The Great Use of a Life Is to Spend It for Something That Outlasts It

William James? Ralph Barton Perry? Henry James? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been working to confirm the source and accuracy of a quotation that is attributed to the famous philosopher and educator William James. Here are three versions:

  1. The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  2. The best use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  3. The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

A version of this saying was listed in the Wikipedia entry for James, but more recently it has been removed. Perhaps you can verify this quote and determine the correct version.

Quote Investigator: William James died in 1920, and the earliest evidence QI has located for this statement is in the reference work “The Thought and Character of William James: As Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together with His Published Writings” which was released in 1935. This massive two volume compendium included a large amount of material written by James that was not published during his lifetime. Extensive notes and annotations were provided that carefully listed sources and dates. A version of the quotation was presented together with a year, but oddly no source was given by the editor Ralph Barton Perry. The precise wording differed from the three instances given by the questioner: 1

“The great use of a life,” James said in 1900, “is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” This outlasting cause was then, as in earlier days, the happiness of mankind.

QI has not yet identified a text dating to 1900 containing the quote, and does not know why the editor did not provide a footnote or annotation for the saying.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Great Use of a Life Is to Spend It for Something That Outlasts It

Notes:

  1. 1935, “The Thought and Character of William James: As revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes, together with his published writings”, Edited by Ralph Barton Perry, Volume II: Philosophy and Psychology, Quote Page 289, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper) (Internet Archive has an Oxford University Press edition in full view) link  link