He Who Knows, and Knows Not He Knows, Is Asleep; Awaken Him

Bruce Lee? Margaret of Valois? Sir John Fenwick? Isabel Burton? Richard Francis Burton? Arabic Apothegm? Asian Saying? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? Park Ludlow? Theron Brown? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following four part saying is about knowledge and self-knowledge:

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

This saying has been attributed to martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, but I have not seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Bruce Lee who died in 1973 employed this expression.

QI believes that this saying evolved over time. A partial precursor appeared in the 1654 book “Heptameron or the History of the Fortunate Lovers” by Princess Margaret of Valois which described a wise person with the phrase: “he who knows that he knows not any thing”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI. Anomalous spelling appeared in the original document: 1

. . .for there is no man a veryer fool, than he who thinks himself to be wise, nor any more wise, than he who knows that he knows not any thing. Howsoever (said Parlament) he knows somthing, who knows that he knows nothing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1697 by Sir John Fenwick who was facing execution for political machinations published the essay “Contemplations Upon Life and Death”. Fenwick included the statement: “The more a Man knows, the more he knows that he knows not”. This attitude of humility was considered “most wise and perfect”: 2

The more a Man knows, the more he knows that he knows not; the fuller the Mind is, the emptier it finds it self: Forasmuch as whatsoever a Man can know of any Science in this world, is but the least part of what he is ignorant of: All his knowledge consisting in knowing his ignorance, all his perfection in seeing his imperfections, which who best knows and notes, is in truth among Men the most wise and perfect.

Fenwick’s essay continued to circulate for many years. For example, it was included in a volume of the 1810 compilation “The Harleian Miscellany; Or, A Collection of Scarce, Curious, and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts, Found in the Late Earl of Oxford’s Library”. 3

In September 1866 the “Newcastle Guardian” of Northumberland, England published a three part “Oriental maxim”. Recall that the four part saying under examination referred to four states of knowledge: stupid , simple, asleep, and wise. This 1866 saying shared a similar syntax, but it referred to three types of lives: happy, tolerable, and miserable: 4

Here is an Oriental maxim, just translated :—“If a man knows, and knows that he knows, he will lead a happy life. If a man does not know, and knows that does not know, he may lead a tolerable life. But if a man does not know, and does not know that he does not know, he will lead miserable life.”

This maxim appeared in other newspapers in 1866 such as the “The Alloa Journal” of Clackmannanshire, Scotland 5 and The Patriot” of London, England. 6 Sometimes the phrasing was slightly altered with “knows that he knows” changed to “knows what he knows”.

In 1875 a letter to the editor of “The Buxton Advertiser” of Derbyshire, England presented the following variant: 7

Sir,—I read somewhere— “When a man knows what he knows, and knows that he knows what he knows, he may pass without criticism; but when he doesn’t know, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, his ignorance is so blissful that ’tis folly to be wise.”

In 1877 “The Southport Visiter” of Lancashire, England reporter on a meeting of a new group called “The Southport Parliamentary Debating Society.” The Mayor of Southport R. Nicholson addressed the members: 8

There was an old eastern proverb which he should like them to follow, which ran thus:—“He that does not know, and does not know that he does not know, gets through the world very badly indeed; he that does not know, and knows that he does not know, gets through the world somewhat better; but he who knows, and knows that he knows, is master of the world, and has most things at his feet.”

Also, in 1877 U.S. Baptist clergyman Theron Brown (using the pseudonym Park Ludlow) published the novel “The Wooden Spoon: Or, Nick Hardy at College”. The student Nick imitated a professor and delivered a remark that was very similar to the statements in the 1866 citations : 9

“If a man knows what he knows he’ll be happy. If he knows not, and knows that he knows not, he’ll be tolerably comfortable. If he knows not, and knows not that he knows not, he’ll be miserable.” The imitation was so exact, that the professor of metaphysics would have laughed himself, if he had been there.

In 1881 the “Aberdeen Evening Express” of Aberdeenshire, Scotland printed a three part statement that resembled the four part statement under examination: 10

An old Arabian proverb, freely translated, reads as follows:—“When a man knows, and knows that he knows, he is a wise man. When a man don’s know, and knows that he don’t know, he is a sensible man. When a man thinks he knows, and don’t know, he is a — fool.”

At last, in December 1885 a close match to the expression under exploration appeared in “The Globe” of Toronto, Canada: 11

The following is an Arabic proverb which we have taken down from the mouth of an Oriental:—

Men are four:
He who knows not, and knows not he knows not. He is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not, and knows he knows not. He is simple; teach him.
He who knows, and knows not he knows. He is asleep; wake him.
He who knows, and knows he knows. He is wise; follow him.

