By Daniel Rigney
In 1855, John Bartlett, owner of a university bookstore near Harvard, compiled (with his wife Hannah) and privately printed his now-familiar Familiar Quotations. As far as I can discover, Bartlett’s only quotation of himself in the book was this: “I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.”
We might now add, “and Hannah’s.”
Today, through the scientific miracle of the Internet, many posies now blossom on the world wide web, including popular websites Brainy Quotes, The Quotations Page, and numerous others.
I was strolling through some of these sites this evening, looking for quotations from one of my favorite Unitarians, the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I happened upon this webgem:
“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”-- Emerson
Okay, then. What I now know, after reading scores of Emerson’s epigrams, is that I’ve been quoting or paraphrasing Emersonisms most of my adult life, often without knowing the source of the sayings. (For all I know, Emerson was echoing previous sayings himself.)
On further reflection, though, doesn’t most of our culture consist of echoes, and echoes of echoes, ad infinitum, down through the generations? Somebody else has probably said this before, but I think it deserves resaying. Call it a cultural retweet if you will.
Some of Emerson’s epigrams are probably familiar to you. Others may seem fresh and new. Here are some personal favorites that I stumbled on in my evening stroll through the bartletts:
Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. [How about a better solar device?]
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. [ … and also of literal minds? And please note: Emerson specifies “a foolish consistency.” Not all consistencies are foolish, and not all foolishness is consistent.]
It is not length of life, but depth of life.
It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them. [Thank goodness for friends.]
The only way to have a friend is to be one.
A man is what he thinks about all day long. [A woman too? And if X thinks about Y all day, does that make X a Y? Do the logic.]
All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen. [Emerson was a Unitarian minister. Unitarians believe in life before death, and they'll take their wisdom wherever they can find it.]
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.
Money often costs too much. [Attention Wall Street Journal: This is not a commentary on interest rates.]
Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.
Before we acquire great power we must acquire wisdom to use it well. [When was the last time you heard the word “wisdom”?]
Every wall is a door. [I’m not getting this one. I do get “Every door is a wall.”]
All life is an experiment. [But please try not to blow up your lab.]
Emerson could go on like this forever, but my own battery is running low.
For more thoughts from this great American original, the sage of Concord, see any of several available Bartlett-like websites [search “famous quotations”] including BrainyQuotes, whose cultural retweets I’m re-retweeting here.