Category Archives: Joseph Addison

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.

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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