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What Wikipedia Repeatedly Does

By Stanistani

Some days it’s hard to get motivated. You need inspiration, you need the wisdom of the ages. Why not turn to Wikipedia for that nugget of wisdom that will define your day?


Excellence is a talent or quality which is unusually good and so surpasses ordinary standards. It is also used as a standard of performance as measured e.g. through economic indicators. In modern public relations and marketing, “excellence” is a much overused buzzword that tries to convey a good impression often without imparting any concrete information (e.g. “center for excellence in …”, “business excellence”, etc.).

Well, pooh (e.g. “Winnie the”). That’s not horribly inspiring so far, or “unusually good.” But I’m here for the wisdom of the ancients, so let’s examine the History of Excellence (imagine Greek column here).


The Ancient Greeks had a concept of arete which meant an outstanding fitness for purpose. This occurs in the works of Aristotle and Homer. Aristotle once said. “We are what we repeatedly do . . . excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Another related concept was eudaimonia which was the happiness which resulted from a life well-lived, being prosperous and fulfilled. The equivalent concept in Muslim philosophy is ihsan.

There we go! “We are what we repeatedly do . . . excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” –Aristotle

Carve that into my desk! Tattoo it on my arm!

Wait a minute… I have read a lot of books in my day, and I do believe I’ve seen that quote somewhere before. When I was a young boy, I was gifted a set of books written by Will and Ariel Durant (wonderful popularizers of history and such in their day, check them out). One of the books was The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant, originally published in 1926. In that book is this quote:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life;…for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”


Shazaam! Deep, man, real deep. Such upright use of semicolons.

Durant is quoting Aristotle, but the words of the quote in Wikipedia are all Durant’s.

This is not excellent at all. If you go out into the Internet and all over the place outside of the ‘Net, this misattribution is common. People are wearing t-shirts with this quote and Aristotle’s bust printed on them. Others have painted it on school walls, or had it tattooed on their body. If you wish, you may purchase a bracelet with the quote on Etsy.

One article I encountered that discusses this mangled quote is particularly tart:

“Journalists, however, who pride themselves on ‘checking the facts’ should not be lazy about passing on–unthinkingly–such misattribution.”


“One explanation of the misattribution is in this Wikipedia entry.”

Frank Herron, the author of this critical article, points to the Wikipedia article on Aristotle (in which the “quote” is now listed as misattributed).

Meanwhile, Wikipedia does what it repeatedly does, and does excellently… pollute the global well of knowledge. It’s had lots and lots of practice.


Image credit: Flickr/Kevin Krejci ~ licensed under Creative Commons attribution 2.0 Generic

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