I have occasionally used an (apparent) quote from Chinese (Taoist) philosopher Zhuangzi's Wikipedia article and am wondering about the original form and where exactly it might be cited from:

To use the limited to pursue the unlimited, he said, was foolish.

Who knows enough about Zhuangzi's work and can tell?

  • P.S. I've read the Zuangzi (book) but don't remember having encountered the quote there.
    – Drux
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 7:56
  • It means using one's mind (something limited) to try and understand the Tao (something unlimited) is pointless, and this is a theme that runs throughout all of the major works of Taoism.
    – mdg
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 3:10
  • @G.S. That much is clear and obvious. What I am looking for is a concrete reference in the primary literature.
    – Drux
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 6:18
  • It occurs to me that only using a small number of symbols Cantor set off and caught something very much like the unlimited. Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 15:32

2 Answers 2


I think the writer is quoting the original text from the chapter "Essentials for Nurturing Life"" (in Chinese 養生主). At the beginning of this chapter, Zhuangzi says (since I don't have an English translation, I just put my literal translation and some understanding here) our life is limited, and knowledge isn't. If we get ourselves addicted into knowledge (actually Zhuangzi, or the Taoist doctrine, resists all types of addiction and we shall not be bound by anything. So in my opinion, in Zhuangzi's sense, we may still be fully liberated if our mind is not attached to anything, and if one daoist believer cannot attain liberation due to the imprisonment, he can just suicide), then our spirit (I don't use mind since mind requires us to be rational, and it seems to me spirit in Zhuangzi's term requires us to be consciously liberal rather than rational) cannot be liberated and it would be dangerous to our life (in the spiritual sense. Chinese people may say your life is pointless or fruitless if you live a restrained life that you can't liberate your spirit). So in this sense, one living such a life is not wise as well. This might be why the writer of wiki Zhuangzi uses "foolish".

  • If you want the Chinese original text from what I am translating, here it is "吾生也有涯,而知也无涯。以有涯隨无涯,殆已;已而為知者,殆而已矣。為善无近名,為惡無近刑。緣督以為經,可以保身,可以全生,可以養親,可以盡年。"
    – Fatto Lee
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 4:44
  • Welcome to the site and congratulations on a well-deserved first "accepted answer".
    – Drux
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 11:29
  • I found the book you referenced on google with this English translation (Victor H. Mair) "Our lives are limited / But knowledge is limitless. / To pursue the limitless / With the limited / Is dangerous." Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 15:31

Original from the beginning of the 3rd inner chapter and my own provisional translation followed by 4 others (in the same order):

Cultivando o Anfitrião da Vida
The Preservation of Life (Lin Yutang)
Opinions on Nurturing Life (Nina Correa)
The Secret of Caring for Life (Burton Watson)
Nourishing the Lord of Life (James Legge)

Nossa vida tem um limite, mas o conhecimento é ilimitado.
Human life is limited, but knowledge is limitless.
There are limits in our lives, but there are no limits to knowledge.
YOUR LIFE HAS A LIMIT but knowledge has none.
There is a limit to our life, but to knowledge there is no limit.

Usar o limitado para buscar o ilimitado é perigoso;
To drive the limited in pursuit of the limitless is fatal;
Using what's limited to try to catch up with what's unlimited can only bring trouble.
If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger.
With what is limited to pursue after what is unlimited is a perilous thing;

What you call foolish is actually 殆已.

殆 may mean "dangerous", "perilous", "to endanger", but also "almost", "probably", "only". According to Chinese Etymology: precarious / dangerous / danger / perilous / tired / afraid / nearly / almost / only / merely / even

So, it looks even worse than "foolish". I partially agree with the interpretation of Fatto Lee. But I don't think "rationality" is a state to be avoided. It's part of human nature. I think taoism is more against an excess of reason, reason disconnected of emotion, of balance, spontaneity and common sense. As the Dao De Jing emphasizes: "flexibility overcomes rigidity".


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