The Case of The Mistaken Philosopher

A quote that is not from Aristotle

We’ve all been there. We want to add a little spice to our presentation, give our paper a bit more eloquence, or just appear to have ‘deep thoughts’. So you type those reviled words ‘inspirational’ and ‘quote’ into your search bar and you end up in the vast lands of discontextualised phrases and aphorisms —I too have travelled those lands, I’ll admit. In those lands you find a quote by Aristotle that seems simple, profound, and suited to your needs. It has equally suited the needs of lazy career counsellors, ministers and general dealers of free advise before you. Unfortunately this quote too, has to join the rank of famous things that were never said, like  “Elementary, my dear Watson”1 was never said by Sherlock Holmes and “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”2 was never said by Albert Einstein. So what was this particular thing that Aristotle didn’t say? “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.”

It sure sounds good for something that wasn’t said. It has a very visual quality, you can almost see a crossroads where suddenly lightning hits and you find yourself knowing what you need to do with your life. I kind of liked this quote. What annoyed me though, was that I couldn’t imagine Aristotle handing out one-liners just like that. I know the classics sometimes get paraphrased down the road, so I figured I should track down the original and try and find the context. Except after spending the better part of my day in the works of Aristotle and any traces that might lead me to its origins, I realised: this has nothing to do with Aristotle. That however left me with even more questions: What did Aristotle actually say? Where did this quote and its misattribution come from? And what is it worth without Aristotle’s name underneath?

Aristotle does say a few things about what a good life is in his Ethica Nichomachea (EN). The EN is part of what he calls the ‘practical sciences’. The works in this category are part of an effort to define what a good life is, what a good character is, and what a good society is. The ‘practical’ sciences are opposed to the ‘theoretical’ and ‘productive’ sciences, of which the former investigates knowledge for knowledge’s sake and the latter the usefulness or beauty of tangible things.3⁠ The EN is his investigation into the essence of a good life and a good character. It focuses on developing a moral character or ‘virtue’, which can be distinguished from other approaches in ethics like consequentialism (focus on the outcome of actions) or deontology (an inquiry into the rules on which to make ethical decisions). Aristotle’s investigation leads him to consider not just a list of things that are good —health, friendship, courage—, but find out what is the highest good. He starts of his quest by considering what is good, or excellent, for different things:

“We must observe then that all excellence makes that whereof it is the excellence both to be itself in a good state and to perform its work well. The excellence of the eye, for instance, makes both the eye good and its work also: for by the excellence of the eye we see well. So too the excellence of the horse makes a horse good, and good in speed, and in carrying his rider, and standing up against the enemy. If then this is universally the case, the excellence of Man, i.e. Virtue, must be a state whereby Man comes to be good and whereby he will perform well his proper work.” — Ethica Nicomachea (EN) 4

Good comes from what we do best as humans, from what makes us unique as a species: our ability for reason. A good thing that follows reason, then, must adhere to certain criteria. It has to be good for its own sake, it has to always be good, it must be an end in itself but allow for other ‘goods’ to co-exist, and must lead to a fulfilling life. He considers candidates like ‘pleasure’ or ‘honour’, but in the end there is only one good that can suffice all his requirements: happiness (eudaemonia). He continues that,

“perhaps saying that the highest good is happiness (eudaimonia) will appear to be a platitude and what is wanted is a much clearer expression of what this is. Perhaps this would come about if the function (ergon) of a human being were identified. For just as the good, and doing well, for a flute player, a sculptor, and every sort of craftsman—and in general, for whatever has a function and a characteristic action—seems to depend upon function, so the same seems true for a human being” —EN

Happiness, says Aristotle, is an activity of the rational soul, it is the best form of human life. The better we use our reason, the better we perform our function as humans. And the reasonable thing to do is strive for happiness, living well. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains astutely:

“Human beings, Aristotle argued, aim at happiness or well-being above all other goods. Happiness was not, for Aristotle, a state of contentment or euphoria; it was rather an activity. Moreover, happiness was an activity in accordance with virtue, a life well performed, if you will.” — EN 

A good life then, according to Aristotle, is always an activity, never a place. It is found in recognising that we can act virtuously and reach our goals in our daily lives, by helping a friend, or contemplating a difficult question, because there is beauty in acting virtuously5. A good life, however, is not a place, like a crossroads, where we finally understand what we were meant to do. And that, in essence, is the reason we cannot attribute this quote to Aristotle.

