To be born enlightened: that is highest. To study and so become enlightened: that is next. To feel trapped and so study: that is third. To feel trapped and never study: that is the level of the common people, the lowest level.

[孔子曰、生而知之者、上也、學而知之者、次也、 困而學之、又其次也、困而不學、民斯爲下矣。]

Confucius (c. 551- c. 479 BC) Chinese philosopher, sage, politician [孔夫子 (Kǒng Fūzǐ, K'ung Fu-tzu, K'ung Fu Tse), 孔子 (Kǒngzǐ, Chungni), 孔丘 (Kǒng Qiū, K'ung Ch'iu)]
The Analects [Lúnyǔ, 论语], Book 16, ch. 9 (16.9) (6th C. BC) [ed. Lao-Tse, tr. Hinton (1998)]

(Source (Chinese)). Alternate translations:

Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn, and so, readily, get possession of knowledge, are the next. Those who are dull and stupid, and yet compass the learning, are another class next to these. As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn; -- they are the lowest of the people
[tr. Legge (1861), sec. 2]

They whose knowledge comes by birth are of all men the first (in understanding); they to whom it comes by study are next; men of poor intellectual capacity, who yet study, may be added as a yet inferior class; and lowest of all are they who are poor in intellect and never learn.
[tr. Jennings (1895)]

The highest class of men are those who are born with a natural understanding. The next class are those who acquire understanding by study and application. There are others again who are born naturally dull, but who yet by strenuous efforts, try to acquire understanding: such men may be considered the next class. Those who are born naturally dull and yet will not take the trouble to acquire understanding: such men are the lowest class of the people.
[tr. Ku Hung-Ming (1898)]

Those who have innate wisdom take the biggest rank. Those who acquire it by study rank next. Those who learn despite natural limitations come next. But those who are of limited ability and yet will not learn, -- these form the lowest class of men.
[tr. Soothill (1910)]

Those who know instinctively (as at birth) are the highest; those who study and find out, come next; those who are hampered and study come next. Those who are boxed in and do not study constitute the lowest people.
[tr. Pound (1933)]

Best are those who are born wise. Next are those who become wise by learning. After come those who have to toil painfully in order acquire learning. Finally, to the lowest class of the common people belong those who toil painfully without ever managing to learn.
[tr. Waley (1938)]

Those who are born with knowledge are the highest. Next come those who attain knowledge through stud. Next again come those who turn to study after having been vexed by difficulties. The common people, in so far as they make no effort to study even after having been vexed by difficulties, are the lowest.
[tr. Lau (1979)]

Those who know things from birth come first; those who know things from study come next; those who study things although the find them difficult come next to them;and those who do not study because they find things difficult, that is to say the common people, come last.
[tr. Dawson (1993)]

Those who have innate knowledge are the highest. Next come those who acquire knowledge through learning. Next again come those who learn through the trials of life. Lowest are the common people who go through the trials of life without learning anything.
[tr. Leys (1997)]

It is the first class that one gets the knowledge because of one's innateness, it is the second class that one gets the knowledge because of one's studying, it is the third class that one gets studying because of one's encountering the difficulty, and it is under the class that one who does not study even if one encounters difficulties.
[tr. Cai/Yu (1998), #435]

Knowledge (zhi 知) acquired through a natural propensity for it is its highest level; knowledge acquired through study is the next highest; something learned in response to difficulties encountered is again the next highest. But those among the common people who do not learn even when vexed with difficulties -- they are at the bottom of the heap.
[tr. Ames/Rosemont (1998)]

Those who know from birth are the highest, those who know it from study are next, those who despite difficulties study it are next after that. Those who in difficulties do not study: these are the lowest.
[tr. Brooks/Brooks (1998)]

This appears to be the source of the following aphorism frequently attributed to Confucius, and recorded in James Wood, ed., Dictionary of Quotations (1893):

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

For more discussion of that Wood "translation":
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 6-Jun-22
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