Let me begin with a digression on memes. Like a virus, a meme can spread uncontrollably in the right environment and infect millions with an idea or goal. This, of course, is good for such advocates of social ideals as Greenpeace or PETA, but like viruses, there can be bad memes that do more damage than good. More, it seems, than good or socially constructive memes.
A meme is the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus*, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination.
Like a virus, a meme requires the communication between people to spread – talk, mail, the medium of literature, TV or music, and of course the Internet. A good example of a wildfire meme in popular culture was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Another pop-culture meme is the spread of tattoos as fashion. Fashion itself is a seasonal meme, not unlike a seasonal cold.
But there can be bad memes as well; memes that poison, memes that distort and damage. Similar to Ebola virus or prions, these memes can jump cultures like viruses jump species.
Anti-semitism – disturbingly on the rise in France and the USA today – is a bad and infectious meme. So is any form of religious fundamentalism – look at how the meme of the jihad has spread across the Middle East. Computer hoaxes like the email chain letter that promises you riches if you forward the email to everyone on your mailing list, is another bad meme albeit more innocuous. Donald Trump’s tweets become memes almost as soon as he posts them.
One of the factors that accelerates a meme’s spread is its brevity. In an age when deep reading is a dying art and skim reading is the new normal (to disastrous effect ion our collective education and society), a meme finds easy access to hosts online.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 to describe evolutionary principles help explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. As Wikipedia points out,
He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches).
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.
An image appeared on Facebook purporting to be a quotation taken from Marcus Aurelius. Having read his Meditations more than once, I was baffled because it didn’t look at all familiar. The quote is:
Everything we hear is a opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
It’s a good line, but I can’t find it in any online version of the Meditations. And you can guess it wasn’t his because there is no book or section identified (authentic quotes have sources that identify the exact location in a work).
Using unverified quotations like this only discredits the person who posts them.
In the MIT version of the Meditations (George Long translation), the word perspective doesn’t appear even once, although the word opinion appears 67 times. I laboriously went through all 67 instances to make sure it wasn’t simply a different translation, perhaps a nuancing. None match, even closely. I also went through the Casaubon translation which has 74 uses of opinion and none of them match the quote, either.
The word truth appears 31 times (38 in Casaubon and 30 in Hays). Again, none of them match, even vaguely, the second part of the quote.
Aurelius did say, several times that everything is opinion. He has some good epithets about opinion, including:
Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae, bugbears to frighten children. (XI: 23)
The universe is transformation: life is opinion. (IV:3)
But nothing matches the second part, even remotely. The word perspective doesn’t even appear in the Long or Casaubon translations, and only once in the Hays version, where he translates what Aurelius wrote as:
If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. (VI: 21)
It seems the epithet in the image is either a loose paraphrase or someone conflating two unrelated statements from different authors. Unfortunately, not even the Quote Investigator has unravelled this one.
I will comb through my modern translations of the Meditations to be sure, but I’ve pegged this one as another bad internet meme, Please remember most quotation sites are full of errors and mis-attributions. Be smart: verify the source before you share any alleged quotation.
Charles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.
But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.
It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath: philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:
For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.
He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:
“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”
Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.
In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.
It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869 fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:
“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”
The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*
Fittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.
It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.
It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:
Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.
This pseudo-poem popped up on Facebook today. It’s been around the Net for a few years, without any source attributed to the quote, but it seems to be making its comeback in the way these falsely-attributed things do:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and
I could indeed have changed the world.
It’s recently credited to an “unknown monk” from 1100 CE, and sometimes just to “anonymous.” Since the latter can be anyone, any time, anywhere, it’s less than helpful. Citing the source – at the very least where you found it – is helpful. Anonymous could as easily be one of those crank posters who reply to news stories with snippets about the New World Order or conjure up conspiracies about the local rec facilities.
And the monk from 1100 CE? Not likely. It reads to me like New Age piffle, something regurgitated without understanding.
So let’s look at the attribution. First 1100 CE is in the High Middle Ages. It was shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so if the monk was in England it was a time of chaos, while the Normans dispossessed the English aristocracy (those few left) and took the lands for themselves.
Not as much secular literature survives from that era as religious writing, in large part because the majority of literate people were in the church. Keep in mind that everything was handwritten, mostly on sheepskin: vellum or parchment. Printing was another 450 years away.
Second, a monk would have practiced asceticism, a lifestyle…
…characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.
Celibacy was one of those practices. Hence the monk would not likely have had his own family – wife and children. Parents of course, but likely left behind at an early age to be a novice initiate. How much “impact” – a word that didn’t appear in English until 1601, derived from the Latin impactus: to push against (not the same meaning as today’s usage) – a child could have had on his family is unclear, but I’m guessing little.
We of course don’t know if this alleged monk came from a wealthy or poor family. If the latter, their impact on their town – more likely a village at that time – would likely have been minimal at best, non-existent at worst. Twelfth century village life isn’t what we think of today. There was no central governing body like a municipal council. All land was owned by the lord, and villagers rented from him. Those who were free and not bound to service:
The 12th Century society and village
What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had.
Some rough proportions: About –
15% of people were free
40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
10% were slaves or as near as darn it
Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it’s far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else.
I spent a pleasant morning, Saturday, browsing through the works of Plato, hunting for the source of a quotation I saw on Facebook, today.* I did several textual searches for words, phrases and quotes on sites that offer his collected works, along with other works by classical authors.
