Quotations about   mystery

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For even the humblest person, a day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search for truth and perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) American writer, philosopher, historian, architect
The Condition of Man (1944)
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Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration.

[Parit enim conversatio contemptum; raritas conciliat admirationem.]

Apuleius (c. 124 - c. 170 AD) Numidian writer, philosopher, rhetorician [Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis]
On the God of Socrates [De Deo Socratis], ch. 4 [tr. Bohn’s (1853)]

Discussing why the gods do not mingle with humanity. Alt. trans.:
  • "Familiarity produces contempt, but infrequency conciliates admiration." [tr. Taylor (1822)]
  • "Familiarity breeds contempt, but privacy gains admiration." [Source]
  • "Familiarity breeds contempt, but concealment excites interest."
The first part of the phrase is also used as the moral in the traditional English translation of Aesop's "The Fox and the Lion."
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The Creator had a lot of remarkably good ideas when he put the world together, but making it understandable hadn’t been one of them.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Mort (1987)
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Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Charles "Charlie" Stross (b. 1964) British writer
The Nightmare Stacks, ch. 18 (2016)
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A variant of Clarke's Third Law.
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Sickness and sorrows come and go, but a superstitious soul hath no rest.

Robert Burton (1577-1640) English scholar
The Anatomy of Melancholy, 3.4.1.3 (1621-51)
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Don’t express your ideas too clearly. Most people think little of what they understand, and venerate what they do not.

[No allanarse sobrado en el concepto. Los más no estiman lo que entienden, lo que no perciben lo veneran. Las cosas, para que se estiman, han de costar; será celebrado cuando no fuese entendido.]

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish Jesuit priest, writer, philosopher
The Art of Worldly Wisdom [Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia], #253 (1647) [tr. Maurer (1982)]

Alt. trans.: "Do not Explain overmuch. Most men do not esteem what they understand, and venerate what they do not see. ... Many praise a thing without being able to tell why, if asked. The reason is that they venerate the unknown as a mystery, and praise it because they hear it praised." [tr. Jacobs (1892)]
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God only knows, God makes his plan,
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.
We’re working our jobs, collect our pay,
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.

Paul Simon (b. 1941) American musician, singer-songwriter.
“Slip Slidin’ Away” (1977)
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The test of a religion or philosophy is the number of things it can explain: so true it is. But the religion of our churches explains neither art not society nor history, but itself needs explanation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1838)
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What I try to do is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last, possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn’t so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) American author, screenwriter, political activist
Interview with Helen Herbert Foster, “House Burglary Poor Trade,” Brooklyn Eagle Magazine (Oct 1929)
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The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.

Adams - keep yourself occupied- wist_info quote

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ch. 30 (1979)
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It sometimes seems to me that we are all afflicted with an urge and possessed by a longing for the impossible. The reality around us, the three-dimensional world surrounding us, is too common, too dull, too ordinary for us. We hanker after the unnatural or supernatural, that which does not exist, a miracle. As if that everyday reality isn’t enigmatic enough!

M. C. Escher (1898-1972) Dutch artist [Maurits Cornelius Escher]
“The Impossible”
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It is not written in the stars that I will always understand what is going on — a truism that I often find damnably annoying.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Friday [Friday Jones] (1982)
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The unrecorded past is none other than our old friend, the tree in the primeval forest which fell without being heard.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” New York Times (8 Mar 1964)
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To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem.

Carl Jung (1875-1961) Swiss psychologist
Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (1934) [tr. Hull (1959)]
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He that will believe only what he can fully comprehend, must have a very long head, or a very short creed.

Charles Caleb "C. C." Colton (1780-1832) English cleric, writer
Lacon: or, Many Things in Few Words, #470 (1820 ed.)
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If the world were clear, art would not exist.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-French novelist, essayist, playwright
“Absurd Creation,” The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
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It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Danish philosopher, theologian
Journals (1847)
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Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words — “mank” and “ind.” What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.

Jack Handey (b. 1949) American humorist
Deeper Thoughts: All New, All Crispy (1993)
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Life would be unbearably dull if we had answers to all our questions.

Jim Butcher (b. 1971) American author
Death Masks (2003)
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I think the detective story is by far the best upholder of the democratic doctrine in literature. I mean, there couldn’t have been detective stories until there were democracies, because the very foundation of the detective story is the thesis that if you’re guilty you’ll get it in the neck and if you’re innocent you can’t possibly be harmed. No matter who you are. There was no such conception of justice until after 1830. There was no such thing as a policeman or a detective in the world before 1830, because the modern conception of the policeman and detective, namely, a man whose only function is to find out who did it and then get the evidence that will punish him, did not exist. … In Paris before the year 1800 — read the Dumas stories — there were gangs of people whose business was to go out and punish wrongdoers. But why? Because they had hurt De Marillac or Richelieu or the Duke or some Huguenot noble, not just because they had harmed society. It is only the modern policeman that is out to protect society.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) American writer
On “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” Invitation to Learning Radio Show, hosted by Mark Van Doren (Jan 1942)

