Great minds think alike
It is always a delight when you find someone who agrees with you. This momentous occasion is sometimes greeted with the observation that great minds think alike. Whilst the phrase could be regarded as one denoting mutual self-congratulation, there is often a hint of mockery in its use. After all, few of us can claim to have great minds and the unspoken irony of the phrase is that whilst great minds may often concur, it is more unusual when two unexceptional minds agree. Sometimes, to make the point crystal clear, the rider, and fools seldom differ, is added.
The earliest use of the phrase, or at least a variant, appeared in a play dating to 1618, Hans Beer Pot, written by the wonderfully named Dadridgecourt Capability Belchier, although he may have translated it from a Dutch original. Sergeant Goodfellow is challenged to come up with a new piece of verse and when he does so, he is informed that Sir Philip Sidney had come up with the same formulation. The sergeant, unabashed, comments, “good wits doe jumpe”.
At the time, the verb to jump had a meaning akin to agree with, a usage that has passed into obscurity in modern times. But it was still in use and, presumably understood, in the mid 18th century, the Irish writer, Laurence Sterne, using it in his novel, Tristram Shandy, in 1761. There he wrote, “great wits jump: for the moment Dr Slop cast his eyes upon his bag the very same thought occurred”.
Its days were number and a replacement, think alike, more recognisable to modern eyes, had already emerged. The English historian and pamphleteer, John Oldmixon, produced the Arts of Logick and Rhetorick in 1728, a translation of the work of a French Jesuit priest, Dominique Bouhours. Oldmixon wrote without trace of the phrase’s later irony, “Great Minds often think alike on the same Occasions, and we are not always to suppose, that such Thoughts are borrow’d from one another when exprest by Persons of the same heroic Sentiments”.
A biographer’s dread is that they are retreading old ground, a concern that Carl Theodor von Unlaski assuaged in the Woful History of the unfortunate Eudoxia, published in 1816, by commenting that “it may occur that an editor has already printed something on the identical subject – great minds think alike, you know”. Thomas Paine had used the phrase with a hint of irony in the introduction to the second edition of his The Rights of Man from 1792; “I do not believe that any two men, on what are called doctrinal points, think alike who think at all. It is only those who have not thought that appear to agree”.
The addition of the rider, fools seldom differ, seems to have been a later accretion. The Leader Post from Saskatchewan announced on February 1, 1932 that they were running a competition for the best illustrations to well-known proverbs. One such listed was “great minds think alike; fools seldom differ”, possibly the first time it appeared in print but, clearly, one that was already in use in speech. The germ of the idea that the phrase had humorous connotations may have come from the French, the French playwright, Michel Baron, putting into the mouth of a servant the words, “les beaux esprits se rencontrent”, in his Les Enlevemens of 1686.
The French also had a similar phrase, les grands esprits se encontrent, which appeared in a translation of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There is a great circularity emerging here but, obviously, great minds do think alike.