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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Hope and fear are both phantoms..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self...

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don't see the self as self, what do we have to fear?"






The self is a concept heavily attired with lots of traits that can differ considerably between for example psychology with Freudian and Jungian roots, and spiritual perspectives of Hinduism and Buddhism. But there is none of that in the Taoism of Lao Tzu. He did not regard the individual as wrestling with some kind of identity issue. Some people were far from Tao, the Way, and some were not - and that was it.

       People who were unbalanced and agitated were not obsessed by themselves. They were simply caught in aspirations blinding them to what they already had. Chapter 50 states (my version):


We go from birth to death.
Three out of ten follow life.
Three out of ten follow death.
People who rush from birth to death
Are also three out of ten.
Why is that so?
Because they want to make too much of life.


       Hope was not something Lao Tzu discussed. It may have been implicit in some of his comments about the human nature, for example in the lines from chapter 50 above, but he regarded it as wanting rather than hoping. The former expresses an urge, the latter a dream. The one who urges for something believes it is possible to reach, whereas hoping for something implies that it is completely out of one's reach. Hope is what one does when there is nothing else one can do.


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       He spoke about fear, though. What caused people's fear was their longing for praise and worries about its opposite disgrace. Chapter 13 explains:


Praise leads to weakness.
Getting it causes fear, losing it causes fear.


       When you are praised you worry about losing it, so it weakens you. If you were concerned with neither praise nor disgrace, it would not bother you. But the aspiration to get the former makes you fear the latter.

       The quote examined here is actually from this chapter of Tao Te Ching, in the version by Stephen Mitchell from 1988. As so often in his version, he allowed himself a lot of freedom from the original text.

       Here is my version of the same lines:


The reason for great distress is the body.
Without it, what distress could there be?


       Arthur Waley in 1934 wrote (page 157):


The only reason that we suffer hurt is that we have bodies; if we had no bodies, how could we suffer?


       Nothing about hope or "the self." The lines are instead about the vulnerability of having a body. It is an interesting statement by Lao Tzu, which sort of goes along with the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Were it not for the vulnerability of the physical body, falling out of grace would not be harmful to anything but one's pride.

       Stephen Mitchell has gone down another path in his interpretation. I can't see how his wording can be an option if Lao Tzu's text is to be treated with some faithfulness. Mitchell has not translated this chapter (and several others), but taken it as a starting point for saying something belonging much more to his mindset than that of Lao Tzu. I fail to see how that was necessary.

       For more about Stephen Mitchell and his version of Tao Te Ching, see the chapter A good traveler has no fixed plans.

Stefan Stenudd
September 15, 2020.



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Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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