I once saw a "Chinese proverb" in a DVD from a Bruce Lee movie. It was something like this:

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool... shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is willing... teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep... awaken him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise... follow him.

Anybody knows the source and/or the original text? Not even sure if its originally Chinese.

  • The googool says it is an anonymous arabic proverb. – user4452 Jul 31 '16 at 11:03
  • One of the sources here xenodochy.org/ex/quotes/knowsnot.html says Chinese. – Rodrigo Jul 31 '16 at 18:25
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    That same site says it is Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, giving no source or original for any of them. – Colin McLarty Sep 30 '16 at 9:31
  • I was taught this as a poem in English class in 1967 at Milton High School in Milton, Fl before google was concieved – cueman May 24 '18 at 21:09
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about the Chinese language (it's not a Chinese quote). – Becky 李蓓 Jan 13 at 2:33

Most uses of this proverb on line are very recent. The only believable source I found is https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/

And here is a link that is working as of today Wikiquote of Burton Search "Burton" on the page to find the quote. It says Lady Burton put it in her Life of Captain Sir Richard Burton as an Arabian Proverb. I have not gotten a copy of the book itself to check.

I'll mention that Wikiquotes often gives specific sources that are plainly false. But the false sources are usually the usual suspects: Einstein, Aristotle, Twain etc. This one looks likely.

That is Sir Richard Burton the English explorer who died October 20, 1890. In disguise he was able to pass for a native speaker of Arabic. It is not the recent actor Sir Richard Burton.

Hesiod 293-297 as translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White says

That man is altogether best who considers all things himself and marks what will be better afterwards and at the end; and he, again, is good who listens to a good adviser; but whoever neither thinks for himself nor keeps in mind what another tells him, he is an unprofitable man.

To my eye this says nothing about whether the man knows that he knows or does not know that he does not know, and nothing about who you should teach or awaken, and it does not say to follow anyone. It says you should pick good teachers, remember what they say, and judge these things for yourself.

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  • Thank you, Colin! But could you provide a link to the specific page, not just to the general wikiquote? – Rodrigo Nov 2 '16 at 16:07
  • @Rodrigo Ok Done. – Colin McLarty Dec 3 '16 at 0:52
  • Colin, I don't know how this citebite.com works, but the link your provided points to an Einstein's citation. The Lady Burton one is elsewhere in the same page, together with some other interesting links (e.g. Hesiod, Aristotle, Cicero...). Thank you! – Rodrigo Dec 3 '16 at 4:08
  • Yes, but I checked the Hesiod and Aristotle and they are just not true. – Colin McLarty Dec 4 '16 at 1:24
  • I got a copy of Hesiod, and 293 is quite similar. At least it's the most reliable source I have up to now. It may be the source of the Arab version, until proven otherwise. – Rodrigo May 21 '17 at 2:58

One who knows and knows that he knows… His horse of wisdom will reach the skies. One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up! One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… His limping mule will eventually get him home. One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!

famous Persian poem by Ibn Yamin

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Ive seen this quoted by various ancient muslim scholars. I have seen it attributed to Imam Shafii but it might be this it seems: https://bondsofbrotherhood.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/khalil-ibn-ahmad-al-faraheedi-4-types-of-men/

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He who knows not; and knows not that he knows not is a fool, shun him. He who knows not; and knows that he knows not is a child, teach him. He who knows; and knows not that he knows is asleep, wake him. He who knows; and knows that he knows is wise, follow him. - Persian proverb

  • R. Lantzsch, Adelaide, Australia (robyn@merlin.net.au)

He knows not and knows that he knows not is humble, teach him. He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep, wake him. My question is: do you know where these lines come from? I thought it was an old chinese proverb, but a work colleague of mine said that it came from the bible!

  • Helen Tuffin


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    IMO, it is a convoluted thinking (and writing) : He who knows; and knows that he knows may or may not be wise, but that gives people an impression of he's a "Know it all" kind of guy. On the other hand, a true wise man is the one who knows what he knows and what he doesn't . – Tang Ho Aug 1 '16 at 4:56
  • @panty Do you mean you are quoting Helen Tuffin? Do you have a colleague who says this, or does she? – Colin McLarty Sep 30 '16 at 9:34
  • @TangHo I think that's implied in the original text. One who "knows that he knows" obviously knows what he doesn't know. On the contrary, he would only "think he knows". And he could even lie to somebody for sometime, to everybody for sometime, or to somebody forever. But he could never lie to everybody forever. That's what separate the true wise from the pseudo wise. – Rodrigo Dec 3 '16 at 4:11

The persian/arabic version is a bit different. It's actually a poem, so if i have to translate it, It'll go like this: He who knows, and knows that he knows, will reach the sky in a leap as he soars/ He who knows, but doesn't know he knows, awaken him so sleep won't be his course/ He who don't knows, and knows he don't knows, will reach the shore, slowly, as he oars/ He who don't knows, and is not aware he don't knows, will stay in ignorance wherever he goes

Not an identical translation, but this gets the meaning across better.

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  • Awesome! Do you have any source for it? – Rodrigo Feb 3 '18 at 0:42

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