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.