The One-Eyed Man Is King
Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 5, 2011
When you hear the expression, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” it’s a nice way of saying that even a person with limited abilities and knowledge is at a great advantage in the company of those with lesser abilities and less knowledge than he.
The Italians have the same saying, “In un mondo di ciechi un orbo è re.” The German people have their version of the proverb: “Those that rule must hear and be deaf, must see and be blind.” And the French people also have their own version of the proverb: “When a blind man bears the standard, pity those who follow.” Some say it’s a variation of a Bible quote found in Matthew 15:14 that states:
“If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
It’s also found in Luke 6:39 as:
“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?”
On January 22, 2011, journalist Frank Rich wrote an OpEd piece for the New York Times about the original movie, “True Grit” starring John Wayne for which he won the 1969 Oscar for Best Actor and its 2010 remake starring Jeff Bridges. The piece was aptly entitled, “The One-Eyed Man Is King.”
On June 6, 1920 the New York Times published a news story entitled, “Millions Wasted To Elect President!” It spoke of the enormous campaign finances dribbled away by professional campaigners, running minimally efficient headquarters for candidates all the while presenting with a big business atmosphere.
In the monarchy of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the field of activity of the professional campaigner there may be a Cabinet position in store for the man whose industry nothing can abate and whose political ineptness nobody can deny.
On January 21, 1859 in Volume II, Issue 131 of the Colonist newspaper published in Nelson, New Zealand, the paper reprinted the address of Lord Stanhope to the University of Aberdeen.
A large part of the wisdom, the experience, and the actual power of the country is unrepresented in Parliament, through the taciturnity or defective expression of our public men while, as a natural consequence, many who have little else than a ready command of words obtain an influence beyond their just worth. “In a people of the blind, the one-eyed man is king;” and in an assembly of bad speakers or mutes a very ordinary orator will get more than his due. It must be so at the bar, and in the pulpit also.
Episcopalian clergyman, the Reverend Donald MacIntosh published “Collections of Gaelic Proverbs” in 1785 included the proverb, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
A century prior to the publication of the Reverend Donald MacIntosh‘s book, the proverb was cited by John Ray in 1678 and referenced as being an English proverb. His twist on the Bible passage was, “A man were better be half blind than have both eyes out.” In other words, not only would a half-blind man be able to avoid the ditch, he might find himself in a position if leadership among those who were completely blind.
Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) published a book commonly referred to over the centuries as “Adagia.” The first edition was actually entitled “Collecteana Adagiorum” and was published in Paris in 1500. It was a slim book with approximately eight hundred proverbs. Erasmus rename his book, “Adagiorum Chiliades” when it was republished in 1509 with an impressive 3,000 proverbs and adages this time, many with explanatory notes that read as brief essays themselves. Over time, subsequent editions of his book saw the addition of more proverbs and adages with the final edition containing 4,658 proverbs and adages.
Most of the proverbs and adages found in the book were accepted by society as a whole as common wisdom of the day. His reason for amassing so many proverbs and adages in one book had a great deal to do with the fact that Erasmus focused primarily on providing a Latin translation of the New Testament from several Greek texts that provided a more accurate translation of the Scriptures. Collecting 4,658 entries was merely an extension of his work. Included in his book was the proverb: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
As it was a commonly used expression at the time Desiderius Erasmus published his book and considering his interest in the Scriptures, it is not unreasonable to believe that the proverb does, indeed, come from the Bible and made it into common language via the Catholic Church.