To Understand a Person You Have To Know What Was Happening in the World When That Person Was Twenty

Napoleon Bonaparte? G. M. Young? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: The years of early adulthood are crucial to the formation of an entire outlook toward life. You have to know what was happening in the world when a person was twenty to understand that person. This notion has been ascribed to the French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte and the English historian G. M. Young. I am skeptical of the linkage to Napoleon because I have not seen any substantive citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1943 G. M. Young delivered a lecture before The British Academy of London about the Irish-British statesman Edmund Burke. Young believed that a thorough understanding of Burke required an assessment of the intellectual zeitgeist Burke experienced at age twenty. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1943, Proceedings Of The British Academy, Annual Lecture on a Master Mind, Henriette Hertz Trust, Burke by G. M. Young, Date: February 17, 1943, Start Page 19, Quote Page 24, Published for The British Academy, London by Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press. (Internet Archive at [/ref]

He was born, you will remember, in 1729. But a man’s birth-year is only of importance because it directs us to look for what was happening in the world when he was twenty, and at that age by ‘what was happening’ we ordinarily mean what books were in the air.

There were two from which a young man, even if he had not read them, could not protect himself: Hume’s Essays, with that Essay on Miracles which was a thrust at the heart of revealed religion, and Bolingbroke’s Patriot King, a challenge not to the Revolution Settlement so much as to the political philosophy by which the Settlement was legitimated, and the political practice by which it was applied.

In 1949 Young published an article in “The Listener” magazine of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He again emphasized the importance of understanding the pivotal youthful years of character formation:[ref] 1949 July 14, The Listener, Continuity by G. M. Young, Note: A slightly modified version of the Leslie Stephen Lecture delivered in Cambridge last May, Start Page 57, Quote Page 57, Column 2, British Broadcasting Corporation, London (The Listener Archive: Gale NewsVault) [/ref]

whenever I am thinking of a character, in public life it may be, or in literature, I always ask ‘What was happening in the world when he was twenty?’ If I am thinking of a year, the question is ‘Who were in their forties then?’ To the twenties I go for the shaping of ideas not fully disclosed: to the forties for the handling of things already established.

QI believes that this notion should be credited to G. M. Young. The earliest attribution to Napoleon known to QI appeared in 1998. Yet, the Emperor died in 1821. The long delay means that the linkage to Napoleon currently has no substantive support.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1954 English literary critic Walter Allen published “The English Novel: A Short Critical History”. Allen recalled Young’s comment and reprinted it in his book:[ref] 1954 Copyright, The English Novel: A Short Critical History by Walter Allen, Chapter 4: The Early Victorians, Quote Page 161, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

“Whenever I am thinking of a character, in public life it may be, or in literature,” G. M. Young has said, “I always ask ‘What was happening in the world when he was twenty?’” What was happening in the world in 1832, when Dickens was twenty and Thackeray twenty-one? The first long phase of the struggle for parliamentary reform and the extension of the franchise had ended with the passing of the Reform Act.

In 1967 Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis published a memoir titled “One Man’s Education” which included the following sentence:[ref] 1967, One Man’s Education by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, Chapter 8: Yale II, 1915-1917, Quote Page 120, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

G. M. Young said that in assessing a man’s character he asked, “What was happening in the world when he was twenty?”

In 1985 English historian Asa Briggs published a collection of his previous writings which included an essay titled “G. M. Young: The Age of a Portrait”. Briggs included a long quotation from Young that began as follows:[ref] 1985 Copyright, The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs, Volume 2: Images, Problems, Standpoints, Forecasts, Part 3: Looking Backwards, Chapter 12: G. M. Young: The Age of a Portrait, Quote Page 266, The Harvester Press Limited, Brighton, Sussex. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Whenever I am thinking of a character, in public life it may be, or in literature, I always ask ‘What was happening in the world when he was twenty?’

In 1998 R. F. Foster published the first volume of the biography “W. B. Yeats: A Life”. Foster presented a dictum he attributed to Napoleon. There was no footnote supporting the attribution. The initials WBY referred to W.B. Yeats:[ref] 1998 (1997 Copyright), W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 by R. F. Foster, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page xxviii, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

Napoleon’s dictum that to understand a man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty is manifestly true of WBY. He came to fame as the poet of the new Ireland, asserting its identity; his own discovery of his voice is often neatly paralleled with his country’s discovery of independence. But he was also a product of the ancien régime: Victorian, Protestant, Ascendancy Ireland.

In 2003 D. R. Thorpe published “The Life and Times of Anthony Eden” which began with the following passage:[ref] 2004 (2003 Copyright), Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden, First Earl of Avon, 1897-1977 by D. R. Thorpe, Chapter: Prelude, Quote Page 3, Pimlico, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

To understand a man, Napoleon once said, one has to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty. For the generation that came to adulthood during the Great War this precept was particularly apt. The timing of Anthony Eden’s birth (in June 1897) meant that he achieved the age of twenty in the most desperate year of that bloody conflict, and at one of the defining moments of his military career.

In conclusion, G. M. Young should receive credit for words he wrote in “The Listener” in 1949 which expressed the importance of knowing what was happening in the world when a figure was twenty years old. The attribution of this idea to Napoleon Bonaparte is currently unsupported.

(Great thanks to Mary Kilpatrick and Bruno Leipold whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, many thanks to Jeffrey Graf and the library system of Indiana University Bloomington for verification of the 1949 citation.)

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