insight into the difficulty may be obtained from Ovid’s well-known words: “I know the good and praise it, but I follow the bad.” A knowledge of the good is not the only factor that influences man’s conduct.

In 1982 Alex Haley published a piece about giving thanks in the widely-distributed newspaper supplement “Parade Magazine”. His final paragraph contained the saying:[ref] 1982 November 21, Journal Star, Section: Parade Magazine, “Thank You”: A timely story of friendship by Alex Haley, Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Peoria, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

And there is something else I wish—so strongly that I have had this line printed across the bottom of all my stationery: “Find the good—and praise it.”

In 1985 “The Knoxville News-Sentinel” of Tennessee published a profile of Alex Haley which began with an explanation of where Haley learned about the saying:[ref] 1985 January 13, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Alex Haley: A fame not fleeting: Writer establishing Appalachian roots by Bill Moss (News-Sentinel staff writer), Quote Page E1, Column 5, Knoxville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Find the good — praise it.”
Alex Haley once saw that on a bumper sticker in Los Angeles. He liked it so much he embossed it on his stationery.

In conclusion, the earliest exact match found by QI appeared in an 1896 report written by Madison Babcock, and QI tentatively gives him credit for this formulation. Alex Haley and others helped to popularize the expression in later years.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a message on a blackboard that says “Well Done” with a heart symbol from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Thanks to Mardy Grothe who featured this saying in his February 6, 2022 email newsletter. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The saying is also listed on Grothe’s website within the category “Goodness”.)

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