Jun 23, 2017

Aristotle Didn't Say That! - On The Topic Of Criticism

The internet is full of fake quotations attributed to famous authors.  For some reason, Aristotle seems to attract more of these than most others, typically posted and then sometimes commented upon by people who know fairly little about him and his thought.  Here's a gem that has been making its way around the web - particularly in leadership, self-help, and personal development contexts:


Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.


This time around it happened to be cited by the Tiny Buddha site - using the quote as a springboard for what proved in parts an interesting article - starting, of course, by parroting an erroneous attribution that just a few moments' casual research would have revealed as such. 

Where does this quote actually come from?  Why couldn't it be from Aristotle?  Why would people unthinkingly accept and repeat that attribution.  Even if it is not from Aristotle, is there some value to the saying?  Those are some interesting questions that I'll answer below - though not in quite that order.

Aristotle Didn't Say It - And Wouldn't Have Said It

As soon as my eyes flashed over that quote, and saw "Aristotle" at the end, the proverbial red flags went up and alarm bells went off in my head.  I've been studying Aristotle for a few decades, and I'd never encountered in the course of all of my reading anything remotely like that sentiment expressed in his works.  Admittedly, Aristotle's works comprise a sizable corpus, and my own work teaching, writing on, and applying those writings tends to focus on just a portion of them - so I did consider the possibility that it might be found in some work that I had not recently examined.

If that were the case, however, it would really be surprising to me.  It would be rather uncharacteristic of him to say anything along those lines, for several reasons.  It wouldn't jibe with his overall moral theory or discussions of argumentation and inquiry.  The very word "criticism" - although there are good reasons for contemporary people to use it in translating certain terms in Aristotle - is not one that the translations most people would have encountered (and then lifted a quote from) would have used.

So I did a quick search, to see whether I would find some actual Aristotelian work that contained that passage - or anything like it.  What came up of course, was entry after entry giving the passage, and then attributing it to Aristotle, minus any precise reference to a particular work.  When you get results like that, it is a strong sign you're dealing with a fake quote - if it is a real quotation, a search will typically turn up some discussions that do provide a reference to an actual text.  What also came up was, of course, the Aristotle Wikiquote page - which has a "misattributed" section.  And there you will find the work and the author the quote actually does come from.

Why wouldn't Aristotle have said something like this?  He does in fact spend a lot of time discussing and referencing the workings of what we typically translate as "praise and blame" (epainos and psogos, along with their cognates and synonyms).  These play an important role in ethical development and evaluation in his moral theory.  And he invokes these in the course of many discussions - particularly in the Rhetoric, where one entire genre is centered around praise and blame.  The term that he uses that many translators render by "blame" can also be rendered "criticism" (and its cognate "criticize").  In fact, I make that very choice in translation of Aristotle's though, when I'm teaching, producing online content, or writing.  

But here's the kicker - that's not what older translators did!  They could assume an audience of their contemporaries that would understand what was meant by "blame" - which has a different sense for us in the present.  In those older translations, as far as I know, you will not find the term "criticize" or "criticism" used in the contemporary sense that we have in mind when we hear the term.  

Why else would this quote be fundamentally out of character for Aristotle?  He doesn't devote much discussion - and presumably didn't consider to be particularly important - what would be required in order to avoid criticism in general.  In fact, he writes in and out of a culture in which you could probably expect that whatever you happened to do, you would likely draw some criticism - whether on-target or off-base - from some people.  So, the notion that one could easily avoid blame or criticism is a bit foreign, let alone that advice about how one would go about it.


Who Did Say It, And Who Could Have Said It

Wikiquote directs us to a much more recent, but less well-known writer, Elbert Hubbard- and his book Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen.  Apparently, Hubbard was quite the generator of pithy sayings - the sorts of maxims Aristotle does actually advocate learning, coining, and using in his Rhetoric - for instance the "He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand" (that later becomes "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade").

He doesn't write exactly the passage quoted.  What he has - a bit of soliloquy in his book - runs like this:

If you would escape moral and physical assassination, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing—court obscurity, for only in oblivion does safety lie.

The passage gets reworked - as Quote Investigator tells us - in a later work by Hubbard,

Robert Pitt, son of Diamond Tom, escaped all censure and unkind criticism by doing nothing, saying nothing and being nothing.


Then it gets gradually reworked into the precise formulation that we see bandied about by so many self-help and leadership writers, under the pretense that it derives from Aristotle.

What is quite interesting is that there were a number of people closer to Aristotle's own era who have said similar things to their own contemporaries.  Some of them can be numbered among the philosophers - and those are the ones, understandably enough, who come to mind most readily for me.

One of these is the 11th-12th century thinker, Saint Anselm of Canterbury, who points out in Letter 63 that “vice always envies virtue," and then frames a dilemma to his reader: 

If you want to be free of the persecution of jealousy, therefore, either find a place where you can hide concealed from wicked people, or renounce virtues. But you will do neither of these, because one is impossible, and the other detestable.


