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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"What the caterpillar..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly."






This is an amusing saying, but it has one flaw: what is the point of view of the butterfly? It would make more sense if the perspective of the caterpillar was countered with that of the butterfly. The rest of the world would probably not care as much. What the caterpillar regards as the end, the butterfly must see as the beginning.

       Anyway, though often accredited with this quote, Lao Tzu mentioned neither caterpillars nor butterflies in Tao Te Ching. He might have appreciated the humor of it, but it is not the kind of joke he would make. There is another legendary Taoist much more likely to have said something of this kind. That is Chuang Tzu, who lived in the 4th century BC.

       The most famous anecdote in the texts about him concerns a butterfly. Here it is in James Legge's Texts of Taoism, volume 1, from 1891 (page 197):


Formerly, I, Kwang Kau, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Kau. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Kau. I did not know whether it had formerly been Kau dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Kau. But between Kau and a butterfly there must be a difference. This is a case of what is called the Transformation of Things.



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       This anecdote, from the end of book 2 in Chuang Tzu, is probably the reason for a different wording of the quote examined here often on the web being falsely attributed to Chuang Tzu:


Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.


       There is another wording, which is even closer to the quote discussed here:


What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.


       This one is from the 1977 book Illusions, by Richard Bach (page 177). In his novel, he presented this and other maxims sprayed across the book as coming from Messiah's Handbook, which is as fictional as the rest of the novel - as far as I know. The quote is at the start of the last chapter of the book, with this line preceding it:


The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.


       Since I have not found any source to the quote examined here older than Bach's book, I must assume that it is a slightly altered version of his maxim. As far as I know, the quote's earliest appearance with the exact wording (not Bach's) is in a Dutch book from the year 2000: Scenario's voor kennisomgevingen (Scenarios for Knowledge Environments), by Foks, Hofman, and Kokhuis (page 75). They accredited the quote to Lao Tzu, as has every book since - when naming a source.

       I doubt that this book got a huge score of readers, especially since it is in the Dutch language, except for the quote. But in 2008, three books with the quote were published, all ascribing it to Lao Tzu: With the Dawn Rejoicing, by Melannie Svoboda (page 80), Mastering the Light, by George Lewis (page 43), and the Hallmark book 1001 Things to Be Thankful For (#934 of the things listed). My guess is that the last one was spread the most.

       A Google search finds the oldest posting of the exact quote from March 2005, giving no source to it, and the next from August 2008 in a blog, ascribing the quote to Lao Tzu. On Facebook, the earliest appearance of the quote is from May 2010, also ascribing it to Lao Tzu. That accreditation has since been repeated when the quote was.

       On Goodreads, both Richard Bach's version of the quote and that ascribed to Lao Tzu are listed. The former has likes back to 2008 and the latter back to April 11, 2010.

Stefan Stenudd
September 22, 2020.



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       More about the book here.



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