Lost in Mistranslation: It’s Always Darkest before. . . When?

June 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

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Political commentator Bill Kristol, speaking earlier this year at a Harvard forum titled “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” had some good things and some bad things to say about the state of modern media. For the most part, he said, he’s optimistic; but he understands the need for caution, closing his talk with the following:

I ran into John McCain this morning, actually, at National Airport—he was coming in from somewhere, I was flying out. I asked him how things were going, and he responded with one of his favorite quotations. I think it’s a fake quotation, actually—he really said it to me, but I think his description of it is fake. He said, “As Chairman Mao always liked to say, ‘It’s always darkest before it turns pitch black.’”

I’ll cast my lot with Kristol: I think McCain is misquoting Mao Tse-tung. And McCain probably knows it, too, but that hasn’t stopped the senator from Arizona from making it one of his go-to lines. In fact, he used it so much during his 2008 presidential campaign that it caught the attention of China’s news outlet Huanqiu.com. The author there, Wang Qichao, writes that McCain’s catch phrase is no more than a parody of what Chairman Mao really said: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Now that’s an expression I’m familiar with. But is it truly a Mao-made metaphor? According to Wang, it comes from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (also known as The Little Red Book). But I’m thinking this may be one of those cases where a well-known saying is misattributed to the kind of well-known figure who gets credited for most everything quote-worthy (think Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US).

In the article, Wang writes that Mao’s saying is “黎明前的黑暗,” which is a Chinese idiom that translates as “darkness before dawn.” The closest thing from Mao I could find in Quotations is “黑暗即将过去,曙光即在前头,” which originally comes from a report given by Mao, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” in 1947. Here’s the relevant passage in English, with the specific phrase in bold:

The Communist Party of China, having made a clear-headed appraisal of the international and domestic situation on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism, recognized that all attacks by the reactionaries at home and abroad had to be defeated and could be defeated. When dark clouds appeared in the sky, we pointed out that they were only temporary, that the darkness would soon pass and the sun break through.

Regardless of how close either of these may be to “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” a form of that phrase predates Mao by a few hundred years. Back in 1650, preacher and historian Thomas Fuller wrote,

[I]t is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.

Here is the passage that includes the phrase:

Afterwards, whilest David was marching (at least wise in presence) with Achish against Saul, the Amalekites in his absence burnt Ziglag, carrying away all the people therein captive. Griefe hereat so prevailed in Davids men at their return, that in anguish of their hearts, they were ready to stone him. Could better be expected from them? Behold their originall, they were at first, men in debt and distress, whose severall discontents made them generally contented to join together; so that not David, but his necessities chose them to attend him, who now in adversity discovered their impious dispositions. But David to avoid this showre of stones ready to rain upon him, run for shelter to God his Rock, in whom he comforted himself. Thus, as it is always darkest just before the Day dawneth, so God useth to visite his servants with greatest affli∣ctions, when he intendeth their speedy advancement. For immediate∣ly after, David not onely recovered his loss with advantage, but also was proclaimed King of Israel: though some war arose for a time between him and Ishbosheth.

It’s an interesting saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Scientifically speaking, is just before dawn the darkest part of the night? That depends on when you say dawn begins. Certainly, at midnight, it stops getting darker as soon as it starts getting lighter.

But the phrase’s deeper meaning, at least the way we use it today, is that we shouldn’t give up, no matter how grim the circumstances. Victory is undoubtedly ahead. The trouble with this thinking is that it’s self defining: If things get worse, then you’ve not yet reached the darkest point. If they get better, then the worst has ended. And if you surrender, then you can’t know that the sun wasn’t about to rise.

Does darkness sometimes signal a coming dawn? Yes, I believe it does. But always? It’s not quite that simple. As memorable as they may be, six words aren’t enough to handle all the philosophy and theology needed for that topic.

Stay tuned: On August 21 of this year, many in the US will see the first total eclipse observable on American soil since 1979. I wonder what McCain will have to say about that.

