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Be kind to quotes (they can’t help it if no-one famous actually uttered them)…

February 22, 2012

This is one of my favourite quotes. It is usually attributed to Plato or Philo.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.”

It sums up how I want to live. And it is a handy reminder, (particularly when I’m dealing with a “difficult customer” at the library), that everyone has their own private struggles. We all need people to be kind and patient, particularly on our bad days.

Anyway, I love the quote above, so when I heard an author quote it on the news this afternoon¹ I decided I would create a quick blog post featuring it, as reminder to myself and others of the importance of kindness and empathy. But, being a librarian, I first wanted to check the wording and attribution of the quote…

Turns out no Greek philosopher ever said or wrote the Ancient Greek equivalent of the phrase above. No, this favourite quote of mine is rather a many-times-re-paraphrased summation and conflation of the words and ideas of a British Reverend, John Watson, (who also wrote under the name Ian MacLaren).²

It is John Watson who urged readers of The British Weekly in the late 1890s “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”, and again in 1903, in his book Homely Virtues, it was Watson who wrote that “This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.”

It seems the ideas and phrasing of these two passages by Watson have been merged, and then, perhaps, the phrase gradually evolved (perhaps borrowing also from Buddhist philosophy) into a form that sits better with modern sensibilities. Thus “pity” is replaced with “kindness”, “men” with “everyone” and “a hard battle” with “a great burden”.

As a librarian I find this tale of poor citations and misquoting frustrating because I can’t simply pin a name below this favourite quote. But as a human I am happy. It seems to me that this oft-cited phrase evolved because many people wanted a pithy little quote that reminded them of the need to be kind. The wise words of Watson formed the backbone of the aphorism, but others (perhaps inadvertently) helped hone the phrase and kept the spirit of Watson’s words alive.

In this case I’m not going to worry overmuch about where the words exactly sprang from. I just know that they are words I want to live by.


¹ Roger Rosenblatt, author of “Kayak Morning”, in an interview on the PBS news.

² I am relying on the account given at the wonderful Quote Investigator blog. See their original post for a more detailed account of the evolution of this aphorism.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anthony Marshall permalink
    March 17, 2012 10:04 pm

    ” ……for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden” reminds me of Thoreau’s comment: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Meaning women too, of course. By implication, we are therefore invited to be compassionate to all.

    Thanks for all your blogs!

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