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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"The heart that gives..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: The heart that gives, gathers.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"The heart that gives, gathers."






The heart as a symbol is in Chinese tradition not the same as it is in the West. We connect it to love and other emotions, whereas the Chinese concept stands for the mind and the will. Lao Tzu also used the word with that connotation several times in Tao Te Ching, for example in chapter 8 (my version):


A good mind is deep.


       And in the melancholy chapter 20, where Lao Tzu sighed at being alone with his thoughts, as if he were the only one completely mistaken:


I have the mind of a fool,
Understanding nothing.


       But he did not use the word in the sense of the quote examined here. It could just as well be expressed as 'kindness brings its own reward' or 'what you give is what you get' and so on. What makes it questionable is the implication that the goal of giving would be what it leads to you receiving. You give, and then you can gather. Like an investment.


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       To Lao Tzu, as to many other great thinkers of the past, good deeds should be made without any concern of personal gratification. You should be good because it is good, and that should be enough. He wrote in chapter 49:


The sage has no concern for himself,
But makes the concerns of others his own.

He is good to those who are good.
He is also good to those who are not good.
That is the virtue of good.
He is faithful to people who are faithful.
He is also faithful to people who are not faithful.
That is the virtue of faithfulness.


       Still, the quote discussed here has often been ascribed to Lao Tzu - but not only to him. Frequently, it is accredited to the American poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972). I searched collections of her writing, but could not find the quote there. It has also been ascribed to the British author Hannah More (1745-1833), but I did not find it when searching through her collected works. This is an elusive quote.

       It is also a strange saying. A heart that is giving and gathering is an odd organ, even if it is to be understood symbolically. It would make more sense to say, for example, that a heart finding joy in giving will be pleased by getting. The heart is not doing the job, though it might be the motivator.

       Who can be doing the actual giving and gathering, then? The hand, of course. And there is a saying that must be the original form of the quote discussed here:


The hand that gives, gathers.


       The oldest record of it I found is in Paroimiographia (Proverbs) from 1659, by James Howell. The saying is in a chapter of the book on British proverbs, in the section "Other sayings, not unworthy the Consideration."

       So, that wording has been with us for long, whereas the version with "heart" is much more recent.

       The earliest occurrence I have found of the "heart" version in print is International Stereotypers' and Electrotypers' Union Journal, volume 54, from 1959, calling it an old English proverb (page 66). That indicates it was the Howell source misread. It appeared again in 1964, in Old Lamps and New, by Ruth Little (page 9), saying nothing about the origin. Little is sometimes accredited with the saying on the web.

       The first books ascribing the quote to Lao Tzu are from 2020, but it happened earlier on the Internet. A web page listing "Great Quotes for Nurses" on May 13, 2013, is the earliest I have found with the quote, stating that it is from Tao Te Ching.

       In November 2016, Richard Branson had the quote in his column at Virgin, also claiming it to be from Tao Te Ching (the blog post now seems to be gone, but it is saved at Internet Archive). That probably helped to spread the misconception. Another Richard Branson quote of Lao Tzu is discussed in the chapter Leadership is the ability...

       As for memes on the web, the ones with this quote seem to be rather equally divided between ascribing Lao Tzu and Marianne Moore. The Goodreads website has the quote twice, ascribing it to Lao Tzu and Marianne Moore respectively. The former got its first like in 2014 and the latter as early as 2008, which was the year after the website launched.

       I would put my bet on the quote originating with Howell's Paroimiographia and then misquoted with "heart" instead of "hand," much later to be ascribed to Lao Tzu, since the proverb was anonymous to begin with.

       I still have to figure out how it got ascribed to both Hannah and Marianne Moore. My guess would be that it started with Hannah as several older books indicate, though I don't know how, and then someone got the wrong Moore for it.

Stefan Stenudd
September 20, 2020.



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