The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise. ~ Camille Desmoulins
Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. ~ Matthew
Greatness knows itself. ~ William Shakespeare
No great deed is done
By falterers who ask for certainty. ~ George Eliot
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. ~ William Shakespeare
We have not the love of greatness, but the love of the love of greatness. ~ Thomas Carlyle

Greatness or preeminence are terms used to emphasize the perceived superiority of a person or thing. In Europe the most lauded rulers were given the attribute the Great (e.g. Alfred the Great, Peter the Great), and during the Roman Era and Middle Ages, the Latin title for the Great (Magnus) was used (e.g. Albertus Magnus).


  • Joyously quivers the air of the hour before dawn, the hour when Buddha cognized the greatness of Cosmos, and when the Lord Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
    • Agni Yoga, Leaves of Morya’s Garden II, 241 (1925)
  • There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime.


  • There be three things which make a nation great and prosperous: a fertile soil, busy workshops, easy conveyance for men and goods from place to place.
    • Francis Bacon; this sentence was inscribed on one side of the Golden Door of the Transportation Building at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, as reported in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989)
  • Burn to be great,
    Pay not thy praise to lofty things alone.

    The plains are everlasting as the hills,
    The bard cannot have two pursuits; aught else
    Comes on the mind with the like shock as though
    Two worlds had gone to war, and met in air.
  • For four thousand years the strong had been rushing on in the road of privilege and power, seeking greatness. Christ stood in the path, and said, " Ye seek greatness. Ye are not even in the way to it. Ye are going up, but the way to greatness is down. Let him who would be great be the love-servant of all." Greatness consists in the facility and power of going down, and not in the facility of going up.
  • MAGNIFICENT, adj. Having a grandeur or splendor superior to that to which the spectator is accustomed, as the ears of an ass, to a rabbit, or the glory of a glowworm, to a maggot.
  • For greatness after all, in spite of its name, appears to be not so much a certain size as a certain quality in human lives. It may be present in lives whose range is very small.
  • Magna est veritas et praevalebit.
    • Great is Truth and it will prevail.
    • Thomas Brooks is said to have been the first to use the expression (1662); Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), reports it to be found in Walter Scott, Talisman, Chapter XIX; Bishop John Jewel, Samuel Purchas, Microcosmus, and William Thackeray, Roundabout Papers. It may be derived from "O magna vis veritas" found in Cicero, Oratio Pro Cœlio Rufo, XXVI
    • Variant translations:
    • Truth is mighty and shall prevail.
    • Truth is mighty and will prevail.
    • Truth is mighty and it will prevail
  • Greatness by nature includes a power, but not a will to power. … The great man, whether we comprehend him in the most intense activity of his work or in the restful equipoise of his forces, is powerful, involuntarily and composedly powerful, but he is not avid for power. What he is avid for is the realization of what he has in mind, the incarnation of the spirit.
  • Great men are the guideposts and landmarks in the state.
    • Edmund Burke, speech on American taxation, House of Commons (April 19, 1774); reported in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (1899), vol. 2, p. 65


  • All the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: Freedom; Justice; Honour; Duty; Mercy; Hope.
    • Winston Churchill, United Europe Meeting, Albert Hall, London (May 14, 1947). Cited in Churchill by Himself, ed. Langworth, PublicAffairs (2008), p. 26 ISBN 1586486381
  • Let every man or woman here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and what you are, in Philadelphia, now. He that can give to his city any blessing, he who can be a good citizen while he lives here, he that can make better homes, he that can be a blessing whether he works in the shop or sits behind the counter or keeps house, whatever be his life, he who would be great anywhere must first be great in his own Philadelphia.
    • Russell H. Conwell, Acres of Diamonds (1915), p. 59. Conwell gave this public address more than 6,000 times from 1877 until his death in 1925. He tailored his speech to individual cities by changing Philadelphia, his home town, to the name of the city where he was speaking.
  • Few men, I imagine, who become great started on their career with the intention of becoming so. The intention generally accompanies the unsuccessful. The secret of real greatness seems to be a happy knack of doing things as they come in your way; and they rarely present themselves in the form which careful preparation would enable you to deal with.
    • Mandell Creighton, Heroes, address given to the Social and Political Education League (4 November 1898)


