If We Are Here to Help Others, I Often Wonder What the Others Are Here For

W. H. Auden? George Herbert Palmer? Young Boy? Thomas Robert Dewar? John Foster Hall? Anonymous?

auden09Dear Quote Investigator: Altruism is a cornerstone of many religions and philosophies. Here are two versions of a humorous comment on this topic:

If we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for.

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

This quip has been attributed to the prominent poet W. H. Auden and the Scottish whisky distiller Thomas Dewar. Do you know who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: The first expression listed above was attributed to Thomas Robert Dewar in 1926. The joke was included in a set of sayings printed in a newspaper under the title “A Peer’s Epigrams” with a concluding ascription to “Lord Dewar”. The details for this cite are given further below

In addition, W. H. Auden did write the second expression in a 1942 essay, but the context indicated that he was repeating an existing joke. Details are further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared before the above two citations in the “Year Book of the Brookline Education Society” in 1897. A lecture was delivered in Brookline, Massachusetts by a Harvard Professor named George Herbert Palmer, and he spoke about the complex nature of altruism:

We must be altruists—although I am not sure that altruism is not a sort of contradiction.

Palmer told a version of the joke in which a child spoke the punch line: 1

Professor Palmer here related an anecdote of two children who were overheard talking one night on the end of living. Such a narrow subject for children! The girl said that she knew what she was here for—”to help others.” “Well,” remarked the boy, “what are the others here for?” This is the weakness of altruism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If We Are Here to Help Others, I Often Wonder What the Others Are Here For

Notes:

  1. 1897, Year Book of the Brookline Education Society, Second Year: 1896-1897, Third Lecture, January 27th: Subject: “The Profession of the Teacher”, (Date of lecture January 27, 1897), Start Page 14, Quote Page 16, Published by The Riverdale Press: C.A.W. Spencer, Brookline, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link