Tag Archives: Confucius

Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness

Eleanor Roosevelt? Confucius? Chinese Proverb? William L. Watkinson? E. Pomeroy Cutler? James Keller? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Adlai Stevenson? John F. Kennedy?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the emphasis on constructive action in the following saying:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

These words have been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, and several other people. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

In September 1907 Watkinson’s sermon “The Invincible Strategy” was reprinted in a periodical called “China’s Millions” which was published by a Protestant Christian missionary society based in China. 2

Thus, the expression was disseminated to a group of people in China. Nowadays, the words are sometimes ascribed to Confucius or labeled a Chinese proverb, but QI has not found compelling evidence to support that assignment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1907 Copyright, The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America by W. L. Watkinson (William Lonsdale Watkinson), Sermon XIV: The Invincible Strategy, (Romans: xii, 21), Start Page 206, Quote Page 217 and 218, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907 September, China’s Millions, The Invincible Strategy by Rev. Wm. L. Watkinson, (Sermon printed by special permission of the Methodist Publishing House from the book “The Supreme Conquest” by W. L. Watkinson), Start Page 135, Quote Page 137, Column 2, Morgan and Scott, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Who Wait Until Circumstances Completely Favor His Undertaking Will Never Accomplish Anything

Martin Luther? J. J. Van Oosterzee? Johann Eduard Huther? Saint Timothy? Jesse Lyman Hurlbut? Confucius?

luther07Dear Quote Investigator: The famous religious reformer Martin Luther who died in 1546 has been credited with a comment about the need to take action and avoid perpetual delays:

For truth and duty it is ever the fitting time; who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything.

I have been unable to locate a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the ascription to Martin Luther was flawed. Instead, the quotation evolved from a remark written by a German theologian named Johann Eduard Huther who was a Pastor at Wittenförden Bei Schwerin in the 1800s. The mistake was probably caused by confusion between the names “Huther” and “Luther”.

The earliest match in English located by QI appeared in 1868 in volume 8 of “A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures” edited by John Peter Lange. The Second Epistle to Timothy was analyzed by a theologian named J. J. Van Oosterzee. The translation from German to English was performed by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood. Oosterzee presented a quotation with an attribution to “Huther”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Timothy should fulfil his calling, not indeed when the time was so inopportune that they could receive no benefit, but when to himself it might be inconvenient. “For the truth, it is ever the fitting time; who wait until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything, but will remain in inactivity;” Huther.

Huther was referred to many times in the volume when excerpts from his commentaries were reprinted. Oddly, QI was unable to find the full name for Huther listed within the book. Nevertheless, QI believes that Johann Eduard Huther who was born in 1807 crafted the quotation in German. Indeed, an alternative translation of the statement into English appeared in a book of biblical exegesis published in 1881. The section of the book containing the quotation was about the Second Epistle to Timothy, and it was written by Johann Eduard Huther: 2

For the truth, the occasion is always seasonable. He who desires to wait until the occasion seem completely favorable for his work, will never find it. This is particularly true of the exercise of the evangelic office.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1868, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical by John Peter Lange, Translated from the German and edited by Philip Schaff, Volume 8, First and Second Epistles to Timothy by J. J. Van Oosterzee, Translated from the German by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood, Exegetical and Critical Analysis of the Second Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 4, Verse 2, Quote Page 112, Column 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1881, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament by Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Volume 11, The Pastoral Epistles by J. E. Huther (Johann Eduard Huther), (Fourth Edition Author’s Preface Dated November 1875), Section: The Second Epistle to Timothy), Quote Page 314, T & T. Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link

People Who Say It Cannot Be Done Should Not Interrupt Those Who Are Doing It

George Bernard Shaw? Puck? Saxby’s Magazine? Elbert Hubbard? Confucius? Anonymous?

wright07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is the perfect antidote to excessive negativity and obstructionism:

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

These words are often attributed to the acclaimed playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw; unfortunately, I have not been able to locate any solid data to back up this claim. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the Shaw ascription.

QI hypothesizes that the modern expression evolved from a comment about the rapidity of change and innovation at the turn of the century that was printed in multiple newspapers and journals in 1903. One instance appeared on March 7, 1903 in a periodical called “The Public” based in Chicago, Illinois. An acknowledgment to the humor magazine “Puck” was appended. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Puck.

