Quote Origin: Fame Is Proof That The People Are Gullible

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Elbert Hubbard? Anonymous?

Red carpet symbolizing fame from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: New forms of celebrity have been created in recent years. TikTok and YouTube have produced influencers. Yet, popularity has become remarkably transient. I am reminded of the following harsh comment:

(1) Fame is proof that the people are gullible.
(2) Fame is proof that people are gullible.

This saying has been attributed to nineteenth-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, I have not seen a solid citation. Would you please help me uncover evidence?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in 1897 within “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” which was edited and largely written by essayist and aphorist Elbert Hubbard. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

“Fame is proof that the people are gullible,” said Emerson. And so a vast fortune is usually proof that the owner has discovered a weakness of humanity and bet on it.

Thus, Elbert Hubbard credited Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet, researchers have examined the writings and speeches of Emerson and have been unable to locate this statement. So the creator remains anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1648 English scholar Thomas Fuller published “The Holy State” which contained the following thematic precursor:2

Fame sometimes hath created something of nothing.

In 1855 the “Theatrical Journal” of London printed a partial match for the saying:3

The fact is the people are gullible, and believe though they cannot see.

In 1897 Elbert Hubbard credited Emerson with the saying in the pages of “The Philistine” as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

In 1933 a person contacted “The New York Times” which operated a  “Queries and Answers” column. The person wished to know about the origin of the expression:4

S. E. B.—Requests the location in Socrates of this passage: “Fame is the perfume of heroic deeds.” And where does Emerson say: “Fame is proof that the people are gullible.”

In 1936 a newspaper in Ohio printed the saying while acknowledging a popular reference book:5

The following quotations taken from Burton E. Stevenson’s “Home Book of Quotations”—copyright 1934—are used with his permission.

Fame: Apothegms …
“Fame is proof that the people are gullible.” Emerson

In 1939 “The Evening Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland printed a slightly modified version of the saying with the word “the” omitted:6

What Is Fame?
Fame is proof that people are gullible.—Emerson.

In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” edited by Evan Esar included this entry:7

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

Fame is proof that the people are gullible.

In 1967 “The Great Quotations” compiled by George Seldes contained an entry with the word “the” omitted:8

Fame is proof that people are gullible.
[Ralph Waldo Emerson

In conclusion, Elbert Hubbard credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with the saying in 1897, but there is no direct evidence that Emerson ever employed it. Hence, the creator remains anonymous. A variant with the word “the” omitted is also circulating.

Image Notes: Picture of a red carpet symbolizing fame from Dorinel Panaite at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Martienne whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

  1. 1897 September, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Volume 5, Number 1, What periodical has the widest circulation in the world?, Quote Page 125, Printed by the Society of Philistines, The Roycroft Printing Shop, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1648, The Holy State by Thomas Fuller, Section: The Third Book, Chapter 23: Of Fame, Quote Page 215, Printed by Roger Daniel for John Williams et al., Cambridge, England. (Early English Books Online EEBO) link ↩︎
  3. 1855 August 15, Theatrical Journal, Volume 16, Number 818, The Decline in The Drama by G.B.J., Quote Page 261, Column 1, Published by the Proprietor, Printed by W. Coleman, London. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩︎
  4. 1933 November 12, The New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Queries and Answers, Quote Page 29, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  5. 1936 October 31, Chillicothe Scioto Gazette, Quotations, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Chillicothe, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1939 April 14, The Evening Sun, What Is Fame? (Filler item), Quote Page 33, Column 7, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1949 Copyright, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Quote Page 71, Bramhall House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  8. 1967, The Great Quotations, Compiled by George Seldes, Topic: Fame, Quote Page 345, Pocket Books. New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
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