Lao Tse vs. Ben Zoma — From the Tao Te Ching to Pirkei Avot: 誰是智者 ? איזהו חכם

Online Exercise:  Textual Juxtaposition

What are the key differences and similarities between the two quotes, shown below?

What common philosophy or worldview do the authors probably share?  What might they disagree about?

Bonus Question:  How does the translator’s word choices and placement of phrase breaks potentially change the meaning of these quotes?

Daodejing 33:1-4 Avot 4:1
One who knows others is clever, but one who knows themself is enlightened.

One who conquers others is powerful, but one who conquers themself is mighty.

One who knows contentment with what they have is rich. One who pushes with vigor has will.

One who loses not their place endures. One who may die but will not perish, has life everlasting.
Ben Zoma says:

Who is wise?  One who learns from every person.

Who is strong? One who overcomes their own nature.

Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what they have.

Who is respected? One who respects all of creation.


The above quotations come from two very ancient — and still very popular — texts that have some striking parallelisms: the text of  Pirkei Avot , aka “Avot”, written/assembled in Israel about 1900 years ago, and that of the Tao Te Ching, aka, “Daodejing”, written/assembled in China about 2500 years ago.  The person quoted in that part of Avot, Ben Zoma, lived sometime around the first third of the 2nd century.

For this particular pair of juxtaposed sections, it would be interesting to figure out if these were coincidentally convergent ideas in otherwise independent traditions, or whether there was some cross-fertilization of aphorisms along a spice route. However, for those of us lacking in the requisite linguistic and archeological expertise, we might do better to simply compare and contrast the actual messages, as a way to deepen our own understanding of this age-old wisdom.

Note: With a bit more massaging of the translations we could probably put these two texts into even closer alignment… though as it is I’ve abridged the Avot section considerably and have mashed-up a four-line interpretation of that chapter of the Daodejing, which isn’t the way it’s always read (more on that, below).

In an exercise such as this one, some people like to get lots of detail and source material, in order to help them undercover meaning.  So in the spirit of that, the remainder of this post will be dedicated to providing source material.

For those of you who like a quick read, consider this post over. You only have the questions at the top, to consider.

Source Material:

Here is a rendering of Avot 4:1 in Hebrew (taken from, with a Chinese translation of Avot next to it (taken from , and a more complete, literal translation in English (taken from

   בן זומא אומר,איזה הוא חכם–הלמד מכל אדם, שנאמר “מכל מלמדיי, השכלתי” (תהילים קיט,צט
איזה הוא גיבור–הכובש את יצרו, שנאמר “טוב ארך אפיים, מגיבור” (משלי טז,לבאיזה הוא עשיר–השמח בחלקו, שנאמר “יגיע כפיך, כי תאכל; אשריך, וטוב לך” (תהילים קכח,ב):  “אשריך”, בעולם הזה; “וטוב לך”, לעולם הבא.איזה הוא מכובד–המכבד את הברייות, שנאמר “כי מכבדיי אכבד ובוזיי ייקלו” (שמואל א ב,ל
本·祚瑪說:-“誰是智者?向所有人學習的人,經上說:‘我比我所有的教師更聰明,因為我常在默想你的法令。’”-“誰是強者?能自製的人,經上說:‘有涵養的人,勝於勇士;克服自己的人,勝於克城的人。’”-“誰是富足者?樂其本份的人,經上說:‘你能吃你雙手賺來的食物,你便實在幸運,也萬事有福。’‘幸運’於今生,‘有福’於來世。”-“誰是尊者?尊重他人的人,經上說:‘只有那光榮我的,我才光榮他;那輕視我的,必受輕視。’” Ben Zoma said:

Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) “I have gained understanding from all my teachers.”

Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions, as it is written (Proverbs 16:32) “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.”

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion, as it is written (Psalm 128:2) “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.” “You shall be” refers to this world; and “it shall be well with you” refers to the world to come.

Who is honored? He that honors his fellow men as it is written (I Samuel 2:30) “For those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.”

