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Spare the quotations: the truth behind famous quotes

There’s nothing like ending a hard fought intellectual battle with a pithy uplifting quote by a famous historical figure. Writers and speakers do it all the time. It’s a way of validating their thoughts as though they were Gospel. Unfortunately, far too many of the quotes that have entered the common vernacular were actually never said by the person to whom they are attributed.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Brian Morton, director of the graduate program in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, righted a few wrong famous quotations by such nonviolent luminaries as Gandhi, Thoreau, and Mandela. In the case of the former, Morton wrote:

Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

It may seem disappointing at first that Gandhi never said something as wonderfully trite as “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But upon further reflection, as Morton notes, it’s actually for the best that we look to the real words of our heroes.

Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela — it’s easy to see why their words and ideas have been massaged into gauzy slogans. They were inspirational figures, dreamers of beautiful dreams. But what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men. Each of them knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price.

As Albert Einstein once said (or most likely didn’t), “If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”