Thursday, November 25, 2010

Don't believe everything you read on the web - except for this post

Recently, I began writing an essay on the subject of immortality. Along the way from draft one to draft two, an interesting tangent announced itself willing to be sacrificed. Not wishing it to be lost forever, I am placing it here, though a little context is required.

Part of my argument on the subject of immortality is that while the ability to live physically for eternity may be impossible (I discuss reincarnation as a form of immortality; rather than a single uninterrupted, unending life, perhaps a series of discrete existences could also qualify), a person's life in memory - his words, deeds, and impact on his family, community, nation, and the world - can live on long after that physical life is quenched. Not surprisingly, I used Abraham Lincoln as an example.

To bolster my case, I looked up a number of Lincoln quotes I knew that I felt were pertinent. I also, as you'll read below, did a general Google search for "Lincoln" and "immortality" to see what I might find. As it turned out, I discovered just how unreliable Web searches could be. To wit:


The democratization of the gathering and dissemination of information, which is the ultimate outgrowth of the World Wide Web, often results in greater access but lesser accuracy. For example, there are many sites on the web that exist specifically as compendiums of quotes on a range of subjects. Speakers, writers, and owners of other web pages often scour these sites for appropriate pearls of wisdom, but there many quotes that are incorrectly sourced and misattributed – fake pearls, if you will. There is a tendency, however, to believe that something that has been published online must be accurate, but in fact there is no central standards body that is charged with ensuring that anything on the web is true.

Because it is so easy to copy, paste, and spread misinformation on the web, there are those who may be gaining a false immortality, or who may be getting credit for something they never said or did. Lincoln, again, provides an example. For this essay, I Googled “Lincoln” and “immortality.” I found thousands of results featuring the following quote, attributed to him:

“Surely God would not have created such a being as man … to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.”

In most instances, there was no attribution as to the specific date, letter, or speech in which this quote first appeared. That made me suspicious because Lincoln’s words have been so painstakingly documented by generations of historians. The only attribution I could find was that it was part of the text that Lincoln’s animatronic double spoke in the old Walt Disney World exhibit, “The Hall of Presidents.” While many of Lincoln’s lines are authentic (the full original script has been transcribed at, the particular quote in question, which dramatically concludes the presentation, doesn’t “feel” like Lincoln, and the knowledge that Disney was involved further casts doubt on its accuracy.

Finally, I consulted the acknowledged official source of Lincoln’s words, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (a searchable online version of which appears at I searched the word “immortality” and only two results were delivered (italics mine):

Eulogy of Henry Clay, July 6, 1852: “And in our last internal discord, when this Union trembled to its center—in old age, he left the shades of private life and gave the death blow to fraternal strife, with the vigor of his earlier years in a series of Senatorial efforts, which in themselves would bring immortality, by challenging comparison with the efforts of any statesman in any age.”

Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, February 11, 1859: “As Plato had for the immortality of the soul, so Young America has ‘a pleasing hope—a fond desire—a longing after’ territory.”

This leads me to conclude that Lincoln himself, the Lincoln who actually lived as opposed to the robotic tourist attraction that may in our world be the ultimate price of immortality, never did say – and probably didn’t believe – that “man was created for immortality,” even though the consensus of the online world is that he did.


Given what I discovered, I would caution anyone doing a web search for quotes to be very careful and check offline sources for confirmation that the quote is accurately stated and attributed.

1 comment:

Tom Storer said...

"I would caution anyone doing a web search for quotes to be very careful and check offline sources for confirmation that the quote is accurately stated and attributed."

- Abraham Lincoln