Quote Origin: It Is Better To Deserve Honors and Not Have Them Than To Have Them and Not Deserve Them

Mark Twain? Humphry Davy? Robert G. Ingersoll? Cato the Elder? Hugh M‘Neile? Cassius Marcellus Clay? Thomas Fuller?

Quote Investigator®
6 min readFeb 12


Public domain illustration of “The Fidelity Medallion”

Question for Quote Investigator: A person of great merit may not receive any recognition while an unworthy person may receive numerous accolades. This perverse disconnection has inspired the following ethical stance:

It is better to deserve honours and not to have them than to have them and not deserve them.

This notion has been attributed to famous U.S. humorist Mark Twain, prominent U.S. orator Robert G. Ingersoll, and noteworthy British chemist Humphry Davy. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI occurred in the writings of electrochemist Sir Humphry Davy who died in 1829. His brother John Davy published “Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy” in 1836. This work contained excerpts from letters and notes penned by Humphry. Here were three items from him. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

“It is better to deserve honours and not to have them, than to have them and not deserve them.”

“Pride makes men entertaining only to themselves: vanity makes them entertaining to others.”

“Science, unlike literature, is independent of taste or caprice.”

Based on current evidence, Humphry Davy authored this quotation. Robert G. Ingersoll employed an instance during a speech on 1899, and Mark Twain wrote it in one of his notebooks in 1902 after it was already in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote a collection of biographies known as “Parallel Lives” which included a description of Roman soldier and senator Cato the Elder. Plutarch credited Cato with the following thematically relevant comment:²

When any one expressed surprise at his not having a statue, when so many obscure men had obtained that honour, he answered, “I had rather that men should ask why I have no statue, than that they should ask why I have one.” A good citizen, he said, ought not even to allow himself to be praised, unless the state were benefited thereby.

In 1726 the collection “Introductio ad Prudentiam” compiled by Thomas Fuller included the following thematically pertinent adage:³

Thirst after Desert, not Reward. He is got a great way, that is got thus far.

In 1732 the collection “Gnomologia” also compiled by Thomas Fuller included another germane saying:⁴

Desert and Rewards very often go not together.

In 1836 the following statement appeared in the “Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy” as mentioned previously:

“It is better to deserve honours and not to have them, than to have them and not deserve them.”

In 1842 “The Liverpool Mercury” of England reported on a meeting of the Liverpool Protestant Association. Reverend Hugh M‘Neile addressed the group and stated that his critics had accused him of pursuing personal wealth and power. He replied with a version of the saying under examination:⁵

“We would rather deserve without receiving it, than receive it without deserving it.” (Applause.)

In 1847 U.S. politician and military officer Cassius Marcellus Clay penned a letter which contained a thematically matching statement:⁶

The mass of mankind judge of things by their apparent success or failure. With them victory is glory, and defeat disgrace. But with enlightened minds it is better to deserve success than to win it.

In 1899 Robert G. Ingersoll delivered a speech titled “The Children of the Stage” at a benefit held in New York for the Actors’ Fund. Ingersoll employed an instance of the saying:⁷

“The stage has ever been the altar, the pulpit, the cathedral of the heart. There in spite of wealth and power, in spite of caste and cruel pride, true love has ever triumphed over all.

“The stage has taught the noblest lesson, the highest truth, and that is this: It is better to deserve without receiving than to receive without deserving. As a matter of fact, it is better to be the victim of villainy than to be the villain.

Mark Twain died in 1910. In 1935 excerpts from his numerous notebooks were edited and published by his literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine under the title “Mark Twain’s Notebook”. The following three items appeared on notebook pages written in 1902:⁸

The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.

On the whole it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.

The human race consists of the dangerously insane and such as are not.

In 1943 “Thesaurus of Epigrams” edited by Edmund Fuller included the following compact chiastic version of the saying:⁹

It is better to deserve without receiving, than to receive without deserving. — Robert Ingersoll

In 1948 the collection “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger contained this entry:¹⁰

On the whole it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.
P. 380 — Mark Twain’s Notebook [1935 ed.]

In 1993 “The Harper Book of Quotations” contained the following item:¹¹

It is better to deserve honours and not have them than to have them and not deserve them. Mark Twain

In conclusion, Humphry Davy employed this expression before he died in 1829, and he is the most likely originator. Several other people employed versions of the saying during the subsequent decades including Hugh M‘Neile, Robert G. Ingersoll, and Mark Twain.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of “The Fidelity Medallion”, a commemorative U.S. military award created in 1780. Picture from “The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution” in 1851.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Luther Mckinnon, Paul’s Jokes, and Ralph Nelson Willett whose twitter thread and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Guy Gavriel Kay who pointed out the relevance of the remark ascribed to Cato the Elder.

Update History: On February 12, 2023 the “Plutarch’s Lives” citation for Cato the Elder was added to the article.

[1] 1836, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy by His Brother John Davy, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 2, Quote Page 68, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[2] 1881, Plutarch’s Lives, Volume 2 of 4, Translated from the Greek by Aubrey Stewart and George Long, Chapter: Life of Marcus Cato, Quote Page 118, George Bell and Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 1726, Introductio ad Prudentiam: Or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life, Compiled by Thomas Fuller, M.D., Second Edition, Quote Page 23, Saying Number 459, Printed for J. Wyat and W. and J. Innys in St Paul’s Church-yard, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[4] 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Proverb Number 1269, Quote Page 48, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[5] 1842 October 28, The Liverpool Mercury, Liverpool Protestant Association, Speaker: Reverend Hugh M‘Neile, Quote Page 354 (6), Column 5, Liverpool, Merseyside, England. (Newspapers_com)

[6] 1848, The Writings of Cassius Marcellus Clay: Including Speeches and Addresses by Cassius Marcellus Clay, Chapter: Surrender of Encarnacion, Letter from Cassius M. Clay, Location: City of Mexico, Date: July 15, 1847, Start Page 480, Quote Page 480 and 481, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[7] 1899 May, Werner’s Magazine, Volume 23, Number 3, Current Thought, The Children of The Stage, Quote Page 285, Column 2, Edgar S. Werner, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[8] 1935, “Mark Twain’s Notebook” by Mark Twain, Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Chapter 33: Back in America, Quote Page 380, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

[9] 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Gifts, Quote Page 135, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans; HathiTrust)

[10] 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips, Compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Honor, Quote Page 180, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[11] 1993, The Harper Book of Quotations, Third Edition, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Topic: Honour, Quote Page 215, HarperPerennial: A Division of HarperCollins, New York. (Verified with scans)



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Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year