Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Always Do What You Are Afraid To Do

Quotation: Always do what you are afraid to do.

Popularizer: Ralph Waldo Emerson (He did not create the adage.)

Context: In 1841 Emerson published the essay “Heroism”, and he recommended a simple maxim to readers for overcoming trepidation. Some fears are justified, and the guidance does not encourage foolish or self-destructive actions. Emerson disclaimed credit for the saying with the phrase “I once heard”: 1

Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

Related Article 01: Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You
Related Article 02: Make It a Point To Do Something Every Day That You Don’t Want To Do

Image Notes: Picture of wingsuits; author: Richard Schneider from Los Angeles; CC BY 2.0. Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson circa 1857; via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.


  1. 1841, Essays by R. W. Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Essay VIII: Heroism, Start Page 247, Quote Page 262, James Fraser, London. (Google Books full view) link

As a Cure for Worrying, Work Is Better Than Whisky

Thomas Edison? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

edison11Dear Quote Investigator: Using alcohol to provide solace when experiencing apprehension is often unwise. The famous inventor and businessman Thomas Edison preferred hard work and reportedly said:

As a cure for worrying, work is better than whisky

Oddly, the same saying has been attributed to the noteworthy thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. Can you resolve this ambiguity?

Quote Investigator: The ascription to Thomas Edison is well-supported, but the linkage to Ralph Waldo Emerson is unsupported.

The March 1929 issue of “Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan” magazine published an interview with Thomas Edison that included his commentary about the difficulties and uncertainties he faced while building his business empire. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“For a good many years I worried about my pay-roll; didn’t always know how I was going to meet it. My trouble has been that I have always had too much ambition and tried to do things that were sometimes financially too big for me. If I had not had so much ambition and had not tried to do so many things I probably would have been happier, but less useful.

“But I have always found, when I was worrying, that the best thing to do was to put my mind upon something, work hard and forget what was troubling me. As a cure for worrying, work is better than whisky. Much better.

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  1. 1929 March, Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan, Edison: In an Unusual Talk with Allan L. Benson, Start Page 83, Quote Page 83, Column 2, International Magazine Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Interlibrary Loan system)

Sometimes You Eat the Bear, and Sometimes the Bear Eats You

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Sam Elliott? Ethan Coen? Joel Coen? Bertrand W. Sinclair? Carl O. Sauer? Roger Penske? Jim Croce? Preacher Roe? Anonymous?

bears10Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of ursine sayings about the topsy-turvy vicissitudes of life:

1) Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
2) Sometimes you hunt the bear, and sometimes the bear hunts you.
3) Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.

A version of the first statement was spoken during the 1998 movie “The Big Lebowski” whose screenplay was written by the Coen brothers. Would you please examine the provenance of this family?

Dear Quote Investigator: An interesting precursor was included in an essay titled “Farming” published in an 1870 collection by the influential transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. The early human diet included foods derived from plants and animals, but hunting megafauna was a dangerous endeavor. Emerson described a beleaguered primal figure. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He is a poor creature; he scratches with a sharp stick, lives in a cave or a hutch, has no road but the trail of the moose or bear; he lives on their flesh when he can kill one, on roots and fruits when he cannot. He falls, and is lame; he coughs, he has a stitch in his side, he has a fever and chills: when he is hungry, he cannot always kill and eat a bear;—chances of war,—sometimes the bear eats him.

Emerson’s essays were reprinted in many editions during the ensuing decades, and QI believes the passage above probably facilitated the emergence of the modern adage.

Another precursor appeared in an item printed in an Alexandria, Louisiana newspaper in 1894. The two-fold contingent nature of encounters with bears was highlighted: 2

The farmers of this community are about done gathering their crops, and many of them are now in the woods gathering up their hogs. Some of them so engaged a few days ago ran across a bear in Calcasieu swamp so the first question asked now when they return from the swamp is, “Did you get the bear, or did the bear get you?”

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  1. 1870, Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay: Farming, Start Page 115, Quote Page 128, Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1894 December 15, The Weekly Town Talk, Shady Grove Items, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)

What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

history10Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added: 1 2

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

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  1. 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)

I Have Forgotten the Books I Have Read and the Dinners I Have Eaten, But They Both Helped Make Me

Ralph Waldo Emerson? G. B. Emerson? Charles Gordon Ames? Anonymous?

rwebooks08Dear Quote Investigator: The well-known lecturer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has been credited with a provocative remark about reading and memory:

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

I have not found a convincing citation for Emerson. Are these really his words?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found convincing evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke or wrote this statement. He died in 1882, and the earliest strong match located by QI appeared in “The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine” issue of June 1896 within an article about a Harvard Divinity graduate and prominent Unitarian clergyman named William Henry Furness who had died earlier in the year. The piece reviewed the life and accomplishments of Furness who was born in 1802 and attended Harvard in the early 1820s. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Whatever impressions were made on the student’s mind by the courses of instruction, hardly a trace of them appears in his later authorship. Yet this may only imply thorough assimilation; for he can never be classed among those who have gone forth from classic halls to afflict mankind with the bad breath of ill-digested scholarship. “I have forgotten the books I have read,” said Emerson; “and so I have the dinners I have eaten; but they both helped make me.”

