Ah, Buzzkillers, good old Oscar Wilde, the author of so many excellent plays, novels, and poems. Dripping with epigrams, Oscar entertained literary circles in London, Paris and Dublin with his wit, often pairing philosophical and comical themes to excellent effect. Some examples include:
It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.
(The Portrait of Mr. W. H., 1889, p. 5.)
Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
(“The Relation of Dress to Art,” The Pall Mall Gazette, February 28, 1885.)
Prayer must never be answered: if it is, it ceases to be prayer and becomes correspondence.
(Quoted by Alvin Redman in The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, 1952.)
Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.
(The Critic as Artist, Part I, p. 49, 1891.)
There are dozens of these legitimate Oscar-isms, but there’s no evidence that he ever said “Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Taken.” Indeed, Wilde dropped epigrams about personal identity into the dialog of some of his novels and plays, as well as referring to it (often obliquely) in essays. For the most part, he discussed this in terms of “being natural” and the tendency for people to wear masks to conceal the way they really are.
In De Profundis, often thought of as his greatest work, Wilde said:
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
(De Profundis, 1905, p. 63.)
Wilde had expressed it more succinctly in 1890, when he wrote:
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
(“The True Function and Value of Criticism; With Some Remarks On the Importance of Doing Nothing: A Dialogue,” The Nineteenth Century, The Nineteenth Century (A Monthly Review), Volume 28, p. 447)
As you know, Oscar Wilde is one of history’s greatest quote magnets, and something as profound and witty as “Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Taken” was almost bound to be attached to him eventually.
But if Oscar didn’t say it who did? The history of this quotation is complicated, Buzzkillers, and no one person is solely responsible for it. We’re fortunate, though, because this quote gives us an opportunity to talk about one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers, Thomas Merton.
A Trappist monk who became one of the most widely-read theologians of modern times, Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915, lived more or less all over the world, and entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941. The Trappists at Gethsemani lived (and live) a very basic spiritual life, in sparse conditions. To say the very least, life at their abbey provides a great deal of time for self-reflection, silence, and contemplation. I wouldn’t last a minute.
But Thomas Merton did, and while there he wrote deeply and extensively on spiritual matters, on improving interfaith understanding, social justice and pacifism. His work has been extremely influential for over fifty years. In a 1967 essay entitled “Day of a Stranger,” Merton wrote:
In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.
(“Day of a Stranger,” The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, 1967, p. 211.)
Although the internet-driven “be yourself; everyone else is taken” quotation is usually thought of a humorous and witty way to encourage positive self-worth, Merton’s quote stresses warnings about the effects of concentrating excessively on one’s self. And, of course, by saying “I reserve the right to forget about being myself,” Merton argued that we should think beyond “being yourself.” A great many of his other writings deal with this conflict in human understanding and behavior — how to be yourself but not be obsessed with being yourself, and they make for very reflective reading
Merton’s work has appeared in many places, and as the internet geared up in the early days of Usenet groups and the advent of email, “I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself” seems to have been dropped. Electronic repetition and whittling down of Merton’s statement has turned, “in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else” into “everyone else is taken” and we’ve ended up with the self-affirming but perhaps overly shallow, “be yourself; everyone else is taken” that you see reproduced in people’s email signatures, on coffee cups, and on t-shirts.
Unfortunately, Buzzkillers, twas ever thus. Interesting ideas (and even epigrams) get pared down and over-simplified. But go out and read some Oscar Wilde and some Thomas Merton, and think about the ideas they were really trying to convey.