(Bill Kristol, “Bill Kristol: Remember, Demagogues Thrived Long before the Internet Disintermediated the News, Too,” Nieman Lab, February 1, 2017; Wang Qichao, “McCain Repeatedly Misquotes Chairman Mao,” translated by Mark Klingman, WorldMeets.us, August 7, 2008, Chinese version at Sina.com; Mao Tse-tung, “敢于斗争,敢于胜利,” 毛主席语录, People’s Press, 1965; Mao Tse-tung, “Dare to Struggle and Dare to Win,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1966; Mao, Tse-tung, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1947; Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the Confines Thereof with the History of the Old and New Testament Acted Thereon, 1650)

[photo: “Breaking Dawn,” by B Gilmour, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say

April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

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I once heard a friend (and fellow missionary at the time) say something on the order of

Missionaries are like manure. Pile them all together and they stink, but spread them out and they do good things.

He isn’t the only one who’s used fertilizer imagery to point out that missionaries tend to cause each other problems when they’re in close proximity to each other. But where did the missionary-manure comparison originally come from?

Well, one blogger cites a quotation from Luis Palau, in which the evangelist credits a Wycliffe missionary in Mexico for coming up with the phrase, after watching a cow walk by. But that doesn’t quite jibe with the testimonies of others (including Philip Yancey, in Church: Why Bother? [Zondervan, 1998]) who claim that Palau applied the simile to the church:

The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.

Comparisons of manure with types of people aren’t limited to only “missionaries” and “the church,” though all the ones I’ve been able to find do concern people who have an involvement with religion. Consider these examples:

The reference to “ministers” above is from a sermon by William Sloane Coffin, given in 1978, in which he says he heard the correlation to manure from a “distinguished theologian” twenty years earlier. That version is

Ministers are like manure: spread out in the field they have a certain usefulness. But when brought together in a heap, well, the odor gets pretty strong.

But a more precise earlier dating comes from the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the State Bar of California, volume 19, published in 1950. In it, the speaker refers to his “dear friend Lord MacMillan,” who tells about a Scottish minister who couldn’t bring himself to attend synod meetings, saying,

Ministers are like manure; when they are spread out over the land, they are very beneficial to the community.

But people aren’t the only things that are like manure. Nope, not just people. There’s

This last one is significant, because it deals with money, which leads us closer to the great-great-grandfather of the “is like manure” idea. But first lets take a look at a great aunt . . . from the mouth of Dolly Gallagher Levi.

In 1953, Thornton Wilder wrote the play The Matchmaker, a revision of his earlier work The Merchant of Yonkers, from 1938. In it, Dolly quotes her late husband, Ephraim:

Money, I’ve always felt, money—pardon my expression—is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.

In 1964, The Matchmaker was made into the musical Hello, Dolly! which then became a movie in 1969. (The about in the above line becomes around in the musical versions.) This is probably where “money is like manure” gained the most attention in modern times, but it certainly didn’t originate there. Over a hundred years earlier (August 20, 1836, to be exact), Horace Greeley’s The New-Yorker included this “adage”:

Money is like manure, of no use until it be spread.

And now we get back to the oldest relative of the phrase—at least the oldest one that’s been found in print. It’s from Francis Bacon’s Of Seditions and Troubles, way back in 1625:

Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and monies in a state be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a state may have a great stock, and yet starve: and money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or, at the least, keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury, engrossing, great pasturages, and the like.

Where did Bacon come up with this? Well, in the same year, he also published Apophthegmes New and Old. Collected by the Right Honourable, Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban. One of these apothegms (wow, I just looked that word up and found out I’ve been mispronouncing it) he ascribes to a Mr. Bettenham:

Mr. Bettenham used to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, upon an heape, it gave but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread upon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

In a letter written to Thomas Hobby, Bacon references the death of his friend “Mr. Bettenham” (The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon [collected by James Spedding, 1868]). Assuming this is the same person from Apophthegmes, the saying would have to predate 1606, when Bacon penned the letter.

So all told, that’s a more-than-400-year history, which means my friend didn’t come up with the idea on his own. And neither did J. Paul Getty or Will Rogers or J. I. Packer or an acquaintance of  Francis Chan. No, the complete line of succession is not nearly so straightforward . . . or recent. Rather, to quote another quotable source, the venerable REO Speedwagon, it instead hews closer to (sing along with me)

Heard it from a friend

who heard it from a friend

who heard it from another. . . .”

And so it—usually—goes.

