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Origin & Meaning of the Phrase “Give a Man a Fish”/“Teach a Man To Fish”

You’ve heard it many times: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” But where did the phrase originate? 

 

The origin of the phrase “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” directly links to a book of essays written by M. Loane in 1911. However, it can also be traced back to a paragraph in an 1885 novel by Anna Isabella Ritchie. And some believe it’s derived from Maimonides’ eight degrees of charity.

 

This article will go over the origins of the phrase along with Maimonides’ work and when and where the proverb has been used in American publications.

 

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The Common Growth (1911) – M. Loane

 

The Modern Origin of “Give a Man a Fish” 

The modern iteration of the idiom, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” comes from The Common Growth, essays by M. Loane, in 1911. 

 

The obscure essays essentially suggested that if you simply hand a man a fish, he will eat it and be hungry again the next day. So, instead, if you teach that man how to fish, he can feed himself for the rest of his life.

 

Yet more often, Anne Isabella Ritchie gets credit for a paragraph in her novel, Mrs. Dymond, published in 1885.

 

But the commentary on individual poverty, social integrity, and well-being tie into many forms of literature. 

 

Going farther back, the quote from M. Loane is a spiritual successor to Mrs. Dymond by Anne Isabella Ritchie. 

 

Macmillan’s Magazine published it without a date, but Littell’s Living Age magazine published it in September 1885. Later in 1890, it was published as a book. Ritchie was the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, best known as the novelist of Vanity Fair

 

This novel worded the concept as, “He certainly does not practice 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.” 

 

It continued to say, “But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes.” 

 

Both of these examples are variations of the modern expression but also stipulate a context. 

 

The phrase sounds like it favors long-term skills over short-term products. But the historical versions add that the situation is not so simple. Having a fish or learning to fish does not tell you how to help others, or fishing could be leisure rather than survival. In other words, fishing by itself is self-serving. 

 

Historical Philosophical Origins

Loane and Ritchie have the most relevant wording and contexts you would not expect of the modern expression. 

 

Some other claims like it is an Indian proverb come from modern-day writers. 

 

Still, the broader theme of the phrase addresses self-reliance and the social dynamics of poverty. And it goes to the Middle Ages. 

 

One philosophical origin is the eight degrees of charity. Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, wrote about them in More Nebuchim and Mishna Torah. He lived in the 12th century and the region now known as southern Spain

 

More Nebuchim and Mishna Torah by Maimonides described the eight degrees of charity, or Tzedakah, with the first as the most valuable and the eighth as the least. 

 

  1. Give Tzedakah to “strengthen the hand of a Jew who is poor” and give the receiver a gift, loan, partnership, or job so that the receiver will never need charity again.
  2. Give Tzedakah so that the donor and the receiver are anonymous to each other and the gift processes through a reputable Tzedakah institution.
  3. Give Tzedakah when the donor knows the receiver, but not the other way around. Or “The great sages used to go secretly and cast the money into the doorway of poor people. Something like this should be done, it being a noble virtue, if the Tzedakah administrators are not behaving properly.”
  4. Give Tzedakah when the receiver knows the donor, but not the other way around. Or “The great sages used to tie money in sheets which they threw behind their backs, and poor people would come and get it without being embarrassed.”
  5. Give Tzedakah when the giver directly gives without being asked.
  6. Give Tzedakah when the giver directly gives and gives after being asked.
  7. Give Tzedakah when the giver happily gives but gives less value than they should.
  8. Give Tzedakah when the giver gives reluctantly and causes shame in the receiver.

 

The eight degrees of charity written about by Maimonides would later find their way into 19th-century philosophy and academics. 

 

Contemporary Philosophical Origins

Nathan Whiting resurrected the eight degrees in his article “Ladder of Benevolence” in the journal The Religious Intelligencer in 1826. 

 

He wrote, “The eighth and 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.” 

 

Teaching a job trade is “the eighth and most meritorious of all” of the eight degrees of charity. If so, what were the other degrees Whiting compared to the eighth? 

 

The “Ladder of Benevolence” by Nathan Whiting uses the eight degrees of charity in the opposite numbering system as Maimonides. The list goes from the least valuable to the most, and the modern wording comes from the article by Whiting. 

 

  1. To give reluctantly or with regret. Or “This is the gift of the hand, but not of the heart.”
  2. To give happily but not proportionately.
  3. To give happily and proportionately, but only after someone asks for the gift.
  4. To give happily and proportionately with initiative, but the gift causes shame in the receiver.
  5. To give so that the receivers feel less shame in receiving a gift from a known donor if the receiver does not see the gift as charity. Or “know their benefactors without being known to them. Such was the conduct of some of our ancestors, who used to tie up money in the hind corner of their clocks, that the poor might take it unperceived.” There is less shame in receiving a gift from a known giver if the receiver does not see it as charity.
  6. To give so that the donor can donate anonymously and without a known reason. Or “to know the objects of our bounty but remain unknown to them. Such was the conduct of those of our ancestors who used to convey their charitable fights into poor people’s dwellings, taking care that their persons and names should remain unknown.”
  7. To give so that the giver does not know what they donated nor who is the receiver. Or “as was done by our charitable forefathers [at trustworthy institutions] the chamber of silence or in ostentation. Wherein the good deposited secretly whatever their generous hearts suggested, and from which the most respectable poor families were maintained with equal secrecy.”
  8. To give a considerable gift or loan, teach a trade, refer business, to enable the receiver to reach a self-reliant position. This way, the receiver will never need to receive charity again.

 

In the 150 years after Nathan Whiting, many modern-day sources picked up similar expressions. 

 

Other Uses That Popularized the Saying

Many American newspaper and magazine publications claimed the “get a man a fish” saying comes from proverbs of various Asian countries. But while they made these claims, there is no documentation to trace that substantiates the claims. 

 

For instance, while some attribute the phrase to Lao-Tzu, no one points to his writings. 

 

Below are a few instances in which the phrase was mentioned in American publications:

 

 

  • 1961: Fred Nelson, a missionary working in Taiwan and China, told the Rockford Register-Republic that the phrase was a Chinese proverb. 

 

  • 1962: The Winnipeg Free Press attributed the saying in the speech by Anna Speers on behalf of the Winnipeg Council of Women as a Chinese proverb. 

 

  • 1963: John Baker White of The Sunday Gleaner assigned the quote as an Italian proverb. 

 

  • 1964: The Rotarian said the expression was a Chinese proverb. 

 

  • 1976: The book Africa: From Mystery to Maze, edited by Helen Kitchen, claimed the phrase came from Lao-Tzu and Mao Zedong.

 

  • 1986: Joseph Heller and William A. Henkin in “Bodywork: Choosing an Approach to Suit Your Needs” in Yoga Journal said the expression came from Lao-Tzu. 

 

Meaning of the Expression

The expression refers to self-sustaining practices. 

 

If you do something for someone, like giving a free fish to a hungry person, they will eat the fish and go hungry again. But if you teach someone how to provide for themselves, like how to fish and never give a free end product, they will learn to take care of themselves in the long run.

 

You are teaching the other to rely on themselves, not on you. 

 

Final Thoughts

The origin of the phrase “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” has both a simple story and a complicated story. 

 

You can look at the quotes most directly and probably relevant, like The Common Growth by M. Loane in 1911 and Mrs. Dymond by Anne Isabella Ritchie in 1885. But it can also journey into the context of its sources and the philosophical history of charity like More Nebuchim and Mishna Torah by Maimonides or “Ladder of Benevolence” by Nathan Whiting. 

 

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