Not quite precisely the formulation, since there is the additional specification in terms of virtue and vice, and it isn't criticism as such but rather persecution that the person presumably wants to avoid - but it does convey a similar sentiment.  If you don't want to run into trouble, keep your head down. Don't do, say, or be anything good, since that is likely to draw attention.

There's also an interesting passage by the 1st-2nd century AD Stoic philosopher, Epictetus in chapter 24 of his Enchiridion:


Don't allow such considerations as these distress you. "I will live in dishonor, and be nobody anywhere." For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base. Is it any business of yours, then, to get power, or to be admitted to an entertainment? By no means. How, then, after all, is this a dishonor? And how is it true that you will be nobody anywhere, when you ought to be somebody in those things only which are in your own control, in which you may be of the greatest consequence? 


The concern here on the part of his interlocutor is one that we can certainly relate to in our own time - being "nobody anywhere", or more literally "nobody nowhere" (oudeis oudamou), of being a person who doesn't matter.  The person he is counseling is - from the Stoic perspective - confused about what it means to genuinely "be somebody," and associates it with the wrong things, like getting invited to events and parties, attaining offices and authority, or providing one's friends with money.  Epictetus suggests that we do have control over what makes us "somebody" in a real sense.

These are just two thinkers that the content of the passage recalled to mind for me - and I'm willing to bet that we could find many more who expressed similar or connected sentiments.  So, although Elbert Hubbard arguably originates the phrase we now see repeated over and over, erroneously attributed to Aristotle, there are quite likely many earlier writers who - if we wanted to attribute it to someone else - would be a better fit than Aristotle!


Speculations About The Misattribution  

How does a passage like this end up getting attributed to Aristotle, of all people?  And how does it take on such a robust life of its own on the internet, doubtless with some spill-over into our non-virtual world as well?  And what should we make of all of this?  What should those who find themselves running into the misattributed passage do when they encounter it?

It's certainly easier to answer the last question than the other ones.  Once we know that the passage definitely does not derive from Aristotle - however great a sentiment we may consider it to be - we should not continue or contribute to the practice of falsely ascribing it to him.  That, as far as I'm concerned, is the barest of minimums - morally speaking - that one ought to observe.  In fact, there's a good case for going considerably further in what any decent person taking part in this vast networked communications system we call the internet ought to do - including bringing up the fact that the passage attributed to Aristotle is definitely a fake quote.  Linking in comments to where the quote actually does come from, or to some good discussion of it would be even better.  Personally, I think that those who have used the fake quote in public forums probably should engage in some sort of retraction of it. 

We inhabit a present which has become a bit obsessed with "fake news" - and that opens up its own can of worms, which I'm hoping to delve into and untangle a bit in later posts - but what we are dealing with here is something quite analogous - fake quotes.  These replicate - through the human agency of uncritically reposting and incorporation - throughout the space of the internet.  As with fake news, what is essentially informational garbage ends up crowding the better stuff out for many consumers.   And even quite intelligent, and otherwise careful people are easily taken in by it.

Why Aristotle?  That's a very good question.  And all we can do - since it's not as if we can locate the "ground zero" where whatever nimrod decided to combine the passage and Aristotle first propagated this quote - is to speculate here.  It could be that he or she genuinely thought - for whatever reason - that Aristotle actually said it.  Or possibly, that person thought it sounded like something Aristotle could have said.  Or he or she just wanted to get something out there, and wasn't particularly picky about what got mashed up with what.  We'll never really know, I suppose.

But once the fake quote was out there, it took on a real life of its own - well, at least a real life that is mostly virtual - and began to get spread by other people reposting, sharing, and using it.  Quite likely almost none of the people involved had or have any idea that the quotation is not from Aristotle - after all, how many people really do study Aristotle's thought well enough to sense when someone else is misrepresenting his views?  

Once something like that is out there - a passage, then an attribution to an author, minus any actual textual reference - it can proliferate wildly.  Again, type the phrase in question into Google, and see how many places it comes up.  You're going to find not only an assortment of blog articles, social media posts, and the like - some of which are quite insightful and worth reading, some of which are just copy-drivel there to make a buck - but you'll also find that the fake quote has made its way into banks of quotes.  And that's a real problem, because those are among the places where people - not particularly concerned about actually getting matters right - will go for easy quotes about particular topics.  And thus, the cycle perpetuates itself.

It's too bad in this case, because it really is an interesting idea, worth considering on its own merits, apart from a mantle or aura of authority lent to it by falsely claiming it comes from Aristotle.  To be sure, it probably would not circulate as readily if it was correctly attributed to its relatively unknown author instead of being falsely ascribed to someone famous.  But that would actually be a good thing, in my view.  Aristotle is already brilliant enough - he doesn't need any fake quotes to enhance the wisdom available to anyone who puts in the effort to actually read him.