Gore Vidal? La Rochefoucauld? W. Somerset Maugham? Wilfrid Sheed? Iris Murdoch? David Merrick? Genghis Khan? Larry Ellison? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Competition and jealousy are reflected in a family of closely related cynical sayings:
- It is not enough to succeed; one’s best friend must fail.
- It is not enough to succeed; one’s friends must fail.
- It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.
- It’s not enough that I should succeed, others should fail.
- It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail.
I have heard different versions of these quotations credited to the epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld, the writer Gore Vidal, and the warlord Genghis Khan. Could you examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: François Duc de la Rochefoucauld was born in 1613, and he did craft adages that are sometimes confused with the phrases you have given. Here are English translations of two of his statements that were originally made in French [YQRO] [OXRO]:
In the misfortune of our best friends, we always ﬁnd something which is not displeasing to us.
We are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others.
These are really different maxims, and QI believes that the sayings under investigation should not be ascribed to La Rochefoucauld. A separate post will be created to discuss Rochefoucauld’s words.
The earliest instance known to QI of a quotation that fits in this family of sayings was published in 1959. The words were attributed to the best-selling author Somerset Maugham by the avid quotation collector Bennett Cerf. The quote was published in Cerf’s syndicated newspaper column called “Try and Stop Me”, and he credited Maugham second-hand through an unnamed “visitor”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI [SMFF]:
Octogenarian Somerset Maugham told a visitor to his French Riviera estate recently, “Now that I’ve grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.”
In 1961 “Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study” by Richard A. Cordell was published, and it included a discussion of the quotation immediately above. The biographer contended that Maugham’s comment was inspired by his exposure to the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld in his youth. The excerpt below referred to Maugham’s sojourn in Heidelberg, Germany that began when he was eighteen. The excerpt also referred his 85th birthday which occurred in 1959 [SMRC]:
His companions introduced him to the pleasures of art, poetry, theatre, and friendly disputation. He discovered the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, and their echoes were heard for sixty years in his plays and stories. On Maugham’s eighty-fifth birthday a journalist reported him as uttering a pure La Rochefoucauld: “Now that I have grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.” Fortunately one is not obliged to accept as authentic every statement made by a columnist, and this ill-humored remark is quoted out of context.
Some readers may have misinterpreted the phrase “uttering a pure La Rochefoucauld” and concluded that the quotation was composed directly by La Rochefoucauld. But Cordell actual meant that the quote was stylistically and thematically congruent with the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. This similarity has caused confusion between the words of Maugham and La Rochefoucauld for decades as shown in the citations below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.