If We Treat People as If They Were What They Ought To Be, We Help Them Become What They Are Capable of Becoming

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Carlyle? Mary Shelley? Percy Bysshe Shelley? Thomas S. Monson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of sayings ascribed to the prominent German literary figure Goethe. Here are two instances in the family:

If you treat people as they are, they will become worse. If you treat them as they could be, they will become better.

If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) in 1795 and 1796. The following passage in German presents the ideal of helping others to achieve their potential: 1

Wenn wir sagtest Du, die Menschen nur nehmen, wie sie sind, so machen wir sie schlechter; wenn wir sie behandeln als wären sie, was sie sein sollten, so bringen wir sie dahin, wohin sie zu bringen sind.

The influential Scottish essayist and translator Thomas Carlyle rendered Goethe’s novel into English in 1824. Here is Carlyle’s version of the passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

‘When we take people,’ thou wouldst say, ‘merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If We Treat People as If They Were What They Ought To Be, We Help Them Become What They Are Capable of Becoming

Notes:

  1. 1801, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Ein Roman, (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: A Novel) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Vierter Band (Volume 4), Book 8, Chapter 4, Quote Page 194, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1824, Translations from the German by Thomas Carlyle, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Travels, Translated from the German of Goethe, Volume 2 of 2,Book VIII, Chapter IV, Quote Page 93, Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link

We Cannot Direct the Wind, But We Can Adjust the Sails

Cora L. V. Hatch? Thomas Sheridan? George Whyte-Melville? A. B. Kendig? Ella Wheeler Wilcox? Bertha Calloway? Jimmy Dean? Dolly Parton? Thomas S. Monson?

Dear Quote Investigator: We are buffeted by events that are beyond our control, but we can still react constructively. A popular adage highlights this flexibility:

We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.

This saying has been credited to Dolly Parton, Thomas S, Monson, Bertha Calloway, Jimmy Dean, and several others. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: In 1859 the well-known spiritualist Cora L. V. Hatch delivered a lecture at the Cooper Institute while in a trance as reported in “The Cleveland Plain Dealer”. Hatch employed a version of the expression: 1

You could not prevent a thunderstorm, but you could use the electricity; you could not direct the wind, but you could trim your sail so as to propel your vessel as you pleased, no matter which way the wind blew.

This was the earliest close match known to QI. Other oft-mentioned candidates for crafters of this adage were born after it was in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading We Cannot Direct the Wind, But We Can Adjust the Sails

Notes:

  1. 1859 January 15, Daily Plain Dealer, Mrs. Cora L. V. Hatch on Spiritualism: The Law of God a Unit, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)