Great Minds, Small Minds


Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

mis-attributed quotationThat quote has been attributed online to Eleanor Roosevelt in the images shared by people too lazy to check the facts. And like so many other quotations that circulate on social media, it’s not by the person claimed. As far as has been determined, she never used those words.

The saying offers a valid point, especially when it comes to local bloggers, but it was made by someone else, not the wife of the former U.S. president.

Who, then, gave us these pithy lines? Wikiquote – one of the very rare authoritative online sources of quotations* – tells us that one printed source was an American admiral, writing in a magazine, who made it popular, although he himself did not take credit for it:

There are many published incidents of this as an anonymous proverb since at least 1948, and as a statement of Eleanor Roosevelt since at least 1992, but without any citation of an original source. It is also often attributed to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, but though Rickover quoted this, he did not claim to be the author of it; in “The World of the Uneducated” in The Saturday Evening Post (28 November 1959), he prefaces it with “As the unknown sage puts it…”

Was there really an ‘unknown sage’ behind the saying,? Or was it created, whole cloth, in 1959? Ah, the tale is older than that.

The Quote Investigator – another authoritative source that is also great fun to read – delved deeper into it and came up with an even earlier reference:

…a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. As a child in London, Stewart listened to the conversation of dinner guests such as history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle who would sometimes discourse engagingly for twenty minutes on a topic. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

His thoughts and conversation were always on a high level, and I recollect a saying of his, which not only greatly impressed me at the time, but which I have ever since cherished as a test of the mental calibre of friends and acquaintances. Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”

We seldom refer to the upper and lower classes in the same way they were talked about in Edwardian days. The notion of economic and social class would soon shift; the stratification of social status with position, education and manners, was to be seriously challenged in the post-war years of the 1920s as the class society crumbled.

Although we sometimes call vulgar people ‘classless’ today, we don’t really mean they are what was once called lower class, which is an economic class. We really mean they are mannerless boors. Philistines. Barbarians. Soccer hooligans. People of small minds, as the saying has it.

This first reference in QI follows with a rather lengthy trail through the quote’s history and repetition. Wikiquote also gives several references dating prior to 1931 in which the words are similar, if not exactly the same. It isn’t until 1931 that the words are found written as in the saying noted at the top of this piece. By then, the reference to ‘things’ had morphed into a reference to ‘events.’

From then, it enters the conversation as an accepted aphorism in those same words, now fixed in the language firmament. However, Eleanor Roosevelt was not, by any source yet unidentified, one in whose conversation or writings those words were used.

The actual source of the quotation remains anonymous – the earliest reference in print seems to be that 1931 request asking for the source, so it was clearly in use by. Perhaps Buckle’s words of 1901 evolved into them simply through sharing and repetition. Or perhaps a clever person read his work and distilled it.

No matter who said it first, it still remains as true today as it did when first coined.

* Brainyquote and similar sites that allow users to unrestrictedly post quotations without any reference or checking for authenticity are more like gossip sites than good quotation references. Trust them for accuracy as you would trust a homeopath for medical advice, an astrologer for psychological advice or a creationist for scientific advice.

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