To Whom Much Is Given Much Is Expected Essays

The tangled history of a mangled maxim

A couple of days ago, I noted a noble but unparsable sentiment in President Bush's State of the Union speech ("Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required"), and I reprinted some discussion with Barbara Partee and Geoff Pullum about an earlier and similarly mistaken reproduction of Luke 12:48 as one of two "simple values" listed by the Gates Foundation ("To whom much has been given, much is expected"). Jan Freeman referred me by email to her comments on an equally incoherent 1997 version by JFK Jr. ("To whom much is given, much is expected, right?")

This made me curious about the social and linguistic history of the many versions of this quotation.

Let's work backwards from the summer of 1997. John F. Kennedy Jr., then the publisher of George magazine, published an editorial with a personal sting in the tail:

"Two members of my family chased an idealised alternative to their life. One [Rep. Joe Kennedy] left behind an embittered wife, and another [Michael Kennedy], in what looked to be a hedge against mortality, fell in love with youth and surrendered his judgment in the process. Both became poster boys for bad behaviour. Perhaps they deserved it. Perhaps they should have known better. To whom much is given, much is expected, right?" [emphasis added here and throughout]

The family criticism caused an enormous fuss. Nadine Brozan ( "Chronicle", NYT 8/12/1997) picked up some juicy backbiting, including a nice variation on the "Ask not..." trope:

JOHN F. KENNEDY JR. has broken the Kennedy family tradition of solidarity no matter what, by openly criticizing two of his cousins, Representative JOSEPH P. KENNEDY 2D and his brother MICHAEL KENNEDY, in the September issue of George, the political magazine that he edits. Yesterday, Representative Kennedy struck back.

''I guess my first reaction was 'Ask not what you can do for your cousin but what you can do for his magazine,' '' Representative Kennedy said in Chelsea, Mass., according to The Associated Press.

And MoDo impersonated John-John to pieces, in her all-too-imitable fashion (Maureen Dowd, "Letter from the Hunk", NYT 8/13/1997). But as far as I can tell, it was only Jan Freeman who pointed out that his envoi was ungrammatical ("Hunk flunks a writing assignment", Boston Globe, 8/17/1997).

... a couple of particular blunders emerge from the haze with hideous clarity.

First, there's the Quayle-like mangling of a familiar quotation: "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?" asks JFK Jr. Aiming higher than Quayle did, John-John is misquoting Jesus; but you don't have to know the New Testament, or be a pedant, to notice that something is wrong here. "To whom much is given, from him much is expected" is the least this sentence needs to stand on its own.

(The Bible does it better, of course: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," reads Luke 12:48 in the King James Version.)

William Safire was among the missing, instead (8/17/1997) taking "responsibility for the first [grammatical] mistake made by an earthling on an extraterrestrial body" ["1969 AD" instead of "AD 1969" on the Apollo 11 plaque], and telling us (9/3/1997) that the word paparazzi "perhaps meaning 'waste paper,' was formed from Signore Paparazzo, a sidewalk photographer in Federico Fellini's 1960 'La Dolce Vita'".

What Bill might have pointed out -- as Jan did -- is that the expression of this sentiment in English needs two pairs of verbs and prepositions. However you decide to connect everything up, somewhere in there you need to tell us that much isexpected frompeople, when much is given tothem.

Now, you can tell us instead that much is expected of them, or that much shall verily be required from them, or that much has been given unto them. But you wouldn't want to leave out the preposition connecting expector require with those from whom things are expected or required, and tell us (as President Bush in effect did) that much is required people when much is given to them; or (as the Gates Foundation in effect does) that much is expected people when much has been given to them; or (as JFK Jr. in effect did) that much is expected people when much is given to them.

None of the (ghost-) writers of the mangled maxims would have been fooled for an instant by those straightforward versions. So why did they compose and accept the equally faulty (if more biblically resonant) versions that they used? There are some speculations in my earlier post, but frankly, I don't know.

However, one possibility is that they didn't compose the mangled versions at all, but just accepted them from another source. And a possible source is suggested by a news story from 1994, where a similarly-mangled version of Luke was attributed to Ethel Kennedy, via Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Bob Morris, "The Night; When the Stars Come Out", NYT, 5/29/1994):

There was even Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who received the Cool Water Environmental Achievement Award and invoked Saint Paul's admonition, as taught to him by his mother, Ethel Kennedy, who was at his table. "To whom much is given, much is expected," he said in support of actors getting into politics, Ronald Reagan notwithstanding.

And the blame for (a differently mangled version of) the quote was assigned to Rose Kennedy, in a (2005?) story about Christopher Kennedy Lawford by Ronald Sklar:

The family matriarch, Rose Kennedy, had once said, “To those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Cherchez la mom. Or maybe not -- President John F. Kennedy used a coherent version of the quote in a speech in 1961: "Of those to whom much is given, much is required". Then again, he had Pierre Salinger to check his speeches.

