Modern Proverb: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth - result: blind and toothless (1914 February 5)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Dec 18 01:42:59 UTC 2010

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

This quote (or a close variant) appears in the Yale Book of
Quotations, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and the Quote
Verifier. It is usually attached to Mahatma Gandhi. But YBQ has this
note about the saying:

"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" is frequently
attributed to M. K. Gandhi. The Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
states that the Gandhi family believes it is an authentic Gandhi
quotation, but no example of its use by the Indian leader has ever
been discovered.

YBQ also notes that a 1950 biography by Louis Fischer titled "Life of
Mahatma Gandhi" contains a version of the phrase. Fischer does not
attribute the saying to Gandhi in his book. Further below is a
citation for a 1947 work by Louis Fischer with the discordant title
"Gandhi and Stalin" that contains the maxim.

First, here is a 1914 citation that plays with both parts of the
famous precept in Exodus: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The quotation
employs the trope to suggest that almost all the members of the
Canadian House of Parliament will be rendered blind and toothless.

Cite: 1914 February 5, Official Report of the Debates of the House of
Commons of the Dominion of Canada: Third Session - Twelfth Parliament,
Mr. Graham speaking, Page 496, Volume CXIII, Printed by J. De L.
Tache, Printer to the King's Most  Excellent Majesty, Ottawa.
(HathiTrust full view)

Mr. GRAHAM: Men are improving every day, and although we have the old
enactment, if I may so call it, of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for
a tooth,' and 'whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood
be shed,' these principles are giving way to the new thought of a new
era. …

We can argue all we like, but if capital punishment is being inflicted
on some man, we are inclined to say: 'It serves him right.' That is
not the spirit, I believe, in which legislation is enacted. If in this
present age we were to go back to the old time of 'an eye for an eye
and a tooth for a tooth,' there would be very few hon. gentlemen in
this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and

In 1944 a version of the saying was used by Henry Powell Spring in his
book of aphorisms, "What is Truth". The acknowledgment section
indicates that Spring was a follower of Rudolf Steiner and

Cite: 1944, "What is Truth" by (Henry) Powell Spring, Page 10, The
Orange Press, Winter Park, Florida. (Google Books snippet; Verified on

The Spirit and Beings continue unselfishly to maintain life upon our
planet, restoring us nightly, and forgiving us our wilful blindnesses
far beyond our spiritual or bodily capacity of repayment. If the
Spirit, Who is Life, exacted an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a
tooth, this world would indeed be peopled with the blind and the

In 1947 Louis Fischer used a version of the saying that mentions eyes
(but not teeth) that is often attributed to Gandhi today. Fischer used
the phrase while discussing Gandhi and his approach to conflict
resolution, but he did not attribute the words to Gandhi.

Cite: 1947, Gandhi and Stalin by Louis Fischer, Page 61, Harper &
Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on

In any case, denazification affects only those who are brown enough to
be recognized. What about the brown, or black, or red that entered the
blood and soul in small quantities? This needs a gandhian antidote.
"Denazify with Gandhi," might be an appropriate prescription.

The shreds of individuality cannot be sewed together with a bayonet;
nor can democracy be restored according to the Biblical injunction of
an "eye for an eye" which, in the end, would make everybody blind.

Any attempt to introduce democracy or to check totalitarianism must
constantly emphasize the rehabilitation of personality. Freedom and
responsibility help. Rigid authority hinders.

In 1950 Louis Fischer used the saying while explaining the concept of

Cite: 1950, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, Chapter 11:
Gandhi Goes to Jail, Page 77, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on

Satyagraha is peaceful. If words fail to convince the adversary
perhaps purity, humility, and honesty will. The opponent must be
"weaned from error by patience and sympathy," weaned, not crushed;
converted, not annihilated.

Satyagraha is the exact opposite of the policy of
an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye which ends in making everybody

You cannot inject new ideas into a man's head by chopping it off;
neither will you infuse a new spirit into his heart by piercing it
with a dagger.

Ralph Keyes in QV discusses other later instances of the saying
associated with Kahlil Gibran, Martin Luther King, and King's
associate Harris Wofford. Keyes also mentions the 1971 movie version
of the musical "Fiddler in the Roof". This production appeared on
Broadway in 1964 and is based on stories by Sholom Aleichem. Here is
an instance of the saying in a script published in 1970.

Cite: 1970, "Best Plays of the Sixties" edited by Stanley Richards,
Fiddler on the Roof, Page 322, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New
York. (Verified on paper)

FIRST MAN: We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

TEVYE: Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.


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