oday, when we say “man does not live by bread alone” we simply mean that humans need more than the basic necessities to live, whatever those other things may be. Usually, we are speaking of abstract “spiritual” needs as opposed to material ones. This expression is an ancient one and actually comes from the Bible.
This proverb is found in two places in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testament. In Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Read the entire chapter). And also in Matthew 4:4: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Read the entire chapter)
We can take bread to mean “food” or all basic necessities, today, but we have lost the second part of the proverb in the modern expression and not all people are thinking of God or religion when they use the proverb.
This expression has been repeated many times in literature. Nietzche mocked it in Thus Spoke Zarthustra (1885), saying, “man does not live by bread alone, but also by the flesh of good lambs.”
Whereas Nietzche, by bringing up the meat of lambs, was making fun of those who would follow the word of the bible like willing sheep, Dostoevsky took a more pious and liberal view of the passage. In a letter to a subscriber to his Diary of a Writer, he wrote:
…Contemporary socialism in Europe, even our own, is completely separated from Christ; is it concerned almost completely about bread; it looks to science and declares that the cause of all man’s miseries is poverty alone, the struggle for existence, the “environment tangle.”
To this Christ answered: “Man does not live by bread alone”—that is, spoke the axiom of the spiritual origin of man. The idea of hte devil could be suitable only to a man-brute; Christ knew that is was not brad alone that would give man life. If, furthermore, there is no spiritual life, no dieal of Beauty, then man will pin away (zatoskovat’) and ide, lose his mind, kill himself or give himself over to pagan fantasies. But since Christ, in Himself and in his Word, is the ideal of Beauty, he decided: it is better to inspire man’s soul with the ideal of Beauty; possessing it in their souls, all men become brothers and then, finally, working for each other, they also become prosperous. But give them bread and from boredom they will become the enemies of one another.
This viewpoint is more in line with the modern usage of the expression, which is to say that man does not live by bread alone, or simply by his material needs being met. Man needs a spiritual existence, needs love, beauty, art, brotherhood, and many other things that could be taken together as defining a “meaningful existence.”
The word bread is used many times in the bible but does not always have the same meaning. Jesus refers to himself, for instance as “the bread of God” and “the bread of life,” at least according to John chapter six:
Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; by my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life; he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. – John 6:26 – 35
Many times the exact intent of the word is debated. In the expression “man does not live by bread alone” bread seems to not only stand for any food but for all material needs, including clothing or money. The familiar biblical phrase “bread is the staff of life, seems to use bread to mean food in general. On the other hand, “cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it again” seems to use bread to denote anything of material value. At other times the word bread means literally bread.