What is the exact meaning of following quote (it belongs to Gandalf the Grey):

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

I have a problem especially with understanding what it is has left.

  • 10
    It describes almost all archaeology, for instance. In order to discover ancient cities, one has to dig them up and thereby destroy them. Archaeologists are painfully aware of this. Mar 15, 2015 at 16:22
  • 4
    It is a Golden Egg kind of thing. Mar 15, 2015 at 18:40
  • 6
    Said every engineer, never. Mar 16, 2015 at 22:42
  • It's the opposite of Mao Ze Dong's statement that to know what a peach tastes like you need to take a bite of it.
    – Drew
    Aug 24, 2015 at 4:28
  • 1
    @JohnLawler: difference is that archaeologists do that in a controlled and reconstructible way, and centuries after the thing stopped being used. Not because they just can't be bothered reading the manual
    – smci
    Oct 3, 2019 at 7:04

9 Answers 9


Sounds like you are not seeing the way the sentence breaks into phrases. Think about it like this:

He that breaks a thing / to find out what it is / has left the path of wisdom.

Loosely, it means: "If you break something in order to fully understand it, you are a fool."

  • 2
    I think you have an extra is: should just be "to fully understand it" there without an is, which doesn’t parse. Or else you could write "in order to fully understand what it is", but I prefer the shorter version.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:04
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    Ok, now I understand. I have read this as "He that breaks a thing to find out / what it is has left the path of wisdom." initially.
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:06
  • 44
    In order to understand the quotation you have to break it into parts. Mar 15, 2015 at 19:40
  • 3
    @Pete You have to break it correctly.
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 18, 2015 at 18:36
  • 2
    @ciechowoj- what pete is trying to hint at is that; --ironically-- contrary to the meaning of the quote itself; you have to break the quote in order to understand it. Mar 20, 2015 at 4:22

It means:

If you break something to find out what it is, then you have left the path of wisdom.

You are misparsing the actual constituents here: “is has” is not part of the same constituent, but rather two separate pieces of two completely separate constituents. That is is actually part of the noun phrase serving as the sentence subject, while that has is actually part of the verb phrase serving as the sentence predicate.

Simplified, a sentence is this:

sentence = subject + predicate

So the is falls at the end of the subject while the has falls at the start of the predicate.

If you feed Gandalf’s sentence to the Link Parser and examine the resulting constituent tree it generates, all should become crystal clear because the inherent structure of the sentence is revealed:

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

Constituent tree:

(S (NP (NP He)
       (SBAR (WHNP that)
             (S (VP breaks
                    (NP a thing)
                    (S (VP to
                           (VP find
                               (PRT out)
                               (NP (SBAR (WHNP what)
                                         (S (NP it)
                                            (VP is)))))))))))
   (VP has
       (VP left
           (NP (NP the path)
               (PP of
                   (NP wisdom)))))

Do you see now why the is and the has are each part of completely different logical constituents?

There are two top-level constituents here: a noun phrase (NP) acting as the subject of the sentence (S) and a verb phrase (VP) acting as its predicate. The subject begins with he while the predicate begins with has.

You can find the meaning of the rest of the ALLCAPS constituent tags here at the Penn Treebank Constituents list. It defines the phrase-level tags used in this tree, in order of occurrence left to right, as:

  • S — simple declarative clause, i.e. one that is not introduced by a (possible empty) subordinating conjunction or a wh-word and that does not exhibit subject–verb inversion.
  • NP — Noun Phrase.
  • SBAR — Clause introduced by a (possibly empty) subordinating conjunction.
  • WHNPWh-noun Phrase. Introduces a clause with an NP gap. May be null (containing the 0 complementizer) or lexical, containing some wh-word, e.g. who, which book, whose daughter, none of which, or how many leopards.
  • VP — Verb Phrase.
  • PRT — Particle. Category for words that should be tagged RP.
  • PP — Prepositional Phrase.
  • I think about it as two sentences now: "He has left the path of wisdom." "He breaks a thing to find out what is is." Could the word 'that' be replaced with 'which' without change of meaning?
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:21
  • 1
    @ciechowoj No, you cannot here replace he that with he which; it would be ungrammatical in this instance, so nobody would understand what you were saying if you did that. However, you can here replace he that with he who should it please you to do so. It is not obligatory, though.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:23
  • And, would the 'which' be correct if it had not refered to person but to thing or animal for example?
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:30
  • 3
    @ciechowoj: You cannot start such a sentence with "He which", because "he" implies a person, and "which" implies a thing - so this sounds contradictory and strange. You could however start with "That which...", though it does sound rather formal - great for Gandalf, but odd in everyday conversation :). (FWIW "which" can be used for *both restrictive and non-restrictive/descriptive clauses; that is not the issue here :)
    – psmears
    Mar 15, 2015 at 18:00
  • 3
    He who feeds Gandalf’s sentence to the Link Parser and examines the resulting constituent tree it generates ... still has the original. Mar 15, 2015 at 23:33

Just my two cents. I used this sentence to see how link-grammar library copes with it (I'm not associated with the library / it isn't a commercial product) and here are the results:

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Found 360 linkages (86 had no P.P. violations)
    Linkage 1, cost vector = (UNUSED=0 DIS= 7.00 LEN=34)

    |      +------------------------------Ss------------------------------+                                     | 
    |      |              +-------MVi------+                              |                                     | 
    |      +------Bs------+----Os---+      |     +----Osn----+--Bsdt-+    |       +-----Os----+                 | 
    +--Wd--+--R--+---RS---+    +Ds**+      +--I--+--K--+     +-Rn+-Ss+    +---PP--+     +Ds**c+-Mp-+--Ju--+     | 
    |      |     |        |    |    |      |     |     |     |   |   |    |       |     |     |    |      |     | 
LEFT-WALL he that.j-r breaks.v a thing.n to.r find.v out.r what it is.v has.v left.v-d the path.n of wisdom.n-u . 

