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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Knowing others is wisdom..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment."






A less spread variation of this quote has "the self" instead of "yourself," which is even less likely to originate with Lao Tzu than the one discussed here. The self is a concept used in psychology and sometimes in modern interpretations of Buddhist thought, but it would be alien to the ancient China of Lao Tzu.

       So would, of course, the term enlightenment, which is connected to Buddhism - and to the philosophical revolution of 18th century Europe. So, this quote is in neither form from Lao Tzu.


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       Sadly, though, it is from a version of Tao Te Ching, and in its less fortunate form, using "the self." The quote is the beginning of chapter 33 in the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation from 1972, which is still in print and quite popular after all these years. The first half of the chapter reads (the book lacks pagination):


Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.


       The third and fourth line often appear on the web as a separate Lao Tzu quote. With a slightly different wording, it is discussed in the chapter "He who controls others" of this book. Here is my version of the beginning of chapter 33:


Those who understand others are clever,
Those who understand themselves are wise.
Those who defeat others are strong,
Those who defeat themselves are mighty.


       Here is James Legge's wording from 1891 (page 75):


He who knows other men is discerning; he who knows himself is intelligent. He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty.


       I can't say I like Legge's use of the word "intelligent," which is odd in a text from ancient China. But that is not the issue at hand. Also, I have far more objections to the expressions "the self" and "enlightenment" in the Feng and English version. They make Lao Tzu more of a Buddhist than a Taoist.

       It saddens me to find this shortcoming in their version, since it was the first Tao Te Ching book I ever got, back in 1973, and it got me started on my lifelong fascination with Lao Tzu's text.

       So, it is kind of a relief that they have been slightly misquoted in most later renditions, replacing "the self" with "yourself" at both instances. Replacing "enlightenment," though, is not that common. Since the most accurate replacement is "wisdom," that word would need to be replaced with something else in the first line, or the quote becomes nonsensical.

       Victor H. Mair in 1990 also used "enlightenment" but avoided "the self" (page 100):


Understanding others is knowledge,
Understanding oneself is enlightenment.


       Arthur Waley in 1934 found a clever solution (page 184):


To understand others is to have knowledge;
To understand oneself is to be illumined.


       Illumined is, of course, a synonym to enlightened, but without its Buddhist connotation.

       For more on the Feng and English version of chapter 33 see He who controls others. Also, a quote of theirs from Chuang Tzu is discussed in Life and death are one thread.

       Another version of the quote discussed here, which is also found a lot in books and on the web, is that of Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching from 1988 (page 33):


Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.


       Like Legge, he made use of the rather non-archaic word intelligence, the modern use of which is most prominent in psychology - and not without being questioned, especially its application in IQ-testing. Contrary to Legge, though, Mitchell used it in the first instead of the second line.

       That makes sense, since the word wisdom gives the impression of surpassing intelligence, and thereby the lines come very close to Lao Tzu's intention.

       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 16, 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.

       More about the book here.



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