“It doesn’t matter who said it, as long as it’s inspiring.”

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One of the most common comments I receive from people who object to the notion of accurate citations is that it doesn’t matter who said a quote, as long as it’s inspiring.

So there should be no problem with the quote above, then?

This is from Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal cartoon, which I generally find hilarious. Of course I rarely take attributions on the web at face value, and so I dug into the origins of the quote. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Hitler at all, but is adapted from a prize-winning poem by Bessie Stanley (1879–1952). According to Wikipedia, Stanley wrote the poem in essay form in 1904. Arranged as a poem, it goes like this:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.

The phrase “lived well, laughed often, and loved much” was very quickly paraphrased as “live well, laugh often, love much. For example, in a speech given in Niagara Falls on June 23, 1908, Mr G. P. Conard, Secretary of the Association of Transportation and Car Account Officers, said:

Paraphrasing Stanley, these men have achieved, and are still achieving, the full measure of success, for they live well, laugh often, and love much; they gain the trust of noble men and women, and the love of little children….” etc., etc., etc.

I like what Ingram is going with his Fake Hitler Quote — lulling people with a “new agey” sort of message and then clobbering them over the head with the name “Hitler” to show them that attributions do in fact matter. No doubt however we’ll now see this quote circulating on the internet and appearing in books, incorrectly attributed.

One more point — if a quote’s source didn’t in fact matter then it’s not likely that people would keep attributing them to respected figures like Gandhi, Einstein, and the Buddha. It’s precisely because people do take quotes more seriously when they come from a well-known and respectable source that these misattributions arise.

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5 thoughts on ““It doesn’t matter who said it, as long as it’s inspiring.””

  1. When we have people who inspire us, what they say inspires us all the more. We have a predisposition toward inspiration. And of course, when we are entirely sure they are the actual words of the people who inspire us, that helps a lot, no doubt.

  2. I too have pointed out quotes wrongly attributed to the Buddha and been told that a) we don’t really know what Buddha said [ so not knowing what he actually said makes it OK to put words in his mouth and have him say whatever we like?] and b) I should just accept the nice sentiment of the quote and not worry about whether or not it came from the Buddha. What irks me most about this is that more often than not the quote is expressing the complete opposite of what the Buddha really taught. Sure, it may be a nice sentiment, but it completely misrepresents the Buddha’s teaching and creates a false picture of the practice. If we were doing this to Jesus, there would be hell to pay.

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