Whatever We Achieve Inwardly Will Change Outer Reality

J. K. Rowling? Anaïs Nin? Plutarch? Otto Rank?

Dear Quote Investigator: J. K. Rowling created the beloved fantasy universe of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. She delivered a humorous and touching commencement address at Harvard University in 2008. While in college she studied the classics, and her address included a quotation from a prominent ancient Greek essayist: 1

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

Did Plutarch really write this? Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have not yet found this statement in Plutarch’s writings.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in an essay by the prominent diarist and eroticist Anaïs Nin published in the “Journal of the Otto Rank Association” in 1973. The text was based on a talk delivered by Nin during an Association meeting in October 1972. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Just as the deep sea diver carries a tank of oxygen, we have to carry the kernel of our individual growth with us into the world in order to withstand the pressures, the shattering pressures of outer experiences. But I never lost sight of their interdependence, and now I find in Dr. Rank the following statement: “Whatever we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Nin credited psychoanalyst Otto Rank who was an influential early colleague of Sigmund Freud. QI has not yet found the statement in Rank’s voluminous German writings, but the search has been restricted by limited access. Nin read a French translation of Rank’s “Truth and Reality” in the 1930s. Rank was her therapist and ultimately her lover.

Based on current evidence QI would provisionally credit Otto Rank with the quotation under examination. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Whatever We Achieve Inwardly Will Change Outer Reality


  1. 2008 June, Harvard Magazine, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination (Commencement Address delivered at Harvard University by J. K. Rowling on June 5, 2008), Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Accessed harvardmagazine.com on December, 13 2016) link
  2. 1973 June, Journal of the Otto Rank Association, Volume 8, Number 1, On Truth and Reality by Anaïs Nin (From a tape recording of talk given by Anaïs Nin at the meeting of The Otto Rank Association held on October 28, 1972 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania), Start Page 51, Quote Page 56, Otto Rank Association, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of University of North Carolina)

The Mind Is Not a Vessel That Needs Filling, But Wood That Needs Igniting

William Butler Yeats? Plutarch? Socrates? Plato? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a superb quotation about education that I have encountered many times. Here is a collection of examples with attributions that I have been accumulating. None of the examples came with citations:

  • Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel —Socrates
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. —William Butler Yeats
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. —Plutarch
  • The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting. —Plutarch

What do you think? Who should properly be given credit, and what was the original statement? It is embarrassing to find that even educators who should be sensitized to the problems of improper or non-existent citations are sometimes careless. But my criticism is muted because determining a proper ascription can be difficult, as your website illustrates.

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Socrates or William Butler Yeats produced one of these sayings. These two attributions apparently are incorrect.

This family of statements probably originated with a passage in the essay “On Listening” in Moralia by the Greek-born philosopher Plutarch who lived between 50 and 120 AD. 1 The following excerpt was translated by Robin Waterfield for a 1992 Penguin Classics edition. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect, …

Here is an alternative translation of the first sentence published in the 1927 Loeb Classical Library edition: 3

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Mind Is Not a Vessel That Needs Filling, But Wood That Needs Igniting


  1. 2008, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn, (2nd revised edition), Entry: Plutarch, Oxford University Press, (Accessed Online Oxford Reference on March 28, 2013)
  2. 1992, Essays by Plutarch, Translation by Robin Waterfield, On Listening, Quote Page 50, Penguin Classics, London and New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1927, Moralia by Plutarch, Volume 1 of the Loeb Classical Library edition, “De auditu” by Plutarch, (“On Listening to Lectures”), Webpage maintained by Bill Thayer. (QI has not verified this text on paper) (Accessed penelope.uchicago.edu on March 28, 2013) link