(for more research on the money-manure connection, see The Quote Investigator and The Big Apple)

[photo: “Cow Manure,” by Ian Barbour, used under a Creative Commons license]

Stealing Cookies and Borrowing Stories

March 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently listened to a TEDx talk by Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, entitled “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” In it, he recites “The Cookie Thief,” a poem by Valerie Cox.

Wait a minute. Hadn’t I heard that a-stranger-stole-my-cookies-in-an-airport story before? In fact, several years ago, as I recalled, I had seen an actor on a late-night talk show telling how the thievery had happened to him . . . but maybe it had taken place in a train station. I was unclear on the details. I also couldn’t remember which show it was on, but I was pretty sure it was a British actor, since he called the cookies “biscuits.” It’s a funny story—with a great punch line—and I’ve retold it a few times. But is it true, or too good to be true? And regardless of its truthfulness, who can lay claim to its origin?

I did a little digging, and here’s what I found (with thanks to those who’ve dug before me). . . .

First of all, the British “actor” was actually a British author: Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, and videos of his appearance on the web give the show date as February 14, 1985. Adams was there to promote his novel, written in 1984, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, “the fourth volume in the Hitch-Hiker Trilogy.”

Letterman asked him if he used his own life experiences in his writing, which was, I’m guessing, a pre-planned question to set up what came next. Adams answered,

Yeah, well occasionally. Actually there’s one story I put in this book, which I fi— I wanted to put in print, because it’s something that happened to me a long time ago. And I’ve told the story pretty regularly now, with the result that other people are beginning to use it, so I wanted to put it in the book to say, “Hands off, guys.”

The gist of his story (minus Adams’ comedic flair) is this: At the train station, Adams buys a newspaper and package of cookies (biscuits). He puts his purchases down on a table and sits down across from a stranger. The man across from him opens the package of cookies and proceeds to eat one. Adams is perplexed, but saying nothing, eats a cookie himself. Back and forth they go, with Adams wondering how anyone could have such gall. Finally, the cookies are gone and the stranger leaves. When his train arrives, Adams picks up his newspaper to depart, and, much to his surprise, finds his unopened package of cookies lying there.

In 2001, Adams again recounted the story in a speech to Embedded Systems, saying that it had occurred in Cambridge in April of 1976. After Adams’ death in 2001, the Embedded Systems retelling was included in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, a collection of Adams’ previously unpublished works.

So Adams’ story predates Cox’s “Cookie Thief,” which was published in 1996 in A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. But his rendering is still not the beginning.

Jan Harold Brunvand writes in The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends that the biscuit/cookie story is one of many variations on “the unwitting-theft legend,” a general category for which he finds examples from as far back as 1912. Though the origins of Adams’ account don’t seem to be quite that old, they still precede his 1976 timeframe. Brunvand points to a letter written to the editor of the journal Folklore, in 1975. In it, A. W. Smith writes that he has seen the story in print three times, in July 1974, July 1972, and some indeterminate time earlier. The sources are, in that order, London’s GuardianOxfam News, and (possibly) London’s Evening Standard. Smith notes that in all these versions, the traveler is British (in Oxfam News he’s the director of Oxfam Scotland); the encounter takes place in a train station, near a train station, or in a dining car; the offending stranger is from another country, a West Indian, African, or Pakistani; and the foreigner kindly offers the Brit half of the last cookie. On the last two details, Smith asks, “Does the essence of the story concern the patient and indeed saintly character of the often despised and rejected?”

While Adams’ and Cox’s version leave out the cross-cultural aspect, Cox’s telling does include the stranger’s kind (but irritating) act of breaking the cookie in half.

Back to where we began, here’s Cox’s “Cookie Thief” in video form.

(Douglas Adams, appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, NBC, February 14, 1985; Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Del Rey, 2005; Valerie Cox, “The Cookie Thief,” A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit; Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends,  Norton, 1984; A. W. Smith, “Letter to the Editor: Yet Another Modern Legend?” Folklore, vol. 86, issue 2, 1975)

[photo: “dark chocolate digestive BISCUITS,” by SimonQ, used under a Creative Commons license]

He Said, She Said: Believe in the Darkness What You Have Seen in the Light

November 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Zermatt, Switzerland

I began my post “In the Light, in the Dark, Remember,” with a quote from Joseph Bayly (1920-1986):

Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light.

