I like a good quote as much as the next person. Perhaps more. There is nothing like chortling over an erudite Oscar Wilde witticism, marvelling at the wisdom of Aristotle or being inspired by the poetic speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Words are powerful things. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. You may kill a man today but his words will live forever. Unless he never said or wrote anything memorable, in which case, the sword was probably mightier.
I do love quotes, but in today’s sound-bite-obsessed world, they have become cheap slogans to toss around, stick on t-shirts or include as part of motivational speeches. I can see why advertising campaigns and corporate training exercises love to pull out the odd quote here and there; by referring to the giants of history, your own ideas are being given some credibility. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country – Buy Ford.” Good quotes are a lot of fun because they’re pithy, they’re wise and they have become accepted wisdom. They’re easy and there is no need to question them.
Some leaders proved remarkably prescient with their quotes. I read recently that Abraham Lincoln once boldly proclaimed, “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it’s difficult to discern whether or not they are genuine.”
My advice would be to be suspicious of anybody who comes at you with a quote. They are quite possibly trying to manipulate you and are often going against the spirit in which it was uttered (or penned, or feather-and-quilled, or… whatever). For example, when somebody quotes Edison, saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” they’re probably just trying to get you to work harder. Or buy new deodorant. When somebody sends you a message quoting Thomas Jefferson, “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it,” you can assume that they’re at work and procrastinating. And if somebody sends you an uplifting quote, such as, “A smile is a passport that will take you anywhere you want to go,” you can assume they are utterly miserable.
Quotes are also often misused in order to sell an idea. Countless (well, not countless, but as if I’m going to count them) self-help books refer to Henry David Thoreau as a source of inspiration. Once sentence from ‘Walden’, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour,” is often bandied about to show the average Joe how if he works hard in life, he might be able to climb that ladder, achieve that goal and be successful in life. However, if you take a look at Thoreau’s overall message, it is in direct contrast to the ladder-climbing context it is often used in. Thoreau argued for simplicity and modest living. He opposed taxation and despised the idea of working for anybody but himself. Be careful who you’re quoting, big corporations.
Then there are quotes which are thrown in for effect with no real substance at all. For a beautiful example of this, see David Brent’s words of wisdom, seamlessly interwoven into his staff appraisal:
Winston Churchill is another oft-quoted figure from the not-too-distant past. Here is one of his little gems: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” It’s possible that this quotation misrepresents what the man was all about, though. To read this quote alone, your mind’s eye might picture him up alongside Gandhi (who Churchill described as “nauseating” and “a seditious middle temple lawyer”) on the walls of the groovy cafes of the world, but I suspect Churchill would’ve had little time for the lefty do-gooders who frequent such places. Personally, I think Churchill was at his best when being blunt and funny. When one woman told him, “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison,” Churchill replied, “If I were your husband I would take it.”
In short, quotes are a lot of fun, but it is even more fun to look behind them and discover the stories of the quotable; otherwise, they are no better than bumper stickers. I’m going to end this post now. Why? Well, as Shakespeare wrote, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.” There you go, I quoted Shakespeare; I must know what I’m talking about.