A Good Teacher Is Like a Candle that Consumes Itself While Lighting the Way for Others

Giovanni Ruffini? Mustafa Kemal Atatürk? Charles Wiseman? Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Emir Abdelkader? Henry Ward Beecher? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Being a teacher is wonderfully fulfilling, but it is also exhausting. The following astute simile reflects this tension:

A teacher is like a candle that consumes itself to light the way for others.

This saying has been credited to the Italian poet Giovanni Ruffini and the Turkish statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a 1764 book titled “A Complete English Grammar on a New Plan” by Charles Wiseman. While discussing figurative language Wiseman presented a collection of example similes; four are shown below. Interestingly, a candle was likened to an “author” instead of a “teacher”; both may serve an educational role. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

  • Like snow that melts away on the ground as it falls, i.e. words
  • Like a candle which lights others, and burns out itself, i.e. an author, or
  • Like a dog in a wheel that toils to roast meat for others eating, i.e. an author
  • Like a bucket at the bottom of a deep well, he must labour hard that will draw it up, i.e. truth

Wiseman presented thirty-two similes in this textbook section, and QI conjectures that most of them were already in circulation; thus, he may be credited with popularizing the candle simile but not constructing it.

Giovanni Ruffini was born in 1807, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881; hence, neither crafted this simile.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1852 the popular and prolific English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton published “My Novel; Or, Varieties in English Life”. An Italian character named Riccabocca employed the version of the saying with “teacher” instead of “author”. The character disclaimed credit by labeling the remark proverbial: 2

RICCABOCCA.—”Our Italian proverb saith that ‘the teacher is like the candle, which lights others in consuming itself.’

In 1859 “The Standard” newspaper of London mentioned that an unnamed novelist had employed the expression. This may have been a reference to Bulwer-Lytton: 3

… one of our novelists compares a teacher with a candle which consumes itself while lighting others

In 1860 “The Manchester Guardian” of England printed a piece about a letter from Emir Abdelkader that had appeared in journals in Madrid, Spain. The Emir employed the figurative language while discussing the wielding of power: 4

. . . “the possession of power is a torment, and that whoever accepts it will perhaps have reason to repent at the Last Judgment;” that it is “like a wax candle, because it consumes itself while lighting others.” &c.

In 1868 the influential clergyman and orator Henry Ward Beecher delivered a sermon in which he used a version of the candle simile to criticize self-absorption: 5

Thousands of men are like a wax candle in a solitary room, which some one has kindled and placed there. It spends its whole life in burning itself out, and does good to none. Many a man commences and burns the wick of life, using it up and throwing his light out upon nobody. He is a light to himself—that is all.

In 1882 a newspaper in St. Joseph, Missouri attributed the saying to “Ruffini” which probably meant Giovanni Ruffini: 6

A teacher is a candle that consumes itself in lighting others.—Ruffini.

In 1900 a Baltimore, Maryland newspaper echoed the words of Bulwer-Lytton from 1852: 7

There is an Italian proverb to the effect that a teacher is like a candle, which consumes itself while lighting others. The occupation is doubtless most exhausting, yet it has its compensation.

In 1965 an Illinois newspaper printed an unattributed instance with the phrase “good teacher”: 8

A good teacher is like a candle—each consume themselves in giving light to others.

In 2015 an obituary notice for a teacher contained an instance credited to Atatürk: 9

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, said, “A good teacher is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others.”

In 2006 “Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing” credited Ruffini: 10

A teacher is like a candle which lights others in consuming itself.
~ Giovanni Ruffini, 1807-1881 ~

In conclusion, this simile was in use by 1764. It was applied to an “author’ instead of a “teacher” within a textbook by Charles Wiseman. Yet, Wiseman was probably repeating a figurative phrase that was already in circulation. In 1852 the author Edward Bulwer-Lytton placed the “teacher” version of the saying into the mouth of a character who called it an Italian proverb. One may say that Wiseman and Bulwer-Lytton helped to popularize the expression but did not coin it.

Image Notes: Picture of classroom from werner22brigitte at Pixabay. Picture of candle from Myriams-Fotos at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the Kirkwood CC Library @KirkwoodSmart twitter account whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1764, A Complete English Grammar on a New Plan: For the Use of Foreigners and Such Natives as would acquire a Scientifical Knowledge of their own Tongue by Charles Wiseman, Quote Page 383, Printed for W. Nicol, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1852, My Novel; Or, Varieties in English Life by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Chapter 20, Column 1, Quote Page 106, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1859 November 29, The Standard, To The Editor: The Employment of Women, Quote Page 3, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1860 October 10, The Manchester Guardian, (Untitled item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1869, Plymouth Pulpit: The Sermons of Henry Ward Beecher in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn From Verbatim Reports by T. J. Ellinwood, First Series: September 1868 – March 1869, Sermon: The Value of Deep Feelings, Date: December 13, 1868, Start Page 211, Quote Page 225, J. B. Ford & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1882 February 3, St. Joseph Herald, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1900 June 23, The Baltimore Sun, The Teacher’s Occupation, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1965 November 24, The De Kalb Daily Chronicle, Notions Counter, Quote Page 4, Column 8, De Kalb, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2015 April 16, The Times, Obituary Notice for Bernadette Marie Jones-Palombo, Quote Page A11, Column 2, Shreveport, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 2006, Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing, Compiled and Edited by Larry Chang, Section: Teaching, Quote Page 698, Column 2, Gnosophia Publishers, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans)