BRONXVILLE, N.Y. -- In a coffee shop not long ago, I saw a mug with an inscription from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”
At least it said the words were Thoreau’s. But the attribution seemed a bit suspect. Thoreau, after all, was not known for his liberal use of exclamation points. When I got home, I looked up the passage (it’s from “Walden”): “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Now Thoreau isn’t quite saying that each of us can actually live the life we’ve imagined. He’s saying that if we try, we’ll come closer to it than we might ordinarily think possible. I suppose that the people responsible for the coffee mug would say that they’d merely tweaked the wording of the original a little. But in the tweaking, not only was the syntax lost, but the subtlety as well.
Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like ... a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.
Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.
When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso — all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.
My favorite example of the fanciful quotation is a passage that’s been floating around the Internet for years. It’s frequently attributed to Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, and said to be an excerpt from his 1994 inaugural address.
“Our deepest fear,” the passage goes, “is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. ... As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Picture it: Mr. Mandela, newly free after 27 years in prison, using his inaugural platform to inform us that we all have the right to be gorgeous, talented and fabulous, and that thinking so will liberate others. It’s hard to imagine it without laughing. Of course, it turns out it’s not actually an excerpt from this or any other known address of Mr. Mandela’s. In fact, the words aren’t even his; they belong to a self-help guru, Marianne Williamson.
Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela — it’s easy to see why their words and ideas have been massaged into gauzy slogans. They were inspirational figures, dreamers of beautiful dreams. But what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men. Each of them knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price.
But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.