Friday, September 5, 2014

Quotes, Near-Quotes and Mis-Quotes

Both pills will later require you to look them up.
Quotes are fun and awesome and spectacular.  They are the height of argumentation and summation all at the same time.  They are the appeal to authority, sometimes even correctly.  But if the internet has taught us anything it’s that not everything on the internet is true.

People on the internet lie.  Sometimes deliberately, maliciously, with evil in their heart and black laughter dripping from their lips.  Sometimes they’re just dupes, perpetuating a mythical statement never uttered.

In my misspent youth of sharing nickel seltzer-pops with two straws at the local drugstore counter, I had a dear friend who loved to collect and share quotes.  She would carefully save each line, and tag them like an expert butterfly collector.  She’d put them on display for us and even provide them as gifts to friends and family.  Somewhere, in a box of books that I still haven’t unpacked from my last two moves, I still have that collection.

This checks out.
At best, I’m an amateur.  I have a few favorite quotes that I keep in a small file, like a boy’s cigar box of found treasures.  What I’ve learned, though, is that not every quote traces back to the source claimed.  Some quotes just sound so good though. I've heard amazing things, things that even if the individual didn't say it, I WANTED him/her to have said it. Some are misquoted, near-quotes that are similar to what was written/said but condensed to a more meme-friendly sound-bite.

One of my favorite actual quotes comes from Hermann Goering.  It took me awhile to track down the actual quote and its source, but I finally found out it came from an interview by psychologist G.M. Gilbert and can be found in the Nuremburg Diary:

Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

Not an actual quote.
Isn’t that a lovely sentiment from the man who founded the Nazi Gestapo?  But it is an actual quote, and it sums up so nicely the ability of any political party to manipulate any country into doing pretty much anything.  Denounce those that don’t line up for being unpatriotic, for tearing out the roots of everything a “true patriot” would hold dear, and then carry on.  Aristotle had a similar sentiment in his book Politics:

A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious.

Speaking of Aristotle, there’s a lovely misquote that regularly makes the rounds enough that I keep it and the quote that gave it birth within my collection.  The erroneous version is very snappy, which is why it has lasted so long: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  Aristotle said (or rather wrote) nothing of the kind.  Instead, in his book Nicomachean Ethics he actually put down:

[F]or it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

The real quote starts out the same, but you can see that Aristotle is making a very different point about what is that “mark of an educated” individual.  I would argue for the misquote as an equally good precept, but in this case, Aristotle didn’t have anything to say about entertaining thoughts, with or without a fireworks display.  As near as I can find, there is no famous attribution to be made for this quote, so it’s a nice thing to say without any underlying support from a philosopher.

For the longest time, I had miss-attributed one of my all-time favorite quotes:

Orator est: vir bonus dicendi peritus.
(An orator is: a good man speaking well.)

But your quote was wrong.
I’d been told, or I’d remembered incorrectly, that this was Quintilian.  That might be because of the uniqueness of the Roman’s name, but whatever the reason, this is incorrect.  When I became a volunteer coach, I wanted to use this as the foundation for the team, and base an award around those competitors who embodied best this motto.  I started digging but ran into nothing but circles where the quote was provided, but no citation offered.  Eventually had to turn to my historian brother who finally provided me the explanation.  The full quote is “Orator est, Marce fili, vir bonus dicendi peritus” (An orator, Marcus my son, is a good man speaking well . . .) which survives only as a fragment of a letter from Marcus Cato, known as Cato the Elder to his son, Marcus . However, it was well known to the Romans and appears in several other works. Seneca the Elder includes the quote in his Controversiae and directly attributes it to Cato (Controv. 1. pr. 9). It also appears in Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory), a 1st Century AD treatise on rhetoric, “Sit ergo nobis orator quem constituimus is qui a M. Catone finitur vir bonus dicendi peritus.” (Therefore, let the orator be for us as it was for Marcus Cato: a good man speaking well.) (“Institutes of Oratory” Book X.1.1.)

I could go on at some length, but I’m sure everyone has a story about a quote, near-quote or miss-quote.  I’m most proud of tracking down this last quote, because it only survives as a fragment from its original author.  Having all that pulled together from the weight of history, the thousands of pages of books, and the millions of sites on which it’s repeated, it’s nice to have in my hands the citation.

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