What is the meaning of this quote ? Also, what can one take away from this ?

…the wise man looks into space and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too big, for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions.

  • Reference of the quote ? Jun 25, 2019 at 14:49
  • 1
    I think this quote comes from Chuang-Tzu not Lao-Tzu. It can be found here: theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/truth/tr-chuang.htm Jun 25, 2019 at 16:47
  • Doesn't the context make it clear? Right before we read:""Am I then to regard the universe as great and the tip of a hair as small?" "Not at all," said the Spirit of the Ocean. "Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not invariable; terms are not final..." There is no natural standard of size, "dimensions are limitless", nor is great/small set to stay as it is, "terms are not final". Everything is relative, everything is subject to change. The "wise man" does not take superficial and fleeting comparisons at face value.
    – Conifold
    Jun 25, 2019 at 18:34

2 Answers 2


The OP quotes lines from Chuang Tzu's The Floods of Autumn. Here is James Legge's translation of it from the Chinese Text Project.

The earl of the He said, 'Well then, may I consider heaven and earth as (the ideal of) what is great, and the point of a hair as that of what is small?' Ruo of the Northern Sea replied, 'No. The (different) capacities of things are illimitable; time never stops, (but is always moving on); man's lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur (twice) in the same way. Therefore men of great wisdom, looking at things far off or near at hand, do not think them insignificant for being small, nor much of them for being great: knowing how capacities differ illimitably.

A translation closer to the one cited by the OP can be found in Lin Yutang's translation based on Herbert A. Giles' translation. Yutang describes Chuang Tzu as a Taoist who "was separated by Laotse's death by not quite two hundred years". He was "the greatest prose writer of the Chou Dinasty" and "probably the greatest slanderer of Confucius".

The text is a parable of a river spirit, the "earl of the He", rejoicing during the autumnal floods because it was receiving all the riches of the world. This rejoicing ceased upon reaching the ocean, the "Ruo of the Northern Sea", when it realized that what it had obtained was nothing compared to that ocean.

One can sense the perspective of the Taoist view of the ocean and the Confucian view of the river in the parable. Yutang writes about how to approach Chuang Tzu's style:

A word must be added about Chuangtse's attitude toward Confucius. It will be evident to any reader that he was one of the greatest romanticizers of history, and that any of the anecdotes he tells about Confucius, or Laotse or the Yellow Emperor must be accepted on a pair with those anecdotes he tells about the conversation of General Clouds and Great Nebulous, or between the Spirit of the River and the Spirit of the Ocean. It must also be plainly understood that he was a humorist with a wild and almost luxuriant fantasy, with an American love for exaggeration and for the big. One should therefore read him as one would a humorist writer, knowing that he his frivolous when he is profound and profound when he is frivolous.

The OP asks what one may take away from this text. Perhaps one may view it as advice that whenever we feel we have obtained something significant, there is always something more significant that would make this look small if we made a comparison. The advice is not to make the comparison but accept what one receives with gratitude since "capacities differ illimitably".

Chuang Tzu. The Floods of Autumn. Translator James Legge. Retrieved on June 25, 2019 from the Chinese Text Project at https://ctext.org/zhuangzi/floods-of-autumn

Yutang, H. Introduction. Retrieved on June 25, 2019 from http://www.dankalia.com/literature/chuantzu/chn024.htm


The other answer was excellent. This is only to provide my two cents.

I refer to another famous quote by Qu Yuan (屈原), another famous write and might I say, philosopher.(As a side note, there is a national Memorial Day in current China in memory of him).


Which literally translates to:

A foot is sometimes short, an inch is sometimes long.

To echo the other answer, I emphasis that traditional Chinese Philosophy is as much philosophy as it was art. People write things in hope to convey of the ideas whilst having an open mind about interpretations. The same wine might taste different in different connoisseurs' hands.

As for this sentence itself, without dwelling too much on the specifics, might I comment that traditional Chinese philosophers were found of the idea of relativity and you see that in many, many, many if not all of their writings.

In my own opinion, this original quote, similar to the quote above, has meanings two folds:

  1. Everything is relative. Something is large, but might be small compared to others. mutatis mutandis. We mustn't allow ourselves to bow to one single idea or recognition solely and too extremely for it might not be the full picture.
  2. Everything has its good side as well as bad side. We shall not allow ourselves to blindly accept only the good or the bad side. We need to find balance.

Oh how I love the wisdom of the past! I also refer to another book 《中庸》 (Zhong Yong), or the English Translation Doctrine of the Mean. It is commonly recognized as a Confucianism classic. It has differences with Taoism but here's from wikipedia, and I think is an Excellent translation of the title Zhong Yong:

Zhong means bent neither one way or another, and yong represents unchanging.

For this question, why don't taste the wine yourself and tell us what you think?

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