In my recent article on William James, he taught us How to Know a Good Man, and part of his argument referenced a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson:

Stevenson says somewhere to his reader: “You think you are just making this bargain, but you are really laying down a link in the policy of mankind.”

I was intrigued by that quotation, and I decided to return to the source material to read the entire quotation in context.  Here’s what I found on page 20 of Stevenson’s fine book, Lay Morals:

William James got the quote a bit wrong, but the context is still valid.  Here’s the exact text of that Steven quote for deeper analysis:

You can make no one understand that his bargain is anything more than a bargain, whereas in point of fact it is a link in the policy of mankind, and either a good or an evil to the world.

James leaving out — “and either a good or an evil to the world” — is an important cornerstone for Steven’s argument that sheds light on his argument that you can cheat a man in money or in behavior and they are both equally criminal and repugnant.

“Lay Morals” starts out strong and gains momentum on describing the perils and the pinnacles of how we treat each other and how we must never treat each other:

Here’s the text of that screenshot for the indexed record:

The problem of education is twofold: first to know, and then to utter.  Every one who lives any semblance of an inner life thinks more nobly and profoundly than he speaks; and the best of teachers can impart only broken images of the truth which they perceive.  Speech which goes from one to another between two natures, and, what is worse, between two experiences, is doubly relative.  The speaker buries his meaning; it is for the hearer to dig it up again; and all speech, written or spoken, is in a dead language until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.  Such, moreover, is the complexity of life, that when we condescend upon details in our advice, we may be sure we condescend on error; and the best of education is to throw out some magnanimous hints.  No man was ever so poor that he could express all he has in him by words, looks, or actions; his true knowledge is eternally incommunicable, for it is a knowledge of himself; and his best wisdom comes to him by no process of the mind, but in a supreme self-dictation, which keeps varying from hour to hour in its dictates with the variation of events and circumstances.

Simply.  Brilliant.

My favorite part of that paragraph is — “Speech which goes from one to another between two natures, and, what is worse, between two experiences, is doubly relative.” — and we would all do well to heed that warning as we try to relay what we think we know to others.

That one paragraph from “Lay Morals” gives you a mountain of thought to dig through for an entire year.

Be sure to find a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Lay Morals” and start devouring it to get some moral dirt beneath your fingernails.


  1. A friend asked me to read a manuscript and I responded today with my critique. I prefaced it by saying that everyone who picks up a book brings to the reading a very personal set of experiences, expectations, likes and dislikes and it is against this tapestry that the book is viewed. I would like to have been able to quote the above mentioned paragraph from ‘Lay Morals’ as that is exactly what I was trying to convey.
    R.L. was a genius.

    1. Hi Kathe!

      I read a lot of books and “Lay Morals” was a new one for me. We read Robert Louis Stevenson as children — but I had no idea he had so much more to say to me as an adult!

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