We Are Taught To Fly in the Air Like Birds, and To Swim in the Water Like the Fishes; But How To Live on the Earth We Don’t Know

George Bernard Shaw? Martin Luther King? Maxim Gorky? Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan? C. E. M. Joad? Walter Winchell? Jack Paar? Anonymous?

flyswim08Quote Investigator: Technological progress today is shockingly vertiginous, but advancements toward human reconciliation and harmony are glacially slow. A saying from the previous century treats this topic with poignancy:

Now that we have learned to fly the air like birds, swim under water like fish, we lack one thing—to learn to live on earth as human beings.

This saying has been attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw and the civil rights champion Martin Luther King. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw wrote or spoke this statement. Martin Luther King did employ this saying in his Nobel Prize speech, but it was already in circulation. The earliest citation known to QI attributed the saying to the prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky who credited an anonymous peasant. Here is the key passage from the 1925 book “Social Classes in Post-War Europe” by Lothrop Stoddard. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Not long ago Maxim Gorky stated that the Russian peasant profoundly hates the town and all its inhabitants. According to the Russian muzhik, the city is the source of all evil. Modern “progress” does not appeal to him, the intellectuals and their inventions being regarded with deep suspicion. Gorky relates how, after addressing a peasant audience on the subject of science and the marvels of technical inventions, he was criticized by a peasant spokesman in the following manner: “Yes, yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like the fishes; but how to live on the earth we don’t know.” In Gorky’s opinion Russia’s future lies in peasant hands.

This evidence was indirect because it was not written by Gorky, and QI has not yet located this statement in his oeuvre. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1929 a philosopher who later served as Vice President of India named Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan published “Kalki or The Future of Civilization”, and a London periodical called “The Spectator” printed a review. Radhakrishnan included the quotation in his work, and the book reviewer C. E. M Joad reprinted the words. Once again the remark was credited to a peasant via Gorky: 2 3

Professor Radhakrishnan quotes with approval the comment of a peasant upon the marvels of science introduced to him in a lecture by Maxim Gorky. “Yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like fishes, but how to live on the earth we do not know.” Cars may pollute every road in the world, and Hollywood, exhibit its sub-human mentality on every screen from China to Peru, but the civilization of the East will survive when that of the West has passed into the limbo of life’s discarded experiments, because it possesses “the life-giving character of human and spiritual values.”

In 1935 a speaker at a Parent-Teacher association meeting presented a version of the saying, but Gorky’s name was elided from the attribution: 4

A Russian peasant has said, “Yes, we have learned to fly through the air like birds and swim under the water like fish; but to live on the earth like men, this we have not learned.”

In 1940 the powerful columnist Walter Winchell mentioned the saying and indicated that he found it in a work written by C. E. M. Joad. Interestingly, Joad was the reviewer in the 1929 citation given earlier: 5

That in “Philosophy for Our Times,” C. E. M. Joad reports that when he praised the technical marvels of our civilization to an Indian sage, he received this acid comment, “Yes, you can fly in the air like birds and swim in the sea like fish—but you do not yet know how to walk upon the earth like men”.

In 1946 a variant appeared in the “Boys and Girls” section of a newspaper based in York, Pennsylvania. The original quotation alluded to airplanes and submarines, but did not name the vehicles. The following statement is more direct: 6

We have learned in airplanes to fly through the air like birds and in submarines we have learned to swim like fish. All that remains now is for us to learn to walk upon the earth like men.
–Sunshine Magazine.

In 1952 a column in “Chicago Tribune” presented a remark made by a popular radio and television personality during a broadcast: 7

Jack Paar: We fly in the air like birds; we swim in the sea like fish. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could walk on the earth like men?

In 1962 “The New York Times” the “Queries and Answers” printed an inquiry about a version of the saying: 8

V. H. asks for the source of this statement: “We have learned to fly through the air like birds and to swim under the sea like fish. All that remains is to learn to walk the earth like men.”

In 1963 a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King Jr. was published under the title “Strength to Love”; the lecture “The Man Who Was a Fool” included an instance of the saying: 9

The means by which we live are marvelous indeed. And yet something is missing. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.

In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. won a Nobel Prize and during this high-profile lecture delivered in Oslo, Norway he employed the saying: 10

The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

In modern times, the saying has often been linked to the prominent Irish writer G. B. Shaw. For example, in 2004 a book titled “Cogitations of an Urban Hermit” included the following: 11

As George Bernard Shaw said so eloquently: “Now that we are able to fly through the air like birds, swim underwater like fish, all that is left to us is to live on the land like human beings.”

In conclusion, QI would tentatively attribute the saying to a Russian peasant; however, there is considerable uncertainty. Perhaps future researchers will locate a passage by Maxim Gorky discussing the quotation. Martin Luther King, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, C. E. M. Joad, Walter Winchell, and Jack Paar all employed the saying, but only after it was in circulation.

Image Notes: Picture of two people wingsuit flying taken by Matt Hoover who released into the public domain; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of scuba diver feeding fish from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.

(Thanks to Randolph Wagner‎ and an anonymous person who asked about this quotation. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson who pointed to the 1925 citation. Great thanks to Charles Doyle who acquired scans to the 1925 and 1934 citations. Also, thanks to mailing list discussants W. Brewer and Wilson Gray.)

Notes:

  1. 1925, Social Classes in Post-War Europe by Lothrop Stoddard, Quote Page 26, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)
  2. 1934 (Second Impression), Kalki Or The Future of Civilization by S. Radhakrishnan (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan), Quote Page 9, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)
  3. 1929 February 16, The Spectator, Volume 142, An Indictment of Western Civilization by C. E. M Joad, (Book review of “Kalki or the Future of Civilisation” by S. Radhakrishnan), Start Page 243, Quote Page 243, London, England. (Online archive at archive.spectator.co.uk; accessed August 18, 2016) link
  4. 1935 January 6, The Brownsville Herald, Social Science Head Speaks To Parent Teacher Council, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Brownsville, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1940 June 24, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Broadway Walter Winchell, Quote Page 2D, Column 1, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1946 July 9, The Gazette and Daily, Section: Boys and Girls Newspaper, Stand Up!, Quote Page 21, Column 3, York, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1952 February 17, Chicago Daily Tribune, Radio-TV Gag Bag, Culled by Larry Wolters, Quote Page C13, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  8. 1962 May 20, New York Times, Queries and Answers, Quote Page BR39, Column 1 and 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 1963, Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon: The Man Who Was a Fool, Start Page 51, Quote Page 57, Published by Harper & Row, New York.(Verified on paper)
  10. 1964 December 11, Nobel Lecture delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., Location: Auditorium of the University of Oslo, (Text from nobelprize.org based on text from Les Prix Nobel en 1964), Nobel Foundation, Stockholm. (Accessed at nobelprize.org on August 19, 2016) link
  11. 2004, Cogitations of an Urban Hermit by Victor P. Epp, Quote Page 17, Trafford Publishing, Victoria, B.C., Canada. (Google Books Preview)