I am curious about the meaning of this sentence:

"Man proposes and God disposes."

(Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, M. Kline, vol. 1, page 181)

Whole paragraph is as follows:

"It has often been said that man proposes and God disposes. It is more accurate to say of the Greeks that God proposed them and man disposed of them. The Greek mathematicians were wiped out. But the fruits of their work did reach Europe in a way we have yet to relate."

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    Your dictionary provides definitions of the verbs propose and dispose. Pay special attention to all definitions of dispose. This will help you to understand the play on words in the paragraph you cite. – P. E. Dant Aug 3 '16 at 3:33
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    I just realised how this saying also applies to science. We can write down all the brilliant theories we can think of, in the end nature "disposes" of the ones that are incorrect by contradicting them in experiment. – CompuChip Aug 3 '16 at 7:16
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    In my country there's a similar one Men propose and women dispose". Here dispose is used as well with the meaning of "determining whether or not things will happen as expected or wished". – Tulains Córdova Aug 3 '16 at 19:30
  • It's a very common saying in Spanish: "El hombre propone, y Dios dispone" – leonbloy Aug 3 '16 at 22:58
up vote 30 down vote accepted

Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.

This saying was originally written in Latin by Thomas a Kempis (1380- 1481) and was translated into different languages.

People may make plans, but they cannot control the outcome of their plans.

In other words it says that whatever man proposes as his objective to achieve by exercising his will power, efforts and intellectual potentialities, there is a limit to his abilities and there is some supernatural power – God - to determine the shape of things and their end.

  • Glad I found your answer. I edited to add a link for [further] reference. (+1) – shin Aug 3 '16 at 4:57
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    Thank you @shin, just noticed some improper words and corrected them. – V.V. Aug 3 '16 at 5:55
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    Translations in other languages from the original Latin might be easier to understand than the English one. One of them is "Man makes a plan, God ends [that plan]". I've seen it used often even outside religious topics, to mean something like a person makes a too ambitious plan, but outside circumstances beyond the planner's control make the plan infeasible. So, by using this phrase in everyday language, "God" usually stands in for "external circumstances beyond our control", just like the "act of God" in legal language doesn't mean an event which needs to be proven to be supernatural. – vsz Aug 3 '16 at 6:22
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    @vsz, 'force majeure' might also be related. (if we'd consider 'going legalese') – shin Aug 3 '16 at 8:55
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    @vsz Intersting enough, the Russian version "Chelovek predpolagaet, a Bog raspolagaet" means "Man conjectures, God disposes/arranges" – Anixx Aug 3 '16 at 17:22

You are perhaps only familiar with dispose of [object] meaning "throw away, get rid of."

Man proposes, God disposes uses a different, older, now-uncommon meaning of dispose: "to determine the outcome." See definition 2.2 here, which uses this sentence as an example; notice that the dictionary calls this definition "literary", i.e. rarely found outside of high-register literature.

So basically what this sentence means is that people may make plans, but God has final control over what ends up happening. (This is basic and uncontested doctrine for medieval Christianity; your theology may vary.)

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    One surviving descendant of this sense is the phrase to have (something) at one’s disposal. – PLL Aug 3 '16 at 20:56
  • @PLL Also the legal jargon 'dispositive'. – zwol Aug 3 '16 at 20:58

Basically, it's saying these two sentences:

  • Man proposes
  • God disposes

Below are the definitions of those two verbs, according to Google. Here is the definition for propose:

put forward (an idea or plan) for consideration or discussion by others.

Here is the definition for dispose:

get rid of by throwing away or giving or selling to someone else.

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    @Peanut It doesn't help that you provided the wrong definition. – Will Vousden Aug 3 '16 at 14:46

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