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)

If You Want to Know What a Man’s Like, Look at How He Treats His Inferiors

J. K. Rowling? Lord Chesterfield? Sirius Black? Charles Bayard Miliken? M. C. B. Mason?

Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite quotation from the entire Harry Potter series was the brilliantly insightful remark spoken by the character Sirius Black:

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

Did the author originate this saying?

Quote Investigator: One theme in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling is the mistreatment of a class of servants called house elves. The term “inferiors” is used to refer to individuals who have a lower rank or status within a society. This group included house elves in Rowling’s fantasy universe.

In the book “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” the character Hermione Granger was unhappy with the treatment given to a house elf by Bartemius Crouch, a powerful official. Sirius Black concurred with Granger that Crouch’s actions revealed a character defect. Here is a longer excerpt in which Hermione Granger speaks of the dismissal of a house elf, and Black then addresses Ronald Weasley [GFSB]:

“Yes,” said Hermione in a heated voice, “he sacked her, just because she hadn’t stayed in her tent and let herself get trampled—”

“Hermione, will you give it a rest with the elf!” said Ron.

Sirius shook his head and said, “She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron.  If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The popularity of Rowling’s books provided wide-dissemination for this guideline about assessing character. But this general expression has a long history, and QI has located an example in 1910 that communicated the same idea using comparable language [CMRT]:

It is the way one treats his inferiors more than the way he treats his equals which reveals one’s real character.

—Rev. Charles Bayard Miliken, Methodist Episcopal, Chicago.

Below are additional selected citations on this theme in chronological order starting in the 1700s.

QI has also examined a related saying: You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. Skip to the end of this article for a comparison of these two sayings and/or click here to read the other article.

Continue reading If You Want to Know What a Man’s Like, Look at How He Treats His Inferiors