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Edward Gibbon and Zhuang Zi on teaching, learning and tacit knowledge

… the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

Edward Gibbon – The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire

Hat tip to Mrs and Mrs Psmith‘s excellent bookshelf, which drew my attention to this parable:

“… And as those who know, do not speak, while those who speak do not know, whence should the world derive its knowledge?”

Duke Huan, the famous ruler of the Ch’i State [7th Century B.C.] was one day reading in his hall, when a wheelwright who was working below flung down his hammer and chisel, and mounting the steps said, “What words may your Highness be studying?”

“I am studying the words of the Sages,” replied the Duke.

“Are the Sages alive?” asked the wheelwright.

“No,” answered the Duke; “they are dead.”

“Then the words your Highness is studying,” rejoined the wheelwright, “are only the dregs of the ancients.”

“What do you mean, sirrah!” cried the Duke, “by interfering with what I read? Explain yourself, or you shall die.”

“Let me take an illustration,” said the wheelwright, “from my own trade. In making a wheel, if you work too slowly, you can’t make it firm; if you work too fast, the spokes won’t fit in. You must go neither too slowly nor too fast. There must be co-ordination of mind and hand.

“Words cannot explain what it is, but there is some mysterious art herein. I cannot teach it to my son; nor can he learn it from me. Consequently, though seventy years of age, I am still making wheels in my old age. If the ancients, together with what they could not impart, are dead and gone, then what your Highness is studying must be the dregs.”

Chuang Tzŭ, Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer
– Herbert A. Giles translation

Gemini adds:

Duke Huan, pondering the wheelwright’s words, responded, “What should I do then? Should I get rid of the books altogether?”

Bian smiled and said, “While your humble servant can’t get by without his tools, if I were to offer advice on matters of the state, I’d only have the ancients to draw from. Even with the dregs, it’s far superior to the insights of any carpenter.”

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