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Did C. S. Lewis Really Say That?

How You Can Help End the Flood of False Quotations

The monetization of social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, has depended largely on visual media, meaning that motivational quotes, once posted as status updates, now get posted as images or even videos. The reason for this is that Facebook intentionally privileges visual media, because it keeps readers engaged for longer times, which ultimately means more ad revenue.

Without the text readily available, few people would re-type it to check if the quote is real. This is taxing work for Christian writers and media editors who want to have an influence on social media, but don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

Fortunately, it has become easier and easier to find original sources, since so many modern books are in digital (i.e. searchable) formats.

I’m going to illustrate my process for checking the original source of quotes, using a C. S. Lewis quote that I found near the top on a simple Google Image search. Vetting a quote usually takes just five to seven minutes, and it can save you a lot of pain if you are publishing a book or article, and don’t want to embarrass yourself by finding out after the fact that one of your quotations was spurious.

If you found an interesting quote or phrase, but you think it might be fake, here’s what you can do to find out for sure:

1. Check for a primary source.

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This image is taken from a slideshow on the Guideposts website called 10 Inspiring C.S. Lewis Quotes. In the case of our featured image, it has a small Guideposts watermark; however, I am pretty sure that C. S. Lewis did not write for Guideposts, so our quote clearly comes without a primary source.

2. Run a simple Google search.

If you are searching for a quote, be sure to put it inside quote marks. For less famous quotations, those quote marks are really important.

The purpose of running a basic web search is to scan for primary sources, and to see if it’s widely attributed to anyone else. So leave out the author’s name and see if Lewis comes up.

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Here it’s most widely attributed to C. S. Lewis, but we can already see someone has listed it as something “C. S. Lewis didn’t say.” They could be wrong, though; C. S. Lewis wrote more than 20 books, some of which are not easy to find, and many of his letters were published after his death. So we will finish our quick search.

3. Search Google Books.

Google Books is a game changer when you’re searching for a quote, because, unlike other sources, it includes even brand new books. Blogs are nice and all, but we want to know what is the earliest published source of this very famous quotation.

4. Sort by date on Google Books.

Google Books allows you to sort by date, which means we can find easily look for the earliest published source there.

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Google’s “sort by date” function can be a little dodgy. For some reason, it only goes in one direction, so if you want to find the earliest source, you’ll have to click the last number. “Sort by date” also filters out results that have no date, which can cause some wonky effects.

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After we click on the last page in our sorted search, we can see the dates of publication. In this search, the second link appears to be an ebook, with no date, so our earliest available source on Google Books is a 2001 book by Gary Onks called Sold on Seniors.

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Now, the fact that the quote dates only to 2001 on Google Books should already clue us in that C. S. Lewis most likely didn’t say this, since he died in 1963. Fifty years is generally a long time for a quote to suddenly resurrect and become popular. Click on the book’s title for the details, and you’ll see the quotation in Google Books’ “Snippet View”:

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Bingo. In 2001, it was attributed to Les Brown, and afterwards, it somehow became misattributed to C. S. Lewis.

This simple process on Google Books is the quickest way to check who first originated a pithy saying. (And Google’s Ngram Viewer is also a great way to check on the origin of an idiom or phrase.)

Tip: If you’re still stuck on Google Books, and web searches, try shortening to only include half the quote. It only takes a few words to pinpoint a unique saying.

Now that I’ve shown you how I check a quote, here is an overall rating of Guideposts’ 10 Inspiring C.S. Lewis Quotes:

1. You are never too old to set another goal, or to dream a new dream.

✖ NOT C. S. LEWIS (0.0 / 1.0)

As seen from our detailed search, this quote actually originates from Les Brown, a motivational speaker. (Further research has shown that it was first printed in one of his books in 1998.)

2. Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good.

✖ NOT C. S. LEWIS (0.0 / 1.0)

A search on Google Books uncovers only four sources, starting in 2009. Incidentally, I remembered that Oswald Chambers had used the phrase “highest good”; this turns out to be the title of one of his books. Chambers says that “the highest good” is a phrase or concept that he adapted from Aristotle; and, whoever originated the above quote, may have adapted or paraphrased the quotation from Chambers’ book.