I trust Phillip Yancey, who writes that Bayly said it, but I couldn’t find a specific citation and I was curious if it was original to him. Then I got a copy of Miriam Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, a collection of the missionary artist’s thoughts, paired with her watercolor paintings. This is the same Lilias Trotter that I wrote about back in July. In the book, I found these words:

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

When I saw this, I contacted Rockness, through the blog she writes about Trotter. When I asked her about the source of the quotation, she replied,

This is one of my favorite Lilias quotes. It was taken from her diary, 10 August 1901. She was taking a “break” from the heavy load in N.A. and, after having a reunion with her brother in Zermott (Switzerland) she sought a place even higher in the mountains to “be alone with God.” And, here, as always seemed to be the case for Lilias, God “spoke to her” through His Handiwork. She writes, “‘Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light’ – That was this mornings ‘first lesson’ – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.”

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing the “heavy load” that Trotter had experienced in North Africa:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

(In this post, Rockness shows the date for Trotter’s journal entry containing the darkness/light phrase as August 16, 1901.)

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter writes in a journal entry from 1897,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.” It “all depended,” she writes, “on what one had seen first.”


John Ruskin, Trotter’s good friend, and artistic mentor earlier in her life, had had his own encounter with the Swiss town of Zermatt (Zermott) years before. As a young man in 1844, he captured the scene there in the watercolor below.

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(Miriam Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in response section of “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license; John Ruskin, Zermatt, public domain, from artinthepicture.com]

Look, in the Airport! It’s a Carry-On! It’s a Scooter! It’s Modobag!

August 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson said that (or at least something like that*) in the 1800s, a new-and-improved mousetrap was a suitable metaphor for innovation. I would submit to you that today’s mousetrap may very well be the carry-on bag, and the door is an Indiegogo campaign.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Modobag. (Sorry, I mean the Modobag!)

The Modobag, the creation of Kevin O’Donnell, with the help of Boyd Bruner, is a TSA- and FAA-compliant carry-on bag that you can ride around the airport. It has an electric motor, telescoping handlebar with thumb throttle and hand brake, and professional motorcycle-grade foot pegs—and it can carry your clothes, too.

Here are some of the specs from Modobag’s Indiegogo page:

  • two speed settings—5 mph indoors, 8 mph outdoors
  • ability to carry a person up to 260 lbs
  • 8-mile range (for a 180-lb person)
  • two USB charging ports

Pre-orders for the Modobag are available at Indiegogo for $1,000. The campaign was set up with a modest goal of $50,000, and with two weeks left, it has already blown past a quarter of a million dollars.

According to CNN, O’Donnell doesn’t want to limit his invention to the airport. He wants people to ride it to the train and  use it to navigate conference venues. And he takes it for spins himself in the bike lanes of Chicago.

It all sounds like a great idea to me, but I do have a few concerns . . . where the rubber meets the airport walkway, so to speak. But I think each one is fixable with the simple addition of an accessory.

First, there are the images in the video above of riders leaning into tight Modobag turns. I can imagine middle-aged travelers (like myself) wiping out on the way to Gate 26. Solution? The addition of fold-down wheeled outriggers—a fancy way of saying they need training wheels.

I’m also wondering about trying to pull two, or more, pieces of checked bags on your way to an international flight. A guy only has two hands, and one is already busy with steering, throttling, and braking. Solution? Some kind of proprietary linkage system to form a giant super luggage trolley.

And finally, I’m worried that airport authorities will step in to shut down Modobag riders in the name of safety (for example, see “wiping out” above), much the way that the anti-progress lobby has unfairly hampered the would be life-changing Segway revolution around the globe. Solution? A simple beeping mechanism and pop-up flashing light. Hey, it works for those airport carts.

The bottom line for me, though, is I’m not much of an early adopter. I’m more of a late follower. So just as with wearable luggage, carry-on child carriers and follow-along bags, and even pillow head coverings, to all you risk takers, you trend setters, you beta testers, I say, Lead the way! And as long as you don’t look too silly, I’ll be right there jumping on board. (I promise.)