As you can see, it links he (the subject) to has left via Ss link, which, simplifying it, gives he has left the path of wisdom, just as other answers had already suggested.


The issue here is understanding what the word "it" means in this context.

He that breaks a thing to find out what [that thing] is has left the path of wisdom.

Here "what it is" is connected to "find out" and not "has left".

Breaking implies rendering something useless, so in a much less poetic way:

Someone who renders an object useless to determine the purpose of said object has done something unwise as the act of determining the objects use has rendered it useless.


I think this diagram is helpful. It makes clear that the clauses that should be separated are where I made the breaks. It also makes clear that the sentence could be rearranged with no loss of meaning, i.e.:

He has left the path of wisdom that breaks a thing to find out what it is.

Sentence diagram


I'm going to try something shorter and simpler to see if it will resonate:

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

needs some commas for clarity:

He, that breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.

If you remove the clause between the commas, you'll be left with:

He has left the path of wisdom.

This is the basic idea of the sentence. The qualifier describing who 'He' is, is the comma-enclosed clause of:

that breaks a thing to find out what it is

'It' refers to the thing. 'What it is' refers to the thing's 'nature.'

The ultimate idea being communicated is:

He, who would break something to determine its nature, has left the path of wisdom.

The implication is that once you break something, you no longer have it. If you make your possession useless, just to figure out what it is, you have ruined it and the answer really doesn't matter because you don't have it any more.

  • There was discussion in some other comments about it, but are that commas strictly correct? What I mean, can they be put there permanently or only for the purpose of clarification (in the scope of our problem)?
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 19, 2015 at 7:31
  • 1
    They most certainly could be left there permanently. They could (should) have been present from the first writing. In this comment, I placed them where I did for convenience in making the comma-enclosed phrase removable. There could also be a comma between "that breaks a thing" and "to find out what it is" because the second phrase there is also removable. That would then leave you with "He that breaks a thing has left the path of wisdom" which is a valid thought as well. Mar 19, 2015 at 17:01
  • So, do commas in English language are optional? Because in Polish there are some strict rules for using them...
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 19, 2015 at 21:00
  • 1
    @ciechowoj - There are some guidelines for comma usage, but it often comes down to style. Number 4 at grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm has an example similar to your original question. Mar 19, 2015 at 21:29

"He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." By destroying something in the quest for knowledge about it you may have defeated your purpose. Unwise indeed!

Example: If you learn that I have extrasensory perception, and you keep me working non-stop without rests or nutrition, because you are greedy to know what I can sense, eventually I will break down physically. Then you will not have access to my gift anymore. You have left the path of wisdom!


I may be wrong, because I'm not a native speaker, and I cannot seem to find references that support what follows, but I think you are failing to point out to our friend @ciechowoj (another non-native) that the structure "He who" or "He that" carries an indefinite meaning. It does not point to a specific "He" (even though @pyrAmider says the sentence refers to Saruman the White, which will surely be true but does not spoil my reasoning).

In my case, I was not taught this kind of structure at school, and neither was ciechowoj, probably. This probably added to his difficulty understanding the sentence.

It should be understood as:

  • Whoever breaks...
  • Anyone that breaks...


  • (Psalm 91:1) "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."
  • (Matthew 12:30) "He that is not with me is against me"
  • "He who pays the piper calls the tune"

If I'm right, explanations involving commas around "that breaks a thing to find out what it is", although helpful for understanding the sentence, are wrong.

  • 1
    You're right that I've been never told before that, but I intuitively feel that 'he' refers to anyone that breaks a thing. Nevertheless, it is nice insight.
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 19, 2015 at 7:26

This quote addresses a central theme of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which is a conflict between mythic, literary knowledge accumulated over eons of the past and the greed for power that can stem from coming unmoored from that knowledge. In this case, Gandalf refers to Saruman the White's willingness to break the precepts of years of wizardly wisdom by creating an industrialized and unnatural army in pursuit of power.

  • 3
    What your problem is has me baffled. Mar 15, 2015 at 16:06
  • 1
    I'll refer to Ghopper21's comment above on the construction of the sentence, which should be read as a set of phrases broken down like ". . ./to find out what it is / has left the path of wisdom."
    – pyrAmider
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:08
  • 1
    My native language is polish and in my language I think, there would be two commas in that sentence: "He, that breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom." I was confused by lack of them.
    – ciechowoj
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:15
  • 1
    @ciechowoj Those commas make no sense at all in English. See the constituency parse I include in my answer for how you should be analysing the structure. Remember that there are no commas in speech: one uses prosody and intonation. And English places, no, pause, in those places, that you might have, in some other language. :)
    – tchrist
    Mar 15, 2015 at 16:16
  • 2
    This answer, while not what OP was apparently after, is great lit crit. It's too good to label as 'not an answer'. Mar 15, 2015 at 16:43

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