“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” – an ancient Greek proverb?

This week I came across a saying online:

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.

This, we are told, is a Greek proverb.

The sentiment is unexceptionable, but readers of this site do not believe attributions without evidence.  Is this truly ancient?  If so, how do we know?

A search on Google Books produces many references to this saying, varying somewhat in wording:

But if we use the custom date range, we quickly discover that the results vanish before the mid-1980s.  In the 1990s we get various results, mainly from the Congressional Record of the US Congress:

The “old Greek proverb” is hardly heard of before 1993, although I saw a quote in The Nation in 1991.

Eventually I happened to find a quote which atrributed it, not to ancient Greece, but to a certain Dennis Waitley: a 1989 article in the Scholastic Coach, vol. 59, p.289:

We use Dennis Waitley’s definition of a winner: “A winner is a person who plants a shade tree knowing he or she will never sit under it.”

This has the right sort of sound about it.  Waitley turns out to be a 1980s motivational speaker.  I was unable to locate in which of his books he said this.  But in fact I have just found another source, from 1972, in the Lutheran Standard, vol. 12, p.16:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of life when he plants shade trees under which he knows he will never sit.

This is only visible in snippet view.  But this version of the saying takes us further back yet.  It is associated with a David Elton Trueblood (or D. Elton Trueblood), a Quaker, in 1955.

Yet even so I can find a reference from 1954, in a mysterious Annual Report of a Ministry of Agriculture, page 13:

A man only begins to grasp the true meaning of life when he plants a tree under whose shade he knows he will never sit.

A 1968 magazine gives the following interesting quote:

At her departure, we are reminded of the passage from Elton Trueblood’s The Life We Prize, which she so often quotes: “One has to come to the full meaning of life when he is willing to plant shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit….

The Trueblood book was printed in 1951, earlier than any reference I can find.  And on p.58 we read our quote:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

That, I suspect, is the real origin of the proverb – a volume of moral writing by a quaker in 1951.  The aphorism then trickles through popular magazines, changing as it goes.  Ronald Reagan uses it in 1983.  But it seems to become a “Greek proverb” only in the hands of US congressmen in 1993.

27 thoughts on ““A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” – an ancient Greek proverb?

  1. The quote calls to mind the Rabbinic tale related by R. Jonathan (c. 4th c) regarding the sage Honi (bTaanit 23a) who saw an elderly man planting a carob tree and queried him if he thought he’d live to see it’s fruit. The man replied that I was born (lit. found) into a world with a carob tree; just as my fathers’ planted for me, I am planting for my sons.
    A very similar anecdote is related in Midrash Vayikrah Rabbah, 25:5 (5th c) relating how Hadrian saw an elderly Jew planting a fig tree. Hadrian asked if the old man seriously believed he’d live long enough to eat the sapling’s fruit. The man replied that if he will be found worthy then he will have longevity; if not, just as his forefathers toiled for him, his toils will be for his son.
    See. M. Margaliyot’s ed., p. 576 who cites M. Gaster’s ed. of the Book of Tales, p 190 where Gaster lists parallels to this in comparative literature.
    Best wishes,

  2. I have always heard it attributed to Elton Trueblood, but he could well have based it on something older.

    I always enjoy your blog!

  3. Chinese proverb: Trees planted by the ancestors provide shade for their descendants.

    Caecilius Statius: Serit arbores, quae saeclo prosint alteri. (Synephebi, quoted in Cicero’s De Senectute)

  4. I do recall someone praising the Greek old peasant’s optimism, who would plant olive trees even though they took 20 years to bear fruit (the “tarde crescentis olivae” of Virgil). I can’t find the source, but it was certainly earlier than 1991. See also L. Foxhall, “Olive Cultivation in Ancient Greece” p. 76:

    “The passage from Isaios quoted at the beginning of this section also highlights another important feature of tree planting as a land improvement strategy: it operated in the long-term. How long depends on the kinds of trees planted. The olive is notorious for the length of time it takes to come into full production, perhaps twenty five to thirty years, although a small return may be made after eight to ten years, with luck. Once established, however, the trees live for a very long time. If a landowner planted olives on land that he intended to keep, it was his children and his grandchildren who would harvest the fruit.”

  5. Hlaford, thank you for that quote. I wonder if Rabbi Elazar b. Simeon (3rd c.) had this in mind (at least in part) when he commented “it is easier to grow a ‘legion’ of olives in the Galilee then to raise one child in Israel” (Bereshit Rabbah 20:6).

  6. I found a source that doesn’t lock out!

    But, to pass over these sublime studies, I can name some rustic Romans from the Sabine district, neighbours and friends of my own, without whose presence farm work of importance is scarcely ever performed—whether sowing, or harvesting or storing crops. And yet in other things this is less surprising; for no one is so old as to think that he may not live a year. But they bestow their labour on what they know does not affect them in any case:
    He plants his trees to serve a race to come,
    as our poet Statius says in his Comrades. Nor indeed would a farmer, however old, hesitate to answer any one who asked him for whom he was planting: “For the immortal gods, whose will it was that I should not merely receive these things from my ancestors, but should also hand them on to the next generation.”

  7. Some quibbles:

    Caecilius Statius is the earliest example of someone proposing the IDEA. Cicero merely reproduces it in his work, “On Old Age” (sec. VII): He is not its direct source, and didn’t himself come up with it.

    While Statius’ idea is close in meaning — one might say: almost exact — the actual PROVERB as it is stated above comes from Elton Trueblood in his book, “The Life We Prize” (available for loan at Internet Archive, by the way).

    Neither Caecilius nor Cicero (if you will) makes this sort of statement, even though the ideas coalesce.

    So, I would say that the source of the saying is Trueblood, whereas the earliest example of the idea is Caecilius Statius. Difference!

  8. “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” This quote is attributed to Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet who died in 1941. Maybe this will help you to look into it a little further.

  9. Eoin says, “As a scientist, I found thistale of a mini-quest for truth thoroughly uplifting.”

    As a poet, me too. Almost as uplifting as the planting of trees for future generations. Humans rock.

  10. Rabindranath Tagore, was what I could find as the earliest author of this quote.
    My grandfather was Nelson Henderson. He has long passed, but his name comes up online as connected with this quote, taken from a book my uncle wrote about him. The comments above are appreciated as I’ve been doing some searching on where it may have originated.

  11. It was helpful and encouraging to find this quote, and interesting to read more about it. Thanks to all contributors. My Dad has just passed away. He spent a lot of time planting trees around the fence of our garden, and once quoted something about the wisdom/value of someone who plants trees. I would like to mention this quote in memorium of him. He sowed a lot of value into the lives of his children, even though he did not get to prosper, in an earthly way, from it… hence many are blessed by the elevation of spirit and soul that this kind of attitude spawns.

  12. There is a Chinese equivalent – 前人栽树后人乘凉 (the ancestors plant the trees, the descendents enjoy the shade) which, while not taking us quite as far back as the ancient Greeks, is some 400 hundred years old. The author, Hu Wenhuan (胡文焕) was an author, musician, bibliophile, collector, and publisher who flourished around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries….


  13. I’ve just googled this phrase (about trees) to find its origin, and found this excellent post. Then I browsed the blog further…I think I’ve been on here close to an hour now. Roger, you clearly put a tonne of energy into unlocking texts and helping us better understand our world. Thank you.

  14. I remember the greek movie The first in line/Promakhos refers to this proverb, they dedicate it to an athenian greek ruler (probably Perikles?). Unfortunately I don’t have access to the movie. But maybe somebody does, I believe it still is on Netflix. It’s not a reliable source, but maybe it can give a clue?

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