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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"If you would take..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: If you would take, you must first give. This is the beginning of intelligence.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"If you would take, you must first give. This is the beginning of intelligence."






This Lao Tzu quote is gravely misleading. I would not call it intelligent to give in order to take back. Who would accept it? Nor is it gentle and compassionate, as Lao Tzu insisted we should be.

       Furthermore, the word "intelligence" is not really fitting on a text from ancient China. Although the word has a long history, its present meaning is from 20th century psychology and the dubious idea that something fundamentally important about the human mind's capacity can be decided by a written test using mathematical and other riddles.


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       Lao Tzu did instead regard people as able, though not always willing. Chapter 53 of Tao Te Ching states (my version):


The great Way is very straight,
But people prefer to deviate.


       He even warned against confidence in intellectual prowess. Chapter 19 starts:


Abandon wisdom, discard knowledge,
And people will benefit a hundredfold.


       Sadly, the quote examined here is from a Tao Te Ching version, and by a sinologist at that: Lionel Giles (1875-1958), whose father was also a distinguished sinologist. It is his version of lines from chapter 36 in The Sayings of Lao Tzu from 1904 (page 45). In his defense, the quote is taken out of context, which makes it seem to state something else than it does.

       Here is the whole beginning of the chapter in his version - and notice also that the last sentence has a slightly different wording than the quote examined here:


If you would contract, you must first expand. If you would weaken, you must first strengthen. If you would overthrow, you must first raise up. If you would take, you must first give. This is called the dawn of intelligence.


       The listing of opposites presupposing one another broadens the perspective, but I must still say that Giles has made a rather aggressive interpretation, as if Lao Tzu were talking about winning a battle. And one important line is missing at the end, which is because Giles divided the text of Tao Te Ching into themes, cutting and shuffling chapters accordingly.

       Here is my version of that part of chapter 36, including the missing last line, which makes all the difference in the world:


What should be shrunken must first be stretched.
What should be weakened must first be strengthened.
What should be abolished must first be cherished.
What should be deprived must first be enriched.
This is called understanding the hidden.
The soft and weak overcome the hard and strong.


       Here is D. C. Lau's 1963 wording of the last line (page 95):


The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong.


       Lao Tzu did not cherish might and force. Nor was he with these words giving a strategy for some conquest. He implied that the enhanced states were vulnerable, because they could be reversed. What is not stretched can't be shrunken, and so on. Moderation is the key.

       Still, there is some connection to the subject of warfare. The chapter ends (my version):


The fish cannot leave the deep waters.
The state's weaponry should not be displayed.


       A display of force may not only worry one's own people, but it also tends to instigate war. One should not flaunt what powers one has. That makes others want to challenge them.

       In conclusion, I cannot really call this Lao Tzu quote fake. The deception lies in what is excluded from it.

Stefan Stenudd
September 16, 2020.



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The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

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The Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. 389 quotes from the foremost Taoist classic, divided into 51 prominent topics. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

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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.

       More about the book here.



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