(“Modobag: World’s First Motorized, Rideable Luggage,” Indiegogo; Matt McFarland, “You Can Now Ride Your Luggage around the Airport,” CNN, July 22, 2016)


*[and now, for quote geeks like me . . .] According to Garson O’Toole of Quote Investigator, the earliest form in print of

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door

is from “Current Comment,” in The Atlanta Constitution. The passage, titled “The Value of Good Work,” is ascribed to Emerson and was published on May 11, 1882, a few weeks after his death:

If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

Giving credence to Emerson’s authorship of the sentence, or at least the thoughts behind it, is a journal entry that Emerson wrote in 1855, under the heading “Common Fame”:

I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house,though it be in the woods.

Sarah S. B. Yule and Mary S. Keene include the “If a man . . .” quotation above, crediting it to Emerson, in their book “Borrowings,” compiled in 1989 and published in 1893. The article “The Mousetrap Quotation: The Verdict,” from 1912, quotes Yule telling how she heard it from the lips of Emerson:

To the best of my memory and belief, I copied it in my handbook from an address delivered long years ago, it being my custom to write everything there that I thought particularly good, if expressed in concise form; and when we were compiling “Borrowings” I drew from this old handbook freely. It will seem strange to you, as it does to me, that Emerson never incorporated this in any of his essays. He did use the thought and similar wording, but never exactly the wording, of the quotation I used in “Borrowings.”

(Garson O’Toole, “If You Build a Better Mousetrap the World Will Beat a Path to Your Door,” Quote Investigator, March 24, 2015; “The Mousetrap Quotation: The Verdict,” West Publishing Co’s Docket, Volume 1, West Publishing Company, 1912)


[photo: “Surprising News,” by Edgardo Balduccio, used under a Creative Commons license]

To Augustine the World Is a Book, but Is It a Travel Book?

April 13, 2016 § 2 Comments

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One of my father’s favorite jokes was to say a phrase of dubious meaning, and often questionable grammar, and tag William Shakespeare as the source. It went something like this:

No matter where you go, there you are . . . Shakespeare.

Seems that Dad was ahead of his time. All over the Interwebs, there are oft-used quotations attributed to oft-quoted people—Mark Twain, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Erma Bombeck . . . and Shakespeare. The trouble is, the pairings are oft-wrong.

Take, for instance, this popular quotation:

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

Nearly every online citation says it comes from the pen of St. Augustine, but as far as I can tell, no one has been able to find it in his writings.

The closest I’ve seen is in his Letter 43, written circa 397. While discussing schisms in the church in Africa and recounting some church history, he refers to the world as a book. But rather than using that as a metaphor to promote travel, he is proclaiming that the world shows the working out of biblical principles. Translated from Latin, he writes,

If, after all that you have read, you are still in doubt, be convinced by what you see. By all means let us give up arguing from ancient manuscripts, public archives, or the act of courts, civil or ecclesiastical. We have a greater book—the world itself. In it I read the accomplishment of that of which I read the promise in the Book of God: “The Lord hath said unto Me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.

Jump ahead to 1750, and Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron writes Le Cosmopolite ou le Citoyen du Monde (The Cosmopolitan or the Citizen of the World), which opens with the following paragraph (as translated into English):

The universe is a sort of book, whose first page one has read when one has seen only one’s own country. I have leafed through a great many that I have found equally bad. This inquiry has not been at all unfruitful. I hated my country. All the oddities of the different people among whom I have lived have reconciled me to it. Should I gain no other benefit from my travels than this, I will have regretted neither the pains nor the fatigues.

British travel writer John Feltham joins our discussion with his publication of English Enchiridion in 1700. His collection of “apothegms, moral maxims. &c” includes one that seems to tie together Augustine and the thoughts of Fougeret de Monbron (it is not a direct quotation of either), and attempts to bring the early church father into the travel-writing fold:

St. Augustine, when he speaks of the great advantages of travelling, says, that the world is a great book, and none study this book so much as a traveller. They that never stir from their home read only one page of this book.

A few years later, Le Cosmopolite caught the attention of the young poet Lord Byron. In a letter to R. C. Dallas in 1811, he writes, “I send you a motto” and quotes the work’s opening paragraph. He tells Dallas, “If not too long, I think it will suit the book.” The book turned out to be his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published in installments from 1812 to 1818, and the passage, still in French, became the work’s epigraph.

And finally, in 1824, Thomas Fielding gave us a more familiar rendering of the phrase in his Selected Proverbs of All Nations, crediting it to Augustine:

“The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only a page.”

