You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

Oscar Wilde? Seneca the Younger? Leon Tec?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across a quotation in a pub in Germany that was credited to Oscar Wilde. Your help in tracing this expression would be greatly appreciated but there is a twist to this request that will probably increase the difficulty. I have not been able to find this quote in its original English language version. All I could find on the web was the German phrase as I saw it in the pub. Here is the saying together with a translation:

Günstige Winde kann nur der nutzen, der weiß, wohin er will.

Only he can make use of favourable winds who knows where he wants to go.

I know that Oscar Wilde attracts a large number of spurious attributions. Could you search for the original version of this aphorism and determine who said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any substantive evidence connecting this saying to Oscar Wilde. Intriguingly, the earliest evidence points to a maxim that was written in Latin and not English. During classical antiquity Seneca the Younger wrote about ports and catching a favorable wind. Here is the Latin version of one of his adages together with an English translation [SYDC]:

Ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est.

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.

Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.

The wording and the emphasis in the above maxim differs somewhat from the content of the quotation provided by the questioner. However, over the years other writers have modified Seneca’s saying. Here is a modern example attributed to Seneca in a volume aimed at public speakers titled “The Speaker’s Sourcebook” which was published in 1988 [SYSP]:

You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to take you there. Seneca

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes a version of the saying credited to Seneca the Younger and says he lived from 4 BC to AD 65 [SYOD]:

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.

In 1881 a schoolbook presenting “Exercises in Latin Syntax and Idiom” listed the following version of the maxim [ELSI]:

If a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is favourable.

In 1920 a translation was published of Seneca the Younger’s work titled “Epistle LXXI: On The Supreme Good”. Seneca used figurative language from the domains of archery and navigation to make his point about the desirability of specific goals [SYSG]:

The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

By 1988 the adage had been reformulated to emphasize a more positive viewpoint. This version is closer to the quote given by the questioner [SYSP]:

You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to take you there.  Seneca

Currently, several variant wordings of the adage are being propagated. Here is an example dated 2009 that uses the phrase “any wind” [DVAM]:

Without a vision, your school lacks direction. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca observed, “If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind.”

In 2010 a book about preparing for marriage included a  version of the saying that was very similar to the 1988 cite listed above [PMGL]:

Seneca, a Roman philosopher, once wrote, “You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to get you there.”

A version of the adage is sometimes attributed to Leon Tec in the massive internet quotation databases [LTQP] [LTIW]:

A sailor without a destination cannot hope for a favorable wind. Leon Tec, M.D.

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the words of Seneca the Younger were altered over time to yield the saying found in the German pub. Many cultures were deeply influenced by classical thought, and Seneca’s adage was widely known. The evolution of the phrasing and emphasis may have occurred in German, English or some other language. QI does not know how the maxim was attached to Oscar Wilde.

(Many thanks to Christian Kölzer whose query inspired the construction of this question and this exploration.)

[SYDC]1906, Dictionary of Quotations (Classical) by Thomas Benfield Harbottle, Page 93, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Limited, London. (Google Books full view) link

[SYSP] 1988, The Speaker’s Sourcebook by Glenn Van Ekeren, Section: Goals and Dreams, Page 182, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)

[SYOD] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Seneca the Younger, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press.(Accessed 2011 November 17)

[ELSI] 1881, Exercises in Latin Syntax and Idiom Arranged With Reference to Roby’s School Latin Grammar, by Edwin B. England, Page 2, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[SYSG] 1920, Seneca Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, With an English Translation by Richard M. Gummere, Ph.D., [Head Master, William Penn Charter School, Philadelphia], Volume 2 of 3, Epistle LXXI: On The Supreme Good, Start Page 73, Quote Page 75, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[DVAM] 2009, How to Help Your School Thrive Without Breaking the Bank by John G. Gabriel and Paul C. Farmer, ASCD [Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development], Excerpt on website: Chapter 2. Developing a Vision and a Mission. (Accessed on 2011 November 25) link

[PMGL] 2010, Preparing for Marriage: Discover God’s Plan for a Lifetime of Love by David Boehi, Brent Nelson, Jeff Schulte and Lloyd Shadrach, Chapter 1: Why Marriage? [Page 1 of Chapter 1], Gospel Light, Ventura, California. (Google Books preview) link

[LTQP] The Quotations Page website, Leon Tec. (Accessed 2011 November 25) link

[LTIW] iWise Wisdom on Demand website, Leon Tec. (Accessed 2011 November 25) link