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The meaning and origin of the expression: No man is an island

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No man is an island

What's the meaning of the phrase 'No man is an island'?

The phrase 'no man is an island' expresses the idea that human beings do badly when isolated from others and need to be part of a community in order to thrive. Donne was a Christian but this concept is shared by other religions, principally Buddhism.

What's the origin of the phrase 'No man is an island'?

No man is an island - John Donne'No man is an island' is a quotation from the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) and it appears in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Seuerall Steps in my Sicknes - Meditation XVII, 1624:

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Even had Donne written nothing else, his creation of 'no man is an island' and 'ask not for whom the bells tolls' in one brief poem, would have lifted him into the premier league of English writers. As it was he wrote numerous poems on the themes of love, sensuality and religion, many of which are still widely admired and he is considered one of the finest poets to have written in English. Of course, the second of the two proverbial phrases above was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, which is regarded as one of his best works.

'No man is an island' sounds like, and is, an old proverbial expression. Oddly, although it was coined in the 17th century, it only began to be used widely in the second half of the 20th century. This usage started around 1940 but was probably accelerated by the release of a film of the same name in 1962.

The film is a fictionalised version of a true story set on the island of Guam. The American seaman George Tweed was the only member of the U.S. military who evaded capture after the surrender of the island to the Japanese in 1941.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

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