Simplify the language and you have “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Oversimplify the authorship and you have Augustine.

Bring on the inspirational photos.

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[photos: “Atlas,” by Ian Carroll, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dyrhólaey Arc,” by Andrés Nieto Porras, used under a Creative Commons license]

When in Rome, Quote Those Church Fathers . . . and Then Do That Roman Thing

January 15, 2016 § 1 Comment

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It could be the mantra of cultural chameleons:

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

It’s so well known that all you have to do is say, “When in Rome . . .” and we fill in the rest. But where did the phrase come from? Why Rome? And what is it that we should do when we’re there? To find that out, we have to go all the way back to the fourth century—and delve into the practices of the early church.

When Casulanus wrote a letter to Augustine asking “whether it is lawful to fast on the seventh day of the week,” the early church father replied with his “Letter 36,” written in 396 AD. The passage below is Chapter 14 of that letter:

Since, therefore (as I have said above), we do not find in the Gospels or in the apostolical writings, belonging properly to the revelation of the New Testament, that any law was laid down as to fasts to be observed on particular days; and since this is consequently one of many things, difficult to enumerate, which make up a variety in the robe of the King’s daughter, that is to say, of the Church,—I will tell you the answer given to my questions on this subject by the venerable Ambrose Bishop of Milan, by whom I was baptized. When my mother was with me in that city, I, as being only a catechumen, felt no concern about these questions; but it was to her a question causing anxiety, whether she ought, after the custom of our own town, to fast on the Saturday, or, after the custom of the Church of Milan, not to fast. To deliver her from perplexity, I put the question to the man of God whom I have just named. He answered, “What else can I recommend to others than what I do myself?” When I thought that by this he intended simply to prescribe to us that we should take food on Saturdays—for I knew this to be his own practice—he, following me, added these words: “When I am here I do not fast on Saturday; but when I am at Rome I do: whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offence.” This reply I reported to my mother, and it satisfied her, so that she scrupled not to comply with it; and I have myself followed the same rule. Since, however, it happens, especially in Africa, that one church, or the churches within the same district, may have some members who fast and others who do not fast on the seventh day, it seems to me best to adopt in each congregation the custom of those to whom authority in its government has been committed. Wherefore, if you are quite willing to follow my advice, especially because in regard to this matter I have spoken at greater length than was necessary, do not in this resist your own bishop, but follow his practice without scruple or debate.

Augustine, “Letter 36,” to Casulanus, Chapter 14, 396 AD, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume I, J.G. Cunningham, translator, Christian Literature Company, 1892

Thus, the ultimate source of “When in Rome” is Ambrose, quoted by Augustine, speaking on whether or not to fast on Saturday.

A few years later Augustine returned to the story of his mother and Ambrose in his reply to Januarius, who had posed these questions concerning taking communion (“the sacrifice”) during Lent:

What ought to be done on the Thursday of the last week of Lent? Ought we to offer the sacrifice in the morning, and again after supper, on account of the words in the Gospel, “Likewise also . . . after supper”?

Augustine replied that some practices in the church are authorized by Scripture, and some are set by traditions followed by the global church. But in a third category, there is room for freedom:

There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

I think you may have heard me relate before, what I will nevertheless now mention. When my mother followed me to Milan, she found the Church there not fasting on Saturday. She began to be troubled, and to hesitate as to what she should do; upon which I, though not taking a personal interest then in such things, applied on her behalf to Ambrose, of most blessed memory, for his advice. He answered that he could not teach me anything but what he himself practised, because if he knew any better rule, he would observe it himself. When I supposed that he intended, on the ground of his authority alone, and without supporting it by any argument, to recommend us to give up fasting on Saturday, he followed me, and said: “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offence by your conduct, nor to find cause of offence in another’s.” When I reported this to my mother, she accepted it gladly; and for myself, after frequently reconsidering his decision, I have always esteemed it as if I had received it by an oracle from heaven. For often have I perceived, with extreme sorrow, many disquietudes caused to weak brethren by the contentious pertinacity or superstitious vacillation of some who, in matters of this kind, which do not admit of final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church or by their manifest good influence on manners raise questions, it may be, from some crotchet of their own, or from attachment to the custom followed in one’s own country, or from preference for that which one has seen abroad, supposing that wisdom is increased in proportion to the distance to which men travel from home, and agitate these questions with such keenness, that they think all is wrong except what they do themselves.

