How Totally Fake Quotes Spread Across the Internet: A Case Study

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May 19 2014 11:37 PM

“Hang in There!” –Arthur Schopenhauer

Quotation websites and the outsourcing of erudition.

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Suspiciously Hallmarkian.

Illustration by Slate

Arthur Schopenhauer—the 19th century German philosopher for whom human existence was a perpetually swinging “pendulum between suffering and boredom,” and the world itself a hell in which “human beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other”—tends to get pigeonholed as a fairly downbeat guy. But the author of such elegantly corrosive essays as “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life” and “The Fullness of Nothingness” is also apparently responsible for the quote that probably appeared on the inside of the card you gave your dad on his 50th birthday: “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.”

I discovered this not in the old-fashioned way of reading Schopenhauer’s actual writing—which, as I say, tends to be filled with stuff about how life is a meaningless ordeal of suffering alleviated only by a meaningless death—but by the more modern means of happening across it on the website brainyquote.com. I’d been tracking down the source of a different Schopenhauer quotation, but these days if you’re looking for anything remotely pithy online, you’ll inevitably wind up being pointed in the direction of BrainyQuote, or one of a whole black economy of similar quote stockists. These sites are an inevitable outcome of the process by which we’ve outsourced knowledge to the third party of technology. This superficial democratization of erudition is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean you don’t have to have read Schopenhauer, or really anything much at all, to have access to just the right Schopenhauer quotation for your particular needs—and no grounds to suspect when the quotation you select has nothing to do with its ostensible source.

Now look: As I’ve modestly intimated above, I’ve read a bit of Schopenhauer—in fact, he’s about the only thing that’s remained with me from three years of undergraduate philosophy. And so I suspected straight away that these suspiciously Hallmarkian words were unlikely to have flowed from his poison-tipped quill. Leaving aside the sentiment itself, the phrase just conspicuously lacks the black gleam of his prose. You wouldn’t even call it school of, really.

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So I did some more googling, and found that, although it is the most prominent, BrainyQuote is not the only place to have attributed the “over the hill” line to Schopenhauer. Far from it. There it is on quote-wise.com, searchquotes.com, quote.lifehack.org, quotespedia.info, quoteswave.com, izquotes.com, excellentquotations.com—to name just a handful of the bigger hitters in the online quotes racket. And through this wilderness of mirrored sources, a wonderfully weird misattribution has made its way outward into the world. Granted, it hasn’t appeared widely in the mainstream media, nor does it seem to have cast its shadow across the groves of academic scholarship, but it’s certainly caused Schopenhauer to turn up in a lot of places where you wouldn’t expect him to be invoked. Here he is, for instance, offering inspiration to those who would strive to face down the pain and futility of existence through blasting their abs and glutes. And here’s old Arthur giving comfort to those suffering souls who have not yet engaged the services of Arizona’s most philosophically grounded tax-debt adviser. And here he is yet again, offering counsel to the neo-Nazi skinheads of Stormfront.org, who despite the physical and intellectual benefits of their Aryan blood must face the indignity of aging like the rest of us mugs, and may as well do so with a salutary dose of bogus Schopenhauer.

Because of the speed and abandon with which the Internet disseminates error, tracking the source of an online misattribution is usually a difficult business. It’s often the case in these situations that the true source of the quotation is unknown, and so it randomly attaches itself to some name-brand figure whose saying or writing such a thing seems vaguely plausible. This is how Edmund Burke winds up getting credited with the very nifty—though only superficially Burkean—“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (In this Fox Nation think-piece on Obama’s unchallenged ascent to imperial despotism, Judge Andrew Napolitano leads with the quotation, Foxing it up a notch by replacing “good men” with “good folks.”) And it also seems to be how Burke’s virulently quotable compatriot W.B. Yeats has come into posthumous possession of this similarly catchy assertion: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” (Being Irish myself, I know a Yeats line when I see one, and this feels deeply un-Yeatsian to me. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t turn up in any of his actual published work, it would probably be more comfortably housed within the quotational estate of an Oscar Wilde, or an H.L. Mencken. Yeats was a lot of things, but he wasn’t much of a wisecracker.)