Today’s post is about a popular quote that is often misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Read on to discover who really wrote it and who is spreading this misinformation.
The Misattributed Quote
✘“There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.”
Leonardo da Vinci
The Correct Quote Variations
Because this quote was originally written in Italian in the 16th century, it has been translated into English many times by many different translators resulting in many variations. I am listing five variations below, but this is not a comprehensive list.
✓“There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others.”
The Prince, Chapter XXII, page 181 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1908)
Translated by W. K. Marriott
✓“There are three different kinds of brains, the one understands things unassisted, the other understands things when shown by others, the third understands neither alone nor with the explanations of others.”
The Prince, Chapter XXII, page 92 (London: Grant Richards, 1903)
Translated by Luigi Ricci
✓“There are three scales of intelligence, one which understands by itself, a second which understands what is shown it by others, and a third which understands neither by itself nor on the showing of others.”
The Prince, Chapter XXII, page 172 (London: Oxford University Press, 1913)
Translated by Ninian Hill Thomson
✓“In the capacities of mankind there are three degrees: one man understands things by means of his own natural endowments; another understands things when they are explained to him; and a third can neither understand them of himself, nor when they are explained by others.”
The Prince, Chapter XXII, page 477 (London: George Bell & Sons, 1909)
Translated by unknown
✓“There are three kinds of mind: the first grasps things unaided; the second when they are explained; the third never understands at all.”
The Prince, Chapter XXII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)
Translated by Russell Price
I cannot provide an image due to copyright restrictions; however, the book can be found on Amazon.com.
After surveying 110 websites featuring today’s misquote, I found the following trends.
Percentage Type of Website
31% Quotes only
26% Social media
15% Corporation/corporate individual
4% Quotes a major feature
4% Quotes paraphernalia for purchase
3% Topical group or discussion forum
1% Online app or service
Quote Websites Are the Main Source of Today’s Misquote
The above statistics show that websites with the sole purpose of providing quotes are the largest group propagating today’s misquote. If we combine them (31%) with the websites that provide quotes as a major part of their functionality (4%), we find that 35 percent of the websites perpetuating this misinformation are major quote repositories. Once again, we see that quote websites are not reliable sources for quotes. The vast majority of them feature data that is not fact-checked. Consequently, they are a key contributor to the spread of misquotes throughout cyberspace and modern literature. Avoid them at all costs.
Social Media Is Another Source of Today’s Misquote
The above statistics also indicate that social media websites play a major role in the proliferation of today’s misquote. The user interactions that occur on social media create an environment that is conducive to the rapid spread of misinformation. Much like a virus, when one person posts an infected quote, all of his/her followers get it, and all of their followers get it and so on and so forth. The next thing you know we have a pandemic on our hands. And when that happens, untruths become “facts” which ultimately make their way into our culture and academia. My 12/31/15 post “No, Clara Barton did not write that” is an example of this.
Possible Cause of Today’s Misquote
There is another variation of today’s quote found in the novel The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci (1902) by Dimitri Merejkowski. Below is the quote found in Book XII, chapter IV on page 328. Note the verb “see” is used, similar to the misquote.
Here is the title page:
The pink highlight on the quoted page indicates that Merejkowski clearly wrote that it is Machiavelli who says the quote. The question is how did Machiavelli get replaced by da Vinci in the misquote? My guess is that somewhere in time some quote hunter found the quote in this book which has Leonardo da Vinci in the title and assumed he said it instead of Machiavelli and then posted it on the internet. Of course, this is pure speculation, and I could very well be wrong. But the use of the verb “see” only occurs in this book and the misquote, so I tend to think there is a correlation.
Translated Quotes Are Not Reliable
Today’s misquote demonstrates perfectly why I do not like to use translated quotes. The wording can vary so widely across different translations that sometimes the entire meaning is changed. Fortunately, even though there are many wording variations for Machiavelli’s quote, the meaning does not change that much with each version. However, this is not always the case. My 06/07/14 post “No, that’s not how Benjamin Franklin wrote it” highlights a Latin quote that has a variety of English translations, each with a completely different meaning. I prefer to avoid this loss in translation by simply not using translations.
Quote Books Often Feature Misquotes
Today’s misquote appears in at least 27 contemporary books. All were published in the 2000s, and three of them are quote books. One of the quote books is specifically Leonardo da Vinci quotes only. Unfortunately, it features today’s misquote AND the da Vinci misquote I wrote about in my 11/30/15 post “No, Leonardo da Vinci did not write that.” Like the vast majority of quote books on the market right now, this book does not include detailed source information with each quote. As I’ve written before, never trust a book (or website) that does not include information such as the name of the work in which the quote is found along with applicable data like chapter, act, scene, line, stanza, etc. If you cannot verify the quote with the data provided, it is not reliable.
Most Amusing Finds
During my research, I came across two informational websites that are specifically about Leonardo da Vinci and Leonardo da Vinci only, and they both feature today’s misquote. . . Well, there goes all credibility. [queue sad wah-wah-wah-waaaah trombone]
I also came across an article about Leonardo da Vinci on storify.com. The author writes that the misquote “can be interpreted and applied to the Mona Lisa.” Boy, talk about reaching. [smile, chuckle, wink]
Most Disappointing Find
Sadly, I discovered today’s misquote on the University of St. Andrews, Scotland website. I’m always disappointed to see the quote virus infecting educational institutions.
As usual, our misquote is available for purchase. That’s right! For just $24.65 you can have your own misquote mouse pad. (Wow, trying saying that three times really fast.) If you’re more of a fashionista, $29.95 will get you a beautiful misquote sweatshirt so you can proudly display something da Vinci never said, preferably to “those who do not see.” [Tee hee!] Yes . . . that is a feeble attempt at geeky quote humor.
Let’s Kill the Quote Virus Together
I haven’t come up with a vaccine for the quote virus yet, so for now our only weapon is education. You, dear reader, can help by sharing the knowledge. Forward this post to friends and family, and if you’re on Facebook, “like” my Facebook fan page. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me @SueBrewton.
Until next time,
“Be the antidote and don’t misquote.”