“To understand everything is to forgive everything.”

Not the Buddha

Scott Knickelbine sent me this one, which he had spotted on Facebook. I’d seen it before myself, and in fact I was sure I’d covered it on this blog, but apparently not.

Scott thought it was a quote by Spinoza, but it seems almost universally to be attributed to Madame de Stael. Wikipedia says:

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad. She influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

In the original French the saying is “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.”

The quote only ever seems to be “attributed” to her, though, and it’s also often described as a “proverb,” which makes it unattributable. There’s no hard evidence that Mme. de Staël actually said this. However, in a 19th century book, The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, a similar quote is given with a reference to one of her books:

The more we know, the better we forgive ; Whoe’er feels deeply, feels for all who live. s. Madame de Stael — Corinne. Bk. XVIII. Ch. V

And in fact that quote is in Corinne, but only in an English translation (by Isabel Hill and L. E. Landon). In the original French we find something rather different:

“Car tout comprendre rend très indulgent, et sentir profondément inspire une grande bontée.”

(“To understand everything makes one tolerant, and to feel deeply inspires great kindness.”)

The Buddha doesn’t seem to have talked much about “forgiveness.” He talked much more about letting go of anger, as in these verses from the Dhammapada:

3. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

4. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

223. Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.

Clearly resentment is something to be let go of, even if the word forgiveness isn’t mentioned.

Forgiveness is more explicitly mentioned elsewhere, for example in this sutta:

“Monks, these two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn’t see his transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn’t rightfully pardon another who has confessed his transgression. These two are fools.

“These two are wise people. Which two? The one who sees his transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his transgression. These two are wise people.”

The reason for forgiveness in Buddhism seems to be mostly connected with the destructive effect that anger has, and the bad effect it has on us. The famous Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa pointed out very eloquently how our anger often hurts us more than the person we’re angry with. They may not even be aware of our anger!

According to Wikiquote, this quotation “seems to have first become attributed to Gautama Buddha without citation of sources in Farm Journal, Vol. 34 (1910), p. 417

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Bodhipaksa

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6 thoughts on ““To understand everything is to forgive everything.”

  1. The ARTFL database (a project of the University of Chicago) makes it possible to search a very large collection of French literature for key words and phrases. Searching ARTFL for “tout comprendre, c’ est tout pardonner,” the earliest use I find is:

    Custine, Astolphe de, 1790-1857. [1848], Romuald, p. 249.

    Curiously there is an earlier passage with the equation reversed, “tout pardonner, c’ est tout comprendre” (that is, “To forgive all is to understand all”). The source is:

    Sue, Eugène [1839], Arthur ou le journal d’ un inconnu, p. 74.

    The ARTFL database does not find any similar phrases in the works of Madame de Staël.

    • Thanks for that, Thomas. Because the saying is only ever “attributed” to Mme. De Staël, I was assuming it wasn’t found in her written works. It’s possible it’s something she said in conversation, but it’s more likely that it’s a mis-attribution that arose because she said something that’s similar in form and meaning: “Tout comprendre rend très indulgent” (“To understand everything makes one tolerant”).

  2. Pingback: Fake Madame de Staël quote spotted in the wild | Fake Buddha Quotes

  3. This seems like a quote from “A Course In Miracles” book which is a spiritual thought system based on forgiveness. The premise being: You forgive the world because this world is an illusion based on separation from God and you forgive yourself for ever believing that separation from God (or the All or One or Whatever you wish to call It) is even possible. This is true forgiveness which is the highest form of earthly love. To truly forgive someone is to release them from all the illusions you had about them and then to recognize them as the divine being in which they are. As you recognize them as being pure love then you will know yourself as being pure love. Thus to forgive everything in this world as illusion is to understand everything as what it truly is: Divine Love

  4. Pingback: Review: Welcome to America (Prologue Theatre) | Chicago Theater Beat

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