The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

Quoting people accurately is really hard — and you can quote me on that.

It’s a MUCH More Effective Quotation to Attribute It to Aristotle, Rather than to Will Durant

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Yesterday, longtime offensive lineman Matt Light (left, bearded) announced his retirement from the New England Patriots. During the moving and humorous ceremony, he turned to a quotation attributed to Aristotle (right, also bearded).
Light ended his prepared remarks this way, according to a transcript from espn.com [emphasis added]:

I kind of wanted to end it with this. I always look to something that someone else has said. When I was looking through a list of different quotes, I found one from Aristotle. It was fitting to not only where I’m at in my life, but experiences I’ve had in this organization, but all the people I’ve met: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We hear it here five thousand times a week. Just worry about yourself, not others, make it part of your routine. Keep striving to do it better and better. The excellence we all shared as an organization, teammates, friends, everyone else. It’s not just as an act, it’s a habit, it’s how we live our lives, what we try to do day-in and day-out. I hope this habit continues. Thank you.

Journalist Julian Benbow described it this way in his recap about the retirement ceremony, which was posted at 12:32 p.m. Monday on Boston.com.

Light said while he was preparing his speech, he pored over quotes until he found one from Aristotle that sounded like a philospher’s [sic] translation of something Belichick says over and over again.
“You are what you do repeatedly,” the philosopher said. “So your excellence isn’t an act, it’s a habit.”

The quotation was also mentioned in the Web site of the Boston Herald in this summary:

Light ended with a favorite quote from Aristotle: ”We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

The sentiment certainly sounds great. And it sounds like something that should adorn a wall at Foxboro Stadium.
The trouble is that ARISTOTLE DID NOT SAY IT.
As far as I can tell, those words were actually written by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers.
In part VII of that book, dealing with “Ethics and the Nature of Happiness,” Durant sums up some of Aristotle’s thoughts. After quoting a phrase from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (“these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”), Durant sums it up this way: “…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Then he quotes again from Aristotle’s work. The footnotes 1 and 2 in the excerpt at left refer to passages in Aristotle’s Ethics, ii, 4. (The passage at left is from Page 87 of an edition of Durant’s book that bubbled up in GoogleBooks. One explanation of the misattribution is in this Wikipedia entry.)
This is an example of the way that provocative words tend to gravitate toward famous mouths. As the great quote-sleuth Ralph Keyes wrote in The Quote Verifier: “clever lines … routinely travel from obscure mouths to prominent ones….”
In this case, the journey was from the North Adams, Mass., native Durant (right), who lived from 1885 to 1981, to Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 BC.
I’m not faulting Matt Light. For one thing, it’s refreshing to hear the word “Aristotle” in an NFL-related press conference. He was probably using an Internet source such as BrainyQuote, which wrongly attributes the comment to Aristotle.
Journalists, however, who pride themselves on “checking the facts” should not be lazy about passing on–unthinkingly–such misattribution.
Remember the shopworn journalistic bromide: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

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