Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Act without expectation."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Act without expectation.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:

"Act without expectation."

One wonders - expectation of what? A common expression is "act without expectation of reward," but if we expect no result at all from our actions, there is no reason to act. And if we don't know what to expect, then we should be very careful when acting - again probably do best to avoid it altogether.

       That would actually be right up Lao Tzu's alley. He argued for wu-wei, non-action. Still, that does not mean never doing anything, but doing as little as possible in order to avoid doing too much.

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       He understood that action was sometimes needed, but it should be done with great care and hesitation. If things could be left to solve themselves, which he meant was often the case, then indeed we should refrain from acting. He explained it like this in chapter 43 (n my version):

The softest in the world
Surpasses the hardest in the world.
What has no substance
Can penetrate what has no opening.
Thereby I know the value of non-action.

       So, action - when needed - should be soft and discreet, making as little of a mark as possible. Then it will meet no resistance and actually succeed to solve the problem at hand, no matter how big it is.

       To Lao Tzu, then, it is not about expectance, but about sensitivity and moderation. Chapter 59 states:

When leading people and serving Heaven,
Nothing exceeds moderation.
Truly, moderation means prevention.
Prevention means achieving much virtue.

When much virtue is achieved,
Nothing is not overcome.

       The quote examined here is too short, too absolute, to fit Lao Tzu's philosophy. Either it is simply not a quote of his, or it's taken out of context. The latter is the case, because there are versions of Tao Te Ching that have this phrase - but not on its own.

       The oldest book connecting the exact quote examined here to Lao Tzu is the 1986 version of Tao Te Ching by R. L. Wing, The Tao of Power, which ends chapter 77 (no pagination):

Therefore evolved individuals
Act without expectation,
Succeed without taking credit,
And have no desire to display their excellence.

       His wording is not that far from the usual. Here is my version of the same lines:

Therefore, the sage acts without taking credit.
He accomplishes without dwelling on it.
He does not want to display his worth.

       Here is that of James Legge from 1891 (page 119):

Therefore the (ruling) sage acts without claiming the results as his; he achieves his merit and does not rest (arrogantly) in it; - he does not wish to display his superiority.

       Philip J. Ivanhoe in his 2002 translation had this wording (page 80):

This is why sages act with no expectation of reward.
When their work is done, they do not linger.
They do not desire to make a display of their worthiness.

       I do not like Wing's choice of "evolved individuals" instead of "the sage," since it is a modern concept, with some ugly connotations at that. Would some people be more evolved than others? That flawed thinking belongs to a recent period of human thought we are happy to have left behind.

       As for the quote examined here, one might regard "act without expectation" as a way of expressing the noble mind of not expecting praise, but on its own it is misleading. The statement is in need of one or two clarifying words. Lao Tzu's meaning was definitely not that the sage would act expecting no result.

       Other books have used Wing's version of the quote, bringing their own context to it. An odd example of this is Thinking Body, Dancing Mind: TaoSports for Extraordinary Performance in Athletics, Business, and Life from 1992, by Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch. I doubt that Lao Tzu would have been pleased with the term TaoSports. They dedicated their book to the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell "who, as a world-class runner, personified the TaoAthlete" (page v). It is not really what made Campbell famous.

       Anyway, they used the quote to illustrate the need not to tie oneself to expectations or preconceived notions, thereby: "You, like a samurai warrior, expect nothing and become ready for everything" (page 132). It is odd linking the Chinese thinker Lao Tzu to the Japanese warrior class, but their use of mushin, empty mind, comes closer to the idea of acting without expectation than anything he said.

       The book One Heart: Universal Wisdom from the World's Scriptures from 2004, edited by Bonnie Louise Kuchler, used a version slightly different from that of Wing (page 16):

Therefore the wise act without expectation,
do not abide in their accomplishments,
do not want to show their virtue.

       I am happy to see "evolved individuals" replaced by "the wise," which is of course synonymous with "the sage." The problem remains, though, with the words "without expectation," implying a lack of care about results.

       What version of Tao Te Ching Kuchler used for this quote is a mystery. It is not in any of the nine versions listed in the bibliography of the book. Nor have I found it anywhere else. The closest I have come is Charles Muller's version on his own website and in the 2005 book with his translation of Tao Te Ching:

Therefore the sage acts without expectation.
Does not abide in his accomplishments.
Does not want to show his virtue.

       That is probably the one used by Kuchler, with minor edits. The problem of "without expectation" is there as well, although Muller is an accomplished translator, indeed, and an expert on East Asian philosophy and religion.

       AAAA For more on Charles Muller's version of Tao Te Ching, see the chapter Loss is not as bad.

       Stephen Mitchell also used "without expectation" in his very popular version of Tao Te Ching from 1988. Speaking about the Master, he used "she" in this chapter, since he altered the gender in the chapters to avoid the male stereotype - and the Chinese text does not specify any gender. That is admirable. Here is his rendition of the last lines of chapter 77 (page 77):

She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn't think that she is better
than anyone else.

       His solution, too, contains the problem with no expectation. For more about Stephen Mitchell and his version of Tao Te Ching, see the chapter A good traveler has no fixed plans.

       They would all have done better to use the familiar expression of acting without expectation of reward.

Stefan Stenudd
September 12, 2020.

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