The question is about the contemporary usage of the following distich:

For he that fights and runs away,

May live to fight another day ;

...and whether historical events and imprecision have upstaged its original meaning - which might have been about pragmatism - in contemporary english.


Historically, this is attributed to Demosthenes, an epic Greek orator opposed to Alexander the Great; but it is not part of his oratory corpus. He is credited for the saying after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338BC where, according to notes, he deserted or did nothing admirable(yet not a bad tactic considering he died some 15 years later, in 322BC).

Willis's Current Notes article

Much later, in the 1854 Willis's Current Notes - a fabulous anthology piece - we are introduced to the surreal idea that a British newspaper printed a half page with a very similar saying to basically make fun of the behavior of Lord George Sackville at the Battle of Minden in 1760(wikipedia explains):

Ferdinand called for a British cavalry charge to complete the victory, but Sackville withheld permission for their advance. Ferdinand sent his order several times, but Sackville was estranged from Lord Granby, the force commander. He continued to withhold permission for Granby to gain glory through an attack.

He asked to be court-martialed to expose his innocence, but was rather made an example of in a surprisingly forceful manner. The author then discusses Rabelais, Shakespeare's Henry VIII(I, I, 206), and other tasty bits, and finishes his analysis of the sources with the work of Vice Admiral Sir John Mennes:

The distich in Butler's Hudibras:-

For those that fly may fight again,

Which he can never do that's slain,

is evidently a translation from Scarron; but the couplet,-

For he that fights and runs away,

May live to fight another day ;

was written by Sir John Mennes in ridicule of Sir John Suckling's expedition to Scotland, in 1641.

And references the work Musarum Deliciae and Censura Literaria which he can't find. This seems to be the same poem and indeed there's the cowardise idea but it's really about finding an excuse to stay in his tent, or staying at the rear ten miles aback, all tongue-in-cheek one could say; it's quite colorful but nothing formal like the couplet above. When you read it you wouldn't think Sir Mennes would say something as polite as that couplet about Sir Suckling. And indeed a note ("P. 96, 1. 5." ) from an editor seemingly echoes that observation. So if not Mennes then who coined this?

Q. From Willis's document it feels like in the 19th it was common knowledge that this was used in a derisive way, more than once, and in a striking fashion. Where does that leave us with the current usage? Is there any of that historical mocking connotation associated with using this today?

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    Modern warfare, especially the First World War, has vanquished much of the romantic view of dying in glory. Oft-quoted (and misquited) is Patton: no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
    – choster
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 4:46
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    It is debatable whether 'current usage' is sensible to discuss, as these Google Ngrams suggest. Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 6:24
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you, so you're suggesting there is no current usage to speak of. I didn't think of compacting it on ngram. Would you have by any chance an idea of who coined this in its "current" form?
    – user98955
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 8:30
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    No, sorry. An old friend liked a fuller version: 'He who fights and runs away / Lives to fight another day. / But he who stops and takes a chance / Makes his exit in an ambulance.' (Needs unusual emphasis on the words ex-it and ambulaaance for prosodic reasons.) Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 12:33
  • My take is that, in it's modern usage, it's both wisdom and mockery. It's wisdom in that it's true. It's mockery in that it mocks the glorification of "courage" and "standing up for yourself". (In fact, I don't recall ever hearing it used in reference to a military conflict, but always, eg, a confrontation with a bully or some other "real life" confrontation.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 3:24

3 Answers 3


For he that fights and runs away, may live to fight another day

is primarily used to rationalize the benefit of behavior that was cowardly on it's face. There may be folks who use the phrase to mock that rationalization, and medica offered an excellent explanation of that use in another answer, but the primary meaning is:

"Better to retreat and marshal your forces than to waste a glorious death in sure defeat."

Being attributed to Demosthenes originally, as a rationalization of his desertion at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338BC, we would intuitively interpret that as the original meaning of the expression. It is quite commonly used in that way to this day.

In the 2008 book Soliloquy by Stephen Finn, the author tells of a time Errol Stephesn discussed a variant of that original phrase with his father:

My dad once said to me, "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. He who stays and takes a chance, rides away in an ambulance." When I once confronted him about that, saying he was disappointed in me for not fighting, he said that one should try to fight first, but that if one was going to be beaten, then one should should run off. He added that I hadn't even tried to fight.

In that quote, the father was teaching his son the benefit of giving the fight a chance before running away. By extension, he was conceding that once you know you can't win the battle, it might be better to back away from sure defeat.

Trumbull Park, by Frank London Brown contains a similar usage of the expression.

Kevin shot back: "Attack me? Why not you? Where are you going to be?"

"In a squad car like I've got some good sense. Listen. He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day."

Trumbull Park was written for children, and the famous phrase was used to teach a simple ethic. Use your head to moderate your emotions.

In Bob Marley's popular reggae song The Heathen. We hear a call to "holy war":

De heathen back dey 'pon de wall! De heathen back, yeah, 'pon de wall!

De heathen back dey 'pon de wall! De heathen back, yeah, 'pon de wall!

Rise up fallen fighters; Rise and take your stance again.

'Tis he who fight and run away Live to fight another day.

With de heathen back dey 'pon de wall! De heathen back, yeah, 'pon de wall!


De heathen back dey 'pon de wall! De heathen back, yeah, 'pon de wall!

As a man sow, shall he reap And I know that talk is cheap.

But the hotter the battle A the sweeter Jah victory.

With de heathen back dey 'pon de wall! De heathen back, yeah, 'pon de wall!

De heathen back dey 'pon de wall! De heathen back, yeah, 'pon de wall!

He uses a dialectical alteration of the phrase, to encourage people who had fallen away from the fray earlier. Retreat may have been an option then, but not now.

Comparing He that runs away, lives to fight another day with the truncated variant, Live to fight another day.

NB: I haven't mastered the art of embedding Google Ngrams:


Even though the first phrase in the expression tails off consistently from the 1930's, watching the charts track with each other before that seems to support the idiomatic connection between the longer expression and the more popular truncated form, "live to fight another day." That truncated expression's added nuance of "rationalizing defeat as a step toward victory", may explain its increasing popularity, but the sorter phrase is still used to rationalize the benefits of behavior that is cowardly on its face.

In 2003, Gabriel Stricker wrote Mao in the Boardroom: Marketing Genius from the Mind of the Master Guerilla [sic], a primer on competition for small companies, demonstrating how the phrase becomes the basis for guerrilla warfare. Positioning yourself for defeat is no strategy for victory, so find a position that leverages your advantages.

Their rules:

If the only opportunity to fight is on the competition's home field, we should try to fight anyway.

Our Rules:

If the only opportunity to fight is on the competition's home field, then we should wait until the opportunity arises to fight them on our turf. We should live to fight another day.

In the fashion of the original use of the phrase, Stricker advises smaller companies to "run away" from competitive situtations that guarantee defeat in order to engage in competition that promises success.

  • +1 - this is a much better answer than mine. Well researched and good examples. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 2:15
  • I truncated the quote of Soliloquy to emphasize the actual meaning of the phrase. The son's confusion shows that the phrase is not well suited for the meaning "You should have tried to fight." It was the father's explanation that made that point clear in the end.
    – ScotM
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 14:16
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    Thanks again! Your answer is very compelling at all levels! It also binds the other answers. It is all very rewarding; I see you've added a bit on the truncated variant, well done! Also, the father's explanation indeed; behavior is easier to assess against the backdrop of a "comparison" and allows extraneous subtext. The Q&A shows imho how an event with strong cultural connotations is abstracted, compacted, reinterpreted etc. up to being present in popular culture without too great a reliance on Demosthenes per se. The living part of history, maybe. Cheers!
    – user98955
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 15:42

It's mockery.

It might depend on how much valor is valued in one's culture:

great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle.

Valor [1350–1400] comes from the Latin valēre: to be of worth.

The Spartans would clearly think it was a mockery. The wives and mothers of Spartans going off to battle reportedly sent them off with the following sentiment:

Come back with your shield - or on it. (Plutarch, Mor. 241)

I can think of many cultures which do not hold to this ethic. For those, however, the courage is in opposing killing. So they would not fight at all. The first line of that couplet would not exist.

