I seem to recall a quote from either Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau that was something like "Tradition is meant to be broken." Which of them said it?

2 Answers 2


There are a number of things said by both your candidates which have some resonance with the phrase or express ideas about breaking with tradition, eg:

When we have broken our god of tradition and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson p.65 Penguin

So easy it is, though many housekeepers doubt it, to establish new and better customs in the place of the old

Henry David Thoreau. Walden and Civil Disobedience p.103 Xist Publishing

All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground.  Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot.  Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant.  A man's life should be constantly as fresh as this river.  It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.

Henry David Thoreau. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers p.93 Xist Publishing

But I wonder if this popular aphorism isn’t actually a bit of a mash up of a number of things, for example the Somerset Maugham line

Tradition is a guide and not a jailer

The Summing Up 1938

and the common phrase ‘rules are made to be broken’.


BOTH of them, I imagine, so common is the sentiment in English. The premise is both simple and contrary enough that, very likely, some version of the saying goes back to the Code of Hammurabi (the first formal set of laws to have existed, historically, circa 1750 BCE, almost 3,800 years ago), but we can have a go at getting a more contemporary citation. Just keep in mind: backtracking an idiom isn't an exact science; I'll do my best.

Let's, see… most sources will cite 5-Star General Douglas MacArthur, who, in 1950, during the Korean War, used the phrase, "Rules are mostly made to be broken, and are too often for the lazy to hide behind," to justify his ignoring a direct order from then-President Harry Truman, and attempting to expand the scope of the war by bombing China. That particular rule must have landed outside the "mostly" bit, though, since Truman stripped him of command and forced him into retirement.

Rewinding a bit further, we can arrive at similar-sounding quote from the instigator of Impressionism and patron purveyor of plastering paint, Pablo "Earring-Impaired" Picasso, who, in 1926, is cited as having said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."

But even that legendary fount of creativity appears to have been making reference to an old English idiom, "Promises are like pie crust, they are made to be broken", an expression that entered mainstream use after appearing in Jonathan Swift's 1738 book, Polite Conversation.

And, swift as he most assuredly was, Ol' Johnny Boy musta been inspired to include the line, having read some of Heraclitus Ridens works, who beat him to the punch by over 50 years. Specifically, in a satirical piece from August 16, 1681, in which he shocked his audience with the scathing undercut, "He makes no more of breaking Acts of Parliaments, than if they were like Promises and Pie-crust: made to be broken," thus returning to us the law/rules portion that we'd been deprived of in English Polite Conversation.

  • Promises being made to be broken seems quite different from tradition being made to be broken.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 21, 2023 at 7:25
  • @GarethRees - Oh, good show! Right you are! I stand both humbly and delightedly chastened and corrected! Well-researched, old man!
    – NerdyDeeds
    Jun 7, 2023 at 3:21

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