Category Archives: Quotations

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 entitled “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)


A Book is Not Only a Friend, It Makes Friends for You

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”

From The Books In My Life (1969) by American author Henry Miller (1891-1980), best known for hissemi-autobiographical novels — which delight adolescents for their explicit language and very detailed sex scenes — Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). These three books had to be smuggled into the United States, where they were banned on the basis of obscenity and pornography. Nevertheless, these books truly made Miller many friends. Moreover, the books made a huge impact on the new Beat Generation of writers, like Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Reflecting on Miller’s legacy on the centenary of his birth, Ralph Sipper of the Los Angeles Times notes, “Miller’s revolution, though, was not a political one. It was the wedding of his life and his art. Actual and imagined experiences became indistinguishable from each other. ‘I am the hero and the book is myself,’ he says in Tropic of Cancer. In the hands of a less-gifted writer, such blurring of narrative voice invites disaster. Miller pulls it off seamlessly. Exactly how is not so easy to describe. His fictional persona is many things–graphically erotic, elliptically surrealistic, unevenly anarchistic, combatively philosophical, abidingly romantic, downright funny–and always deeply felt. He resoundingly deplores patriotism, modern medicine, financial responsibility and organized religion, presaging emulation by such latter-day iconoclasts as Norman Mailer and Lenny Bruce… Like Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau, two authors whose work he loved, Henry Miller sang his own song, marched to his own gait. Like those noble literary dissenters, he remains an American original.”

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Read related posts: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
Types of Book Readers
Signs at an Indie Bookstore: Why Not Try a Book?
Serendipitous Discoveries in Used Bookstores
How Indie Bookstores are Thriving
Bookstores are Full of Stories
Who Will Save Our Bookstores?
The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
The Books in My Life by Henry Miller

What is the Genius of the Constitution?

alex atkins bookshelf movies

Sometimes a film from the past speaks to the present in a very compelling — and perhaps eerie — way. Take the prescience of the 1994 film, With Honors, regarding the topic of the balance of power between Congress and the President that has dominated the news in the last few months. In With Honors, Monty Kessler (played by Brendan Fraser), an honors student in the government program at Harvard University, and his new companion, Simon Wilder (played by Joe Pesci), a homeless man, attend a class lecture. The professor, Mr. Pitkannan (played by legendary author Gore Vidal) poses a question to the class: “Our founding fathers, or to be more politically correct, founding parents designed the Constitution to prevent the presidency from becoming another form of tyranny — an elected king. Well, did they succeed?… Could the President of the United States without consulting those he governs, more or less destroy the entire world?

Monty: “The President cannot bomb without reason.”

Professor Pitkannan: “He has the reason. He thinks we need more parking spaces. The point is — can he destroy the world?”

Monty: “Not without Congress.”

Pitkannan: “Now Mr. Kessler, after four years at Harvard has it escaped your attention that the President can make war for 90 days without consulting Congress… My question still stands: what is the particular genius of the Constitution? You sir [pointing to Simon], do you have an opinion on this?…

Simon: “You asked a question sir. Let me answer it. The genius of the Constitution is that it can always be changed. The genius of the Constitution is that it makes no permanent rule other than its faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves.”

Pitkannan [in a sneering tone]: “Faith in the wisdom of the people is exactly what makes the Constitution incomplete and crude.”

Simon: “Crude? No sir. Our founding parents were pompous middle-aged white farmers. But they were also great men because they knew one thing that all great men should know — that they didn’t know everything. They knew they were going to make mistakes. But they made sure to leave a way to correct them. They didn’t think of themselves as leaders. They wanted a government of citizens — not royalty. A government of listeners — not lecturers. A government that could change — not stand still. The President isn’t an elected King, no matter how many bombs he can drop. Because the crude Constitution doesn’t trust him. He’s a servant of the people.”

[The classroom erupts in applause.]

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Read related posts: Benjamin Franklin’s Warning: A Republic if You Can Keep It
Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will be Governed by Idiots

This I Believe: In the Connection Between Strangers

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“I believe in the connection between strangers when they reach out to one another.

On June 23, 1970, I had just been mustered out of the Army after completing my one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. I was a 23-year-old Army veteran on a plane from Oakland, Calif., returning home to Dallas, Texas.

I had been warned about the hostility many of our fellow countrymen felt toward returning ‘Nam vets at that time. There were no hometown parades for us when we came home from that unpopular war. Like tens of thousands of others, I was just trying to get home without incident.

