The Harder the Life, the Finer the Type

Wilfred Thesiger? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Our local newspaper printed the following quotation and attribution:

 “The harder the life, the better the man,” the British desert explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger is popularly quoted as having said.

Thesiger led an extraordinary life as an explorer and travel writer, and he left behind a large trove of wonderful photographs recording his experiences. I would like to use this saying, but the phrase “popularly quoted” makes me wonder if Thesiger actually said the words. Could you examine this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: The book “Wilfred Thesiger in Africa” edited by Chris Morton and Philip Grover printed the transcript of an interview that naturalist David Attenborough conducted with Thesiger which was first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in August 1994. Bold face has been added here and to passages further below: 1

ATTENBOROUGH: Do you think that hardship and, indeed, suffering bring nobility?

THESIGER: I think the harder the life, the finer the type, yes, and I certainly felt this about the Bedu. When I went there, I felt that the difficulty was going to be living up physically to the hardships of their life. But, on the contrary, it was the difficulty of meeting their high standards: their generosity, their patience, their loyalty, their courage and all these things. And they had a quality of nobility.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Harder the Life, the Finer the Type


  1. 2010, Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, Edited by Chris Morton and Philip Grover, Chapter 2: Heart of a Nomad: Wilfred Thesiger in Conversation with David Attenborough, [Interview first broadcast on Channel 4 in August 1994], Start Page 74, Quote Page 82, Pitt Rivers Museum, HarperPress imprint of HarperCollins, London. (Verified on paper)