Recently, America Magazine ran a piece on things that St. Ignatius never actually said (that we all think he did). Not too long after reading that, I had a run in with a rogue quote from Edith Stein, who the internet is quite confident has written, “The world doesn’t need what women have, it needs what women are.” Beautiful stuff, and very close to what Edith Stein might say, but not a thing she actually wrote. I discovered this as I was working on an article for Aleteia on Edith and I really wanted to include this quote from her, because, you know, it’s pretty cool. Problem is, it doesn’t exist. With a quick internet search, I was able to easily find it posterized and plastered all over pictures of wildflowers, in fancy cursive lettering, and quoted in other articles, but I could never find the actual source for it. Suspicious, I asked a friend of mine who happens to know her work very well what he thought. After not too long, he found this sentence that Edith Stein actually wrote in an essay, “The children in school…do not need merely what we have but what we are.” (from the collection of essays, Woman) We’re in the ballpark, right? And yet it is so, totally different.
I know that an article on all of the misquotes floating around the internet isn’t exactly breaking new territory, but the phenomenon is nevertheless intriguing and remains a cautionary tale. Obviously, doing a quick internet search can provide a treasure trove of quotes to support your awesome internet article, but the seduction of a sweet Mother Teresa quote that was actually coined by a 19-year-old Harvard student is a dangerous attraction.
The Edith Stein misquote is similar to another by a saintly woman named Catherine of Sienna who is often mistakenly thought to have said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze!” In fact, what Catherine said was slightly more modest, “If you are what you should be, you will set all of Italy ablaze!” The motivation for tinkering with both quotes seems to be to set them to a more general use. Edith Stein, it is true, is speaking to women when she encourages them to be who they are, but it is in the narrow context of a career in teaching schoolchildren. What if we simply amend “children in school” to “THE WORLD!” (insert villainous laugh here). And what if we adjust this a little bit and change “Italy” to “THE WORLD!” (insert here a satisfied internet meme writer who takes a luxurious sip of coffee knowing it’s a job well done and, like, a million people are going to share this meme on facebook)
I’ve gotten to the point where, if I don’t see the quote with my own bespectacled eyes embedded in the actual text of a work by the alleged original author, I won’t use it. It can be a bummer to leave behind a beautiful sentence that highlights my point better than I ever could have, but I’d rather do that than take the easy way out by dragging Oscar Wilde into it (Or Abe Lincoln, Churchill, or Mark Twain…the usual suspects). It’s tough, because there is so much pressure, especially for those who write for online publications that want frequent content, and no one wants to embark on a tedious fact-finding mission with a deadline looming.
In a way, this whole mess, although launched into the troposphere by the internet, is related to a much older vice. Curiosity is the vice in question, and it may surprise you (I know it did me) to learn that it is actually closer to a vice than a virtue. Thomas Aquinas assures us, “curiosity about intellective sciences may be sinful.” (Yes, I sourced this quote) Wait, what? Curiosity isn’t one of the clearest signs of an agile mind? I suppose the questions is – what do we mean by curiosity and how does it relate to sharing fake quotes on the internet? Well, one of the ways Aquinas says it can be problematic is, “when a man studies to know the truth above the capacity of his own intelligence.” In other words, if I pretend to know a St. Catherine of Sienna quote but have never actually read her writing, or at the very least read carefully the context in which the quote appears, or even at an even more bare-minimum take the time to verify the source of the quote, then in a way I am pretending to be that which I am not. I have not put in the study time to place me in a position to discuss her writing or to recruit it as a supporting point in my own writing.
Curiosity seeks knowledge on easy terms (or just pretends to it), whereas studiousness seeks to really, deeply understand the author or subject in question. The former has always been rampant and the latter more rare, because of course the one requires very little effort and the other takes far more commitment. Where is the line, and when does one know enough to bravely put something into written form and publish and not feel like a mere poseur? I don’t really know, but I do know I’ve been given a well-needed lesson in caution.