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The nature of the beast is a well-known phrase or saying which means something like an essential property of the thing, particularly when the property is a vexatious one. For example:

I don't like the fact that people always downvote my answers on StackExchange, but that's the nature of the beast.

What's the origin of the phrase? Is it biblical? Does it stem from some Hobbeseian metaphor?

I had a look online, but couldn't find anything about the origin, and my copy of Brewer's is five miles away.

  • +1 for alluding to the "nature of the beast" in StackExchange :) – Paul Amerigo Pajo Aug 30 '11 at 11:04
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    Wouldn't this use of the phrase simply be a thin metaphor for what it states at face value? In the old days people dealt with actual beasts, i.e. animals, all the time. So when a fox would steal your chickens, you didn't get angry, that's just the nature of the beast. Just deal with the fox by building better fences, etc. Later on, as people have non-beast problems to deal with, the phrase acquires a simple metaphorical flavour. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 30 '11 at 12:10
  • @Mr. Shiny: Could be. It strikes me as writerly language, rather than everyday speech, which suggests some specific written origin, but i could be wrong. If it did arise from a common aphorism, i'd still be interested to know when, and when it acquired this particular set form. – Tom Anderson Aug 30 '11 at 13:07
  • @Tom Anderson: I'm with Mr. Shiny. I think you're conflating this transparent metaphoric usage with, for example, "the name of the rose", which does embody artistic/philosophical creativity and insight, and does have a traceable history. – FumbleFingers Aug 30 '11 at 15:59
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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the nature of the beast first appeared in the 1600s:

colloq. the nature of the beast : the (usually undesirable) inherent or essential quality or character of a person, event, circumstance, etc.

1678 J. Ray Coll. Eng. Prov. (ed. 2) 77 It's the nature o' th' beast.

John Ray's Collection of English Proverbs was a collection of proverbs from different languages, as well as a list of words, a fact noted by the title page shown here. However, it seems very possible that the phrase predates this notation. The phrase appears in a dictionary entry for nature, and the nature of the beast was used to give an example sentence.

It is possible that the phrase was well known enough that, by the time Ray compiled his list, it was an accepted idiom. However, his work is the first written usage, so we can definitely note the point at which the idiom existed. Because this is the first written usage, however, we cannot derive its origins--the phrase was written, but its precise origins were not.

That being said, the OED marks usage of beast which are related, and possibly point to the history of the phrase. In the entry of beast, two definitions are:

  • In early times, explicitly including man. Obs.

  • In later times, applied to the lower animals, as distinct from man. (First usage noted is in 1616)

  • The animal nature (in man). (first usage noted 1667)

The phrase the nature of the beast, having been recorded in 1678, may have been pulling on the first noted definition. That is, the nature of the beast was the inherent nature of man; that deepest essence within him. The later definitions may also work (as a beast is lower than man, "the nature of the beast" is the lower qualities within a man). The old usage of the term beast would explain the origins of the phrase--it was a normal definition of beast, which literally described the inner nature of man.

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"Tis the nature of the beast" In my memory of the '40s, my mother told us there was a poem written spoofing the Mother Goose rhymes, called Father Goose--Father Goose was taking care of the children and trying to answer all the questions, and his most often answer was "'tis the nature of the beast". I remember most vividly, "Why does the donkey bray, Papa, why does the donkey bray?" "Tis the nature of the beast, my love, 'tis the nature of the beast."

I've thought of it often lately.

  • It's an interesting theory, but the phrase nature of the beast does not seem to actually appear in the text of Frank L. Baum's Father Goose, His Book. – choster Apr 4 '14 at 20:30
  • Well, well. Either my mother put several books/poems together to amuse us, or my memories mixed them up. Either is quite posible. Thanks for the reference to L. Frank Baum's Father Goose book. It's one of his books I never read! – user71096 Apr 6 '14 at 15:01
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According to Google Book's Ngram Viewer, the earliest usage is ~ 1684, but it doesn't specify the source:

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