Chinese Proverb? Maimonides? Lao-Tzu? Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie? Italian Adage? Native American Saying? Mao Zedong?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following piece of proverbial wisdom is remarkably astute:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
The origin of this thought is highly contested. I have seen claims that that the adage is Chinese, Native American, Italian, Indian, or Biblical. Sometimes it is linked to Lao-Tzu, Maimonides, or Mao Zedong. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The general principle of alleviating poverty by facilitating self-sufficiency has a long history. The 12th-century philosopher Maimonides wrote about eight degrees in the duty of charity. In 1826 an explication of the eighth degree was published in a journal called “The Religious Intelligencer”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Lastly, the eighth and the most meritorious of all, is to anticipate charity by preventing poverty, namely, to assist the reduced brother, either by a considerable gift or loan of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding up his hand for charity. . .
The passage above provided a conceptual match, but it did not mention the vivid task of fishing as an illustrative and archetypal endeavor. In 1885 a statement that did refer to fishing and partially matched the modern adage appeared in the novel “Mrs. Dymond” by the popular novelist Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie. As the daughter of the prominent writer William Makepeace Thackeray she was continuing the family tradition of a life of letters. The second half of Ritchie’s statement did not directly refer to consuming fish: 2
‘He certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I suppose the Patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn. But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes.’
The above passage from Ritchie achieved wide dissemination because the novel was serialized in the leading periodicals “Macmillan’s Magazine” of London 3 and “Littell’s Living Age” of Boston, Massachusetts in 1885. 4 This important citation in “Mrs. Dymond” was mentioned by top researcher Ralph Keyes in the reference work “The Quote Verifier”. 5
The adage continued to evolve for decades. In 1911 an instance used the following phrase in the second half: “he will be richer all his life”. Finally, in 1961 an instance employed the phrase “that will feed him for a lifetime” which was similar to modern versions.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1826 March 25, The Religious Intelligencer, Volume 10, Number 43, Ladder of Benevolence, Quote Page 681, Column 1, Published by Nathan Whiting, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885, Mrs. Dymond by Miss Thackeray (Mrs. Richmond Ritchie) aka Anne Isabella Ritchie, Quote Page 342, Published by Smith, Elder, & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885 August, Macmillan’s Magazine, Mrs. Dymond, (Serialized version of the novel), Start Page 241, Quote Page 246, Volume 52, Macmillan and Co, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885 September 5, Littell’s Living Age, Mrs. Dymond by Mrs Ritchie (Serialized with acknowledgement to Macmillan’s Magazine), Start Page 602, Quote Page 606, Published by Littell & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 65, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