Confucius Didn't Say That...
Why We Shouldn't Rely on Quotes to Think and Speak for Us
The humanities offers us a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. Ironically, that wisdom is sometimes obscured or falsely represented by pithy “mic-drop” quotation memes carelessly circulated in social media exchanges and the wider popular culture.
Like Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, Confucius is one of the more frequent victims of erroneous quote attributions. Here is a prominent example of a meme featuring the quote, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” currently being shared online.
Popular media also plays a part in advancing these false attributions. In episode 13, season one of the fictional TV series, Criminal Minds, behavioral analyst, Jason Gideon says, “Confucius warned us ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’”
This misquoting of Confucius may be linked to the belief that the sage advocated for “returning good for ill.” As Sun Jiahui explains, in "Things Confucius Never Said," the available record of Confucius’ ideas suggests he objected to that idea. In Book XIV of The Analects, an important source of Confucian thought written around 475 BCE, we read:
“1. Some one asked: 'What do you think about the principle of rewarding enmity with kindness?' 2. 'With what, then, would you reward kindness?' asked the Master. 3. 'Reward enmity with just treatment, and kindness with kindness" (Ch. XXXVI).
Confucius did advocate the virtue of “Ren” or compassionate concern for others. When a disciple asked him for a single principle to live by, Confucius offered a version of the Golden Rule instructing us to refrain from doing to others what we would not like to be done to us.
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He also cautioned us against uncritically affirming others' negative or positive assessments of people.
“Though all hate a man, one must investigate the cause; and though all like him, one must also investigate the cause” (Book XV, Chapter XXVII).
Causes of Misquotations
There are a number of reasons why these kinds of false attributions flood our culture. Innocent error is probably the main culprit. Someone accidentally attributes an interesting quote to the wrong thinker. That misattribution makes its way into a meme, book, or movie, and then it spreads quickly and easily through social media.
Another cause of these misquotations is that we lack awareness of our own irrationality. We often make the mistake of thinking that we are primarily rational beings. Though we can and do, sometimes, think rationally, our default mode of thinking tends to be uncritical and significantly reliant on irrational influences.
The psychologist Howard Gardner contends that we are intellectually moved by seven “levers of mind change.” These include two reliable sources of making sense of the world:
reason: making good, logically consistent arguments, and
research: turning to empirical observations of the world to identify the facts.
The other five include
rewards and resources: being moved when an idea benefits us.
representational redescriptions: saying the same idea in lots of ways.
real world events: relating our message to a timely current event.
resonance: relating an idea to something familiar or important to us.
overcoming resistances: overcoming existing objections to embracing a given idea or action.
Ancient thinkers are particularly useful since their “absence” ensures they won’t raise any objections when we attribute ideas to them.
Most of us deploy (and are also impacted by) these levers of intellectual influence. We tend to give greater weight to an idea or claim if it has the endorsement of a respected cultural figure. We can overcome some of our audience’s resistances to a way of thinking if we attach our idea to a figure that they are likely to defer to. Attaching an idea to a lauded sage increases the likelihood that the idea or message will resonate with our audience. Ancient thinkers are particularly useful since their “absence” ensures they won’t raise any objections when we attribute ideas to them.
But it’s important to realize that the success of a falsely attributed quote rests less on the originator and more so on those of us who “share” and, therefore, parrot the idea. Being honest, we have to acknowledge that we often repeat what we see or hear, irrationally assuming that it must be true. As social beings we are naturally inclined to “go along” and “get along,” especially when something is repeated and becomes familiar. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that familiar and repeated statements, even from a single source, significantly shapes our judgments. By coming to terms with out irrational tendency to parrot ideas, both verbally and in our wider social media interactions, we can reduce our likelihood of repeating misquotations and other misinformation.
What’s the Harm?
What’s the harm in misattributed quotations? Isn’t this much to do about nothing? In the first place, I think there is an ethical wrong in distorting the ideas or practices of those who put so much effort into developing those ideas or practices. Imagine that, 100 years from now, a meme circulated that attributed this statement to Socrates:
“It is better to live life without care than to spend one’s existence in perpetual contemplation.”
Such a statement is an inversion of Socrates’ contention that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The philosopher was so committed to this principle that he refused to betray his philosophical ideals to avoid a death sentence. While we don’t injure them when they are dead, we do potentially undermine part of their posthumous life-projects and the ideas they sought to advance. Perhaps most important of all, we deprive the broader public of the possible benefits of the actual idea the thinker advanced.
But my main objection is that our emphasis on attaching famous names to quotes implies an uncritical deference to authorities and tradition.
One could also argue that attempting to advance our own beliefs or agenda by falsely attributing these ideas to important spiritual or philosophical thinkers of other societies is a kind of unethical cultural appropriation. But my main objection is that our emphasis on attaching famous names to quotes implies an uncritical deference to authorities and tradition.
Dialogue Over Deference
As someone who teaches courses in the humanities, I think cultural traditions of the past along with great thinkers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, Aristotle, and Epicurus offer invaluable insight into the human condition and living lives of meaning and excellence. (We also learn quite a lot about what not to do and how societies and well-intended human beings go wrong.) But the potential benefits these traditions and ideas are not conferred when we are passive; they are granted to us through our our active and critical engagement with them.
Instead of simply “relaying” what an Ancient thinker had to say, we need to contemplate and interrogate their ideas. What did they mean? How does this idea hold up, today?
Instead of simply “relaying” what an Ancient thinker had to say, we need to contemplate and interrogate their ideas. What did they mean? How does this idea hold up, today? When Confucius said that we should “Reward enmity with just treatment, and kindness with kindness,” the reader is left to consider what “just treatment” looks like, in practice. Is just treatment retribution? Is just treatment holding the person responsible through punitive action, or is just action accountability with the opportunity for redemption? Is it more important to “get back” at others or for them to “get what they give,” or does justice entail edification, moral improvement, toward the goal of the wrongdoer learning from their mistakes? These are open questions that are worked out through contemplation and dialogue, not through one-liner mic-drops.
a great idea doesn’t need the endorsement of an intellectual celebrity. An idea or argument doesn’t accrue intellectual value based on who authored it.
The fact that someone who is, today revered, said something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right or worth affirming let alone adhering to. Do we really want the validity of our favored argument to rest, alone, on the unimpeachable reputation or character of an Ancient thinker? Not likely, since it’s difficult to think of any person of the distant past who has not said or believed things that are, upon reflection, misguided if not flagrantly wrong. (And if we’re being really candid, we’d acknowledge our human imperfection and that we are all often wrong, even the so-called “best and brightest” among us.)
Besides, a great idea doesn’t need the endorsement of an intellectual celebrity. An idea or argument doesn’t accrue intellectual value based on who authored it. What makes an idea of the past valuable is that it remains helpful in understanding either the past or the present, without undo deference to author’s title or position. I am not saying that there is something wrong with noting or sharing a powerful quote from a great thinker in human history. My suggestion is that such ideas ought to be the starting point of critical reflection, dialogue, and elaboration rather than being used as exclamation marks used as overly confident endcaps on a given debate.
Speaking For Ourselves
Whether we are those creating the meme or sharing it, we tend to be less concerned with the accuracy of the quote attribution than making an impact. Take the example of the quote on revenge that began this post. Some of us think people would be better off realizing that retaliatory violence is the path to mutual destruction. Plenty of Ancient thinkers are available to lend support to this idea. In The Analects we can read that Tseng Tzu, one of Confucius’ disciples, lauded a friend for enduring offense without retaliating (Book VIII, chapter V).
Great quotes alone cannot clarify the world for us. Clarity comes through active conscious thought and dialogue.
But intellectual honesty and a basic commitment to rational dialogue requires us to make sure that we have our facts straight. If it’s important enough to add Confucius’ name to a quote, then we ought to make sure it really is his idea. If we don’t have the time or desire to do that kind of research, then we can simply share the quotation without attribution, indicating that we don’t know who said it. Even better, we can briefly comment on why we think the quote rings true to us.
We all love a pithy quote. But quotes should rarely be the beginning and end of a communicative interaction. A great quote—whoever the author might be—is an opportunity to engage in dialogue with the idea and others' perspective on that idea. Great quotes alone cannot clarify the world for us. Clarity comes through active conscious thought and dialogue.
We should reject the idea that a quote, meme, essay, lecture, or book “speaks for itself” or “stands on its own.” We should, instead, embrace our intellectual agency. Here we should reaffirm the motto of the enlightenment. As Immanuel Kant put it in his 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?,” that motto was, “Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding.’” In other words, we should exemplify independent, critical thinking rather than leaving the task up to others.
Let’s explain what we think a quote or idea means and why it’s important. Let’s consider its merits and weaknesses. Let’s relate it to our life by considering the idea’s logical implications and offering plausible extrapolations. Above all, let’s exchange parroted information for original thinking and genuine conversation. Doing so will not only elevate and create openings in public discourse—much of which takes place in the sphere of social media whether we like it or not; doing so will also nurture our own creativity, intellectual confidence, and self-knowledge. And these are all goals the humanities aims to help us achieve.
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Watch this video to learn more about Confucius.