Famous Misquotations: We Cannot Live Only for Ourselves

atkins bookshelf quotations

On website after website you find this quotation attributed to American novelist Herman Melville, who famously wrote the Great American novel Moby-Dick (1851): “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow-men; and along those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” And depending on what website you are on, the “sympathetic threads” may appear as ” invisible threads” or “sympathetic fibers.” Regardless of the precise phrasing, the only problem with this quotation is that (1) it has been altered from the original; and (2) Herman Melville never wrote this.

When we turn to the original source text, we find that the individual who wrote this had a similar name — Henry Melvill. Reverend Henry Melvill (1798-1871), no relation, was a famous Anglican preacher known for his very eloquent and periphrastic sermons. He was considered the most popular preacher in London drawing very large devoted crowds. Besides his eloquence, Melvill was known for his distinctive style: speaking very rapidly. The editor to his sermons, Rev. C. P. McIlvaine writes: “Melvill delivers his discourses as a war-horse rushes to the charge. He literally runs, till, for want of breath he can do so no longer. His involuntary pauses are as convenient to his audience as essential to himself. Then it is, that an equally breathless audience, betraying the most convincing signs of having forgotten to breathe, commence their preparation for the next outset with a degree of unanimity and of business-like effort of adjustment, which can hardly fail of disturbing, a little, a stranger’s gravity,”

But we digress. Let us return to the actual quotation which is: “Ye live not for yourselves; ye cannot live for yourselves ; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.” It is taken from the sermon on the impact of evil deeds titled “Partaking in Other Men’s Sins” that Melvill delivered on June 12, 1855 at St. Margeret’s Church in London, England. The sermon was published in a collection of his sermons, Melvill’s Golden Lectures for 1855.

Interestingly, Herman Meville (1819-1891) visited London in 1849 and made a point to listen to one of Melvill’s sermons that made quite an impression. In his journal entry for December 16, 1849, Melville wrote: “This morning breakfasted at 10, at the Hotel de Sabloneire (very nice cheap little snuggery being closed on Sundays)  Had a ‘sweet ommelette’ which was delicious. Thence walked to St. Thomas’s Church, Charter House, Goswell Street, to hear my famed namesake (almost) ‘The Reverend H Melvill.’  I had seen him placarded as to deliver a Charity Sermon. The church was crowded–the sermon was admirable (granting the Rev. gentleman’s premises). Indeed he deserves his reputation. I do not think that I hardly ever heard so good a discourse before–that is from an “orthodox” divine.” Despite the impression that Melvill made on Melville, he was not the inspiration for Fr. Mapple that appears in Moby-Dick. According to Melville scholars, Fr. Mapple was based on three individuals: Father E. T. Taylor, Enoch Mudge, and another Methodist minister who preached at Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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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: Sermons by Henry Melvill, B.D. edited by the Right Rev. C. Pm McIlvaine, D.D. (1838)


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