3. There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.

✖ PARAPHRASED (0.5 / 1.0)

Fortunately, William O’Flaherty has done the legwork for us on this one, and he tells us the original quote, with context, is:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.

O’Flaherty points out that Lewis’ meaning suffers by being divorced, not only from its literal context, but from its historical context:

[These words] are found in a letter Lewis wrote to Mary Willis Shelburne on June 17, 1963. It’s available in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3.
Ironically, Lewis would die less than five months later. This is ironic because his words are part of comments expressed to Shelburne to comfort her as she was in the hospital and it was thought that her days were numbered. She actually went on to live twelve more years!
When you read the actual letter Lewis penned to Shelburne you find that early on he is challenging her about being fearful of dying by saying, “Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer?” At the close of the same paragraph he states “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

4. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose.

✅ AUTHENTIC—BUT OUT OF CONTEXT! (0.5 / 1.0)

This one is quite odd, because in context, Lewis is actually paraphrasing Augustine, but goes on to say that he disagrees with him! To Lewis’ mind, Augustine is advocating a kind of “emotional safety” after the death of his friend Nebridius. But Lewis believes that God emphatically directs us away from such safety by commanding us to love. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” he writes.

(You can read the full passage here.)

5. Hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny.

✖NOT C S LEWIS (0.0 / 1.0)

This quote actually from the 2010 film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so it did not originate with Lewis himself. Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni were the screenwriters.

6. Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

✖ PARAPHRASED (0.5 / 1.0)

The order of this quote was inverted from The Four Loves, in the chapter on “Friendship”:

The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” . . . It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision—it is then that Friendship is born.

7. We meet no ordinary people in our lives.

✖ PARAPHRASED (0.5 / 1.0)

If you look for this exact quote, you will not find C. S. Lewis saying it anywhere. The quote is short enough that there is no sure way of knowing who originated the paraphrase; but the actual quote is from a famous passage in The Weight of Glory—one of Lewis’ most underrated books:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

The full passage is an eloquent statement of the eternity of every human soul, whether saved or damned.

8. You can’t know, you can only believe—or not.

✅ AUTHENTIC (1.0 / 1.0)

This quote is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Some overly theological readers might think that Lewis was advocating a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith”—however, probably, he just wanted to point to young readers that we can move forward without 100% certainty.

9. We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.

✅ AUTHENTIC (1.0 / 1.0)

This comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Letter 4. The quote itself is very similar to ideas found in the theology of George MacDonald, wherein MacDonald directs his readers to draw near to God in all circumstances, and not to endeavor to “clean themselves up” before approaching God in prayer.

10. Believe in God like you believe in the sunrise. Not because you can see it, but because you can see all it touches.

✖ PARAPHRASED (0.5 / 1.0)

This one is really a very odd paraphrase, and a Google search gives only a few inspirational websites and blogs. The actual quote is:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.

The original quote comes from “Is Theology Poetry?”, one of Lewis’ addresses in The Weight of Glory. Lewis himself was paraphrasing a profound analogy used by G. K. Chesterton decades earlier, in the concluding paragraph of “The Maniac,” a famous chapter in Orthodoxy. So Lewis may have originated this pithy saying, but he probably took the analogy—consciously or unconsciously—from Chesterton, who had a profound influence on him.

Here is Chesterton’s analogy, which is couched in a more poetic style:

Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind.  The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. . . . But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur.

Conclusion

The final score was 4.5 out of 10, with several very generous half-points awarded. Overall, this Guideposts slideshow of 10 quotes included only 3 authentic C. S. Lewis quotes, and one of them was so out of context that it was Lewis explaining an argument he didn’t agree with.

Based on this slideshow, chosen at random, it is very discouraging to think that only 30% of the quotes attributed to C. S. Lewis on that slideshow were actually said or written by C. S. Lewis. It just goes to show that there are two ways to get a quote to spread on the Internet:
1. It needs to be a simple, positive message;
2. It needs a name like C. S. Lewis to give it an almost papal authority.

 

 

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