Men are cruel, but Man is kind.

-- Stray Birds (219) by Rabindranath Tagore

What is the meaning of men and man in that sentence?


Opinions about this quote vary (here's one thread, for example), but the gist of the interpretations follow a common theme.

NOAD offers a hint:

man (n.)
1 an adult human male.
2 a human being of either sex; a person
• (also Man) [in sing.] human beings in general; the human race

I'd paraphrase it like this:

People are cruel, but the human race is still compassionate.

Whether that's a correct interpretation is off-topic (we don't do literary critiques of poetry here). However, the fact that the words man and men can be used to describe:

  • males, or
  • people, or
  • the human race

is indeed a matter for the English learner.

I believe the first word is capitalized because it's at the beginning of the sentence; the second capitalized word is being used as shown in NOAD, where Man = the human race.

As for your original question, I don't believe the word "Men" refers to "two men", but to an unspecified number of men.

  • 1
    @ J.R. : Here, the OP is not asking the reason for the first letter to be capital. He's asking why it is written : "Man is Kind" and "Men are Cruel". Intsead why we cannot write "Man is kind" but "Man is cruel" OR "Men are cruel" but "Men are Kind". Why in one sentence, singular form is used and in the other plural form even Man means the same thing either a particular person or complete mankind. – Sweet72 Sep 20 '13 at 12:10
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    @Sweet72- I don't think the OP is asking about plural or singular nature of the word. I guess the question is how can man (or men) be kind and cruel at the same time. – Ramit Sep 20 '13 at 12:30
  • @J.R.- I believe people and human race are synonyms. If you think they are separate, can you please elaborate? – Ramit Sep 20 '13 at 12:31
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    @Ramit There are certainly different counts implied between “people” and “(the) human race” such that almost all references to the former are understood to indicate a subset (albeit often a vague subset) of those covered by the latter. I want to point out that there's also a difference in the temporality implied by each. “People” seems to me to be much more specific in time, whereas “(the) human race” seems to indicate our species' entire history (and perhaps even make implicit reference to all our possible futures as well). (cf: “all's well that ends well” and “the truth will out”) – Tyler James Young Sep 20 '13 at 20:51
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    @TylerJamesYoung - The O.P.'s question reads: "How to understand the two Men and Man". That's where I got confused; I parsed "two Men and Man" as (two Men) and (Man). Oops! After reading your comment, though, I see how I should have parsed it as "(How to understand the two): (Men and Man)" Punctuation is a wonderful thing - Let's eat, Grandma! – J.R. Sep 20 '13 at 21:10

What is the meaning of men and man in that sentence?

This is a fascinating question on many levels.

  1. The author did not write in English so we're reading a translation.
  2. The two words are in some sense synonyms.
  3. It appears like most of the interpretations on the internet depend on someone's point-of-view. For example:

I believe it means, individuals can be arrogant and ruthless, while the general nature of humans is much more compassionate in nature. A good example of this is the way strangers pull together in time of crisis or disaster.

The author is gone so I believe that precisely what constitutes each group can't be decided from this single verse, and that everyone needs to read the entire poem and discern the author's intent. When I read the poem the author seems to have a great respect for people as individuals.

My guess is that the verse is referring to the fact that man has a dual nature. Neither all good nor all bad.

  • that's a very interesting take! +1 – Ramit Sep 21 '13 at 5:38
  • It's also possible to interpret it exactly opposite to the quote you give: individuals are kind (Man), but when you put a bunch of people together (Men), you get cruelty instead. – snailcar Sep 21 '13 at 15:46
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    @snailboat 100% agreed. – dcaswell Sep 21 '13 at 15:52
  • @snailboat Yes, I found many Chinese understood of Men on the net are Mankind, Many people are cruel. However, many English understood of Men are single people. – HyperGroups Sep 22 '13 at 13:21
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    @HyperGroups For what it's worth, I'm a native speaker of English, and my personal feeling is that Men doesn't mean single people. But I agree with this answer that it's open to interpretation. – snailcar Sep 22 '13 at 14:04

Men = individuals

Man = mankind/humankind

So, humans as a species/group are generally kind, though there are individuals who are cruel.

It's making the same distinction as in Neil Armstrong's famous quote: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind"

The "maleness" is not relevant. It used to be common to refer to people as "men", and all people as "mankind", but today we prefer to use gender-neutral language, eg, "people" and "humans/humankind".

It is possible that the author meant it the other way around though:

"Men" = all people

"Man" = an individual

although this is less likely, if the translator can be trusted. One would have to look at the original-language text to be sure.


Individual people are cruel, but humankind as a whole is kind.

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