On Machiavelli, Hourglasses, and More Fake Quotes

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

Not as pernicious as the overthrowing the status quo false quotation I discussed earlier, this one does seem to have some staying power as a fake Machiavelli. The fact that it’s pretty blatantly not Machiavelli’s style or subject matter doesn’t seem to slow folks down. What makes this quote intriguing is that we have a double misattribution.

Jeanpaul.jpgThe 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. That’s the earliest I can trace it back without going into the stacks. But the lack of an actual source text and my cautious nature force me to qualify my attribution of authorship.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Perhaps due to Jean Paul’s relative obscurity, the quote seems to have latched on to a more famous Jean Paul: the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Unlike the obviously false Machiavelli attribution, which only appears in the usual rogues’ gallery of quote aggregators, Sartre gets credit for this one in a number of published books of quotations and other folk wisdom. Shamefully, it actually appears on sartre.org. At least it’s apparent how the confusion occurred. How Machiavelli got involved with this one, I have no idea.

The lesson in all of this is that the quote aggregators like brainyquote, searchquote, and their ilk should be avoided at all costs. 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.

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