What Did Felix Really Say?

Recently, someone asked me about the “correct” version of the quote from Felix Adler about “eliciting the best” or “bringing out the best.” Here is an edited version of my response, based on quick research:

He said it several different ways. Here are two I can document as actually being from him:

The title of a chapter in An Ethical Philosophy of Life is his most common way of wording it, and might be considered canonical: Act So As To Elicit the Best In Others and Thereby In Thy Self. In that essay, you’ll also find his attempts to explain what “the best” meant to him.

From a 1926 article on moral education, “Personality: How to Develop It In the Family, The School, and Society,” he worded it this way: “Seek to elicit the best in others, and you will thereby challenge and bring to light the hidden best in yourself.”

We have tended to paraphrase. “Yourself” instead of “Thy Self” is quite common, or “bring out” instead of “elicit” or “work to” instead of “act so as to.” Mostly that’s an impulse to bring it up to date and keep it from sounding so Victorian or stilted. (I think of my grandfather’s phrase about not using “ten dollar words.”) Personally, I like “elicit.” “Thy self,” not so much.

We don’t use the “Seek” version much and it’s longer but I actually like it better — and he wrote that one for a wider audience (moral educators) and much later in his life, when, like
stones in water, the rough edges may have been worn smooth through experience of what communicated best the idea that he wanted to be understood.

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