[By the way, on July 20, 1999, on the occasional of JFK Jr.'s death, Senator Tom Daschle attributed yet another different mangling of this quote to President Kennedy (according to the Congressional Record):

I do know that John F. Kennedy, Jr. believed deeply in public service. He believed what his father had said: "to those whom much is given, much is required.''

This corresponds to saying "much is required to those whom much is given", which I doubt that Senator Daschle would have approved.]

So it's clear that this quote has circulated actively through at least three generations of Kennedys, perhaps in both coherent and incoherent forms. We can't tell whether Ethel and Rose actually used the confused versions, or whether they've been betrayed by the faulty memory of their offspring, more recent politicians, and/or the fourth estate.

But even if Rose Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy inculcated an incoherent version of this quotation -- which I doubt, though I have no evidence either way -- they were surely not its (only) originators.

Back in 1986, the version used by President Bush was printed in a quote from a non-Kennedy (Chrystal Nix, "The Shuttle Inquiry: National Mourning Continues; New York Honors the Challenger's 7", 2/3/1986):

Comdr. Hugh Wolcott of the Navy, who knew Commander Smith for 23 years, said: ''Great challenges require great risks. Great advances must almost unavoidably spring from setbacks.

''Mike knew this and lived quietly with it each day. He knew that to whom much is given, much is required.''

And similarly in 1984 (Joyce Purnick, "Alvarado violated ethics rules, City Investigation Dept. charges", 3/23/1984):

The Commissioner, in remarks he made before taking questions, also invoked the Bible. ''As the Scriptures tell us, 'To whom much is given much is expected.' The Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education is one to whom much is given, as are others in high public office,'' he said, in a crowded room at 130 John Street.

As usual, we don't know whether this is what Wolcott and the Commissioner actually said, or whether it's just what the reporter misquoted them as saying -- I reckon the chances are about even either way -- but in any case, it's starting to look like variably-mangled versions of this maxim spring up spontaneously all over the place.

A look at the ProQuest American Periodicals Series database confirms that this has been happening for almost 200 years. The APS has 315 hits for "whom much is given". I only had to look at four of these, working backwards from 1915, to find a botched version (The Rev. William Barnes Lower, "The Suburban Church Problem", New York Observer and Chronicle, Mar. 2, 1911):

The wealthy, naturally, take life easy, hence take religion easy. They follow the line of least resistance in religious matters. Said a banker to me but a short time ago, when I inquired as to his absence from church: "I have nothing against the church; my only excuse is, I am following the line of least resistance." The wealthy Christian so often forgets the oft-repeated words of the Master, "To whom much is given, much shall be required."

The Rev. Lower repeats this version tirelessly, for example "Bible Study for School and Home', New York Observer and Chronicle, Aug. 11, 1910:

Greatness is to be measured by service. Florence Nightingale moved other women most when she herself went to minister on battlefields. To whom much is given much shall be required. The greater men are in intellect and culture the more imperative it is that they become helpers.

And "The Sin of Nadab and Abihu", New York Observer and Chronicle, Aug. 1, 1907:

The higher the position you occupy the more grievous is the sin and more extensive will be the mischief wrought by it. [...] To whom much is given much shall be required.

Several other incoherent variants are found in even earlier articles by other authors, for example "To whom much is given, much will be required"; and "Unto whom much is given, much will be required". The last one can be found in an article by JC Brigham, "Mr. Brigham's Report Respecting the Religious State of Spanish America", The Missionary Herald, Nov. 1826.

And the LION database turns up George Henry Boker's The Lesson of Life, 1848:

517 "But woe to you who love the gilded cage,
518 Who pander basely to the present hour,
519 Who build not on that firm foundation, Truth!
[...]
526 Who seek, with untaught power of mighty verse,
527 To lure their weaker brothers far astray;
528 Or praise their blinded errings. Each one knows,
529 Within his heart, himself a hypocrite;
530 Sees the sad tears the ravished muses shed
531 O'er their undoing; hears a potent voice
532 Thunder within his hollow soul---"Thou Traitor!
533 Unto whom much is given, much is required."
534 How back in horror draws the shuddering mind
535 When pondering the fate of erring genius!

It's also worth noting that the coherent versions are extremely diverse. A few relatively recent ones from the APS:

Henry Sloane Coffin, "Present-Day Life as as Live Preachers See it", New York Observer and Chronicle, May 26, 1910:

... while God's Christlike purpose omits no one, it is His method to use one individual to reach others, and one nation to fulfill His world'plan. He admits Abraham to His friendship that He may make him a blessing to many, the first of a nation of friends, He endows Israel with special religious instincts that it may be His servant people in spreading faith, Greece with esthetic faculties htat it may be His minister of beauty, Nineteenth Century Germny with the philosophic spirit that it may lead the world into larger thought; Nineteenth Century America with fuller freedom that it may be a refuge for the oppressed and afford richer life to millions from Europe. God's gifts are never meant to be monopolized by their recipients, nor His choices to be considered as privileges to be selfishly enjoyed. To whom much is given of him shall much be required.