  • Les grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes à genoux: Levons-nous.
    Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal: Éirímis.
    The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.
    • Inscription in French, Irish, and English on a monument to James (Big Jim) Larkin on O'Connell Street in Dublin, Ireland. Although Larkin used it in a famous speech, the slogan is usually attributed to the French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins, as reported in Antoine Eugene de Genoude (abbe.), Histoire de France (‎1848), p. 140


  • Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.
  • Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind.
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge, Massachusetts (August 31, 1837); in Nature, Addresses and Lectures (vol. 3 of The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson) (1906), p. 100


  • I am destined to pass through this world, wandering like an invisible meteor. Precisely because I am superior, I will have to empty the entire cup of sorrow and distress with no joy to cheer me. But the harsh intoxication of drinking from the chalice of sorrow is a superb pleasure that only one who tears his soul to shreds by himself, with his own hands, is given to taste.
  • Pour accomplir de grandes choses il ne suffit pas d'agir il faut rêver; il ne suffit pas de calculer, il faut croire.
  • To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.
    • Anatole France, on Ferdinand de Lesseps' work on the Suez Canal, in Discours de réception, Séance De L'académie Française — introductory speech at a session of the French Academy (24 December 1896)
    • Variant translation: To accomplish great things, we must dream as well as act.


[E]ven a great man cannot be wise in everything. ~ Allen C. Guelzo


  • There aren't any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.
    • Attributed to Admiral William F. Halsey; reported as unverified in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989), these words have not been found as spoken by Halsey, but were said by James Cagney, portraying him, in the United Artists film version of Halsey's life, The Gallant Hours.
  • He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.
    • Benjamin Harvey Hill, about Robert E. Lee, in an address before the Southern Historical Society, Atlanta, Georgia (18 February 1874), in Senator Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia; His Life, Speeches and Writings (1893), p. 406
  • I am convinced that nothing will happen to me, for I know the greatness of the task for which Providence has chosen me.
    • Adolf Hitler, remark when running for the presidency of the Reich against Hindenburg in 1932, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922–August 1939, as translated by Norman H. Baynes (1969), vol. 1, p. 193


  • I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.—You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself.
    • William James, letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman (June 7, 1899), in Henry James, , ed., The Letters of William James (1926), vol. 2, p. 90


  • I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
    • John F. Kennedy, remarks at a dinner honoring Nobel prize winners of the Western Hemisphere (April 29, 1962), in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, p. 347
  • Four things greater than all things are,—
    Women and Horses and Power and War.
    • Rudyard Kipling, "The Ballad of the King's Jest", stanza 5, in The Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling: Departmental Ditties and Barrack-Room Ballads (1941, reprinted 1970), vol. 25, p. 234


  • We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.


  • No one should be astonished if in the following discussion of completely new princedoms and of the prince and of government, I bring up the noblest examples. Because, since men almost always walk in the paths beaten by others and carry on their affairs by imitating—even though it is not possible to keep wholly in the paths of others or to attain the ability of those you imitate—a prudent man will always choose to take paths beaten by great men and to imitate those who have been especially admirable, in order that if his ability does not reach theirs, at least it may offer some suggestion of it; and he will act like prudent archers, who, seeing that the mark they plan to hit is too far away and knowing what space can be covered by the power of their bows, take an aim much higher than their mark, not in order to reach with their arrows so great a height, but to be able, with the aid of so high an aim, to attain their purpose.
    • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 6, in Machiavelli, the Chief Works and Others, trans. Allan Gilbert (1965), vol. 1, p. 24–25
  • The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
  • Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
  • Are not great
    Men the models of nations?
    • Owen Meredith (Lord Lytton), Lucile (1860), Part II, Canto VI, Stanza 29



