What Has Posterity Ever Done for Us?

Groucho Marx? John Stuart Mill? Joseph Addison? Thomas Stafford? Boyle Roche? Adam Neale? Samuel Goldwyn? Bill Nye?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making sacrifices now for the people and environment of the future is difficult. This challenge has been encapsulated with a humorous remark. Here are two versions:

  • Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?
  • Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?

Groucho Marx often receives credit for this quip, but I have been unable to find a proper citation. Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx died in 1977, and an instance of this jest was ascribed to him near the end of his life in 1975, but the quip can be traced back to the 1700s.

A close variant appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1714. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated the magazine, and both were significant literary and political figures. The passage below was reprinted in the works of Addison. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I know when a man talks of posterity in matters of this nature he is looked upon with an eye of ridicule by the cunning and selfish part of mankind. Most people are of the humour of an old fellow of a colledge, who when he was pressed by the society to come into something that might redound to the good of their successors, grew very peevish, We are always doing, says he, something for posterity, but I would fain see posterity do something for us.

Addison disclaimed credit for the joke which he attributed to an “old fellow of a colledge”. The most likely candidate is Oxford scholar Thomas Stafford.

The Oxford Historical Society has published material from the papers of Thomas Hearne, an English diarist and antiquarian. An entry dated February 27, 1722/3 stated that on that day a great bell was sounded at Magdalen College, Oxford to honor Thomas Stafford, Fellow of the College, who had died that morning. Hearne then presented an anecdote from Stafford’s past: 2

He was a Man that lov’d to get Money, but was, however, very kind to his poor Relations. There is this Story going of him, that some of the College talking once of doing something by way of Benevolence or Generosity, upon some publick Account, & he asking for what reason, it was answered, to do good to Posterity. Posterity, says the Dr., What good will Posterity do for us?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1818 doctor Adam Neale published “Travels Through Some Parts of Germany, Poland, Moldavia, and Turkey”. And he attributed the remark to an unnamed “Irish magnate”: 3

“What care I for posterity, what has posterity ever done for me?” was the epicurean saying of an Irish magnate. It is the sentiment of the illiterate Russian and ignorant Portuguese.

In 1827 an Irish judge published “Personal Sketches of His Own Times”, and he recounted a tale about Irish politician Sir Boyle Roche who employed the saying without humorous intent while speaking in the Irish House of Commons. Roche joined the House in 1775, and the House was abolished in 1800: 4

Sir Boyle, eager to defend the measures of government, immediately rose, and, in a few words, put forward the most unanswerable argument which human ingenuity could possibly devise. “What, Mr. Speaker!” said he, “and so we are to beggar ourselves for fear of vexing posterity! Now, I would ask the honourable gentleman, and this still more honourable House, why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity:—for what has posterity done for us?”

Sir Boyle, hearing the roar of laughter which of course followed this sensible blunder, but not being conscious that he had said anything out of the way, was rather puzzled, and conceived that the House had misunderstood him. He therefore begged leave to explain, as he apprehended that gentlemen had entirely mistaken his words: he assured the House “that by posterity he did not at all mean our ancestors, but those who were to come immediately after them.” Upon hearing this explanation, it was impossible to do any serious business for half an hour.

In 1866 the famous and influential British philosopher John Stuart Mill was a Member of Parliament in London. He employed the quip during a speech and explained why it was fallacious: 5

There are many persons in the world, and there may possibly be some in this House, though I should be sorry to think so, who are not unwilling to ask themselves, in the words of the old jest, “Why should we sacrifice anything for posterity; what has posterity done for us?” They think that posterity has done nothing for them: but that is a great mistake. Whatever has been done for mankind by the idea of posterity; whatever has been done for mankind by philanthropic concern for posterity, by a conscientious sense of duty to posterity, even by the less pure but still noble ambition of being remembered and honoured by posterity; all this we owe to posterity, and all this it is our duty to the best of our limited ability to repay.

In 1886 the prominent American humorist Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye) published a fictional version of “John Adams’ Diary”, and Nye included an instance of the joke: 6

I do not think that a joke impairs the usefulness of a diary, as some do. A diary with a joke in it is just as good to fork over to posterity as one that is not thus disfigured. In fact, what has posterity ever done for me that I should hesitate about socking a little humor into a diary? When has posterity ever gone out of its way to do me a favor? Never! I defy the historian to show a single instance where posterity has ever been the first to recognize and remunerate ability.

In 1975 journalist Peter Laurie writing in “New Scientist” ascribed the saying to Groucho Marx: 7

No doubt he would have had little time for Groucho Marx, but as that great thinker once enquired: “What has posterity ever done for me?” And this is a question which energy reformers might bear in mind.

In 1994 “The Sun-Herald” of Sydney, Australia attributed the variant remark with “future generations” to movie mogul to Samuel Goldwyn: 8

Why should we care about future generations? What have they ever done for us? — Sam Goldwyn

In 2010 a Columbus, Indiana newspaper printed a “Thought for the Day” credited to Groucho: 9

Thought for the Day
“What have future generations ever done for us?”
—Groucho Marx

In 2015 quotation expert Nigel Rees wrote about the quip in “The Quote Unquote Newsletter”. He mentioned the 1714 citation together with crucial information about Thomas Stafford and Boyle Roche. 10

In conclusion, Thomas Stafford is the most likely candidate for creator of this quip. A version was popularized by Joseph Addison who was also the responsible for the first known publication in 1714. There is substantive evidence that Boyle Roche employed the saying sometime between 1775 and 1800. John Stuart Mill and Bill Nye also used the expression.

Image Notes: Example of a family tree from the Ahnenblatt family; public domain image accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Martin Einfeldt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Nigel Rees.)

Notes:

  1. 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 4 of 4, The Spectator, Number 583, Issue Year: 1714, Issue Date: “Friday, August 20”, Start Page 105, Quote Page 107, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907, Oxford Historical Society, Volume 50, Hearne’s Remarks and Collections: September 23, 1722 to August 9. 1725, Volume 8, Entry Date: February 27, 1722/3, Quote Page 50, Oxford Historical Society, Printed for the Society at Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1818, Travels Through Some Parts of Germany, Poland, Moldavia, and Turkey by Adam Neale M.D., Chapter 9, Quote Page 113, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1827, Personal Sketches of His Own Times by Sir Jonah Barrington (Judge of the High Court of Admiralty in Ireland), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter: The Seven Baronets, Quote Page 213, Henry Colburn, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1866 April 17, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, Malt Duty—Resolution, Speaking: Mr. John Stuart Mill (Westminster), Volume 182, cc1509-76. (Accessed api.parliament.uk on May 9, 2018) link
  6. 1886 Copyright, Remarks by Bill Nye (Edgar W. Nye), Chapter: John Adams’ Diary, Start Page 251, Quote Page 253, Published by F. T. Neely, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust Books Full View) link
  7. 1975 September 18, New Scientist, Volume 67, Number 967, Section: Forum, Pig-ignorant: About nature by Peter Laurie, Start Page 667, Quote Page 668, Column 1, IPC Magazines, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1994 November 13, The Sun-Herald (The Sydney Morning Herald), The growing population debate by Bruce Jones (In Canberra) (Quotation appears as epigraph of article), Quote Page 43, Column 1, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2010 November 19, The Republic, Thought for the Day, Quote Page A2, Column 2, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 2015 January, The Quote Unquote Newsletter, Volume 24, Number 1, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Posterity, Quote Page 7, Published and Distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: link