Yesterday, I heard a quote on a TV program attibuted to Dr. Hans Selye:  “No wind blows in favor of a ship without direction.”  Dr. Selye (1907-1982) was an endocrinologist.  Endocrinology is a branch of biology that deals with the endocrine system in a general sense and with the body’s hormones more specifically.  Selye, honored by many as “the father of stress,” wrote a series of books on the nature of stress that are considered classics to this day, notably The Stress of Life (1956, 1978) and Stress Without Distress(1974).

I searched and searched on the internet for the primary source of the quote and found only scattered uses of the words, blindly, it seemed, with authorship attributed to Selye but with no citation of where or when he authored them.  Then, I found a variation of the quote with authorship attributed to the writer Michel de Montaigne, who is honored as “the father of the essay.”  The complete essays of Montaigne are required reading in my view.  The  revered essayist did use the quote, and he properly credited the philosopher Seneca as the author.

So, here were modern writers on the internet using the quote and crediting authorship to Selye without evidence of where or when the good doctor “authored” it.  Here was a writer using the quote and crediting authorship to Montaigne, with the classical Montaigne, only, unafraid to credit the first-known author of the quote, Seneca, along with the renowned essayist’s own variation of the quote.  Could it be more obvious that the modern writers had not actually taken the time to search for the first-known quote but had picked it based on a kind of “fast-food” convenience, settled on it and then moved on.

The primary source quote within its original context is:  “The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill.  Our plans miscarry because they have no aim.  When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”  [Seneca, Lucius Annaeus.  Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales: Volume II.  “Epistle LXXI:  On The Supreme Good.”  ca. 4 B.C. – 65 A.D.  Tr. Richard M. Gummere, Ph.D.  1920.  Harvard University Press, 1962.]

When Montaigne used the quote, he varied the wording somewhat, but with integrity, he still credited its true author:  “It is no wonder, says the ancient [Seneca], that chance has so much power over us, since we live by chance. . . . The archer must first know what he is aiming at, and then set his hand, his bow, his string, his arrow, and his movements for that goal.  Our plans go astray because they have no direction and no aim.  No wind works for the man who has no port of destination.”  [Montaigne, Michel de.  The Complete Essays of Montaigne.  “Book II:  1. Of the inconsistency of our actions.”  1572-74.  Tr.  Donald M. Frame.  Stanford University Press, 1957, 1976.]

If Dr. Hans Selye did, in fact, somewhere and at sometime, say:  “No wind blows in favor of a ship without direction,” he was not the author of those words and should not be credited as the author unless also referencing where and when he said it–along with the fact that Seneca was the true author.  It’s no crime for Selye to have used the quote, and it’s no crime to quote Selye instead of Seneca.  The crime is in implicating Selye or Montaigne as the author of Seneca’s words.

The internet is a tool.  Specifically, it’s a roadmap.  If I need to drive a nail into wood, I find a hammer–a tool for driving nails.  If I need to find information, I use the internet–a roadmap to destinations of fact.  On that note, Wikipedia is not a destination of any kind whatsoever.  It’s a guidebook of dates, names, places, events, bibliographies, etc.  A guidebook is a tool that allows you to move even closer to a primary source.

In the above instance, I wanted to drive from my computer to the city of:  “No wind blows in favor of a ship without direction.”  If I was lazy, or a cheat, then I could have stopped at the village of Dr. Hans Selye and decided not to drive any further.  I could just tell people I traveled to the real city of the quote when I didn’t.  Or, I could drive a little further to the town of Montaigne and stop there, telling people that I drove the full distance when I didn’t.  Hmmmm, at least I wouldn’t be all the way lazy!  Half-a-cheat is better than being a full one, right?  If I’m not lazy at all, or a cheat, then I only tell people that I’ve traveled to the primary source of the quote, the city of Seneca, when I actually have traveled there.  The destination, in this case, is the quote as taken from the actual text of the Harvard University translation of Seneca, which happens to be online and free to view.  One just has to look for it.  How difficult is that?

I suspect that there are far fewer cheats than there are lazy writers.  But laziness, as the above example shows, equals being a cheat because it’s simply not true that Selye or Montaigne authored the quote.  Crediting them with the quote is a lie whether through laziness or being stressed out from the careful process of thorough research.

No wind blows in favor of a ship without direction.”  What exactly does it mean to have no direction, to live by chance?  What does it mean to have no favoring wind in your sails?  What does it mean to not know what it is you’re aiming at?  Seeking out primary sources of information clarifies aim and direction.  Settling on what someone else has settled on, probably from someone else who settled on it before, is not a ship with direction and has no favorable wind in its sails.  In fact, it shows that the captain–if a captain at all–is truly lost.

An arrow fired with no aim toward a specific target is actually a dangerous thought.  It can be stated with a similar quote, from an anonymous Japanese proverb, “Vision without action is a daydream.  Action without vision is a nightmare.”  Vision has everything to do with setting your sights on a specific target.  Action has everything to do with the skill, integrity and inner-drive of the archer.  –SB