“He is able who thinks he is able.”

Seeing a Fake Buddha Quote on Twitter is pretty much a daily occurrence, but this one retweeted by a Buddhist particularly struck me this morning:

He is able who thinks he is able. #Buddha

What interests me about this one is that it’s being passed on by people who have “Buddha” or “Buddhist” as part of their Twitter usernames, and yet it strikes me as being profoundly unBuddhist. I’m always open to correction, but the Buddha didn’t strike me as being an advocate of “positive thinking.” The Buddha’s actual position seemed to be more, it doesn’t matter what you think you are, what is important is what you do.

The Buddha of course encouraged the development of ethically positive thinking, which is thinking free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and imbued with wisdom and compassion. But the idea that you can do something just because you think you can is one he’d have seen as being itself delusional.

In fact when we look around at the world it seems self-evident that it’s full of people who over-estimate their abilities. And this has been well-studied by psychologists. Here’s an article on why we overestimate our competence, for example.

It’s curious that so many Buddhists promote views as being the words of the Buddha when actually they’re in an idiom that’s completely foreign to actual Buddhist teachings, and when the content is also alien to Buddhist thought and practice. I suspect a lot of Buddhists aren’t very familiar with actual scriptures, and rely on books about Buddhism. This would explain why so many non-Buddhist sayings are passed off as being the word of the Buddha.

Where does that quote–“He is able who thinks he is able”–actually come from? It’s not actually New Age at all. Originally, the earliest uses I was able to find were in books published in 1965 and 1972, where it’s described as “an ancient Roman saying.” It does have that muscular ring of empire about it! It’s also in a book from 1937 as well, “Guiding Your Life with Psychology as a Key,” by Josephine Agnes Jackson but no citation is given.

The Latin phrase being translated here is “Potest qui vult,” which is he who wills, is able. That is of course entirely different from “He is able who thinks he is able,” so the saying being ascribed to the Buddha is also being mistranslated from the Latin.

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