Eleanor Roosevelt: “It’s Better to Light a Candle than to Curse the Darkness.” Quote or No Quote?

I try, every day, to live up to my name — Professor Buzzkill. Some days are easier than others, and this is certainly one of those. People often take the quotation “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” not only as comforting advice on how to get through tough times, but also wise words coming from a wholly admirable person, Eleanor Roosevelt. Today, I’m going to buzzkill this very popular and touching quote.

As you know, while she was First Lady during the presidency of her husband, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt worked for civil rights publically, as well as behind the scenes and in the corridors of power. She was one of the few who championed fair distribution of benefits from the New Deal to all Americans, no matter their race or racial background. Mrs. Roosevelt also campaigned against prejudice and bigotry toward Japanese-Americans during World War II (for which she received a great deal of public backlash and hatred). She continued to work and speak on behalf of civil rights causes in the post-war years, right up to her death in 1962.

So there are very few people who embodied the moral action of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness than Eleanor Roosevelt. And that’s why Adlai Stevenson famously eulogized her with the statement, “she would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.” But as so often happens, Buzzkillers, a quote about a famous person gets attributed as a quote from that person. And there’s no evidence that Eleanor Roosevelt ever said it, nor that it originated with her.

Like the “arc of the moral universe bends towards justice” quote, which is mis-attributed to Martin Luther King, “better to light a candle…” was first said by a 19th century minister. William L. Watkinson, a Methodist minister from England, said it in a sermon entitled, “The Invincible Strategy”:

“Evil is not overcome by _denunciation_. It is surprising how much efficacy is supposed to go with denunciation. Real, constructive, aggressive good is of far greater significance than eloquent invective; such invective has its place, but it must be accompanied by active practical effort…”

Watkinson then quoted the famous English essayist, Thomas Carlyle, who complained in a review that another essayist was wasting his talents writing forgettable political doggerel. “We could truly wish to see such a mind as his engage rather in considering what, in his own sphere, could be _done_, than what, in his own or other spheres, ought to be _destroyed_; rather in producing or preserving the True, rather than mangling and slashing asunder the False.”

Watkinson then went on to summarize Carlyle’s ideas (as well as the human temptation to spend time buzzkilling) this way:

“But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than curse the darkness.”

William Lonsdale Watkinson, The Supreme Conquest: and other Sermons Preached in America (1907), pp. 217-218.

The exact date and place of the sermon are unknown, but it was published in 1907. Reprinted in a religious periodical entitled “China’s Millions” in the same year, Watkinson’s “The Invincible Strategy” sermon was used by Christian missionaries in China in the early decades of the 20th century. This may be one of the reasons why the “light a candle” sentiment is sometimes called an ancient Chinese proverb or attributed to Confucius. But, like the Eleanor Roosevelt misattribution, there’s no evidence that it comes from China or a Chinese philosopher.

The real author of this quote is, indeed, William Watkinson in 1907, taking his cue from Thomas Carlyle in the 1830s. Still, Buzzkillers, if you’re reading between the lines (so to speak) while listening to this episode, I’m sure you can tell that I’m really an old softie when it comes to Eleanor Roosevelt and what she stood for. And I think it’s not the worst Buzzkilling sin to attribute this quote to that great American. So light a candle, Buzzkillers, and put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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