Transcribed in Mark Van Doren, The New Invitation to Learning: The Essence of the Great Books of All Times (1942).
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Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man’s and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life to know whether yours or mine, our friend’s or our foe’s, are exactly the right.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Miles King (26 Sep 1814)
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God made life to be lived and not to be known.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]
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One may say the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“Physics and Reality” Journal of the Franklin Institute (Mar 1936)
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I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“What I Believe,” Forum and Century (Oct 1930)
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Einstein crafted and recrafted his credo multiple times in this period, and specifics are often muddled by differing translations and by his reuse of certain phrases in later writing. The Forum and Century entry appears to be the earliest. Some important variants:

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither ca I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with they mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

— "The World As I See It [Mein Weltbild] [tr. Bargmann (1954)]


I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

— "The World As I See It [Mein Weltbild] [tr. Harris (1934)]


To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.

[Es ist mir genug, diese Geheimnisse staunend zu ahnen und zu versuchen, von der erhabenen Struktur des Seienden in Demut ein mattes Abbild geistig zu erfassen.]

Reduced variant in "My Credo Mein Glaubensbekenntnis]" (Aug 1932)
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I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
In G. Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (1930)
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Note this passage is not present in the Saturday Evening Post interview that was the basis for that chapter of Viereck's book.
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The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no-one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Moving Pictures (1990)
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The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it may be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.

Einstein - sense of the mysterious - wist_info quote

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“What I Believe,” Forum and Century (Oct 1930)
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Einstein crafted and recrafted his credo multiple times in this period, and specifics are often muddled by differing translations and by his reuse of certain phrases in later writing. The Forum and Century entry appears to be the earliest. Some important variants:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.

— "The World As I See It [Mein Weltbild]" [tr. Bargmann (1954)]


The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms -- it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

— "The World As I See It [Mein Weltbild]" [tr. Harris (1934)]


The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.

[Das Schönste und Tiefste, was der Mensch erleben kann, ist das Gefühl des Geheimnisvollen. Es liegt der Religion sowie allem tieferen Streben in Kunst und Wissenschaft zugrunde. Wer dies nicht erlebt hat, erscheint mir, wenn nicht wie ein Toter, so doch wie ein Blinder. Zu empfinden, dass hinter dem Erlebbaren ein für unseren Geist Unerreichbares verborgen sei, dessen Schönheit und Erhabenheit uns nur mittelbar und in schwachem Widerschein erreicht, das ist Religiosität. In diesem Sinne bin ich religiös.]

Variant in "My Credo [Mein Glaubensbekenntnis]" (Aug 1932)


See parallel sentiments here, here, and here.
Added on 22-Aug-07 | Last updated 21-Feb-21
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Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

Omar Khayyám (1048-1123) Persian poet, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer
Rubáiyát, 74 [tr. FitzGerald, 4th ed. (1879)]
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The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
Memoirs of William Miller, quoted in Life (2 May 1955)
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“From what I remember,” replied Crowley, thoughtfully, “– and we were never actually on what you might call speaking terms — He wasn’t exactly one for a straight answer. In fact, in fact, he’d never answer at all. He’d just smile, as if He knew something that you didn’t.”

“And of course that’s true,” said the angel. “Otherwise, what’d be the point?”

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
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When one remembers that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Mark Twain’s Notebook [ed. Paine (1935)]
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See also this.
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“I mean, maybe you just want to see how it all turns out. Maybe it’s all part of a great big ineffable plan. All of it. You, me, him, everything. Some great big test to see if what you’ve built all works properly, eh? You start thinking: it can’t be a great cosmic game of chess, it has to be just very complicated Solitaire. And don’t bother to answer. If we could understand, we wouldn’t be us. Because it’s all — all –”

INEFFABLE, said the figure feeding the ducks.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
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Death, like life, is an affair of being more frightened than hurt.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
Erewhon (1872)
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God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens, “Eleven Years Ago” (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
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To know God better is only to realize how impossible it is that we should ever know him at all. I know not which is more childish, to deny him, or define him.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
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If you take the long view, the universe is just something small and round, like those water-filled balls which produce a miniature snowstorm when you shake them. (Although, unless the ineffable plan is a lot more ineffable than it’s given credit for, it does not have a giant plastic snowman at the bottom.)

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
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“But the Great Plan can only be a tiny part of the overall ineffability,” said Crowley. “You can’t be certain that what’s happening right now isn’t exactly right, from an ineffable point of view.”

“It izz written!” bellowed Beelzebub.

“But it might be written differently somewhere else,” said Crowley. “Where you can’t read it.”

“In bigger letters,” said Aziraphale.

“Underlined,” Crowley added.

“Twice,” suggested Aziraphale.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
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The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
The World As I See It, Title Essay (1931) (1949)
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The essay is also known as "Mein Weltbild" or "My Worldview." Alternate translation: "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms -- it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 23-Mar-20
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