We First Make Our Habits and Then Our Habits Make Us

John Dryden? Frederick Langbridge? Tryon Edwards? Nathanael Emmons? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A remarkably insightful statement about patterns of behavior is usually credited to the famous English poet John Dryden who died in 1700:

We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.

I have not been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that John Dryden said or wrote the statement above, and QI believes that the misattribution resulted from a misreading that occurred more than one hundred years ago; details are supplied further below.

Dryden did pen a vivid statement about poor habits that appeared in a collection published in 1700 titled “Fables Ancient and Modern Translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer, with Original Poems by Mr. Dryden”. The following lines are from Dryden’s translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

To kill Man-killers, Man has lawful Pow’r,
But not th’extended Licence, to devour.

Ill Habits gather by unseen degrees,
As Brooks make Rivers, Rivers run to Seas.

In 1884 a partial match for the expression under examination appeared in “The Central News” of Perkasie, Pennsylvania: 2

We are all what our habits make us, and what better work can we do for those committed to us than to see that these right habits are formed? A little decision will bring this about.

In 1888 the religious writer Frederick Langbridge authored “The Happiest Half-Hour: Sunday Talks with Children” which contained a strong match for the quotation. Langbridge employed the metaphorical domain of pottery while discussing human growth and moral character: 3

Every time you go to bed your clay is so many hours nearer to its final mould. A few years of such days—a long time to look forward, but a short time to look back upon—and there you will be: a beautiful goodly vase, or a cracked, misshapen vessel, fit only for base and vulgar uses. We are our own potters; for our habits make us, and we make our habits.

Langbridge used antimetabole, but the two phrases of the adage were reversed when compared to the popular modern version. Also, he suggested that the two activities actually occurred in parallel.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading We First Make Our Habits and Then Our Habits Make Us

Notes:

  1. 1700, Title: Fables ancient and modern translated into verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer, with original poems by Mr. Dryden, Author: John Dryden (1631-1700), Section: Of the Pythagorean Philosophy: From Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Book XV, Quote Page 509, Publication Information: Printed for Jacob Tonson, London. (Early English Books Online)
  2. 1884 December 4, The Central News, Regard for Order, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Perkasie, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1888, The Happiest Half-Hour: Sunday Talks with Children by Frederick Langbridge, Chapter IX: Twigs and Trees, Start Page 63, Quote Page 65, The Religious Tract Society, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Leave Him With a Favorable Opinion of Himself

Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Tryon Edwards? Apocryphal?

coleridge07Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite poem is “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I love the poem’s opium inspired image of a “stately pleasure dome”. Serendipitously, I came across an insightful remark ascribed to Coleridge that contrasted different types of intellects:

If you would stand well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of yourself; if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable impression of himself.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find this in Coleridge’s oeuvre. Is this attribution accurate?

Quote Investigator: The acclaimed poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge did pen a very similar remark within his critical analysis of a book by Sir Thomas Browne. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The difference between a great mind’s and a little mind’s use of history is this. The latter would consider, for instance, what Luther did, taught, or sanctioned: the former, what Luther,—a Luther,—would now do, teach, and sanction. This thought occurred to me at midnight, Tuesday, the 16th of March, 1824, as I was stepping into bed,—my eye having glanced on Luther’s Table Talk.

If you would be well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of you;—if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable opinion of himself.

Coleridge died in 1834, and the excerpt above appeared in a posthumous 1836 collection titled “The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” edited by his uncle, Henry Nelson Coleridge.

The modern saying provided by the questioner evolved from the original statement. The phrase “be well” was changed to “stand well”; “you” was changed to “yourself”; and “opinion” was changed to “impression”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Leave Him With a Favorable Opinion of Himself

Notes:

  1. 1836, The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected and Edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge, Volume 2, Notes on Sir Thomas Browne’s Vulgar Errors, Address to the Reader, Start Page 406, Quote Page 411, William Pickering, London. (Google Books Full View) link

We Are Too Prone to Judge Ourselves by Our Ideals and Other People by Their Acts

Dwight Morrow? Harold Nicolson? Harold Nicholson? William Nevins? Tryon Edwards? Edward Wigglesworth? Stephen R. Covey?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a pervasive problem in human psychology of a self-serving double-standard that can be stated as follows:

We judge ourselves by our ideals, but we judge others by their actions.

This remark has been attributed to the American diplomat Dwight Morrow and the British diplomat Harold Nicolson. Sometimes “Nicolson” is misspelled as “Nicholson”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The compelling notion of two disparate standards has engaged a wide variety of speakers and writers for more than 170 years. The language of expression has evolved during this long period. For example, one version of the saying in 1892 contrasted the internal “intentions” of the self with the externally visible “actions” of others. An instance in 1997 contrasted the “motives” of the self with the external “behavior” of others. Here is a summary of the shifting vocabulary:

1836 motives / actions
1885 intentions / doings
1892 intentions / actions
1909 motives / acts
1915 intentions / performance
1930 ideals / acts
1932 ideals / deeds
1932 intentions / acts
1932 ideals / conduct
1997 motives / behavior

The Reverend William Nevins was a minister and religious writer who preached to congregations in the northeast United States. In 1836 a posthumous compilation of his writings was released that included the following adage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In judging ourselves, we cannot be too severe; in judging others, we cannot be too candid. We should judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions.

The semantics of this early version of the saying differed from popular instances in modern times. The word “should” signaled the difference. The reader was supposed to embrace an attitude of self-criticism regarding his or her motivations, and the reader was supposed to be objective and forgiving when evaluating the actions of others.

The common instances in circulation today do not use the word “should”. Indeed, judging oneself based on “ideals” or “motivations” has been depicted as self-serving or self-centered.

Dwight Morrow did employ an instance of the saying during a speech reported in “The New York Times” in 1930. Harold Nicolson wrote a book about Morrow in 1935, and in that work he ascribed the saying to Morrow not himself. Detailed information is given further below.

Here is a chronological series of additional citations that trace the metamorphosis of the saying.

Continue reading We Are Too Prone to Judge Ourselves by Our Ideals and Other People by Their Acts

Notes:

  1. 1836, Select Remains of the Rev. William Nevins with a Memoir, Quote Page 383, Published by John S. Taylor, New York. (Google Books Full View) link