So if it's not Shakespeare, who is it?
June 13, 2020 1:32 PM   Subscribe

"More to be pitied than condemned": Who coined this phrase?

"More to be pitied than condemned"... I'd have sworn it was Shakespeare, but apparently it's not. Collins Dictionary of Quotations doesn't list it and, though a Google search turns up multiple instances, I can't find any indication of its origin. Am I misquoting someone? Does anyone know, please?
posted by MinPin to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
'More to be pitied than censured' was a song by William B. Gray in 1894

'More to be pitied than scorned' was a 1922 silent film.
posted by ananci at 1:37 PM on June 13, 2020

Barnaby Rudge (1841) by Charles Dickens:
‘I am guilty, and yet innocent; wrong, yet right; good in intention, though constrained to shield and aid the bad. Ask me no more questions, sir; but believe that I am rather to be pitied than condemned.’
posted by cyanistes at 1:41 PM on June 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

The Shakespeare quote that this quote likely draws from is King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2, in which Lear describes himself as "a man/More sinn'd against than sinning."
posted by notquitemaryann at 1:42 PM on June 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I found an earlier one - 1808 - by just searching pitied+condemned, which got me to "rather to be pitied, than condemned." It was in something called M. de la Harpe's Eulogium on Racine (that would be Jean Racine, a playwright):

In nine years he produced many pre-eminent works, and they were now succeeded by twelve years of inaction. But it is not Racine who should be reproached, but his implacable enemies. He is rather to be pitied, than condemned. What do I say? It is rather ourselves who are to be pitied. He had done enough for his own glory, and envy stopped the career of that genius whuch was so formed to delight and enchant mankind.

Can anyone find one from before 1808? I'm not convinced it was coined here but it's a definite maybe!
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:49 PM on June 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm as far back as 1789 (low on page 82), but still looking. This quote is all over
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:55 PM on June 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Prince by Niccolò Macchiavelli, translated by Ellis Farneworth (1762):
Kings therefore, surely are rather to be pitied than condemned; but those that flatter them, deserve both the reprehension and detestation of the public, as well as Calumniators, and all others, who are so much the enemies of their Sovereign, as to disguise or conceal the truth from him.
posted by cyanistes at 1:58 PM on June 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

OK I've plugged "pitied" and "condemned" into Google Books and sorted by date.

Earliest I found was 1672, Reliquiæ Wottonianæ: But they who are deceived in their first designs , deserve less to be condemned , as such who ( after sufficient trial ) persist in their wilfulness are no way to be pitied.

Plenty more that don't really fit, then

1741, The Eight Volumes of Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy: In some Places her Misfortunes were pitied, and the Cardinal blamed for persecuting so Great and Good a Queen : In others, the Cardinal was justified ; and her Conduct censured and condemned.

1746, The Museum, or, The literary and historical register: Is not the Condition of a Wretch , who is condemned to lose his Life , much less to be pitied , and less miserable than this ?

But the first one I found that basically fits - and note that this may not be the actual first time in print - is this one:

1748, The Female Spectator Volume 2 [in an essay arguing against male jealousy]: I dare answer that there is not one into whose hands the Female Spectator may fall, that have not some time or other in their lives had an acquaintance with families where it has happened; but following the received maxim, that jealousy is the effect of love, have rather pitied than condemned the extravagancies they may have seen occasioned by it.

So it seems as if the basic construction had existed for centuries before the pithy version that gets quoted (which may still be The Prince)!
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:01 PM on June 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

A general and true history of the lives and actions of the most famous highwaymen, murderers, street-robbers, &c. (1742) by Charles Johnson:
As he [Major Stede Bonnet] was generally esteem'd and honour'd, before he broke out into open Acts of Piracy, so he was afterwards rather pitied than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him; who believ'd that this Humour of going a pirating proceeded from a Disorder in his Mind, which had been but too visible in him, some Time before this wicked Undertaking, and which is said to have been occasion'd by some Discomforts he met with in a married State.
posted by cyanistes at 2:04 PM on June 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Damn, beaten by six years! Man, the mid 1700s were all over this particular turn of phrase, huh?
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:06 PM on June 13, 2020

Here's one from Nov. 12, 1619.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:06 PM on June 13, 2020

Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, in a letter to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (to whom "Venus and Adonis" was dedicated) around 1599, used the construction "rather to be pitied than complained of, as a wise man says".