The paragraph preceding the passage above mentioned that G. B. Emerson was a tutor at Harvard while Furness was a student. Hence, it was conceivable that the ambiguous term “Emerson” referred G. B. Emerson instead of the better known Ralph Waldo Emerson (R. W. E.). On the other hand, the author of the article, Charles Gordon Ames, used “Emerson” to refer to R. W. E. in a later section. In addition, a quotation from R. W. E. would fit because Furness and he maintained a lifelong friendship that extended back to their days at Boston Latin School.

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  1. 1896 June, The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Volume 4, Number 16, William Henry Furness by Charles Gordon Ames, (Profile of Harvard graduate William Henry Furness who died January 30, 1896), Start Page 545, Quote Page 546, Published by The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Make It a Point To Do Something Every Day That You Don’t Want To Do

Mark Twain? Eleanor Roosevelt? Mary Schmich? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

twaindo09Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain said something about doing at least one thing each day that you should do despite the fact that it makes you feel uncomfortable. I do not remember precisely how the expression was phrased. Here are two pertinent statements:

Do something every day that you don’t want to do.
Do one thing every day that scares you.

Would you please determine what Twain said?

Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifty-eighth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want to do. This is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. So, Twain was the actual creator of the advice given above.

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  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 58 Epigraph), Quote Page 549, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

The Man Who Tries Methods, Ignoring Principles, Is Sure to Have Trouble

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Harrison Emmerson? Harrington Emerson? Anonymous?

emerson12Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to attempt to solve a problem by clumsily trying a variety of methods, but it is better to select an appropriate technique based on principled understanding. The following statement has been attributed to the famous philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Oddly, I have not found any instances of this expression in the 1800s. Yet, Emerson died in 1882. Would you please determine the origin of this statement?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. QI believes the passage evolved from statements made by Harrington Emerson who was a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early decades of the 1900s.

The misattribution occurred because of the shared last name of “Emerson”. A version of the quotation was labeled with the single name “Emerson”, and some readers assumed that the creator was Ralph Waldo Emerson instead of Harrington Emerson. Indeed, the fame of the transcendentalist thinker has long eclipsed that of the efficiency engineer, and the error has been propagated via numerous periodicals and books over the decades.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in the July 1911 issue of a trade journal called “The Clothier and Furnisher” which reported on the Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers. A speaker at the gathering was described as “one of the most celebrated efficiency engineers in the world”, and his words were recounted as follows. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Curiously, the name given for the speaker was “Harrison Emmerson”. However, QI believes that the trade journal made a small mistake, and the speaker was actually named Harrington Emerson. The identity was made clear by the content of the speech which presented a set of principles that precisely corresponded to the ones recorded in the book “The Twelve Principles of Efficiency” by Harrington Emerson. 2

The passage above did not exactly match the statement given by the questioner; however, QI believes that the modern phrasing was derived from the 1911 text via the commonplace process of imperfect transmission over time.

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  1. 1911 July, The Clothier and Furnisher, Volume 78, Number 6, The Convention: Fifteenth Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers, Held June 5 and 6, 1911, Start Page 67, Quote Page 86, Published by George N. Lowrey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1912 (Copyright 1911), The Twelve Principles of Efficiency by Harrington Emerson, Published by The Engineering Magazine, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

If You Build a Better Mousetrap the World Will Beat a Path to Your Door

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Elbert Hubbard? Sarah S. B. Yule? John R. Paxton? Orison Swett Marden? Anonymous?

mouse14Dear Quote Investigator: A remarkably popular adage about innovation highlights mousetraps and celebrity:

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

The origin of this saying was complex, and the topic has been contentious. Historically, the following people have been linked to the phrase: philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, aphorist Elbert Hubbard, clergyman John R. Paxton, and quotation collector Sarah S. B. Yule. Would you please examine this subject?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strongly matching statement located by QI was published in “The Atlanta Constitution” of Atlanta, Georgia on May 11, 1882 in a section called “Current Comment”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The Value of Good Work,
Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

Emerson died on April 27, 1882, so the above passage was ascribed to him shortly after his death. In the following days, months, and years the quotation appeared in a wide variety of periodicals and books together with the acknowledgement. For example, on May 15, 1882 the text along with Emerson’s name was printed in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Cincinnati, Ohio. 2 On May 19, 1882 it was reprinted in the “The Decatur Daily Republican” of Decatur, Illinois. 3

Minor alterations in the text occurred as the quotation was widely replicated. The term mousetrap was sometimes presented as two words: “mouse trap” and sometimes hyphenated: “mouse-trap”. In modern times, the term often appears as a single unhyphenated word: “mousetrap”. The word “neighbors” was sometimes given in the singular form.