The above section is Chapter 2 of Augustine’s “Letter 54,” written in 400 AD. In the letter’s Chapter 4, he furthers his argument, not only saying it is inappropriate to take one’s customs into a new setting, but he also cautions against returning home with customs learned abroad and, acting the part of the enlightened traveler, promoting them as superior:

Suppose some foreigner visit a place in which during Lent it is customary to abstain from the use of the bath, and to continue fasting on Thursday. “I will not fast today,” he says. The reason being asked, he says, “Such is not the custom in my own country.” Is not he, by such conduct, attempting to assert the superiority of his custom over theirs? For he cannot quote a decisive passage on the subject from the Book of God; nor can he prove his opinion to be right by the unanimous voice of the universal Church, wherever spread abroad; nor can he demonstrate that they act contrary to the faith, and he according to it, or that they are doing what is prejudicial to sound morality, and he is defending its interests. Those men injure their own tranquillity and peace by quarrelling on an unnecessary question. I would rather recommend that, in matters of this kind, each man should, when sojourning in a country in which he finds a custom different from his own consent to do as others do. If, on the other hand, a Christian, when travelling abroad in some region where the people of God are more numerous, and more easily assembled together, and more zealous in religion, has seen, e.g., the sacrifice twice offered, both morning and evening, on the Thursday of the last week in Lent, and therefore, on his coming back to his own country, where it is offered only at the close of the day, protests against this as wrong and unlawful, because he has himself seen another custom in another land, this would show a childish weakness of judgment against which we should guard ourselves, and which we must bear with in others, but correct in all who are under our influence.

Augustine, “Letter 54,” to Januarius, 400 AD, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume I, J.G. Cunningham, translator, Christian Literature Company, 1892

This English translation of Chapter 4 includes a summary of Ambrose’s advice that gets closer to the wording of our present-day “When in Rome”:

[E]ach man should, when sojourning in a country in which he finds a custom different from his own consent to do as others do.

Many years later, in 1599, the English playwright Henry Porter wrote The Pleasant History of the Two Angry Women of Abington. In it, one of the charactersNicholas Proverbs, says,

Nay, I hope, as I have temperance to forbeare drinke, so have I patience to endure drinke: Ile do as company doth; for when a man doth to Rome come, he must do as there is done.

Henry Porter, The Pleasant History of the Two Angry Women of Abington, 1599, in Charles Mills Gayley and Alwin Thaler, Representative English Comedies: From the Beginnings to ShakespeareMacmillan, 1903

And finally, in 1754, Pope Clement XIV wrote “Letter 44” to Dom Galliard, concerning the monks under his authority. The English translation that followed in 1777 gives us a form of “When in Rome” that brings us nearly to what we have today. This time the topic is the suitability of taking a nap during the day:

The siesto, or afternoon’s nap of Italy, my most dear and reverend Father, would not have alarmed you so much, if you had recollected, that when we are at Rome, we should do as the Romans do.—Cum Romano Romanus eris.

Is it either sin or shame, then, for a poor Monk, in a country where one is oppressed with excessive heat, to indulge in half an hour’s repose, that he may afterwards pursue his exercises with the more activity? Consider, that silence is best kept when one is asleep. You who reckon among the capital sins, the pronouncing of a single word when your rules forbid the use of speech,—take the example of Christ when he found his Apostles asleep: Alas, says he to them, with the greatest mildness, could you not watch with me one hour?

Clement, “Letter 44,” Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV (Ganganelli): To Which Are Prefixed, Anecdotes of His Life, Volume I, translated from the French, London, 1777.

Now that I’ve come to the end of my post, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Thanks to The Phrase Finder for identifying most of the sources above. And the photo, titled “Rome,” is by Luca Sartoni (used under a Creative Commons license). There’s some pretty nice architecture in the picture, behind the tourists. I’m thinking it took more than a day to build a place like that. By the way, that area is called Campo Marzio. If you’d like to see it in person, it should be pretty easy to find. I’m guessing that once you’re in the city, all streets lead there. And when you arrive, you’ll know what to do.

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