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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On the Nature of Quotes, Quotations, Sayings


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotations are slippery things, really. A brief sentence or phrase, often repeated - always completely out of its original context, and sometimes not an accurate representation of the author's original words, let alone his intentions.

The Emerson quote often appears as, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," which would, I believe, cause Emerson much discomfort. He was a man of very orderly habits, in addition to being a critic of unthinking conformity.

Quotes can take on a very different sense outside their original context, either losing power, or becoming an unintended generalization. The Anne Frank quote, "I don't think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains," has power in its own right, but becomes a nearly overwhelming affirmation of belief when we know that those are the words of a thirteen your old girl facing likely death at the hands of the Nazis.

Quotes also can get generalized into a greater meaning than the speaker intended. When baseball great Babe Ruth said, "Never let the fear of striking out get in your way," it is unlikely that he was expounding the universal truth his words have since become.

Many famous quotes are misattributed, which causes greater confusion. As a well-known example of the power of the internet to misinform, Marianne Williamson's memorable words, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us," have often been incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela. In fact, those words do not appear at all in the 1994 inaugural speech to which they were attributed.

Sometime spurious quotations are intentional, such as attributing religious or political ideas to people like Jefferson and Einstein that are contrary to their beliefs. More often, quotes are attributed to people who repeat them, or they just get confused over time. For example, the ancient Chinese proverb, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," is often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt because it was one of her favorite sayings.

So why pay attention to quotes at all? Personally, I am fascinated with the origin of quotes and the context in which they were first uttered. But I believe the greatest value of quotes is as a springboard to our own thinking. For this purpose, it mostly doesn't matter who first said the words, or whether they evolved over time. One of my favorite quotes is misattributed to Mark Twain, but is actually of unknown origin. "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." Whoever first said those words, they hold great value for me.

Some quotes express ideas that are universal, or nearly so. Shakespeare's, "What's done is done," is like that. One may be provoked to consider the consequences of the past being unalterable, but it's hard to argue with the basis of the truism. However, most quotes present only one side of a multifaceted issue, and are better considered as a question, and the beginning of an inquiry, than as a final answer.

What does the Francesco Petrarch quote, "Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure," mean? I have no idea what those words meant to a fourteenth century Italian Renaissance humanist, and I have no idea what they mean today. But I do find that quote to be the basis for a meaningful inquiry.

The Emerson quote is one of those that offers a great opportunity for inquiry. Which consistencies are foolish? What is the best balance between comfortable habit and skeptical questioning, between following community traditions and independent thinking, between acceptance and crusading for change? There are no easy answers, and there is much to be said in favor of following a middle path that balances the conflicting beliefs and desires of each life.

Further reading: The World's 10 Most Inspiring Quotations

Inspirational Quotes - Spur for Inquiry

Mary Anne Radmacher: Old Beginnings versus NEW beginnings

Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

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