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Lloyd Sealy Library

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

The ends pre-exist in the means

Search and serendipity

Jeffrey Kroessler

I am trying to track down a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The ends pre-exist in the means.” Writing about terrorism, I want to contrast that Emersonian idea with its opposite: “The ends justify the means,” or as Malcolm X put it, “By any means necessary.” What I need is the citation.

Without anything at hand to go on, I first entered the words in quotes into the OneSearch box on the library’s homepage. Nothing. But that should not be surprising, as this is designed to identify sources for research. Even so, the quotation might have turned up somewhere.

Google Scholar is a better option, because it does allow searching for an exact quotation. Here I added “Emerson” in the search box. Surely the original will turn up, or maybe it will be cited in another work. The search does not yield the original source but does offer an intriguing array of essays containing a version of the quote.

The first is “Educational Appraisals,” by Ross L. Mooney, in Education Research Bulletin, vol. 36, no. 2 (Feb. 13, 1957). In this case I can access the entire eight-page piece. But the quote is not in that essay. Rather, it is found at the end of the previous piece on the page the Mooney piece begins. So, the first result in this search did not bring up the article where the quote was to be found. The article listed second by Google Scholar, “Educational Means” by Edgar Dale from the same publication, was the one with the quote. The Emerson reference was footnoted: an entry titled “Education” in his journals dated September 13, 1831 (that author used a 1909 edition of his journals; for me, the nearest edition would do). But actually, he summarized the quote and the reference refers to another: “The things which are taught children are not an education, but the means of education.”

So, I search for the referenced journal entry, not confident that the quote would be found there. The library catalog yielded Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 16-volume set published between 1960 and 1982. On the shelf, however I find only Volume 7 (1838-1842). Clicking deeper into the bibliographic record I learn that John Jay only has Volume 7. That was after I had gone into the stacks. Frustrating. And I’m the librarian! 

Back to the Google Scholar results. A promising item is “Sources of Value for Modern Man” by Eduard C. Lindemane, in Religious Education, vol. 42, 1947. Alas, access to the full piece is blocked, and searching our collection of journals by title, I found that we do not have it in any database.

The next possibility is “Speech Sportsmanship,” a brief essay by Burton H. Byers in The Speech Teacher, vol. 3, no. 2, 1954 (now Communication Education). The Google Scholar link leads to the publisher’s page, and a dead end (no, I do not wish to purchase the article). Looking again under journals by title, I find that we do have access to the journal. Byers makes great use of the Emerson: “In a totalitarian society, it is generally held that the ends justify the means. A person who believes in democracy is likely to think that greater wisdom was expressed by Emerson when he wrote that the ends pre-exist in the means.” A wonderful application of the idea, but there is no citation.

Moving on to “Postcards from the Edge: Surveying the Digital Divide,” by Andrew G. Celli and Kenneth M. Dreifach, in Cardozo Arts Entertainment Law Journal, 20 (2002). They reference Emerson and locate the source as his 1841 essay “Compensation.” Bingo! The actual sentence in that essay is different, however: “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”

This was a twisted, frustrating, and ultimately successful research journey, and at its end I am left with two questions. First, is the popular version of the quote—“The ends pre-exist in the means”—to be found elsewhere in Emerson’s writings, somewhere in his journals, perhaps? Or is it simply a pithier version of the sentence from “Compensation”? And second, why did I find several references to this quotation in essays from the 1940s and 1950s but scarcely any from later decades?

The journey continues.


More from the Fall 2018 newsletter

November 8, 2018