A man is known by the company he keeps

What’s the meaning of the phrase ‘A man is known by the company he keeps’?

A person is similar to the people he chooses to spend time with.

What’s the origin of the phrase ‘A man is known by the company he keeps’?

The phrase was first recorded in one of Aesop’s famous fables. Aesop was a Greek storyteller who lived circa 620 to 564 BC, and whose tales always had a moral to the story.

The fable is called “The ass and its purchaser.” In the story, the protagonist buys an ass, and brings it to his farm while he observes his interaction with the other asses in the flock.

When the newly purchased ass is instantly drawn to the lazy asses, the owner decides that his new ass must, like them, also be lazy, thus judging the ass’s behaviour by the company it wants to keep.

The story ends with the farmer returning the ass to the vendor from whom he purchased the ass, declaring that the ass is as worthless as his choice in companions.

What are some notable uses of the phrase ‘A man is known by the company he keeps’?

More recently, the moral of the story has been conveyed in newer ways, including in the children’s story “Tale of two birds”. In this story two sibling birds, owned by a king, lose each other and their mother in a storm.

One bird finds company with robbers, while the other finds company with saints. Many years later the owner of the birds comes across them again independently. The first bird plots to rob the owner, and the king runs away

Then the second bird spots the king and helps him find shelter. While sheltered, the king ponders why the siblings would display such contrasting behaviour, and one of the saints explains that it is because of the company they kept. They each became like their companions.

Cari Mayhew - Author at Phrase Finder

Cari Mayhew

Lifelong learner, phrase fanatic, and lover of literature across multiple genres. Cari Mayhew has a passion for expression, and a keen curiosity for how phrases begin and how their use transforms over time. She is often found looking for the ideal idiom to convey her thoughts and musings.