Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Quotation Gaffe

The day after Rowling gave her Commencement Address at Harvard in June 2008, I posted a review of the talk here at HogwartsProfessor, ‘Rowling Rocks Harvard: On Failure and Imagination.’ I thought it was a brilliant speech (still do) and, in addition to giving the two principal points she made full marks, I admired how The Presence side-stepped the several significant IEDs she might have intentionally or unintentionally triggered.

I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I was careful to note that Rowling’s quotation of Plutarch — “What we change inwardly will change outer reality” — was almost certainly not from Plutarch. It’s a great line, perhaps the most often quoted one from her Harvard talk, but, having had to read a lot of Plutarch back in the day, it seemed a real stretch to me. I included in a parenthetic note about the quotation in the post an aside that it was probably Otto Rank, the Freudian psychoanalyst, rather than the author of the Moralia and Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans who actually wrote the line.

Why did I think that it was Otto Rank rather than Plutarch? Wanting to know from which of Plutarch’s many, many works this quotation had been lifted for inscription in stone on the University of Exeter Classics corridor, I did a simple internet search for the quotation and Plutarch. The only thing that popped up was a page from a quotation site online,, one that had collected bon mots about ‘Achievement’ for students or speakers in need of a great line to raise the class grade for a paper or talk. “Achieve the status of a well-read person without having to do the reading!”

That page went offline in 2012 but can still be accessed via the WayBack Machine. Here is what the relevant portion of the page looks like:

I thought in 2008 that what had happened was “no-brainer” obvious. Rowling had been searching quotation pages online for ideas as she confronted what was the biggest speaking challenge of her life. She admits in the opening of her talk to having experienced “weeks of fear and nausea” in anticipation of giving it. During those weeks of worry, she found a quotation that said what she hoped to communicate about imagination and responsibility to the most privileged college graduates in the world  — a one-liner from an ancient philosopher that would also raise her bona fides as a ‘Classicist.’ 

Rowling claimed — or is it just ‘suggested’? — in the talk that she was a Classicist. From ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination:’

So [my parents] hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

Rowling is obscuring the truth here in more ways than one. She was never a ‘Classics’ major in the sense that anyone would understand that word at Harvard, where the ‘Best in Class’ Classics major delivers an address in Latin before the main graduation speaker (read about the young woman who gave the Latin Oration in 2008 just before Rowling). Rowling graduated, too, with a degree in French from UExeter, not Latin or Greek, and the only thing “classical” she studied was Ancient Mythology, which she does mention, what in the US we’d call ‘Classical Studies.’ More about all that here, ‘What Did Rowling Study at University?,’ to include the confusion she has generated on the subject over the years.

Back to the supposed Plutarch quotation.

In a nutshell, Rowling carelessly over-reached, mis-read the cheat-sheet online quotation page, and mistook the source of the quotation as the name above the one-liner rather than the name below it.  Plutarch has classical cache that Otto Rank obviously does not and Rowling didn’t check the source of the line before using it to great effect in her talk.


Three quick notes to close off an already over-long post:

(1) To learn about Otto Rank and why this quotation is attributed to him (someone famous says he said it…), go to for the whole story. Friend of this blog Beatrice Groves prodded that site in 2016 to try to find the origin of Rowling’s “What We Achieve Inwardly” line and they confirmed my 2008 conclusion that Otto Rank was the best bet.

(2) Alumna Rowling wrote an article for the UExeter Classical Studies Department in 1998 about her experiences as an undergraduate, ‘What Was the Name of that Nymph Again? or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled.’

It begins with a quotation from Nietzsche — and a confession that she’d never read the book from which she was supposedly quoting. “There is nothing like a pithy quotation to get the ball rolling, so, in the noble tradition of undergraduates anxious to give the impression of extensive background reading, I have stolen one from a book I have never read.” The rest of the piece is as delightfully funny in a self-deprecating way; I am obliged to note to anyone wanting to defend Rowling about the quotation misattribution, however, that she is a confessed prior offender.

(3) “So what?” The only thing important about the quotation, whatever its origin, is the place it holds in what will probably be remembered as the most important talk or article written by Rowling about the importance of imagination, empathy, and conscious interior change in leading a truly human life. I think that with her ‘Solve et Coagula’ tattoo, her extended Lake and Shed comments this time last year about how she writes, and her FAQ responses ‘On Writing,’ her Harvard Speech notes are part of the small set of essential keys to ‘getting’ what Rowling is all about as literary craftsman and alchemical artist.

And, yes, I think it’s funny that she made such an unforced error on that stage. And that she is now cited by speakers at graduations as the source of the quotation as often as not is pretty funny, too.

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