A very well known quote by William Shakespeare

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.

The first half is okay - a fool thinks himself to be wise (he's in that misunderstanding to be wise). The second half made me scratch my head.

...but a wise man knows himself to be a fool?

What's that? Why a wise man would ever know himself to be a fool? What am I missing?

  • 7
    A wise man is wise enough to know that he actually knows nothing (is a fool). It refers to the awareness and humility that a wise man has towards knowledge and life.
    – user66974
    Oct 27, 2015 at 9:10
  • 5
    The more a wise man knows, the more a wise man knows how much he doesn't know.
    – deadrat
    Oct 27, 2015 at 9:15
  • 1
    A wise man once said: The more I learn, the less I know.
    – WS2
    Oct 27, 2015 at 9:20
  • 1
    From which, probably, "ignorance is a bliss".
    – user66974
    Oct 27, 2015 at 9:22
  • 4
    It's all about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 27, 2015 at 9:35

3 Answers 3


I believe it relates to this quote by Confucius

“True wisdom is knowing what you don't know”

― Confucius, Sayings of Confucius

The realization that the self is lacking, that there is always more to learn and that one doesn't know nearly everything, or even as much as what one thinks he knows is the hallmark of the wise man. He knows that he still has much to learn (there are other cultural idioms which express this).


Origin: This line is from Shakespeare's comedy 'As You Like It' (5.1) spoken by Touchstone, who is a Fool in the play, to William.

  • The irony is that Touchstone is a fool, yet he is counselling William that;

i ) A Fool who is being foolish and understands that his actions and behaviour are only an act of folly makes him wise, whereas a person who is being foolish and does not realist this is a true fool.

ii ) Only a fool would think himself wise enough, or consider himself a wise man, whereas a wise man thinks himself as a fool because he understands the concept that there is always more to know and more to learn.

iii ) Fools had the license to make offensive comments on members of the court, and more importantly on the monarch. It thus takes much wit to make use of this privilege/power, and Fool in the day, and in Shakespeare's plays have been considered the one who can see clearly, and is more knowledgeable (a fool always presents himself with folly, thus no one actually ever knows how much a fool knows).


Shakespeare was almost godlike in his capacity to put into English, sentiments that crystallize some recognizable human experience in a novel way. There are two entities who have influenced English more than anything else: One is The King James Bible; the other is William Shakespeare. These two have given us some of our most colorful, and fun, idioms.

However, this sentiment is an ancient one: The more you learn, the less you know. Learning, especially a good deal of it, can only serve to show you that there is an endless amount of information, and that, even at our best and most informed, we can only scratch the surface. I want it on my tombstone: "I STILL don't know." The comforting thing is that no one else knows everything either. It is only the ignorant who think they know everything, or at least, everything worth knowing.

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