The Purpose of Life Is Not To Be Happy But To Matter

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Leo Rosten? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: On Facebook and the web the following quotation has been circulating widely:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

The words are attributed to the famous philosophical essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have not been able to find a proper citation to an essay by the transcendentalist. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. Instead, QI believes that the passage was derived from a series of similar statements written and spoken by Leo Rosten who was a teacher and humorist.

In 1962 “The Sunday Star” newspaper of Washington D.C. published the text of an address recently delivered by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards held in New York. The following excerpt strongly matched the target quotation though it was not identical: 1

The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.

Rosten restated this anti-hedonic proposition multiple times, and he used similar language to communicate his ideas. Detailed references are provided further below.

Continue reading The Purpose of Life Is Not To Be Happy But To Matter

Notes:

  1. 1962 April 8, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: E-Editorial, On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity (Text of an address by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards in New York), Quote Page E-2, Column 7, Washington (DC), District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank)

Teach a Parrot to Say ‘Supply and Demand’ and You Have an Economist

Thomas Carlyle? Irving Fisher? Joseph Schumpeter? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorous saying about parrots and economists that is often attributed to the philosopher and satirist Thomas Carlyle. Sometimes the joke is simply ascribed to Anonymous. Here are three versions:

1: Teach a parrot the terms ‘supply and demand’ and you’ve got an economist.
2: It’s easy to train economists. Just teach a parrot to say ‘Supply and Demand’.
3: You can make even a parrot into a learned political economist. All he must learn are the two words ‘supply’ and ‘demand’.

I have not seen any precise references supporting the linkage to Thomas Carlyle. Would you be willing to attempt to trace this comical barb?

Quote Investigator: In the 1800s the words ‘supply and demand’ were sometimes derided as “parrot words”. In addition, disapproving terms such as “parrot-like” and “parrot-cries” were used in critiques aimed at economic analyses invoking “supply and demand”. In 1897 an individual using the phrase “supply and demand” was said to be acting “like a trained parrot”.

In 1907 the prominent Yale economist Irving Fisher included a version of the parrot joke in a book about interest rates. Fisher did not claim credit for the jibe, and he left the attribution anonymous. In 1931 an author used the following statement to present a tentative ascription for the parrot jest: “It was probably Thomas Carlyle’s none too gentle pen”. That was the earliest connection to Carlyle located by QI. Since Carlyle died in 1881 this late attribution provided very weak evidence.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Teach a Parrot to Say ‘Supply and Demand’ and You Have an Economist