The saying was employed as a filler item in newspapers, and it also appeared in columns containing miscellaneous short news items and sayings. The specific circumstances when Emerson spoke or wrote the statement were not specified.

Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. For example, by 1901 a version with “build a better mouse-trap” instead of “make a better mouse-trap” was circulating.

An exact match for the passage above has never been found in the published writings or personal journals of Emerson. However, a solid thematic match was written in his journal dated 1855 in a section about “Common Fame”. A mousetrap was not mentioned; instead, other goods and services were specified: 4

Common Fame. I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

Emerson was a popular speaker who delivered numerous public lectures over a period of decades. He used his journals as source material for his speeches, but the phrasing employed in the notebooks and speeches was variable. QI believes Emerson probably did voice the passage with “mouse trap” during a speech.

Indeed, a woman named Sarah S. B. Yule stated that she heard one of Emerson’s public addresses and copied the “mouse trap” statement into a notebook. In 1889 she placed the remark into a published compilation of quotations and adages titled “Borrowings”. Detailed information is given further below.

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  1. 1882 May 11, Atlanta Constitution, Current Comment: The Value of Good Work: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)
  2. 1882 May 15, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Personal, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882 May 19, Decatur Daily Republican, Tea-Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1912, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations, Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 1849-1855, Volume 8, Year Specified for Journal Entry: 1855, Quote Page 528, Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

Unless You Try To Do Something Beyond What You Have Already Mastered, You Will Never Grow

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Ronald E. Osborn? Anonymous?

beyond07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about personal growth has appeared in many self-help and motivational texts:

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.

Often the words are attributed to the well-known transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have been unable to determine the source, and I am skeptical. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Emerson died in 1882, and the statement has been attributed to him only in recent decades. No citation has been provided, and the linkage is not substantive.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “Forbes” magazine in March 1945. A long-standing feature of the periodical was a page titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life” which displayed miscellaneous quotations and aphorisms. A short passage of three sentences containing the maxim was credited to someone named Ronald E. Osborn. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Undertake something that is difficult; it will do you good. Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.
—Ronald E. Osborn.

“Forbes” did not state where it had collected this quotation. News reports in the following years referred to speeches delivered by a professor of church history at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana named Ronald E. Osborn, and it was possible that this religious orator and teacher was the quotesmith. 2 However, this identification is conjectural because of the existence of several individuals named Ronald E. Osborn.

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  1. 1945 March 15, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 46, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1951 June 27, The Oregon Statesman, Over 1,000 Delegates at Turner for Christian Church Conclave (Statesman News Service), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)

A Blind Man in a Dark Room Looking for a Black Cat That Is Not There

Charles Darwin? Lord Bowen? Confucius? E. R. Pearce? William James? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: A vivid and comical metaphor has been applied to professions that require abstract and recondite reasoning abilities:

A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there.

A metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there.

The philosopher is likened to a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’

The first statement has been attributed to the famous scientist Charles Darwin while the second has been linked to the notable English judge Lord Bowen, and the third has been credited to the renowned philosopher William James. I have been unable to find solid citations. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This metaphorical framework evolved during a multi-decade period. Please note this exploration contains some offensive racial language.

The earliest evidence located by QI in a Missouri newspaper in 1846 did not mention any professions; instead, the figurative language was used to illustrate the notion of darkness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A DARK SUBJECT—A blind negro, with an extinguished candle looking for a black cat in a dark cellar.

In August 1849 a London journal called “Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement” printed a short item with an acknowledgement to another magazine called “Penny Punch”. The item presented a definition of darkness ascribed to a precocious child: 2


Dr. Twiggem—”Indeed, for his age, sir, he’s a wonderful child. Come now, Fred., my dear, give your papa a nice lucid definition of—of—darkness.”

Fred. (after a little thought, and with much sagacity)—”Please, sir, ‘a blind Ethiopian—in a dark cellar—at midnight—looking for a black cat.'”
—Penny Punch.

In 1894 a version of the metaphor using a black hat was attributed to Lord Bowen, and in 1911 a posthumous book by William James employed a simile with a black cat while discussing philosophy. The figurative language was implausibly linked to Charles Darwin in 1940. Full details are given further below.

In addition, by 1931 the quip had been extended to construct a joke comparing the endeavors of philosophers and theologians. A separate entry on this topic is available on the website under the title: “The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat”.

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  1. 1846 November 9, Democratic Banner (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Louisiana, Pike County, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1849 August 25, Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement, Volume 7, Number 329, Random Readings: A Definition of Darkness, Quote Page 272, Column 1, Published by George Biggs, Strand, London; Printed at the Steam press of J. Gadsby, Fleet Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link