The phrase great minds think alike is said when two people have the same opinion or make the same choice. It is almost always used as ironic (self-)congratulation.
The very same notion used to be expressed by the obsolete phrase good wits jump, and variants, in which the verb jump meant to agree completely, to coincide.
This earlier phrase is first recorded in Hans Beer-Pot his inuisible comedie, of see me, and see me not (London: Bernard Alsop, 1618), by the English playwright Daubridgecourt Belchier (1580?-1621). In the following passage, Younker Harmants asks Sergeant Good fellow to compose a verse; when the Sergeant has done so, Younker declares that this verse had in fact been composed by the English poet, scholar and soldier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586):
– Younker. That famous learned Knight,
Sir Philip Sidney, Scholers, souldiers pride
Was his, not yours.
– Sergeant. What, though he made that verse,
Those words were made before, he made them not;
Twas well I hapt on his inuentions.
– Younker. Good wits doe iumpe, good witty, witles sir:
You hatch those egges that other birds haue layde:
I bid you make me one, by your owne wit.
– Sergeant. Why so I did, that which sir Philip made
Is now grown olde, […]
But this I made is new.
The current phrase is first recorded in The Arts of Logick and Rhetorick (London: Printed for John Clark and Richard Hett, John Pemberton, Richard Ford, and John Gray, 1728), a translation by the English historian and political pamphleteer John Oldmixon (1672/3-1742) of La manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages d’esprit. Dialogues (Paris: Chez la Veuve de Sébastien Mabre-Cramoisy, 1687), by the French Jesuit priest, essayist and grammarian Dominique Bouhours (1628-1702):
Henry IV. of France, said something as strong as this to his Soldiers, before the Battle of Iv’ry. I am your King, you are French Men, and there’s the Enemy. We read in Livy, that Camillus the Dictator had a Saying to the same Purpose. Hostem, an me, an vos, ignoratis? Know ye not who the Enemy is, who I am, and who you are your selves? Great Minds often think alike on the same Occasions, and we are not always to suppose, that such Thoughts are borrow’d from one another when exprest by Persons of the same heroick Sentiments.
In the original French text, Bouhours had written “les grandes ames pensent & sentent les mesmes choses dans les mesmes occasions”, literally “great souls think and feel the same things on the same occasions”:
Nostre Henri le Grand, poursuivit Philanthe, ne parla pas avec moins de force dans les plaines d’Ivry, lors que sur le point de donner bataille, il dît à ses troupes : Je suis vostre Roy, vous estes François, voilà l’ennemi. Il semble, repartit Eudoxe, que ce Monarque qui avoit toute la valeur des anciéns Romains, ait copié le Dictateur Camille, qui dans Tite-Live voyant ses soldats étonnez du nombre des ennemis, leur dît pour les animer : Ignorez-vous donc qui est l’ennemi, qui je suis, & qui vous estes ? C’est peut-estre aussi que les grandes ames pensent & sentent les mesmes choses dans les mesmes occasions.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the extended ironic form great minds think alike; fools seldom differ is from a list of proverbs published in The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada) of Monday 1st February 1932. This newspaper was announcing a proverbs contest:
There will be sixty cartoon drawings in the series, each of which will depict a well-known proverb. The object is to fit the right proverb to the right drawing. You don’t have to be a wizard to do this, for a list of 1,000 proverbs, the first instalment of which appears below, is being published.
This is an extract from the list of proverbs:
Good wine needs no bush.
Good words cost nothing, but are worth much.
Great minds think alike; fools seldom differ.
Grass grows not upon the busy street.
The equivalent French phrase is les grands esprits se rencontrent, literally great minds encounter each other.
The earliest occurrence that I have found is from observations made by a Doctor of Medicine named M. Bosc de la Roberdière, published in Journal de médecine, chirurgie, pharmacie, &c. (Paris: Vincent) of January 1775:
On a bien raison de dire que les grands esprits se rencontrent dans leurs pensées.
It is rightly said that great minds encounter each other in their thoughts.
The phrase then occurs in the second part of La vie et les opinions de Tristram Shandy (Neuchâtel: Imprimerie de la Société Typographique, 1777), a translation by M. Frénais of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), by the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768)—the following passage does not seem to occur in the original text:
Les grands esprits se rencontrent. Lisez sur-tout nos auteurs contemporains ; vous les trouverez presque toujours avec ceux qui les ont précédés.
Great minds encounter each other. Read especially our contemporary authors; you will almost always find them with those who preceded them.
An earlier phrase was les beaux esprits se rencontrent, literally cultured minds encounter each other. The first occurrence that I have found is from Les Enlevemens (Paris: Thomas Guillain, 1686), by the French actor and playwright Michel Baron (1653-1729)—there is a humoristic intention, since the phrase is used by a servant.
This earlier phrase was recorded in the second tome of Dictionnaire universel françois & latin (Trévoux: Etienne Ganeau, 1704).