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.

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


  1. Website:, 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 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

Deathbed Remark: This Is No Time To Be Making New Enemies

Voltaire? Niccolò Machiavelli? Wilson Mizner? Dying Irishman? Canny Scot? Aging Rock Star? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While reading speeches given by Nobel Prize recipients I came across an entertaining anecdote about Voltaire from the eminent economist Robert E. Lucas: 1

When Voltaire was dying, in his eighties, a priest in attendance called upon him to renounce the devil. Voltaire considered his advice, but decided not to follow it. “This is no time,” he said, “to be making new enemies”. In this same spirit, I offer my thanks and good wishes to the Bank of Sweden, to the Nobel Committee, and to everyone involved in this wonderful occasion.

Reports of deathbed pronouncements are notoriously inaccurate, and the speaker was probably knowingly presenting a lighthearted fanciful tale. I have heard the same story told about the famous political schemer Niccolò Machiavelli. Could you explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke known to QI was published in April 1856, and the person lying on the deathbed was not famous. The jocular tale was told in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper and featured a generic Irishman: 2

You remind me of a dying Irishman, who was asked by his confessor if he was ready to renounce the devil and his works ‘Oh, your honor,’ said Pat, ‘don’t ask me that; I’m going into a strange country, and I don’t want to make myself enemies!’

This popular account was printed in multiple newspapers and periodicals in the following years, e.g., The Nebraskian of Omaha, Nebraska in August 1856; 3 the Boston Investigator of Boston, Massachusetts in August 1856; 4 the Chicago Daily Tribune of Chicago, Illinois in July 1857; 5 and the Saturday Evening Post of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in March 1860. 6

Over the decades the identity of the main character has shifted between: an Irishman, a Scotsman, Wilson Mizner, Voltaire, Niccolò Machiavelli, an aging rock luminary, and others.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Deathbed Remark: This Is No Time To Be Making New Enemies


  1. 1995 December 10, Speech at Banquet for the Nobel Prize Award by Robert E. Lucas, Jr., [Lucas won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel], From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor Tore Frangsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm. (Accessed at on August 13, 2013) link
  2. 1856 April 30, Springfield Republican, Political Miscellanies, Page 2, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1856 August 06, The Nebraskian, (Freestanding short filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Issue 28, Omaha, Nebraska. (19th Century Newspapers)
  4. 1856 August 27, Boston Investigator, Wit, Humor, and Sentiment, Page 1, Column 5, Issue 18, Boston, Massachusetts, (19th Century Newspapers)
  5. 1857 July 25, Chicago Daily Tribune, [Freestanding article], Page 0_3, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  6. 1860 March 10, Saturday Evening Post, [Freestanding article], Page 6, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)