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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"To understand..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: To understand the limitation of things, desire them.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"To understand the limitation of things, desire them."






This sentence has the wit reminding of Oscar Wilde. Not that he had anything against desire. In his play Lady Windermere's Fan from 1892 he had the character Lord Darlington declare (act I): "I can resist everything except temptation."

       Later in the play, Dumby also has something to say on the subject (act III):


In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is a real tragedy!


       To Oscar Wilde, desire was a trap with no escape. In his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray from 1891, Lord Henry explains to Dorian (chapter II, page 27):


The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.



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       Lao Tzu, too, warned against letting desire command us. In chapter 19 of Tao Te Ching he said that we should "lessen selfishness and restrain desires" and in chapter 37 he stated (my version):


Without desire there is stillness,
And the world settles by itself.


       He did not use the wording of the quote discussed here, but he was aware of the paradox it expresses. To realize how shallow the things that we desire are, we need to examine our desires. He explained it already in the first chapter of Tao Te Ching:


Free from desire you see the mystery.
Full of desire you see the manifestations.
These two have the same origin but differ in name.
That is the secret,
The secret of secrets,
The gate to all mysteries.


       The mystery he spoke of was the working of Tao, the Way, hidden beneath everything in the world and still ruling it. That is only perceivable if we do not allow desires to blind our eyes. Otherwise we only see the result of the Way's workings - the world and everything in it. We see the surface but not the substance.

       But then he added that they merely differ in name. We need to observe both to reveal the secret. That means we cannot just ignore the manifestations, because it would make us unable to comprehend the whole as well as its core, which is Tao.

       So, we need to be both free from and full of desire.

       Although the quote examined here is not to be found in Tao Te Ching, I find it plausible that it is an interpretation of the lines about desire in the first chapter. It doesn't encompass all that Lao Tzu intended with the chapter, but it's a good start.

       The oldest book I have found to contain the quote is from as late as 2014: Lao Zi: His Words, by Daniel Coenn. It is an ebook containing 225 quotes and aphorisms supposed to be from Lao Tzu, probably collected on the Internet. There are no sources given, just the quotes.

       The other four books with the quote are all from 2016 and accrediting Lao Tzu.

       On the web, the earliest occurrence of the quote with an ascertained date is in a blog post from May 2010, also ascribing it to Lao Tzu. The first posting of the quote on Facebook was in July 2012. But it must have been up on Goodreads before that, since the quote got its first like there already on February 1, 2008. That might be where this quote got started.

       I have not found any initial source to the quote or reference to a specific Tao Te Ching version and chapter. It seems to be inspired by the first chapter and then paraphrased, to say the least, but I could not confirm that.

Stefan Stenudd
September 22, 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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