The same saying appeared in other newspapers such as the “Liverpool Weekly Courier” of Lancashire, England in January 1886. 12

In 1889 the influential English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon published “The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs” which included a slightly altered version: 13

He that knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is stupid. Shun him.
He that knows not, and knows that he knows not, is good. Teach him.
He that knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Arouse him.
He that knows, and knows that he knows, is wise. Follow him.
These are four Arabian proverbs worth preserving, and practising.

In 1893 Isabel Burton published a two volume biography of her husband Richard Francis Burton who was a famous British explorer and scholar. The first volume included an instance of the saying: 14

‘Men are four. He who knows not, and knows not he knows not, he is a fool—shun him; he who knows not, and knows he knows not, he is simple—teach him; he who knows, and knows not he knows, he is asleep—wake him; he who knows, and knows he knows, he is wise—follow him.’—Arab Proverb.

In 1897 a student periodical called “The Normal Pointer” of Wisconsin printed an entertaining variant based on undergraduate class standing: 15

1. He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, he is a Freshman. Shun him.
2. He who knows not and knows that he knows not, he is a Sophomore. Honor him.
3. He who knows and knows not that he knows, he is a Junior. Pity him.
4. He who knows and knows that he knows, he is a Senior. Reverence him.

An instance very close to the 1885 version appeared within a footnote in the eleventh edition of “Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett” in 1938. The undated saying was called an Arabic apothegm. 16

Bruce Lee died in 1973. He received credit for the saying by 2017 on the goodreads website. 17

In conclusion, QI believes that the English version of the saying evolved primarily during the 1800s. A three part precursor emerged by 1866, and a four part version appeared by 1885. There may be Arabic apothegm corresponding to one or more of these evolving expressions. QI does not know.

(Great thanks to John Simpson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Simpson mentioned attributions to Bruce Lee, Confucius, and Lady Burton. He also noted that the saying had been called an Arabian proverb, a Persian proverb, and a Chinese saying”. In addition he supplied citations dated 1891, 1901, 1914, and 1943.)

Notes:

  1. 1654, Heptameron or the History of the Fortunate Lovers; Written by the Most Excellent and Most Virtuous Princess, Margaret de Valoys, Queen of Navarre; Published in French by the Privilege and immediate Approbation of the King; Now made English by Robert Codrington, Master of Arts, Quote Page 260, Printed by F.L. for Nath: Ekins, London. (Early English Books Only EEBO; ProQuest)
  2. 1697, Contemplations Upon Life and Death With Serious Reflections on the Miseries That Attend Humane Life … A True Copy of the Paper Delivered to the Sheriffs Upon the Scaffold at Tower-Hill on Thursday, January 28, 1696-7 by Sir John Fenwick, Baronet, Quote Page 16, Printed for G. Larkin, London. (Early English Books Online EEBO; ProQuest)
  3. 1810, The Harleian Miscellany; Or, A Collection of Scarce, Curious, and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts, Found in the Late Earl of Oxford’s Library, Volume 10, Contemplations Upon Life and Death, With a true copy of the paper delivered to the Sheriffs upon the scaffold at Tower-hill, on Thursday January 28, 1696-7, by Sir John Fenwick, Baronet, Quote Page 340, Printed for Robert Dutton, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1866 September 8, Newcastle Guardian, A Comical Column, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Northumberland, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 1866 September 8, The Alloa Journal, Varieties, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Clackmannanshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1866 September 27, The Patriot, Miscellaneous, Quote Page 15 (643), Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  7. 1875 February 6, The Buxton Advertiser, Correspondence, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Derbyshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  8. 1877 June 28, The Southport Visiter, Parliamentary Debating Society, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  9. 1877, The Wooden Spoon: Or, Nick Hardy at College by Park Ludlow (Pseudonym of Theron Brown), Chapter 13: In Which Nick Helps the “Cochleaureati”, Quote Page 310 and 311, Henry A. Young & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1881 October 8, Aberdeen Evening Express, Jottings, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  11. 1885 December 15, The Globe, A Knowsy Proverb, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest)
  12. 1886 January 30, Liverpool Weekly Courier, Odds and Ends, Quote Page 2, Column 8, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  13. 1889, The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs by C. H. Spurgeon (Charles Haddon Spurgeon), Volume 1, Section: Proverbs and Quaint Sayings, Quote Page 216, Passmore and Alabaster, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1893, The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton by His Wife Isabel Burton, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 21, Quote Page 548, D. Appleton & Company. New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1897 November, The Normal Pointer, Volume 3, Number 2, Section: Exchanges, Quote Page 17, Column 2, Published by the students of State Normal School, Stevens Point, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link
  16. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Footnote number 2, Quote Page 706, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  17. Website: goodreads, Article title: Bruce Lee > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Time stamp of first comment on website: Oct 23, 2017 at 01:37PM, Website description: Community of book readers. (Accessed goodreads.com on September 24, 2021) link