Years ago in another galaxy (well, some Usenet newsgroup discussion) I was hyping a contrarian essay by Conor Cruise O’Brien in which he argued that the real Thomas Jefferson was so immoderate and unstable in his thinking that he needed to be demoted to at least the second tier of the American pantheon. It led to a big argument about whether wisdom could or should be taken independently of the source, i.e. does it matter who said it?
At the time I thought it did, and I used this oft-flung Jefferson aphorism to make my point:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
You can find the aphorism in context here (search on “tree of liberty”), but the context isn’t especially important to my point, which was that when considering an aphorism it is important to know who said it. If I had learned that the above words had been written by Abbie Hoffman, I would have laughed and ignored them. George Washington? I would pretty much take them at face value. But for me Jefferson sits in the middle somewhere, neither lunatic nor exemplar, and so I hesitate to conclude from the words themselves whether they are wise. I need to know more.
Fifteen years later I find that my thinking has changed completely, but in an unexpected way. I still want to know who said it—but only as a clue about whether it’ll be worth the work to understand what it says. Beyond that, I try to assume nothing about the wisdom of a quote based on who said it. I study the words, look for their context, compare them to what I already know and what others have said on the subject, and ponder it all. After that, if I find the words to be wise I will repeat them, but usually without attribution. I offer them for what they say, not for who originally said or wrote them.
I came to this place after a long series of disappointments. Quite often in the past I would select my authorities as carefully as possible, and then champion their words because of who had said them. I thought it was more important to cultivate trust, even at the expense of sometimes being wrong, than it was to be constantly scrutinizing the words of others. I used a story about Thomas Aquinas to defend this thinking:
St. Thomas Aquinas was often the object of practical jokes because of his childlike simplicity. His fellow students once told him to come to the window quickly, because a cow was flying in the air. He went at once to the window, looked up, and saw nothing. His guffawing friends asked him, “Come now, Thomas, did you really think that a cow could fly?” He responded, “I would have sooner thought that a cow could fly than that a monk would lie.”
That’s what I wanted too, a childlike simplicity that always granted the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to find trustworthy people, and then trust them.
My mistake, I think, was that I didn’t take full responsibility for that trust by keeping the results to myself. I repeated the words of my teachers as if they were authoritative—not because I knew they were true, but because my teachers had said them. Occasionally I made a fool of my self by repeating something stupid one had said, and even compounded the error with a vigorous defense of the teacher in the face of reasonable skepticism. More often I perpetuated false wisdom by adding my own small amount of clout—readers would give something more credence than it deserved because I had endorsed it, and they generally trusted what I said about other things.
So I don’t attribute aphorisms much anymore. Which makes me nervous sometimes, since I don’t intend to pass off someone else’s well-turned words as my own. Perhaps I should begin attributing them all to "(anon)”, just to be clear that they aren’t mine. But on the other hand, I do like having those words merged undifferentiated into my own wordstream—because I hope and expect that my readers are applying a prudent amount of scrutiny to my own words, and I don’t want them to give a pass to any aphorism I repeat just because someone with a reputation said it.
Jessica Dovey posted a thought on her Facebook status, and then followed it up with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote. At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and stripped out the quotation marks [around the King quote]. Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history. Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google.
What interests me here is why anyone cares whether the words were originally said by Martin Luther King Jr., or George Washington, or the Dalai Lama, or Newt Gingrich, or Jessica Dovey, or my Aunt Betty? All those people were capable of saying wise things, and dumb ones. And unless you want to study the original speaker’s further thinking on the subject, the words themselves are enough and shouldn’t gain or lack credibility from who said them.
Not too many people agree with me on this these days. A fun game to play on the internet is to take a quotation—not hard, since they’re being flung in your face continually—and trace down its provenance. Begin by typing a distinctive part of the quotation into a Google searchbox and see what turns up. If it is real the original source will almost always turn up high in the search results. If it is fake, you will embark on a fascinating journey. Here’s a quote that didn’t ring true to me the first time I saw it on a friend’s status.
“Unless we put medical freedom into the Constitution, the time will come
when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship to restrict
the art of healing to one class of Men and deny equal privileges to
others; the Constitution of the Republic should make a Special
privilege for medical freedoms as well as religious freedom.”
— Benjamin Rush, M.D.
So I did some Googling, turned up the actual source of the quote, and left this comment:
It’s hard for me to believe that an 18th century doctor could have written that. A Google search turns up lots of hits for it, mostly in post-1995 alternative medicine writings. There is also one mention in a 1949 self-published diatribe against drug companies, where it is attributed to "Benjamin Bush, M.D." with no further explanation (the pamphlet also mentions Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration).
What strikes about this quote, though, is sans the attribution to Benjamin Rush it doesn’t really say anything. And even if you take it as coming from Rush, the words don’t contain any wisdom in themselves—at best they hint at some wisdom he chose not to reveal which allowed him to predict the current state of affairs.
This game of quote-checking is entertaining and edifying, but if you adopt it as a hobby I recommend against sharing the results. Spurious quotes are not passed around as a way of sharing wisdom, but as part of a kitchen-sink strategy for making a point. At best you’ll hear back, “Well, if he didn’t say it he SHOULD have!”
Which in a sense I don’t dispute; if the words make a point, they make a point and should be shared. But I wish folks would refrain from bolstering them by attributing them to someone with a reputation. Just let them stand alone. The good ones won’t need any extra help.