Now I must admit that in my reading, I have not read everything Plato wrote. I’ve read several dialogues, and then mostly pieces from his works. Reading the entire Republic has, sadly, defeated me, but I have it available for another try when I retire.
Despite my unfamiliarity with his full canon, when I saw this quotation today, I knew it could not be from Plato:
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
And while the sentiment is good, the flowery quote wasn’t by the Greek philosopher.
I took some time to look at what the various “quotation” sites offer as words from Plato, related especially to music.** Here is another quote commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Plato online (and available on T-shirt, mugs, etc.):
Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.
This one is actually listed in the Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991, p. 45; proof that the printed word is not free of such mistakes), but is is incorrect as others before me have also found. Not even the Quote Investigator has tackled this quote and found the source, but it isn’t from Plato.
Here are more lines attributed to Plato on various sites***:
Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.
“Philosophy is the highest music.
“What a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.
“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.
“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.
“Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation’s mind.
“If you want to measure the spiritual depth of society, make sure to mark it’s music.
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”
Now while most are misattributions, others may be paraphrases or even differences in translation. I decided to check through the collected works of Plato (online at MIT and the Perseus Digital Library)
It seems a good week for mis-attributed Francis of Assisi quotes. Someone on Facebook posted an image with the following quote:
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
St. Francis of Assisi”
That’s simply “Francis of “Assisi” for the non-Catholics among us, of course. But even without the questionable transformation of mortal flesh into an immortal, supernatural being, Francis didn’t write those words.
This quote was written by Louis Nizer, an American lawyer (1902-1994). It might strike some as remarkable that a lawyer might have such profound words about art and heart, but that’s not the issue. The issue is who said it. And it wasn’t a Middle Ages religious person. Nizer was an accomplished trial lawyer, author, artist, lecturer, and advisor to some of the most powerful people in the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment, according to Wikipedia.
Francis actually had a lot to say, but it was, as far as I’ve read by and about him, very specifically religious in content. Very little of what Francis actually said translates well into this sort of bumper-sticker inspirational message the New Age loves so dearly (I often think Twitter, with its 140-character limit, was invented for the New Agers who desperately want everything to fit conveniently onto a bumper sticker).
Another alleged quote from Einstein is making the rounds. I’m not sure how anyone would not see this as a New Age sham quote. Poor Einstein: for a man of genius, he gets associated with the most mediocre pap.
Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.
I seem to have misplaced the link to one of the Facebook images for this misquote, but here’s a copy of it from another site. There’s an excellent comment on this and the danger of mis-attributed quotes on the Giawaken site (I have not explored the rest of their site’s content, but the home page content looks annoyingly New Age).
The author – Daria Boissonnas – writes, “relying on a fictional quote to inspire us, when the truth is so much stronger…We don’t need fictional quotes. We don’t need to induct Einstein into the New Age to make the New Age valid or “real”…A false attribution weakens the quote, weakens your argument, weakens your reputation, and weakens the public opinion of what you are doing.”
The author should also note that mis-quotes contribute to the general lowering of intellectual standards in literacy, history, science and education. They dumb us down. So does pseudoscience like astrology – I throw that in because the author’s home page has links to astrological claptrap, psychic flim-flammery and other New Age nonsense.
The Quote Investigator looked into this misquote earlier this year, and found that it actually derives from a new Age “channeller” (I’d add the adjective flaky but it seems redundant…) named Darryl Anka,sometime between 1996 and early 2000. Anka apparently was a special effects artist for several motion pictures, and a self-described “channeler” who, according to Wikipedia, says he communicated with supernatural beings:
Anka claims that he began to communicate, through trance-channeling, with an extra-terrestrial entity called Bashar in 1983. He describes Bashar as existing in a parallel reality, in a time frame that we perceive as the future.
I know, I know, I almost snorted tea through my nose laughing at that, too. Anka’s imaginary friend, Bashar, apparently told him that, ““Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality.” The quote incorrectly attributed to Einstein also appears on the page as part of Anka’s own muddled explanation of what he claims his imaginary friend said.
You gotta love pseudo-scientific gibberish. All the words look like they might mean something but when you start to analyse it, you see it’s just hot air. But then so is pretty much everything “New Age.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that a lot of these misquotes spring from the addled minds of New Agers.
This image highlights another problem in some of these posts: a misunderstanding of some words by those who want to create “inspirational” messages. In this case, the misunderstanding is in the word “karma.” Karma is about cause and effect; the wheel of samsara. It’s a cyclic process. Karma is not about either punishment or synchronicity.
This image does not say anything about what karma actually represents as a theological doctrine. I think the image’s creator had no understanding of what the word means, didn’t bother to look deeper to verify its meaning, so used it incorrectly as in this flaccid statement with obfuscated intent. In an era of Wikipedia and the .03 second time it takes to search for a word or phrase on Google, the failure to confirm the actual meaning of a word is sheer laziness or stupidity. Maybe both.
Buddhanet gives a fairly good explanation of what karma means, from which I quote at length:
Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.
According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture”, but also to Karma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.
Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:
“What is the cause, what is the reason, O Lord,” questioned he, “that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?”
The Buddha’s reply was:
“All living beings have actions (Karma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is Karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.”
Like a mis-attributed quote, a misused word like this creates a bad meme that gets shared, further increasing the general misunderstanding. You might even say that a misquote like this creates bad karma for the one who spreads it…