I sat, in uniform, in a window seat, chain-smoking and avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers. No one was sitting in the seat next to me, which added to my isolation. A young girl, not more than 10 years old, suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and, without a word, timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering, her quiet ‘welcome home.’ All I could say was, ‘Thank you.’ I do not know where she sat down or who she was with because right after accepting the magazine from her, I turned to the window and wept. Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in a long time.”

From the essay “The Connection Between Strangers” by Miles Goodwin, who served as a clerk for the U.S. Army headquarters located outside of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in central Vietnam. The essay appears in This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman.

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Read related posts: This I Believe: Good Can be as Communicable as Evil
Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: This I Believe and This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

Famous Misquotations: It is the Mark of an Educated Mind…

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsA common quotation attributed to Aristotle is: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” A great observation, to be sure; however, as is often the case regarding quotations that circulate on the Internet, the person, in this case Aristotle, never said it or wrote it.

The earliest that this quotation appears in print is in Religion and the Pursuit of Truth (1959) by Lowell Bennion. On page 52 of the book, Bennion writes: “In this general approach to the subject of science and religion, the writer does not wish to be misleading. There will continue to be conflict in the minds of those who give earnest thought to both fields. Now and then one may have to choose between the two fields. However, much of the conflict is unnecessary and can be resolved… if he will follow the wisdom of Aristotle’s thought, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ (or rejecting it, one might add).”

It’s anyone’s guess where Bennion read that sentence in Aristotle’s writings — or what he was smoking when he misread the relevant passage. One can only assume it is a rather radical paraphrase of the actual sentence that appears in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1, 1094a.18, translated by W. D. Ross), albeit with a very different meaning: “It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”

Perhaps if Aristotle were alive today he would remark, “It is the mark of an educated mind not to believe everything you read on the Internet.”

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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

Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIn early February 1950, Dr. Robert Marcus of New York City was absolutely devastated by the loss of his eleven-year-old son who had succumbed to polio. Interestingly, Marcus, who was a Rabbi, did not reach out to his rabbinic mentors and friends, but rather to Albert Einstein, a legendary man of science, who was also a father of two sons. As you read Marcus’ eloquent and emotional letter, you cannot help but feel the profound depth of his anguish. And if you are a parent, you will find yourself fighting back tears — there is no greater grief than that of a parent who loses a young child. Marcus asks the famous physicist if perhaps immortality may be found in the scientific principle of energy conservation:

Dear Dr. Einstein,

Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of Polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world…

What would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish… I have said to myself: “It is a law of science that matter can never be destroyed; things are changed but the essence does not cease to be… Shall we say that matter lives and the spirit perishes; shall the lower outlast the higher?

I have said to myself: “Shall we believe that they have gone out of life in childhood before the natural measure of their days was full have been forever hurled into the darkness of oblivion? Shall we believe that the millions who have died the death of martyrs for truth, enduring the pangs of persecution have utterly perished? Without immortality the world is a moral chaos…

I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension… such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child… has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?

May I have a word from you? I need help badly.

Sincerely yours, Robert S. Marcus

A few days later, on February 12, Einstein responded to Dr. Marcus, a complete stranger, with a brief (consisting of only 78 words), but thought-provoking letter of comfort:

Dear Dr. Marcus:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes, sincerely yours, Albert Einstein

Einstein relates to this heart-broken father that only religion, not science, can provide the promise, the gift of immortality. What science can provide, which may provide some level of comfort to this father’s heartache, is the concept of “oneness of the universe” — the idea that everything in the universe is one — we and everything in the universe is made of stardust. In her fascinating book, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, Naomi Levy reflects on Einstein’s response: “Einstein offered Rabbi Marcus and all of us a vision of heaven on earth. Did Einstein’s words bring some measure of comfort to Rabbi Marcus’s broken heart? I’d like to believe that Rabbi Marcus did receive solace from Einstein’s words, but we’ll never know for sure… When you seek out a man like Einstein for inquiries about the soul, you are bound to get an answer that is out of the ordinary.”

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Read related posts: Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
The Memory of a Departed Friend

How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
The Wisdom or the Ancient Greeks
Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Best Books on Eulogies
High Flight: Touching the Face of God
In Mourning the Heart Does Not Forget

For further reading: Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children by Alice Calaprice

The Ever-Expanding Mind

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”

From The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (Chapter XI) by American physician, polymath, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The book, published in 1858, is a collections of essays that Holmes had written for The Atlantic Monthly between 1857 and 1858. The book was very popular with the public — it sold more than 10,000 in just three days. Holmes hung out with some very educated, literary folks, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell. A variant of this quotation that often appears on the Internet is: “A mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.”

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