Here is a rendering of the section of the Daodejing in Chinese…


..and several translations of it, courtesy of

33 辨德 Discriminating Between Attributes The Virtue of Discrimination The Virtue  of Discrimination
Original Legge’s Translation Susuki’s Translation Goddard’s Translation
He who knows other men is discerning; he who knows himself is intelligent.He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty.He who is satisfied with his lot is rich; he who goes on acting with energy has a (firm) will. One who knows others is clever, but one who knows himself is enlightened.One who conquers others is powerful, but one who conquers himself is mighty.One who knows contentment is rich and one who pushes with vigor has will. He who knows others is intelligent; he who understands himself is enlightened;He who is able to conquer others has force, but he who is able to control himself is mighty.He who appreciates contentment is wealthy.
He who does not fail in the requirements of his position, continues long; he who dies and yet does not perish, has longevity. One who loses not his place endures. One who may die but will not perish, has life everlasting. He who dares to act has nerve; if he can maintain his position he will endure, but he, who dying does not perish, is immortal.

Note how on Goddard’s translation, the line about achieving wealth through contentment/satisfaction is left by itself and is not grouped together with the idea of demonstrating a strong will by making a bold or vigorous effort. Instead, that bit about having a strong will is combined with the phrases in the last section, about endurance and legacy. As for that last line, there is a wide range of translations and interpretations of its intended (or potentially unintended) meaning.   In addition to the three translations shown above, it might also be…

He who stays where he is endures. To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.

..or it might be…

If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.

..or it might be…

Who defends his home may long endure; Who surrenders his home may long survive it.

This, apparently, is part of the fun of translating the Daodejing: Even if you are a grammatical expert who fully grasps the idioms and allusions of ancient Chinese, and even if you have a deep understanding of Taoist thought and history, you still have to contend with the fact that this text was often transmitted between generations via ink on strips of bamboo sown together by silk, with little or no punctuation to demarcate the separation of phrases. Therefore, part of the translator’s job is to decide where to read an implied “however” or “therefore,”  and where to start a new paragraph. Hence, the difference seen in Goodard’s version.

Need more than just 3 translations? This site has line-by-line comparisons, using a couple of dozen translations:

As for the Avot section, while there are many different interpretations of the text, the accepted range of translations seems to fairly consistent, with only minor differences in shade of meaning. Maybe it’s a difference of language, or maybe it’s a difference of medium. Ink on paper, bound in books, assiduously copied by scribes in what might be described as an obsessive-compulsive tradition of “getting-things-right?”  That said, the Avot section provides its own opportunities for ambiguity and variety in interpretation, by giving us a layer of biblical verses to consider as a prooftext/context/subtext. Text, text, text.


If you haven’t done the work of reading, comparing the two quotes, and coming up with your own answers to the questions, well then maybe this will help you along:

Daodejing 33:1-4 Avot 4:1
Wisdom of Knowing Others / Knowing Self Wisdom of Learning From Everyone
Strength of Mastering Others / Mastering Self Strength of Mastering Self
Wealth through Satisfaction
(and maybe: Striving for More?
Wealth through Satisfaction
Endurance and Legacy Respect and Honor

I’m curious to hear what other people have to say about this.

In fact, I did a quick (read: lazy) Google search to see if anyone else out there has done a comparison of the Tao Te Ching and Pirkei Avot. One of the results that Google served up for me was my own post, Gee, thanks Google, now I really feel like I’m in a algorithmically-driven echo-chamber.

I guess this means I’ll have to try harder than Google, if I want to seek the wisdom of others.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on May 9, 2012, in Learning, Life, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. One possible synthesized reading:

    1) The moment you treat wisdom as a competition, you lose the competition. Embrace your blind spots as a source of potential.

    2) Let go of what you can’t control. The more choice you exercise over your responses, the more power you have.

    3) Wealth doesn’t come from what you can hold in your hands, but rather, what you are capable of receiving in your heart.

    4) Arrogance and pride are ultimately self-defeating. Instead, play for the long term.

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