Better Know Nothing Than Half-Know Many Things

Friedrich Nietzsche? Josh Billings? Thomas Common? Alexander Tille? Walter Kaufmann? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular humorist or a famous philosopher said something like the following:

It is better to know nothing than to half-know many topics.

Would you please help me to find the correct statement of this adage and the name of its originator?

Quote Investigator: The prominent German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a philosophical novel titled “Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen” (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One”) between 1883 and 1885. During one episode the main character Zarathustra encountered a man whose arm was bleeding because he had been bitten by leeches. The man was a follower of Zarathustra’s philosophy, and he employed the adage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1911, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edited by Oscar Levy, Volume 11, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Translated by Thomas Common, Chapter LXIV: The Leech, Quote Page … Continue reading

“I am the spiritually conscientious one,” answered he who was asked, “and in matters of the spirit it is difficult for any one to take it more rigorously, more restrictedly, and more severely than I, except him from whom I learnt it, Zarathustra himself. Better know nothing than half-know many things! Better be a fool on one’s own account, than a sage on other people’s approbation!”

The text above is from a translation by Thomas Common published in 1911. Below is the original German together with two other translations.

The following excerpt is from the 1885 edition of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” published by E. W. Fritzsch of Leipzig:[2]1885, Book Title: Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One), Author: Friedrich Nietzsche, Vierter und letzter Theil, (Fourth and … Continue reading

„Ich bin der Gewissenhafte des Geistes, antwortete der Gefragte, und in Dingen des Geistes nimmt es nicht leicht Einer strenger, enger und härter als ich, ausgenommen der, von dem ich’s lernte, Zarathustra selber. Lieber Nichts wissen, als Vieles halb wissen! Lieber ein Narr sein auf eigne Faust, als ein Weiser nach fremdem Gutdünken!“

The following excerpt is from a translation by Alexander Tille published in 1896:[3]1896, The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Volume 8, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Translated by Alexander Tille (Lecturer at the University of Glasgow), Chapter: The Fourth and Last Part, Section: The Leech, … Continue reading

“I am the conscientious one of the spirit,” answered he who had been asked, “and in matters of the spirit, scarcely any one taketh things more severely, more narrowly, and harder than I, except thee from whom I learned it, Zarathustra himself. Rather know nothing than know many things by halves! Rather be a fool on one’s own account than a wise man on other folk’s approbation!”

The following excerpt is from a translation by Walter Kaufmann published in 1954:[4]1976 (1954 and 1968 Copyright), The Portable Nietzsche by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translation by Walter Kaufmann (Princeton University), Section: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Chapter: Fourth and Last Part, … Continue reading

“I am the conscientious in spirit,” replied the man; “and in matters of the spirit there may well be none stricter, narrower, and harder than I, except he from whom I have learned it, Zarathustra himself. Rather know nothing than half-know much! Rather be a fool on one’s own than a sage according to the opinion of others!”

Before Friedrich Nietzsche penned this adage, a thematically similar remark appeared in the 1874 book “Everybody’s Friend” by humorist Josh Billings who used nonstandard spelling:[5]1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286 and 430, American Publishing Company, … Continue reading

I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.

Here is the statement with standard spelling:

I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.

A separate article about the saying immediately above is available here.

Nietzsche’s adage continued to circulate for decades. In 1942 H. L. Mencken included the following entry in “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles”:[6]1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Knowledge, Quote Page 640, Alfred … Continue reading

Better know nothing than half-know many things.
F. W. NIETZSCHE: Thus Spake Zarathustra, IV, 1885

In 1977 Laurence J. Peter included the adage in “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time”:[7] 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Knowledge, Quote Page 282, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

Better know nothing than half-know many things.
—Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

In conclusion, Friedrich Nietzsche should receive credit for the adage he penned in the philosophical novel “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. The saying was spoken by a character who was analogous to a narrow scientific specialist. The saying was not spoken by Zarathustra.

Image Notes: Detail from the painting “The School of Athens” by Raphael circa 1509. the detail shows Zoroaster (Zarathustra) displaying a globe to fellow philosophers.

References

References
1 1911, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edited by Oscar Levy, Volume 11, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Translated by Thomas Common, Chapter LXIV: The Leech, Quote Page 304, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
2 1885, Book Title: Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One), Author: Friedrich Nietzsche, Vierter und letzter Theil, (Fourth and last part), Der Blutegel (The Leech), Publisher: Verlag von E. W. Fritzsch, Leipzig. (Accessed via nietzschesource.org) link
3 1896, The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Volume 8, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Translated by Alexander Tille (Lecturer at the University of Glasgow), Chapter: The Fourth and Last Part, Section: The Leech, Quote Page 361 and 362, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
4 1976 (1954 and 1968 Copyright), The Portable Nietzsche by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translation by Walter Kaufmann (Princeton University), Section: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Chapter: Fourth and Last Part, Quote Page 362, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
5 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286 and 430, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
6 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Knowledge, Quote Page 640, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
7 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Knowledge, Quote Page 282, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)