Famous Misquotations: We Can Easily Forgive a Child Who is Afraid of the Dark, the Real Tragedy…

alex atkins bookshelf quotations

You have probably seen it a hundred times — you will find it in many collections of quotes (online and in print), as well as posters and t-shirts. The full quotation, of course, is “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light” and invariably it is attributed to one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Plato. Only problem is that Plato, who lived around 428 to 347 BC, never said this. Oops.

Attributing this quote to Plato is not far-fetched, perhaps because it is understandably conflated with his well-known allegory of the cave. In his seminal work, Republic (written c. 380 BC) Plato writes about a discussion Socrates had with some Athenians. Socrates described the following setting: there are humans chained to the side of a cave, facing a blank wall. Because they are deep inside the cave, they cannot see the outside world — all they can see are shadows of things that pass by the fire. Consequently, they give names to each of these shadows. These shadows are the prisoners’ only reality. One fateful day, one of the prisoners breaks free and ventures out into the real world and is astonished by what he sees. Feeling sorry for his fellow men, he returns to explain how amazing the real world is, and that all they have seen and known is an illusion — merely shadows on a wall. You can imagine the response: most think he is a few peas short of a pod. And they stay put — better to stick with what we know then to walk out into the light, following the ramblings of a crazy escapee. And that image leads us to the meaning of the allegory: don’t stay chained in the dark, go out and explore the world, question everything. Socrates said it best at his trial (described in Plato’s Apology), “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The discussion of dark and light aligns neatly with the allegory of the cave, right? I mean, the sentiment is quintessential Plato? Not so fast, Padawan. A great reference source to identify misattributed quotations is Wikiquote, a comprehensive online compilation of sourced quotations from notable people and artistic works. At the bottom of each page of quotations are typically two highlight boxes: one for disputed quotations and another for misattributed quotations. In this case, the quotation we have been discussing has been classified as misattributed. The editors explain that these words cannot be found in any of Plato’s published works, “If it really were a quotation by Plato, then some author in the recorded literature of the last several centuries would have mentioned that quote, but they did not.” Their thorough investigative work did bring to light (pun intended) a similar quotation by another writer: “We are as much afraid in the light as children in the dark.” This sentence is found in Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius) written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – 65 AD), the Roman Stoic philosopher, dramatist, and statesman. Here, Seneca is paraphrasing a longer passage from De Rerum Natura, (On the Nature of Things), Book II, beginning with line 56, written by Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99-55 BC). As is often the case with misquotations that abound on the Internet, at some point in the past an unidentified writer paraphrased Seneca’s quote, which we have learned, is a paraphrase of Lucretius’ original text — a confounding case of a paraphrase of a paraphrase. If this keeps up, it is very likely that in a few years, yet another writer will paraphrase the modern version of the quotation, distorting the wording and meaning of Lucretius’ original quote even further. At that point, we should take pity on Plato and simply attribute the quote to Abraham Lincoln. Finis.

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake, Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions by Paul Boller, Jr. and John George
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Plato

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