The Evolution of a Quote: Misconceived, Misattributed, Misconstrued
Yesterday a professional contact of mine shared the following message on Facebook:
"Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
This contact of mine is a business marketer with a highly entrepreneurial approach to living, and frequently posts quotes like these as a motivation to keep trying, never give up, and have faith that things will work out if we strive and believe.
There’s a virtue-by-persecution aspect to this quotation that suggests criticism and opposition are irrelevant or, what’s more, a sign that you’re on the right track. It may be true that people are often criticized for work of high quality, but it’s also true that people are often criticized for work of low quality. There may always be someone to tell you that you are wrong, but sometimes that’s because you actually are wrong. There may be difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right, and we all have been told with resist temptation, but what if your critics are right after all? To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage, and we all have been told how virtuous courage is, but what if you’ve mapped out a course of action that takes you over a cliff? Courageous + blind = dead.
I was so disappointed in this quote that I began to question whether the thoughtful mind of Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered it at all. This question is easily resolved with a visit to the online index of the complete lectures, letters and other written works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a quick search of which reveals that Emerson wrote no such thing. Someone has tried to grant legitimacy to this questionable idea by attaching the fictional authorship of Emerson in an appeal to literary authority. I suppose they might courageously say that I’m a naysayer doubting the wisdom of their course, but nothing will change the fact that they’ve misquoted.
[Update: a handy tip in the comments section indicates that the online source linked to above is not entirely complete. However, see below for indications that Emerson is not the source.]
If Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t write this misguided motivational treacle, who did write it? Thanks to technology, sleuthing this sort of question out is not as hard as it used to be. A search of Google’s extensive archive of phrases in books reveals that the phrase “map out a course” does not appear in books until 1864, at the fading end of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s long career as an author:
The earliest search result in the Google Books archive for the more complete phrase “map out a course of action and follow it” is the 1908 book Keep Up Your Courage: Keynotes to Success by Mary Allette Ayer. Keep Up Your Courage is one of many books in which Ayer lists motivational quotations on various themes from various sources; this book features the following quotation:
The attribution to the magazine Young People’s Weekly is important, because Ayer makes plain in the introduction to her book that she admires Ralph Waldo Emerson and considers him a valuable source. Ayer provides 11 quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson with the explicit permission of his publisher, and always cites him by name without source. According to Ayer, the Young People’s Weekly quotations come from its producer, the Christian tract publisher David C. Cook.
Did you notice the transformation in the quote’s content from its apparently original publication in Young People’s Weekly to its modern version? The last sentences have been truncated: “To map out a course of action and follow it to the end, requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men to win them.” This thought, that peace takes courage and that courage lies not merely in physical fights but in conscientious non-violent deeds, has been deemed culturally unworthy in modern times.