Eleanor Roosevelt? Charles Stewart? Henry Thomas Buckle? James H. Halsey? Hyman G. Rickover? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is largely used to deride people who are preoccupied with gossip:
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
The words are attributed to social activist and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have been unable to find a solid supporting citation. Similar statements have been ascribed to philosopher Socrates and U.S. Naval engineer Hyman Rickover. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. As a child in London, Stewart listened to the conversation of dinner guests such as history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle who would sometimes discourse engagingly for twenty minutes on a topic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
His thoughts and conversation were always on a high level, and I recollect a saying of his, which not only greatly impressed me at the time, but which I have ever since cherished as a test of the mental calibre of friends and acquaintances. Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”
Stewart was pleased with Buckle’s adage, but he did not let its implicit guidance dictate his conversations. He wished to avoid the tedium of monotonous dialogues:
The fact, of course, is that any of one’s friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs.
Buckle’s tripartite remark specified the categories: persons, things, and ideas. The questioner’s statement used the division: people, events, and ideas. So the statements did differ; indeed, the remark evolved during decades of circulation, and it was reassigned to a variety of individuals.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.