I had a teacher in the 9th grade who would relate (it seemed like daily) about her college professor who always said "Well, Emerson said..." She never finished it and I never quite understood her point. Was her professor wise, in her mind, or a parrot? But it does relate to something I think about from time to time. I could never quite understand the quoting of famous people. Is it because the quoted person was so wise? Or is to impress the listener with the knowledge (and mental accuity) of the speaker. Politicians quote people, teachers quote people, your friends may quote people, ad nauseum. I don't. There's a couple of reasons why I don't. The first being that I rarely can recall what some famous person said, the second being that I don't think they are any more wise than the rest of us. If they can think of it, so can you.
There is something else about quotes by famous people; you can often find contradictory positions by just about every one of them. Of course, this makes it easy to find a quote by your opponent's favorite historical icon that will support your position and, hopefully, undermine his.
Here's a couple from Thomas Jefferson -
"Delay is preferable to error."
"Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you."
And these -
"I have seen enough of one war never to wish to see another. "
"Every generation needs a new revolution. "
Wisdom is found everywhere, we don't need to seek it just from famous people.
I think we like to quote the famous because their stature makes their words seem more important. It's not that they say anything more profound than any deep thought you might have had but it just appears to carry more weight. I came up with a couple myself just the other day...
"We all like to listen to those who say what we already believe."
" A wise man questions his own beliefs as deeply as he questions another's."
Now, is that any less valuable because it was authored by an unknown? My ego says no. I am sure someone else uttered the same thought only more eloquently or with more substance/authority behind it. So I did a little research and found:
"The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best - and therefore never scrutinize or question." Stephen Jay Gould (1941 - 2002)
"Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality." Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970)
This is at the heart of why we quote the famous. A quote from a famous person carries the weight of that fame, that authority. We quote them because we borrow that underlying authority in the process. It allows us to be eloquent by proxy.
"When a thing has been said and well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it." Anatole France (1844 - 1924)
It may just be the oldest and subtlest form of name dropping.
A Night Unremembered
6 years ago