or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 12/2/12

   December 8th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Plato Statue, Athens Academy, Athens, GreeceIf this question were a tweet, the hashtags could be #bestguess or #thisiswhycitationsareimportant.

A patron walked up to the desk and asked if I could help find the source of a quote. She slid me a small piece of paper with this written on it:

The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men.


My favorite quote resource is Bartlett's (I still like print resources - sue me) but it wasn't in there - not under government, punishment, wise, or Plato. I checked a few other large quote dictionaries we had on the shelf, but still no luck.

So I turn to the internet, and am able to find the quote mentioned in plenty of places - but they just attribute it to Plato, without citing where in Plato's work this quote appears.

Until I find the quote on PoemHunter.com, which gives a citation of

Plato (428-347 B.C.), Greek philosopher. Quoted in Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Eloquence," Society and Solitude (1870).

Emerson's Eloquence wasn't hard to find - one place is in the Google Books copy of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Society and solitude. I scrolled in to where Eloquence started and then skimmed until I found:

And the footnote is:

From there, I merrily skipped on over to Google Books' The Republic, and did a series of searches for "punishment," "government," "wise," and "suffer" - but didn't find the quote.

From the context, I really couldn't tell if Emerson was directly quoting Plato, or just paraphrasing his sentiments from Republic. Since the search didn't turn up the quote though, I'm leaning towards paraphrasing.

I brought everything over to the patron, and let her know what I found. I offered to get a copy of Republic for her, in case she wanted to read it herself more thoroughly to find the quote, but she declined. She thought the Emerson source was good enough for her need, and was happy.

I have to admit, this is one of my favorite kind of research - where one resource leads to another, and along the way you uncover bits and pieces you wouldn't have expected. You'd think that with having resources like Google Books online, more and more people would be doing this sort of thing. However, I have the feeling that most people stop after the first website or two. Oh well - just more fun for reference librarians.

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