In search of the origins

So where does the quote come from if not from Aristotle? The first mention on paper of the quote in this form seems to come from a collection of quotes —snack-sized wisdom if you will— from Laurence G. Boldt, in a book questionably titled: ‘Zen Soup’. It is definitely not a soup I would serve my guests, but ink on dead trees does seem to have a permanence and authority to it. That authority has been further enhanced by a mention of the quote in a The Guardian article on March 24, 2000. That is at least enough for a lazy Googler to get his fix of inspirationalism. With a site like The Guardian to back it up, Google’s search algorithm combined with a constant copying of the text will do the rest.

These sources, however, still attribute the quote to Aristotle. In a slightly different form it appears in a 1973 book titled Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, by christian writer Frederick Buechner. His last name is pronounced BEEK-ner according to the website of the foundation that shares his work — it even has a “MyBuechner area where you can personalize your own Buechner experience”, whatever that may mean, but I digress. In the book Buechner writes “the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. It does have an uncanny resemblance to the misplaced Aristotle quote, especially when you realise that Buechner in turn is often misquoted as  “Your vocation is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.

Buechner, however, is not the first to phrase the sentiment in divine terms. We can find an earlier mention in the “Luther League Review” of 1942 which mentions it as a kind of exercise for people to find out what they want in life. This phrasing actually has an even stronger resemblance to the-quote-that-shall-not-be-named. They write: “One line indicates the dozen special needs of the world; the other line indicates the dozen special talents which are yours; where the two lines cross each other — that is, where the world’s needs and your talents are the same — that is your proper vocation in life.” Considering the christian roots of the sentiment it would seem likely that maybe the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who is often seen as a bridge between Aristotle’s writing and medieval christian thought, would have made similar remarks, but alas, there doesn’t seem to be any truth to that either. That leaves the Greek philosopher firmly disconnected from these words.

The truth in falsehood 

So that leaves our final question: Is there any truth left in this quote without Aristotle to support it? For this I hope you will allow me a short detour. The quote reminded me of a scene from the 2008 film Taken, where the main character tells the abductor of his daughter over the phone in a dark, husky voice:

“If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it.”

His particular set of skills in this case comes from a long career of killing people in exchange for monetary funds. This is the plot, of course, for many a good film: main character has a certain talent —possibly not yet know, or only used for personal gain—, he then finds the world is in need of his talents and is called upon to save the day. Whether from Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted (Wolverine), in prison (The Green Mile; Shawshank Redemption) or softened assassins (Léon: The Professional; Taken), the plot is of course a summary of the famous Hero’s Journey. They all come down to one thing: we love for our lives to have meaning and purpose. We want to be hero’s ourselves.

In that sense the quote is about finding the hero in ourselves, it is about finding the joy that comes from making an impact in this world. And there is truth to that. Who doesn’t want the world to be a better place? And who doesn’t want to have a part in that? In that sense the best version of the quote-that-shall-not-be-named is indeed the one from the 1940’s Luther League Review. It is not a place, but an exercise to find out what we can contribute to the world. There is however, a secular version of this exercise, called ISO, that further divides ‘talent’ in ’skills’ and ‘interests’, and turns ‘the world’s needs’ into an ‘opportunity’ so that in the nexus of Interests, Skills, and Opportunities we can find the clues to our purpose in life. Elementary, my dear Watson.

 

  1.  I know from personal experience that this quote occurs in none of the stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
  2. Salon has a list
  3. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on Aristotle is a great place to start.
  4. You can find an English version of the full text of the Nicomachean Ethics at the MIT Classics page —and it brings back memories of the 90’s internet too
  5. “Virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom the things leading to it” (EN: 1144a7–8)