  • I do not admire a virtue like valour when it is pushed to excess, if I do not see at the same time the excess of the opposite virtue, as one does in Epaminondas, who displayed extreme valour and extreme benevolence. For otherwise it is not an ascent, but a fall. We do not display our greatness by placing ourselves at one extremity, but rather by being at both at the same time, and filling up the whole of the space between them.
    • Blaise Pascal, Pascal's Pensées, trans. Martin Turnell (1962), part 1, section 6, p. 164


  • Satan unavoidably reminds us of Prometheus, and although there are essential differences, we are not made to feel them essential. His very situation as the fearless antagonist of Omnipotence makes him either a fool or a hero, and Milton is far indeed from permitting us to think him a fool. The nobility and greatness of his bearing are brought home to us in some half-dozen of the finest poetic passages in the world.
  • If we are to be a really great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world. We cannot avoid meeting great issues. All that we can determine for ourselves is whether we shall meet them well or ill.
    • Theodore Roosevelt, governor of New York, speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, Illinois (April 10, 1899); in The Strenuous Life (vol. 13 of The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, national ed.) (1926), chapter 1, p. 322
  • As if Misfortune made the throne her seat,
    And none could be unhappy but the great.


  • I have touched the highest point of all my greatness:
    And, from that full meridian of my glory,
    I haste now to my setting.
  • Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!
    This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
    The tender leaves of hope; to-morrow blossoms,
    And bears his blushing honours thick upon him:
    The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
    And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
    His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
    And then he falls, as I do.
  • Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
    Like a Colossus, and we petty men
    Walk under his huge legs and peep about
    To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
  • They that stand high have many blasts to shake them;
    And if they fall, they dash themselves to pieces.
  • Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.
  • In my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
  • There are two alternatives, and only two, before us. First, which is unlikely, is that we unscramble our modern interdependent culture, returning to separate and isolationist lives … Such a world would not demand greatness. The other alternative is to so expand our spiritual powers that we vastly increase the range of our understanding and sympathy. There is no middle way. It is greatness — universalism — or perish.


  • The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.
    • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010) The Sage, the Weak, and the Magnificent, p. 94.
  • I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there … in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there … in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there … in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
    • Attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his final campaign address in Boston, Massachusetts (November 3, 1952); reported as unverified in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989). The last two sentences are attributed to de Tocqueville's Democracy in America by Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream (1941), chapter 1, p. 6. This appears with minor variations in Ralph L. Woods, ed., A Third Treasury of the Familiar (1970), p. 347, as "attributed to de Tocqueville but not found in his works".


  • This is the bare chronology of as great an American as ever lived. Ten thousand pages would be required to fill in the full story of his talents, his genius and his impact upon the foundation of America. He was ever the subject of white-heat controversy—in death even as in life. But for myself, summing it all up, I say that five words might be his epitaph: THE REPUBLIC IS HIS MONUMENT.
    • Arthur H. Vandenberg, "Story of Alexander Hamilton as Told by Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg", The Sons of the American Revolution Magazine (February 1950), p. 9. Also Congressional Record (February 24, 1950), vol. 96, Appendix, p. A1378


  • There was never a nation great until it came to the knowledge that it had nowhere in the world to go for help.
    • Charles Dudley Warner, "Comments on Canada," section 3, Studies in the South and West with Comments on Canada (1889), p. 483


  • High stations, tumult, but not bliss, create;
    None think the great unhappy, but the great.

Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations

Quotes reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 340-42.
  • Nothing can cover his high fame but heaven;
    No pyramids set off his memories,
    But the eternal substance of his greatness,—
    To which I leave him.
  • Man's Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.
    • Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, The Everlasting Yea, Book II, Chapter IX
  • We have not the love of greatness, but the love of the love of greatness.
  • Nemo vir magnus aliquo afflatu divino unquam fuit.
    • No man was ever great without divine inspiration.
    • Cicero, De Natura Deorum, II. 66
  • The great man who thinks greatly of himself, is not diminishing that greatness in heaping fuel on his fire.
    • Isaac D'Israeli, The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius (1795-1822), Chapter XV
  • So let his name through Europe ring!
    A man of mean estate,
    Who died as firm as Sparta's king,
    Because his soul was great.
    • Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, The Private of the Buffs
  • He is great who is what he is from Nature, and who never reminds us of others.
  • Nature never sends a great man into the planet, without confiding the secret to another soul.
  • He who comes up to his own idea of greatness, must always have had a very low standard of it in his mind.
  • No really great man ever thought himself so.
  • Ajax the great * * *
    Himself a host.
  • For he that once is good, is ever great.
  • Urit enim fulgore suo qui prægravat artes
    Intra se positas; extinctus amabitur idem.
    • That man scorches with his brightness, who overpowers inferior capacities, yet he shall be revered when dead.
    • Horace, Epistles, II. 1. 13
  • Greatnesse on goodnesse loves to slide, not stand,
    And leaves, for fortune's ice, vertue's firme land.
    • Richard Knolles, Turkish History. Under a portrait of Mustapha I, line 13
  • Great is advertisement! 'tis almost fate;
    But, little mushroom-men, of puff-ball fame.
    Ah, do you dream to be mistaken great
    And to be really great are just the same?
  • Il n'appartient qu'aux grands hommes d'avoir de grands défauts.
  • The great man is the man who can get himself made and who will get himself made out of anything he finds at hand.
  • A great man is made up of qualities that meet or make great occasions.
  • If any man seeks for greatness, let him forget greatness and ask for truth, and he will find both.
  • The great man is he who does not lose his child's heart.
    • Mencius, Works, Book IV, Part II, Chapter XII
  • That man is great, and he alone,
    Who serves a greatness not his own,
    For neither praise nor pelf:
    Content to know and be unknown:
    Whole in himself.
  • Les grands ne sont grands que parceque nous, les portons sur nos épaules; nous n'avons qu' à les secouer pour en joncher la terre.
  • Lives obscurely great.
    • Henry J. Newboldt, Minora Sidera
  • Les grands ne sont grands que parceque nous sommes à genoux: relevons nous.
    • The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us rise up.
    • Louis-Marie Prudhomme, Révolutions de Paris, Motto
  • Es ist der Fluch der Hohen, dass die Niedern
    Sich ihres offnen Ohrs bemächtigen.
    • The curse of greatness:
      Ears ever open to the babbler's tale.
    • Friedrich Schiller, Die Braut von Messina, I
  • Si vir es, suspice, etiam si decidunt, magna conantes.
    • If thou art a man, admire those who attempt great things, even though they fail.
    • Seneca the Younger, De Brevitate, XX
  • Not that the heavens the little can make great,
    But many a man has lived an age too late.
  • Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.
  • The world knows nothing of its greatest men.
  • He fought a thousand glorious wars,
    And more than half the world was his,
    And somewhere, now, in yonder stars,
    Can tell, mayhap, what greatness is.
  • O, happy they that never saw the court,
    Nor ever knew great men but by report!
    • John Webster, The White Devil; or, Vittoria Corombona, Act V, scene VI
  • Great let me call him, for he conquered me.

Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895)

Quotes reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895).

  • The greatest man is he who chooses the right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heavest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on God is most unfaltering.
  • Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the using of strength.
  • True greatness does not consist so much in doing extraordinary things, as in conducting ordinary affairs with a noble demeanor and from a right motive. It is necessary and most profitable to remember the advice to Titus, "Showing all good fidelity in all things."
  • A solemn and religious regard to spiritual and eternal things is an indispensable element of all true greatness.
  • He who does the most good is the greatest man. Power, authority, dignity; honors, wealth, and station,— these are so far valuable as they put it into the hands of men to be more exemplary and more useful than they could be in an obscure and private life. But then these are means conducting to an end, and that end is goodness.
    • Bishop Jortin, p. 293
  • A great man, I take it, is a man so inspired and permeated with the ideas of God and the Christly spirit as to be too magnanimous for vengeance, and too unselfish to seek his own ends.
  • He is truly great that is great in charity. He is truly great that is little in himself, and maketh no account of any height of honor. And he is truly learned that doeth the will of God, and forsaketh his own will.
  • It is, in a great measure, by raising up and endowing great minds that God secures the advance of human affairs, and the accomplishment of His own plans on earth.
  • There is but one method, and that is hard labor.

See also

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