A while ago I was having an online discussion where I used a quote to help illustrate my point. The quote was this:

“I have found the missing link between animal and civilized man: it is us.”

The quote was not the substance of my argument, but it articulated my thoughts more concisely. When the response came a few hours later, I was surprised to read that my argument wasn’t being disputed, but instead disregarded because of the quote’s author, Konrad Lorenz. His biography includes, among many achievements in medicine, association with the Nazis.

A more recent while ago, I was having a discussion with my girlfriend about quotes. She argued that the context of the quote is important and ultimately inseparable from the quote itself; my argument was that this isn’t necessarily always true. More important than the context of a quote is the meaning to be taken from it. There can be a single sentence of hope in a book of despair, and this shouldn’t disqualify its usefulness, even regardless of the author.

Weeks ago I posted on Twitter, “Even the devil can honestly tell you it’s raining.” What I meant is that if something is true, it doesn’t matter who said it. I personally enjoy a good quote, even if I’m unfamiliar with its author. I won’t often read their biography for the simple reason that I don’t need to know each person that provides me spiritual truth. True, knowing the individual may help understand the quote better, but I don’t think it’s crucial in order to understand the meaning. On a bathroom stall I once read that peace is love, love is peace. I don’t know who wrote it, but I believe it — even if the author was the same who revealed elsewhere on the wall that so-and-so was a bimbo.

Without question, there are times when context matters, when one sentence shouldn’t be quoted without the book around it. This is the difference between truth and fact, and in my opinion it is fact that most often requires context. Truth is a more personal matter and people tend to have varying truths that they believe. Fact, however, is more literal and universal, and when quoted without its context, source, or evidence, it can easily be questionable. It is important to understand whether a quote’s substance is truth or fact before relating to it, and often we can make this distinction unconsciously. For example, another quote:

“What luck for the leaders that men don’t think.”

Would this quote have less meaning if you knew its author? Would it have more or less truth if you were told that Gandhi had said it, or Susan Sarandon, or Adolf Hitler? Is it suggesting literally that men do not think, or figuratively that men do not think enough? Most importantly, does it make you question the motives of a leader who prefers unthinking followers?

Another question: Does knowing the author help understand the quote, or does knowing the quote help understand the author? Both are possible, but I believe the latter has more value; our perception of a person changes more when we hear their beliefs, and a belief can exist independently of the person. And it can certainly be extrinsic of their other beliefs, making the identity of the author that much more irrelevant.

Like I said, I enjoy quotes. I am inspired by their simplicity and magnitude. But just like anything, a quote can be misused. They can be a Trojan horse of false information and it is important to identify their intent. This fundamental approach to assessing new information is not limited to quotes. We use our reason to pick out what we agree with and what we don’t, while leaving the body of the information intact. And we do this not to understand the source of the information, but to understand ourselves. And you can quote me on that.

And for the record, Konrad Lorenz was drafted into service and didn’t last long in the army. It’s an interesting biography, actually. I recommend it.