On March 13, 1903 an instance was published in “The Evansville Courier” of Evansville, Indiana with an acknowledgement to “Saxby’s Magazine”. The statements above and below were both printed as filler items without additional contextual information: 2

Some philosopher takes time to remark that things move along so rapidly nowadays that people who say “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Saxby’s Magazine.

In April 1903 a journal for educators and parents called “Kindergarten Magazine” printed an instance that exactly matched the statement in “The Public”. The “Puck” acknowledgement was included: 3

During the ensuing decades the expression was reshaped. In 1914 a charismatic aphorism constructor named Elbert Hubbard printed a variant in his journal “The Philistine”, but he disclaimed authorship. By 1962 a pseudo Confucian version had been fabricated, and by 2004 a version attributed to George Bernard Shaw was circulating. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1903 March 7, The Public, Number 257, Editor Louis F. Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 766, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1903 March 16, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1903 April, Kindergarten Magazine, Volume 15, Number 8, (Filler item), Quote Page 488, Kindergarten Magazine Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

Choose a Job You Love, and You Will Never Have To Work a Day in Your Life

Confucius? Arthur Szathmary? An Old-Timer? Janet Lambert-Moore? Harvey Mackay? Anonymous?

jobchoice11Dear Quote Investigator: I assist students in the selection of accurate and properly credited quotations for the school yearbook. One student would like to use a popular adage about career choice:

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

This statement is often attributed to the ancient Chinese sage Confucius, but the student considers this assertion anachronistic because job choice flexibility was sharply limited in the era of Confucius. Would you please explore this issue?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have found no substantive support for the claim that Confucius made this statement.

The earliest strong match located by QI was published in the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” in 1982 which quoted a Professor of Philosophy named Arthur Szathmary who employed the saying; however, Szathmary attributed the words to “an old-timer” who was not identified. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

An old-timer I knew used to tell his students: ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’

The expression has sometimes been attributed to the entrepreneur and top-selling author Harvey Mackay who did use the adage in 1989 as shown in the citation given further below, but QI believes that he did not craft it.

This article presents a snapshot of current knowledge on this topic; and future research may uncover citations which antedate the 1982 passage above. QI suspects that earlier instances exist that use a different phrasing.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1982 October 6, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Article Title: Toshiko Takaezu, Article Author: Ann Woolfolk, Start Page 31, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)

Our Greatest Glory Is Not in Never Falling, But in Rising Every Time We Fall

Confucius? Nelson Mandela? Vince Lombardi? Oliver Goldsmith? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Christian Nestell Bovee?

goldsmith08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about motivation and perseverance has been attributed to an oddly eclectic group: Chinese philosopher Confucius, football coach Vince Lombardi, activist politician Nelson Mandela, Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here are four versions. The fourth uses “failing” instead of “falling”:

1) The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

2) The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.

3) Our greatest strength lies not in never having fallen, but in rising every time we fall.

4) Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.

I have no idea if any of these ascriptions is correct because I have not seen any documentation listing a source. Would you please help me with this frustrating situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1760 and1761 a series of letters written by an imaginary Chinese traveler based in London named Lien Chi Altangi was published in “The Public Ledger” magazine of London. The actual author was an Irishman named Oliver Goldsmith who used the perspective of an outsider from China to comment on and satirize the life and manners of the city. Goldsmith later achieved fame with his novel “The Vicar of Wakefield” and his play “She Stoops to Conquer”. 1

The letters were collected and released in book form in 1762 under the title “The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East “. The seventh letter from Lien Chi Altangi included an instance of the adage: 2

Our greatest glory is, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

A different phrasing of the maxim was included in the twenty-second letter:

True magnanimity consists not in NEVER falling, but in RISING every time we fall.

QI has located no substantive evidence that the ancient sage Confucius constructed this saying in either form, and QI believes that Goldsmith crafted it. However, the context of these simulated exotic letters led many readers to believe that the author was relaying aphorisms from China. Indeed, the introductory note for the seventh letter specifically referred to Confucius:

The Editor thinks proper to acquaint the reader, that the greatest part of the following letter seems to him to be little more than a rhapsody of sentences borrowed from Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.

