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Seven Brilliant Quotes? Not So Much

by Mike Rothschild

May 6, 2013

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Donate Internet memes are like fireworks, coming out of nowhere, exploding in a burst of color and light, then vanishing, leaving nothing but a lingering blob of smoke and dust. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on Facebook, where anyone can post anything they got from anybody, no matter what it is, what it says or most importantly (for me, anyway) if it’s accurate. This includes any number of inspirational quotes with dubious origins.

My radar instantly activates for these random posts, and the one that stands out as the most egregious and incorrect is the one entitled “Seven Brilliant Quotes.” The picture is pretty much what it says it is: a collection of seven inspirational quotes uttered by some of the greatest thinkers throughout the ages " wisdom to help drive us to achieve wonderful things and live our lives in a better and richer way.

The problem is that some of them are fake. Obviously so.

The picture doesn’t have a name or credit on it, and I couldn’t find any information on who put it together or when. Like most pictures that are passed around the social media sphere, it has no real origin. Someone probably created it a long time ago, and it ended up on someone’s Facebook wall, posted by someone who thought enough of it to share it with others. Those people also shared it, and before long, “Seven Brilliant Quotes” was a staple of Facebook walls everywhere.

There’s no way to tell who created it, so that’s not really an avenue worth exploring. But who really uttered these “brilliant quotes” " or whether they were ever said at all " is another matter entirely. While some might say it doesn’t matter if the quotes are real, so long as people believe they’re real, I disagree. Accuracy matters. Correct attribution matters. And at the risk of being a buzzkill, I’m going to go through them one at a time and determine if they’re fake or real.
“Never play with the feelings of others. Because you may win the game but the risk is that you will surely lose the person for a life time” " William Shakespeare
The first “brilliant quote” might also be the most obviously fake. It sounds nothing like Shakespeare, lacking the signature cadence and meter of the Bard. It also lacks his style, wit and quality. It seems much more like someone’s idea of what a Shakespeare play sounds like. So I was ready to just write this one off out of hand. But just to be sure, I consulted the free online Shakespeare collected works at Open Source Shakespeare, and searched for a couple of key words.

Sure enough, neither the words “feelings” nor “risk” ever appear in anything Shakespeare wrote. So whoever came up with this line, it certainly wasn’t William Shakespeare.
“The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of good people.” " Napoleon
A pat variation on “the only thing necessary for evil men to triumph is good men to do nothing,” this one isn’t as obviously made-up as the “Shakespeare” quote. Nonetheless, I can’t find a reputable source that confirms Napoleon ever said it. Numerous well-sourced lists of Napoleon quotes are out there, and not a single one includes this quote. Neither does any searchable Napoleon biography. In fact, the only place I’ve seen it attributed to Napoleon is on this list. That doesn’t prove it’s fake, but there’s nothing out there to prove it’s real, either. At best, we can’t make a decision either way. And when you can’t prove someone said something, you shouldn’t attribute it to them.

One could argue that not only did Napoleon not say it, he also didn’t abide by it. The Napoleonic Wars tore Europe apart, and the French general’s brutal repression of his enemies caused the world and the good people in it to “suffer a lot.” And if there’s one thing worse than a fraud, it’s a hypocritical fraud.
“I am thankful to all those who said NO to me. It’s because of them I did it myself.” " Albert Einstein
Perhaps the greatest physicist of modern times, Einstein said a lot of brilliant things in his lifetime. This wasn’t one of them. It’s a misattribution of a self-help poster, with its source as a book by motivational speaker Wayne Dyer. In You’ll See it When You Believe It Dyer writes: “In my office I have two framed posters. One is a picture of Albert Einstein, beneath which are the words "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." The other poster is made up solely of words: "I am grateful to all those people who said no. It is because of them I did it myself." Great thoughts!”

The actual Einstein quote is both real and pretty profound. The other one has nothing to do with him.
“If friendship is your weakest point then you are the strongest person in the world.” " Abraham Lincoln
Another quote that’s all over the internet with absolutely no attribution. It’s entirely possible Honest Abe said this at some point, either in a speech or letter, but there’s also no evidence that he did. He does have some other quotes about friendship peppered throughout his writings, so it’s feasible that this particular line is just a misquote of something else he said. We can’t say for sure either way.

I’m also puzzled as to what the quote actually means. Why would friendship be someone’s weakest point? And is it friendship in general, or the friendship of a specific person? Maybe we can ask whoever actually first said it.
“We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The entire internet agrees that Dr. King absolutely said this, though when he said it is another matter. I found various sources that attribute it to both a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University and one in St. Louis in 1964. It’s entirely possible that he said it in both places, and maybe many others as part of his rhetorical repertoire. I’m willing to say this is a real quote, but I’d feel a lot better about it if I had a more firm attribution.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." - Gandhi
Like a broken clock being right twice a day, “Seven Brilliant Quotes” finally got one right without any equivocation. We have a firm attribution for the quote, down to the exact day it was uttered: April 2, 1931.

Gandhi was being interviewed by his own weekly paper Young India about the execution of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and the nature of forgiveness, and the above line was pulled out of a larger quote. The full line reads: "That does not affect my reply. What is true of individuals is true of nations. One cannot forgive too much. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
“It is very easy to defeat someone, but it is very hard to win someone.” - Dr. Abdul Kalaam

The last quote on the list is also the most obscure. I have to confess I’d never heard of Abdul Kalaam, and had no idea who he was, much less if he said what was attributed to him. But a quick search shows that Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (his name is actually misspelled on the poster) is an Indian physicist who parlayed his key role in establishing India’s nuclear weapons program into being elected to the largely ceremonial office of President in 2002.

As to the veracity of the quote, like most of the others, I couldn’t find anything that actually attributes it to Dr. Kalam. As he’s the only person on this list who’s still alive, one might think it easy to track one of his quotes back to the original source, but no such luck. There's no evidence he said it.

In fact, another commonly attributed source of the quote is English Romantic poet John Keats. How one could conflate the modern President of India with the poet behind Ode on a Grecian Urn is difficult to comprehend. But just as with Dr. Kalam, nothing I found actually names the work that the line is pulled out of, and it’s just as likely that Keats didn’t write it either.

So out of seven “brilliant quotes” we have two that are accurately attributed, three that could go either way, and two that are simply wrong. And what’s truly sad is that everyone in the picture who is misquoted has written or said inspirational things we truly can draw strength from " actual quotes that are much more brilliant than whatever they didn’t say.

by Mike Rothschild

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