The More Sand Has Escaped from the Hourglass of Our Life, the Clearer We Should See Through It

Niccolò Machiavelli? Jean-Paul Sartre? Jean Paul? Johann Paul Friedrich Richter?

Dear Quote Investigator: A student would like to use the following quotation about perspicacity gained through experience in a yearbook, but she has been unable to determine an appropriate ascription:

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

These words are often attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli or Jean-Paul Sartre which I think is an eccentric juxtaposition. I was unable to find precise citations for either of these individuals. Would you help resolve this question?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a German novel titled “Hesperus oder 45 Hundsposttage, Eine Biographie” published in 1795 by Johann Paul Friedrich Richter who used the pen name Jean Paul. “The Oxford Companion to German Literature” described the work as follows: 1

The eccentric sub-title refers to the chapters, which are designated Hundsposttage, and are supposed to have been brought to the author’s friend by a Pomeranian dog. Written in Jean Paul’s characteristic whimsical style, the book has a complex and absurd plot.

The quotation about a figurative hourglass referred to a single individual named Emanuel in the novel. The statement was later generalized to encompass all people. Here is the relevant passage in German followed by one possible English translation: 2

Emanuel sah ruhig wie eine ewige Sonne, auf den Herbst seines Körpers herab; ja je mehr Sand aus seiner Lebens-Sanduhr herausgefallen war, desto heller sah er durch das leere Glas hindurch.

Emanuel looked peacefully as an eternal sundown upon the autumn of his body; indeed the more sand had fallen out of his life-hourglass, the clearer he saw through the empty glass.

In 1837 a weekly journal called “The New-York Mirror” printed an article titled “Original Translations: Scraps from Jean Paul” which included a version of the quotation together with other adages from Richter. Here are three examples: 3

Our sorrows are like thunder clouds, which seem black in the distance, but grow lighter as they approach.

The more sand has escaped from the hour-glass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

The moon is a light-house on the shore of the other world.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1884 the statement continued to circulate and was published in a collection called “Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopedia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors”. The words were credited to Johann Paul Friedrich Richter: 4

PERCEPTION.

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.—Richter.

In 1968 Forbes magazine included the expression attributed to the pen name Jean Paul in the collection “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life”: 5

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.
— Jean Paul

In 1993 the saying was printed in “Phillips’ Book of Great Thoughts and Funny Sayings”; however, the words were not ascribed to Richter. Instead, the famous existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was named, and QI hypothesizes that this misattribution was caused by confusion with the pseudonym “Jean Paul”. 6

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it. Jean Paul Sartre

In 2011 Don MacDonald, an artist residing in Boston, discussed the quotation and noted that it was often attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli; however, MacDonald had uncovered evidence in an 1893 citation that the proper credit should go to Richter: 7

The quote seems to be from the German Romantic writer Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, better known by his nom de plume Jean Paul. Rev. James Woods attributes the saying to Jean Paul in his Dictionary of Quotations: from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources of 1893, although lacking a source for the quote.

MacDonald also helpfully suggested using Wikiquote instead of relying on the dubious information provided by some quotation aggregators:

Wikiquote seems like a better bet if you’re just looking for something to paste into Twitter and you’re not some nut who hunts down quotes he finds on the Internet in some Quixotic quest for historical accuracy.

In conclusion, Johann Paul Friedrich Richter deserves credit for providing the seed of this quotation applied to an individual in 1795. His words were altered to yield a general maxim and appeared in English by 1837. Richter’s pen name of Jean Paul probably catalyzed the incorrect reassignment to Jean-Paul Sartre. There is no substantive support for curious ascription Niccolò Machiavelli.

Image notes: Hourglass from OpenClips on Pixabay. Jean-Paul Sartre image from Wikipedia. Copyright expired. Portrait of Jean Paul by Heinrich Pfenninger from Wikimedia. These images are in the public domain.

(Many thanks to Nina Gilbert who requested a trace of this quotation when a student expressed a desire to use it in a yearbook. QI formulated the question. Special thanks to Don MacDonald for his valuable work tracing this quotation, and thanks to S. M. Colowick for locating MacDonald’s blog post. Great thanks to W. Brewer and Kat Petersen for providing QI with suggestions for the translation of the 1795 passage from German to English. Any errors are QI’s responsibility.)

Notes:

  1. Website: Answers.com, Reference Source: The Oxford Companion to German Literature from Oxford University Press, Category: Literature & Language: German Literature Companion, Topic: Hesperus oder 45 Hundsposttage, eine Biographie: Novel by Jean Paul, Text licensed by Answers Corporation. (Accessed answers.com on December 14, 2013) link
  2. 1795, Hesperus; oder, 45 hundsposttage: Eine Biographie by Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter), Quote Page 345, Karl Matzdorffs Buchhandlung, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1837 May 13, The New-York Mirror: A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Volume XIV, Number 46, Original Translations: Scraps from Jean Paul, Quote Page 362, Column 2, New York. (Google Books full view)(Please note that the metadata supplied for this match by Google Books is inaccurate; the data in this citation is based on the page images) link
  4. 1884, Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopedia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors by Maturin Murray Ballou, Tenth Edition, Quote Page 387, Column 1, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 214, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1993, Phillips’ Book of Great Thoughts and Funny Sayings, Compiled by Bob Phillips, Section: Experience, Quote Page 118, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  7. Website: Machiavelli by Don Macdonald, Article title: “On Machiavelli, Hourglasses, and More Fake Quotes”, Date on website: May 4, 2011, Website description: Included serialized pages from a comic presenting a fictional biography of Machiavelli. (Accessed donmacdonald.com on December 15, 2013) link