Time-sensitive question re Confucius quote

A writer from National Geographic has contacted me with a question, and I wonder if anyone out there has a better answer than I have so far come up with. She is working on an article that uses a quote widely attributed to Confucius, and wants to confirm the attribution. It is: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” One source that I found on-line suggests that this is based on Analects 16:19 (“孔子曰:「生而知之者,上也;學而知之者,次也;困而學之,又其次也。困而不學,民斯為下矣!」”; ctext here.). This is indeed a listing of three ways of acquiring understanding or wisdom, but the rest doesn’t match very well.

Does anyone have any ideas? There are tons of Confucius quotations in other texts, and maybe this is one of them? Or maybe a loose/early version of that Analects passage? The writer’s deadline is 2pm EST tomorrow! Thanks for any help, which I will pass on.

10 thoughts on “Time-sensitive question re Confucius quote

  1. Steve, there is a similar line in Zhong Yong Chapter twenty: 或生而知之,或学而知之,或困而知之,及其知之,一也。It is very similar to what you found, but equally different from what she quoted. The xue part and the kun part could roughly be translated into what she quoted, but saying translating sheng as refliection is more of a stretch. My guess is the anonymous online translator either took great literary liberties to embelish one of the passages we found in his translation, or it is just a random saying attributed to Confucius to lend it authoirty. If the writer who contacted you cannot find a concrete source, I personally would suggest not using it in her article. There are so many other passages to choose from!

  2. I think it’s just a random saying attributed to Confucius. The earliest source for the quotation available through a google books search is an 1893 “Dictionary of Quotations” compiled by one Rev. James Wood. This dictionary has 23 quotes attributed to Confucius, some of which are definitely from the Analects, and others of which seem to just be wise things that need to be attributed to someone, and well, why not Confucius?

    On the question board on the old blog, some respondents thought that the quote seemed un-Confucian (starts at #18):


  3. I believe this is a free paraphrase made by an earlier western learner of Ruism in regard to Analects 16:19. He may connect ‘生而知之’ with ‘温故而知新’, so it is to learn by reflection; ‘学而知之’ with ‘三人行必有我师’, so it is to learn by imitation; ‘困而知之’ is construed as learning through difficult situation, so it is to learn by experience. Obviously, this western learner’s paraphrase is so free as to speak his or her own words using Confucius’ own mouth.

  4. I agree with Bin Song – but I would add that the English writer may have reasoned that what we know by birth we can access by mere reflection, and must specially access in order really to know it.

    Also the English version has something very like the ranking that is present in the Analects version (but not the Zhongyong).

    • Also, the English interpreter may have in mind Plato’s idea of knowledge as memorization. So to reflect is to know. The interesting thing is, I also checked 百度, and find some Chinese scholar translates this English translation back into Chinese and then asks ‘where is this Confucius’ quote from’? And its following answers list all kinds of Confucius’ quotes about learning in the analects, but none of them match the English exactly. Interesting stuff!

  5. Thanks, all! I have written back to the journalist to say that it seems to be an interpretation or paraphrase of 16:9. I know from reading a bit of Mat Foust’s work on 19th-c. America philosophers engaging with Confucianism that early translations of the Analects sometimes varied quite a lot from our current understandings; maybe this actually sources from such an early translation. That question I am content to leave to another day.

    • Indeed, it seems to be an old misconception, not a new misconception. According to this site, it was included in James Wood’s Dictionary of Quotations (1899):


      I don’t understand the popular notion that a quote must be authentic (and worth repeating) just because you find it on the internet, but Confucius is not the only poor ancient soul who has these monstrosities done to him. Think of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.

  6. The (English) quote itself (that is purportedly used in the National Geographic article), doesn’t make any sense, let alone convey wisdom. At any rate, Analect 16:9 (to my mind) is not about wisdom acquisition. It is pointing to the mule-headedness of human nature. Knowledge can be acquired if one is willing to learn. Wisdom is something else; it cannot be learned; it is a matter of instinct. You either have it (生) or you don’t.

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