Who said that?

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

At least I think Lincoln said it… I saw it on the Internet.

In a world of fake news and other misinformation, historical facts and quotes are as unreliable as any other information. Type the name of any famous person into Google, and among the results will be a page of quotes. But on most of those pages, the quotes will be listed without any source, and in some cases the creator of the site was misinformed. As a result, if you type a famous line into Google, you may see it attributed to any number of people. Google does not know everything—it links your search to other people’s assertions, and some of those assertions are wrong.

Often a profound or clever line from an obscure person is credited to a more famous person. In his book Funny People, Steve Allen provides a list of quips that he suggests were said by Groucho Marx. He then reveals that he, Steve Allen, was responsible for every one of them. He admits, though, that they sound funnier coming from Groucho. Many statements about liberty and the danger of government oppression have been attributed to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers of the United States. In more than a few cases, the lines were written and attributed to them long after they had died.

Ancient figures, including Socrates and Cicero, are sometimes quoted as deploring the state of their times, with young people failing to respect their elders, social morals on the decline, and a general lack of trustworthiness among the population. The point of the citation is to show that these problems have always been around, but, alas, the quote is a recent invention and was never said by Socrates, Cicero, or any other ancient sage.

I’ve approached people quoting Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious people of note, asking them in which document they found their quote. They admitted that they didn’t know where it was written, but they thought so-and-so had written it. In the case of Kierkegaard, the speaker told an audience that Kierkegaard had described Christian worship as a performance in which we are the actors and God is the spectator. When I spoke privately with the speaker, he admitted that he didn’t know where Kierkegaard had written that line, and I suggested that the speaker was probably misinformed. Years later I came across something similar in one of Kierkegaard’s works, with an important difference: Kierkegaard was discussing, not Christian worship, but Christian good deeds, which is an entirely different matter altogether.

(“Which is an entirely different matter.”)

Quoting out of context is as bad as inventing or misattributing a quote. Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often refer to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” They speak to the last three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in the woods and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Such speeches suggest that Frost encourages us to be unique individuals, to dare to be different, to refuse to follow the crowd, and so on. Frost recommends no such thing in this poem. Given the title, the poem could easily be read as an expression of regret and not a suggestion that we all should take the road less traveled.

Read carefully the following paragraph taken from a book written a little more than one hundred years ago. The book is called The Life of Reason, and the paragraph is found on pages 82 and 83; the entire book is nearly 500 pages long. The paragraph is part of a chapter called “Flux and Constancy in Human Nature,” the last of ten chapters in the section of the book entitled, “Reason in Common Sense.” Here is the paragraph:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”

I cite this paragraph, not to agree with it—I particularly dislike the disparaging remarks about savages and barbarians—but to see if the third sentence jumped out at you as something familiar. Poor George Santayana, who is remembered for only one sentence (which yesterday I saw attributed to Edmund Burke—that started me down this road). Some years ago I heard the same sentence quoted by three different speakers at the dedication of a library building, and I doubt any of those speakers could have said who Santayana was, when and where he lived, and what he meant by that sentence. It fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker; hardly anyone would care to advertise the sentiment that most people are either too young or too old to learn.

Or, as Julius Caesar once said, “There’s hardly any point in speaking, when people are going to remember it wrong as soon as tomorrow dawns.” J.