By 1801 an edition of “The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith” included the letters that were originally ascribed to Lien Chi Altangi. Hence, the words were properly credited to Goldsmith. 3

Yet, by 1831 the saying had been reassigned to Confucius. In later years, the phrasing evolved, and the adage was attributed to a variety of individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In modern times, there is evidence that both Vince Lombardi and Nelson Mandela used the expression. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (Third edition), Entry: The Citizen of the World, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 26, 2014)
  2. 1762, The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East by Lien Chi Altangi (Oliver Goldsmith), Letter VII and Letter XXII, Printed for George and Alex. Ewing, Dublin, Ireland. (ECCO TCP: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Text Creation Partnership) link link link
  3. 1801, The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Volume 3 of 4, Letter VII, Quote Page 21, Letter XXI, Quote Page 75, Printed for J. Johnson, G. and J. Robinson, W. J. and J. Richardson, et al, Printed by Nichols and Son, Red Lion Passage, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Harder I Practice, the Luckier I Get

Gary Player? Arnold Palmer? Jerry Barber? Jack Youngblood? Lee Trevino? Ethel Merman? L. Frank Baum?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am a fan of the golfing legend Gary Player, and the Wikipedia article about him says he: “Coined one of the most quoted aphorisms of post-War sport”:

The harder you practice, the luckier you get.

Is that true? Which golfer said it first? Was it Arnold Palmer?

Quote Investigator: Gary Player is a very fine golfer, but he is not responsible for this well-known maxim. The best evidence that he did not coin the adage is in a book written by Player himself in 1962 where he credits the aphorism to fellow golfer Jerry Barber. Before discussing that book QI will review support for Player and some other claimants to the phrase. The earliest instance of the expression found by QI that uses the word “practice” is not from a golfer. It appears in a memoir published in 1961 by a soldier of fortune during the Cuban revolution.

The saying is a popular motto and different versions can be grouped together in a family that stretches back to before 1900. Here are some examples:

The harder I practice, the luckier I get
The more I practice, the luckier I get.
The more they put out, the more luck they have.
The harder he works, the luckier he gets.
The more you know, the more luck you have.

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Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Maurice Switzer? Arthur Burns? John Maynard Keynes? Confucius? Anonymous?

lincolntwain05Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an entertaining saying that is usually credited to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.

The phrasing is different, but I think these two statements express the same thought. When I mentioned this adage to a friend he claimed that it was in the Bible, but it does not sound very Biblical to me. Can you resolve this dispute?

Quote Investigator: There is a biblical proverb that expresses a similar idea, namely Proverbs 17:28. Here is the New International Version followed by the King James Version of this verse: 1

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

The quotations that the questioner listed use a distinctive formulation that is certainly more humorous. In the biblical version one is thought wise if one remains silent, but in the questioner’s statements the word “wise” is not used. Remaining silent simply allows one to avoid the fate of being thought a fool or stupid. This maxim has many different forms, and it is often ascribed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. However, there is no substantive evidence that either of these famous individuals employed the maxim.

The wonderful Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) 2 investigated the saying and presented the earliest known attribution to Lincoln in Golden Book magazine in November 1931: 3

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

Since Lincoln died in 1865 this is a suspiciously late instance, and it provides very weak evidence. Further, YBQ indicated that the phrase was in use years before this date with no attachment to Lincoln. The ascription of the saying to Mark Twain is also dubious.

When Ken Burns filmed a documentary about Mark Twain in 2001 a companion book was released, and it listed the following version of the quote in a section titled “What Twain Didn’t Say”: 4

Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

The earliest known appearance of the adage discovered by QI occurred in a book titled “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer. The publication date was 1907 and the copyright notice was 1906. The book was primarily filled with clever nonsense verse, and the phrasing in this early version was slightly different: 5

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Most of the humorous content of “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” has the imprint of originality, and based on currently available data QI  believes that Maurice Switzer is the leading candidate for originator of the expression. This 1906 citation was also given in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, an indispensable new reference work from Yale University Press. 6

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. Proverbs 17:28 has many translations. Here is a link to a webpage with several from the Online Parallel Bible Project of Biblos.com. (Accessed Bible.cc on October 24, 2012) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Abraham Lincoln, Page 466, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1931 November, Golden Book Magazine, Volume 14, Quote Page 306, Published by The Review of Reviews Corporation, Albert Shaw, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2001, Mark Twain by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, Based on a Documentary by Ken Burns, Section: What Twain Didn’t Say, Page 189, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1907, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, Page 29, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 83, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)