Disputing "Eleanor Roosevelt's" "Great Minds" Quote

A while ago I saw someone share the following quote:

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." — Eleanor Roosevelt

From the start, I didn't think this quote sounded like something Eleanor Roosevelt would say. (I would think she was too caught up promoting human rights to get down to categorizing people in a demeaning way like that.) Apparently my hunch was right: The quote is almost surely misattributed. Of course, it's usually very difficult to prove that a particular person never said a certain string of words, but it's certain in this case that they at least did not originate with Eleanor. (This is why I have "Eleanor Roosevelt" in scare quotes in the title.)

While some people may find this quote appealing—and I may have even liked it in the past—now I don't think it's a positive saying at all. Let me explain.

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."

For starters, this is insulting to anyone who discusses people—and most of us do. In fact, I seriously doubt there are many people who never discuss people, and those who do probably live lonely lives. Discussing ideas is awesome, and I encourage everyone to do that more often, but what do ideas matter except in the context of how they affect people?

I admit the quote makes some sense if you view it in terms of the news: That way, you could be criticizing the attention that people give celebrities, for example. A would-be journalist who's caught up on personalities and won't address the deeper ideas impacting society is worthy of rebuke.

some fake office with a negative wall
In terms of history, however, this quote seems to me to be the opposite of what's true. Ideas are important in history, to be sure, but I believe it's events and individuals that are the real movers of history. After all, what power do ideas have except when people believe in them, and what are events anyway except the results of people's actions?

Please tell me what you think of this quote. Am I misinterpreting it? Am I giving it a hard time? Even if they're popular, I think some pithy quotes are worthy of a second thought, and perhaps a decision not to use them.


  1. I've always interpreted the discussing people in terms of gossiping about people rather than discussing the achievements, advances or contributions of people.

  2. There's many more interesting things about people than mere gossip; thinking about how they tick, how they see the world; how to connect, inspire, motivate them; how to be kind, compassionate, caring, understanding. Only someone who doesn't have much interpersonal intelligence would dismiss people interested in other people.

  3. This quote sounds good on the surface but it doesn't withstand scrutiny. A scientist studies ideas, a historian studies events, and a biographer studies people, but saying these individuals have great, average, and small minds respectively is ridiculous. All three professions are noble and can benefit society greatly. Maybe this quote is meant to be interpreted a particular way, but that precludes it from being a solid truth.


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