You may tell a man thou art a fiend, but not your nose wants blowing; to him alone who can bear a thing of that kind, you may tell all. – Johann Kaspar Lavater

Could somebody explain the meaning of the above aphorism, here thou art that relates to "Tat tvam asi" of Upanishads, fiend refers to enemy but still the meaning is not clear.

  • I'm guessing it was translated from another language. – Hot Licks Nov 7 '17 at 3:23
  • no, its by a famous theologian Mr. Johann Kaspar Lavter and is in English only – Sudhir Mor Nov 7 '17 at 3:26
  • He was Swiss and lived in the late 1700s. And what does "'Tat tvam asi' of Upnishads" mean? – Hot Licks Nov 7 '17 at 3:29
  • actually origin of "Thou art that" is from Upanishads and it's a sanskrit phrase meaning you the self. Hope this part of aphorism is derived from there. – Sudhir Mor Nov 7 '17 at 3:32
  • "Thou art" means "you are" -- "you are a terrible person". – Hot Licks Nov 7 '17 at 3:45

The meaning of the first part (to me) is that people are more likely to accept you if call them a monster (fiend) than if you point out that they need to blow their nose. In other words, people are more willing to accept being told that they're evil than that they look disgusting. The last part of the quotation means that if you find someone who can stand being told that they're disgusting, then you can tell anything to that person. [Note: In this context, "wants" means "needs", a meaning that is now out of date.]

  • Absolutely clear and simple explanation @Andreas Blass, I upvotes! – English Student Nov 7 '17 at 15:10

The earlier answer of Andreas Blass makes the meaning very clear; may I also point out that the statement carries a strong element of irony in that a person who can tolerate the more serious insult of being called a devil, often cannot bear to be given the simple information that their nose needs blowing! It is a human weakness. We are like that only. The philosopher wisely concludes that the very rare person whoever can accept both types of information, is surely worthy of your confidence, and to that person you can say anything in your mind @Sudhir Mor.

Note 2: "thou art" is simply an older English form of "you are" as pointed out by @Hot Licks in comments, and it is not specifically related to 'ta tvam asi', a Sanskrit phrase which is translated variously as Thou art that, You are that, That you are, or You're it, depending on the level of modernity and formality of the English used in the translation.

[Certain syntactic elements of Indian English and a more subtle style of inline citations are used intentionally here, so kind members please resist the urge to edit!]

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