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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"If you realize that all things change..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: If you realize that all things change...

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve."






This fake Lao Tzu quote is easily found on the Internet, though sometimes just the first sentence.

       All things changing is really a Buddhist concept. Even more so is the idea of not holding on. Especially in Zen, letting go is praised as a way towards emptiness of the mind. Lao Tzu would describe it differently.

       Lao Tzu did speak about the fear of dying, for example when in chapter 74 saying that people without that fear were hard to rule. But overcoming the fear was not something he discussed, and certainly not for the intent of achieving things. He preached wu-wei, non-action, which is pretty much the opposite to boldly start doing stuff.


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       Therefore, it is disappointing to see that the quote is indeed from a version of Tao Te Ching. It's in chapter 74, mentioned above, of Stephen Mitchell's popular book from 1988 (page 74). Mitchell has allowed himself considerable freedom in his interpretations of Lao Tzu, frequently leading far away from the mind of the ancient Chinese thinker.

       Here is my version of the same lines in chapter 74 of Tao Te Ching:


If people are not afraid of dying,
Why threaten them with death?
If people live in constant fear of death,
And if breaking the law is punished by death,
Then who would dare?


       That is quite different from the meaning suggested by Mitchell's wording. Every scholarly translation I have come across shows the same distance to Mitchell's version. For example, here is the elegant wording of Victor H. Mair from 1990 (page 49):


If the people never fear death,
what is the purpose of threatening to kill them?
If the people ever fear death,
and I were to capture and kill those who are devious,
who would dare to be so?


       In these lines, Lao Tzu discussed politics in a manner not so very far from that of Machiavelli in The Prince. A ruler who wants to keep his subjects in check should consider what threats might work. Not very compassionate, but in Lao Tzu's time the authority of the ruler was not to be questioned - even Lao Tzu insisted on it, though himself often critical.

       By the way, I have to object to Lao Tzu's conclusion here. Already in his day it must have been obvious that the capital punishment was no guarantee against crime.

       The next half of the chapter makes a much more interesting observation. Here is my rendering of it:


There is one appointed supreme executioner.
Truly, trying to take the place of the supreme executioner
Is like trying to carve wood like a master carpenter.
Of those who try to carve wood like a master carpenter,
There are few who do not injure their hands.


This is much easier to agree with. Lao Tzu points out that no executioner can compare to the very master: nature. It is the fact that we will all die, whatever we do. So, society should hesitate to play with death. It can backfire in so many ways. Indeed, history has proven it again and again.

       Instead of execution, Mitchell's version speaks of "trying to control the future." Don't ask me where he got that from. Maybe he wanted to avoid the grim subject, and Lao Tzu's mixed treatment of it.

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

Stefan Stenudd
April 2, 2017, revised September 9, 2020.



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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

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 (paid link).

       More about the book here.



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