An old meme, but it checks out!
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:29 PM on June 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

Sir Philip Sidney, "The Defence of Poesy" (written 1580 but published 1595): "rather to be pitied than scorned." He mentions Aristotle in the same paragraph, and some well-known translation of a classical source does seem pretty possible.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:37 PM on June 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

Sir John Fortescue, De Laudibus legum Angliæ (1468–1471) chapter 27: "Indeede I would rather wish twentie euill doers to escape death through pittie, then one man to bee vniustly condempned."

This is generally considered one of the earliest formulations of the idea that it is better that some number of guilty people go free than one innocent person be punished. This was later expanded upon by Coke and Blackstone.
posted by jedicus at 2:44 PM on June 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

I wonder about the possibility of ibn Rushd's commentary on Aristotle's Poetics as a vector but can't use this thread as an excuse to procrastinate further on my packing, as all of my books are already in storage. :(
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:59 PM on June 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I wonder about the possibility of ibn Rushd's commentary on Aristotle's Poetics as a vector

i don’t have the poetics, but from book 3 chapter 5 paragraph 15 of the nicomachean ethics:

for everyone would pity someone, not reproach him, if he were blind by nature or because of a disease or a wound, but would censure him if his heavy drinking or some other form of intemperance made him blind.
posted by inire at 3:47 PM on June 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

The first English translation of the Nicomachean Ethics from 1547 seems pretty divergent: "As a man to bee blind and lame: and these euils maie be in two sortes, y• one is by nature, as he that is borne blind & lame, the other maie come by a mannes owne foly. As by them that drinke theimselfes blynde, or fall to stealyng or other euill dedees. Of suche there is no pety to bee taken excepte thei repente and amende theim selfes."

Incidentally, I also ran across Titus Andronicus, Act III, Scene I as a point where Shakespeare does sort of get into the mix in a juridical context: "Be pitiful to my condemned sons, / Whose souls are not corrupted as 'tis thought."
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:31 PM on June 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

The first English translation of the Nicomachean Ethics from 1547 seems pretty divergent

ooh, interesting - asked a classicist friend about the original greek, will update if he has any thoughts.
posted by inire at 4:59 PM on June 13, 2020


οὐθεὶς γὰρ ἂν ὀνειδίσειε τυφλῷ φύσει ἢ ἐκ νόσου ἢ ἐκ πληγῆς, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον ἐλεήσαι

for no-one would reproach a man blind by nature or due to a disease or from a blow/accident, but rather show pity

ὀνειδίζω = cast in one's teeth, make a reproach to one ἐλεέω = to have pity on, show mercy to

posted by inire at 3:41 AM on June 14, 2020

Thank you so much to everyone who put time and mental energy into this question. It does seem to me that there's no clear origin in English, but the concept dates to Aristotle's Ethics. Evidently, by the late 16th century, it was a proverbial phrase in English ("As a wise man says" remarked Henry Howard). That suggests too that the source was possibly classical. But as to who formulated the pithy translation that became common currency, we're none the wiser.

By the 19th century, it was a phrase in wide use even by those who had no formal classics at all – Dickens knew it and must have expected his readers to recognise it too. And it remains a familiar phrase nearly two centuries later... so familiar that I'd certainly never stopped to wonder where it came from. Ancient Greece, apparently...

I've marked several 'best answers' but everybody's contribution has given me pleasure and food for thought. Thank you.
posted by MinPin at 6:22 AM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

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