"Thanksgiving, 1914", The Youth's Companion, Nov. 26, 1914.

We have a warrant, it seems, to be thankful that this year we are the most fortunate people in the world, the least endangered, the least distressed.

And that position implies a very serious responsibility. To whom much is given, from them much shall be required.

Miss Lillian Johnson, "The Broken Things in Life", Herald of Gospel Liberty, Apr. 29, 1915:

Our natures are different. To some their moral carerr weems almost an even tenor of goodness; its fair Elysian fields are never stained with the blood of battle; its quiet peace is hardly broken by the noise of tumult or rebellion. Such even-tempered natures have the more energy to spare for positive virtue -- for he to whom much is given, of him is much required.

I read 25 of the 315 examples, about half from the beginning and half from the end of the time period covered by the archive. There were 5 incoherent versions:

To whom much is given, much shall be required. (3)
To whom much is given, much will be required.
Unto whom much is given, much will be required.

20 versions were coherent, at least in the sense that each verb has the preposition it needs:

To whom much is given, of him much will be exacted.
To whom much is given, of him much will be required.
To whom much is given, of him much is required.
To whom much is given, of him indeed much is required.
To whom much is given, of him shall much be required. (4)
To whom much is given, of them much is required.
To whom much is given, of them much will be required.
To whom much is given, from him much will be required.
To whom much is given, from them much shall be required.
Unto whom much is given, from him shall much be required.
Unto whom much is given, of them there will be much required.
From him to whom much is given, much is due.
From him to whom much is given, much will be expected.
Of him to whom much is given, much will be required.
Of them, to whom much is given, much shall be required.
Of those, to whom much is given, much will be required.
He to whom much is given, of him is much required.

Exercise for the reader: construct a simple automaton for generating the rest of the set implied by this sample (ignoring interpolated verily and so forth). What is the size of the implicit set of variants?

If you want to spread the net a bit wider, a search for "to whom much has been given" returned 46 hits, equally diverse and in many cases, equally tangled (though parsable), for example:

Much is required from those to whom much has been given.
We Presbyterians are of those servants of God to whom much has been given -- numbers, social standing, intelligence, means and money. Of such much is required.
Much will yet be demanded from those to whom much has been given.
Mrs. Gurley is one of those to whom much has been given and from whom much is received.
...to whom much has been given, of him also will be much required...
To whom much has been given, from him much is rightfully expected.

Some of this variation comes from variation in bible translations, but much of it seems to come from creative memory or intentional rephrasing.

The sentiment has played an important role, over the past 200 years, in the development of a sense of social consience among American elites.

For comparison, here are some of the versions of Luke 12:48 from various bible translations:

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded
From everyone who has been given much, much will be required
To each man to whom much is given, much shall be asked of him
To every one to whom much was given, much shall be required from him
To whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required
To whomsoever much has been given, from him much will be required
Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required
Everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required
Everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required
When someone has been given much, much will be required in return
Much is required from those to whom much is given
If God has been generous with you, he will expect you to serve him well
Great gifts mean great responsibilities

Any way you say it, it's true. Well, at least it ought to be.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 26, 2007 08:24 AM

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The Hong Memorial Essay Prize is an award of $100 to the best submitted academic paper. It was establish to honor the memory of the Kierkegaard scholar and translator Professor Howard V. Hong.

 

Howard Hong died on March 16, 2010. He was 97. We lost his helpmate and collaborator Edna Hong in 2007. It was Howard and Edna Hong who made the complete published works of Kierkegaard accessible to the English-speaking world with their translation of twenty-six volumes of Kierkegaard’s Writings, (Princeton University Press). Their gifts to all of us with a passion for Kierkegaard were multitudinous. In addition to their superb translations, the Hongs donated the thousands of volumes that comprise the core of the Hong Kierkegaard Library. Less obvious, though equally significant, were the countless acts of kindness that the Hongs performed to help support individual researchers and initiatives (like The Reed), and ultimately to build a community of scholars. They accomplished all this while raising a large family and while Howard Hong was teaching a full range of large courses at St. Olaf. It is, of course, said that to those whom much is given, much is expected. The Hongs were always mindful of this. Their lives were an open palm. But there was nothing that pleased these elite scholars more than to see an ardent interest in Kierkegaard and the question of what it means to be a human being taking root in undergraduates. For that reason, this journal gave them special glee. In the spring, they were always eager to receive their copies of The Reed and to glimpse what was on the minds and hearts of young people newly swept up in the Existentialist tradition.

 

-In Memorial of Howard Hong,  The Reed 2011
Dr. Gordon Marino

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