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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Knowledge is a treasure..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Knowledge is a treasure, but practice is the key to it.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Knowledge is a treasure, but practice is the key to it."






Lao Tzu was no friend of knowledge, at least not in the sense of hoarding it and striving to be learned. He stated bluntly in chapter 19 of Tao Te Ching (my version):


Abandon knowledge and your worries are over.


       To him, the great truth about how the world works was not to be found by learning a lot, but by opening one's mind to it. In chapter 48 he wrote:


Those who seek knowledge,
Collect something every day.
Those who seek the Way,
Let go of something every day.


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       As for treasures, Lao Tzu had three, none of them being knowledge. He listed them in chapter 67:


I have three treasures that I cherish.
The first is compassion.
The second is moderation.
The third is not claiming to be first in the world.


       But there was one more treasure of his, surpassing all the others - Tao, the Way. Chapter 62 starts:


The Way is the source of all things,
Good people's treasure and bad people's refuge.


       Finally, regarding practice, Lao Tzu was hesitant, to say the least, about its value. He insisted on wu-wei, the principle of non-action. The less you need to do, the better. The more you do, the higher the risk that things go wrong. The supreme example of this was Tao. He wrote in chapter 37:


The Way is ever without action,
Yet nothing is left undone.


       So, the quote discussed here cannot be from Lao Tzu.

       In books and on the Internet, he is not the only one frequently being accredited to it. Also, the British physician Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) has received that honor, and in his case it is deserved. The quote is from his big collection of 6,496 proverbs Gnomologia from 1732.

       It is proverb 3139, with the only difference being that nouns are written with capital initials, according to the custom of the time (page 134, mistakenly marked as 132):


Knowledge is a Treasure, but Practice is the Key to it.


       Another proverb on the same page has a similar meaning. It is number 3137:


Knowledge directeth Practice; but yet Practice increaseth Knowledge.


       By the way, there is a proverb in his collection to which Lao Tzu might be much more favorable. It is number 4901 (page 212):


There is much more Learning than Knowledge in the World.


       This implies wisdom rather than knowledge, and links to Lao Tzu's idea of the sage. It is not about what you learn, but what you understand.

       The proverb from Fuller's collection has not only been ascribed to Lao Tzu. Encyclopaedia of Indian Proverbs, volume 4, from 1960, by Narasingha Rao, obviously claims it is Indian (page 50). A Dictionary of American Proverbs from 1996, edited by Mieder, Kingsbury and Harder, found it in Illinois, New York and Ontario (page 354). The Magic from 2012, by Rhonda Byrne, ascribed it to the Arabian 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun (page 17).

       The earliest books I have found accrediting the quote to Lao Tzu are from as late as 2016, and there are three of them. That means they probably got the quote from the Internet.

       There, the oldest web page with an ascertained date, accrediting the quote to Lao Tzu, is on Goodreads, where it got its first like on March 20, 2008, just one year after the website was launched. Next was a blog post from May 24, 2010. The blog is Chinese, but lists a number of Lao Tzu quotes in English - also the complete Tao Te Ching in Chinese.

       That might not have spread considerably over the web, at least not in the West, but I also found a PDF on the web, published in October 2012: The Amazing Quotes of Lao Tzu, complied by Remez Sasson. That one might have reached a wider audience, but was probably compiled from the web.

       On Facebook, the quote started to appear in 2010, very scarcely. In 2013 it was accredited to Thomas Fuller in a post. The first post ascribing the quote to Lao Tzu came in September of 2015, accompanied by a meme. It was by the author and healer Deborah King, getting 642 likes and 262 shares. So, I presume that's when the linking of the quote to Lao Tzu really took off.

Stefan Stenudd
September 17, 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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