Tag 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

Even a Stopped Clock Is Right Twice a Day

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach? Lewis Carroll? Charles L. Dodgson? Joseph Addison? Richard Steele? Diedrich Knickerbocker? Washington Irving? Albany de Grenier Fonblanque? Paulo Coelho? Anonymous?

clockface07Dear Quote Investigator: An obtuse, unreliable, or incompetent person occasionally performs properly. Here are three versions of a proverb reflecting this observation:

  1. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  2. A broken watch is certain to be right twice a day.
  3. A clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours.

This saying has been attributed to the prominent Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and to the famous children’s author Lewis Carroll, a.k.a., Charles L. Dodgson the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. Even in the 1700s dress fashions were ever changing. If one maintained a single clothing style it would become passé, but eventually it would return to “the mode”, i.e., become fashionable again. “The Spectator” employed the clock-based simile when discussing this topic. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Did they keep to one constant dress, they would sometimes be in the fashion, which they never are as matters are managed at present. If instead of running after the mode, they would continue fixed in one certain habit, the mode would some time or other overtake them, as a clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours: in this case therefore I would advise them, as a Gentleman did his friend who was hunting about the whole town after a rambling fellow, If you follow him you will never find him, but if you plant your self at the corner of any one street, I’ll engage it will not be long before you see him.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated “The Spectator”. Both were significant literary and political figures. Scholarly reprints in later years identified Joseph Addison as the author of the excerpt above. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 3 of 4, The Spectator, Number 129, Issue Year: 1711, Issue Date: “Saturday, July 28”, Start Page 83, Quote Page 83, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1886, Addison: Selections from Addison’s Papers Contributed to the Spectator, Main Author: Joseph Addison, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Thomas Arnold, No. 129: The same subject; letter describing the fashions in the West of England, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Oxford, Clarendon Press. (HathiTrust Full View) link link