Was Frederick Nietzsche the first to use it in his 1888 book Twilight of the Idols?

I no longer think so after listening to a provocative guide at the partly excavated ruins of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros sugar plantation and mill near Trinidad, Cuba. She described how slaves barely got enough food to stay alive – owners provided just enough to keep them working. When they could, weak and starving slaves foraged in nearby woods for anything edible. But Cuba's plants were completely unfamiliar to the Africans. Some of the collected plants were edible and "made them stronger." Poisonous plants killed them. In Spanish, "Lo que no te mata te hace más fuerte."

From Encyclo-Britannica:

In the 19th century Cuba imported more than 600,000 African slaves, most of whom arrived after 1820, the date that Spain and Great Britain agreed would mark the end of slave trading in the Spanish colonies... in 1860 Cuba produced nearly one-third of the world’s sugar.

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    I favor the simplest and most primal explanation: Finding food. Not a psychological or philosophical metaphor.
    – Portland
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 23:29
  • Probably Nietzsche was the first to put this saying down in writing but "This sentiment goes back to our country’s founding, with Pilgrims arriving on these shores only to struggle against disease, hunger, rough weather and difficult terrain. In school we’re taught that they were tenacious, learned to live off the land and became our forebearers. We hear less about the Native Americans and colonists who died to make that victory possible. History is written by those who survive to tell it." from The Washington Post.
    – user66974
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 23:36
  • Nietzsche may have been the first to put this down in English, but it is apparent from the quote it came from a Spanish expression which is a direct translation. I seem to remember Hemingway expressing more or less the same thing, and I am pretty sure he first heard this in Cuba. Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 0:50
  • Oops, tell a lie: it appears that Hemingway expressed this in Farewell to Arms (1929), long before he went to Cuba. Possibly a migration of the expression back to Spain. Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 1:10
  • @Cascabel Nietzsche wrote in German, Thomas Common translated it into English in 1896. Hemmingway was born in 1899.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 12:51

1 Answer 1


Some of the collected plants were edible and "made them stronger." Poisonous plants killed them.

That is at odds with Nietzsche's expression. Nietzsche is referring to hard experiences that could kill one making one stronger, if they don't.

I no longer think so after listening to a provocative guide

What she describes predates Nietzsche, but her describing it was after him, so she could well have been influenced by him in turn of phrase, even if the meaning is not the same. Either way, someone using a phrase about something in the past does not tell us anything about the origin of the phrase.

There's nothing here to suggest we shouldn't credit Nietzsche with the expression.

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