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Alexis de Tocqueville

“There is no need to traverse earth and sky to find a wondrous object full of contrasts of infinite greatness and littleness, of deep gloom and amazing brightness, capable at the same time of arousing piety, wonder, scorn, and terror. I have only to contemplate myself; man comes from nothing, passes through time, and disappears forever in the bosom of God. He is seen but for a moment wandering on the verge of two abysses, and then is lost.

If man were wholly ignorant of himself he would have no poetry in him, for one cannot describe what one does not conceive. If he saw himself clearly, his imagination would remain idle and would have nothing to add to the picture. But the nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much in impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he ever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself.”


From Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal Democracy in America.

Some other writers who grazed these same ideas and used some of these same images (life on the verge of two eternal abysses, etc.):

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”

Vladimir Nabokov, writing the introduction to his memoir Speak, Memory (1951)

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, at the seashore… But this is a characteristic of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you will to choose to retreat into yourself… and I affirm that tranquillity is nothing other than the proper ordering of the mind.”

Marcus Aurelius, reflecting in book four of his Meditations (167)

“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry…”

Robert Ingersoll, speaking in the eulogy for his brother (1879)

“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which precedes and will succeed it… I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?”

Blaise Pascal, writing in a section of his Pensées (1662)

More Democracy in America:

American Flag

Tocqueville on Church and State