The fact that the first line does exist indicates it's nature as ridicule. I believe few people at the time it was written would fail to see the humor in the lines. As few who are Star Trek literate would fail to see the humor in these two coupled jokes:

Q: How many Klingons does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: NONE: Klingons aren't afraid of the dark.

Q: What do the Klingons do with the Klingon who replaces the bulb?
A: Execute him for cowardice.

They also highly valued doing the right thing. The story goes that an old man wandering around the Olympic Games looking for a seat was jeered at by the crowd until he reached the seats of the Spartans, whereupon every Spartan younger than him, and some that were older, stood up and offered him their seat. The crowd applauded and the old man turned to them with a sigh, saying "All Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it."

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    Thank you! Excellent imho, valour, and Plutarch! It is true. I note though that had Demosthenes died at Chaeronea, we wouldn't have On the Crown, which I linked in intro, as it was delivered in 330BC; in legacy also lies valor, imho. But the values you speak of do change in time; surely for a soldier then, fleeing was heresy or even treason. So if I hear you correctly you see this as based more on culture than language i.e. interpretation and not about the knowledge of these events, as in stuff like that doesn't ring any bell today? Thanks again!
    – user98955
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 5:32
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    Yes, absolutely! This occurred to me to; modern western culture values life (especially our own) so much, and survival can justify almost anything short of extreme harm to another. This would help explain why, even if this was an insult in the past (easy to picture in many feudal/medieval cultures), today it is used in a more conciliatory way. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 1:58
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    A laconic version of that phrase might be, "He who fights and runs aways, has run away." But the question is all about modern, contemporary usage.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 13:21
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    If you watch the movie 300, you see the culture that would have used this phrase to mock Demosthenes. Interestingly, the warriors in that movie thought they were facing two options: sure defeat in retreat versus the slight possibility of victory in glorious death, turning the rationalization of Demosthenes on its head.
    – ScotM
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 14:22

If considering only its contemporary usage, I think it's usually a positive statement. It is often used in reflecting on a past event, and consoling oneself or another that some act of retreat ultimately allowed survival, other consequences or not. And if used in the present, t would be as a plea or rejoinder to retreat from a potentially (or figuratively) fatal situation.

I cannot picture this being used as an insult in present times; as an acknowledgement of the practicality of making decisions based on survival, I can only picture it being used mockingly in a highly ironic or sarcastic way (as any justification could be characterized if one felt strongly better about it).

-FTD: to lose a fight or competition but not be completely defeated and therefore be able to try again in the future The anti-pollution campaigners lost the debate but lived to fight another day.

-CDO: to have another chance to fight in a competition; to be able to continue with your life although you have had a bad experience: We didn't win this time, but we live to fight another day.

-(Oxford Dictionaries)[http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/live-to-fight-another-day] Survive a particular experience or ordeal:

  1. MPs felt the chancellor’s performance will ensure he lives to fight another day
  2. Hopefully the club itself will survive and live to fight another day.
  3. If you are able to survive a bad or indifferent season, you live to fight another day.
  4. The boxers' relatives and friends pay the admission fees, buy food and gym apparel, and the gym lives to fight another day.

-ESPN: Venus Williams Enthused To 'Live To Fight Another Day'

-Dropkick Murphys - My Hero Lyrics Audio

-Paul Verheyden - Live To Fight Another Day: Finding Purpose for God and Others Through Life-Changing Events (Amazon)[http://www.amazon.com/Live-Fight-Another-Day-Life-Changing/dp/1449068537]

Could go on like this forever, I feel like. I wasn't able to find an example that wasn't positive or at least accepting/conciliatory.

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    In the US, I think very few besides history buffs and academics know much about the English civil war. I have never read Hudibras, and have never heard it mentioned by anyone I know taking a college literature course. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 1:58
  • But I provided generic examples because the phrase has become a fairly common expression, or perhaps dictum. I can't think of any "famous" ones, but I'll add a few web examples to my post avove. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 2:45
  • Thanks you! There are more contemporary examples than I thought at first; especially with that second part. I had found the Dark Knight in late pop. culture but you show press related, sports, etc. Also, you showcase a sample, namely yours, that in the U.S. the saying rings a bell and conveys meaning with no reliance on the Hudibras or classic text. I wish I could reward your contribution further. Thanks again!
    – user98955
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 15:51

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