Worldly renown is naught but a breath of wind, which now comes hence and now comes thence, and changes name because it changes quarter. What more fame shalt thou have, if thou strippest old flesh from thee, than if thou hadst died ere thou hadst left the pap and the chink, before a thousand years have passed?–which is a shorter space compared to the eternal than a movement of the eyelids to the circle that is slowest turned in Heaven.
Omnes Vanitas, by Ambrose Bierce (1903):
Alas for ambition’s possessor!
Alas for the famous and proud!
The Isle of Manhattan’s best dresser
Is wearing a hand-me-down shroud.
The world has forgotten his glory;
The wagoner sings on his wain,
And Chauncey Depew tells a story,
And jackasses laugh in the lane.
The highest form of vanity is love of fame. It is a passion easy to deride but hard to understand, and in men who live at all by imagination almost impossible to eradicate. The good opinion of posterity can have no possible effect on our fortunes, and the practical value which reputation may temporarily have is quite absent in posthumous fame. The direct object of this passion–that a name should survive in men’s mouths to which no adequate idea of its original can be attached–seems a thin and fantastic satisfaction, especially when we consider how little we should probably sympathise with the creatures that are to remember us. What comfort would it be to Virgil that boys still read him at school, or to Pindar that he is sometimes mentioned in a world from which everything he loved has departed?
On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness
The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.
The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.
The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.
Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself.
Rura mihi et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes, flumina amem silvasque inglorius.
Which translates as:
Let my delight be the country, and the running streams amid the dells–may I love the waters and the woods, though fame be lost.
May the countryside and the gliding streams content me. Lost to fame, let me love river and woodland.
Once more, how many of high renown in their own times have been lost in oblivion for want of a record! Indeed, of what avail are written records even, which, with their authors, are overtaken by the dimness of age after a somewhat longer time? But ye, when ye think on future fame, fancy it an immortality that ye are begetting for yourselves. Why, if thou scannest the infinite spaces of eternity, what room hast thou left for rejoicing in the durability of thy name? Verily, if a single moment’s space be compared with ten thousand years, it has a certain relative duration, however little, since each period is definite. But this same number of years–ay, and a number many times as great–cannot even be compared with endless duration; for, indeed, finite periods may in a sort be compared one with another, but a finite and an infinite never. So it comes to pass that fame, though it extend to ever so wide a space of years, if it be compared to never-lessening eternity, seems not short-lived merely, but altogether nothing.
Sic Vita, by Henry King, 1592-1669.
Like to the falling of a star,
Or as the flights of eagles are,
Or like the fresh spring’s gaudy hue,
Or silver drops of morning dew,
Or like a wind that chafes the flood,
Or bubbles which on water stood:
Even such is man, whose borrowed light
Is straight called in, and paid to night.
The wind blows out, the bubble dies;
The spring entombed in autumn lies;
The dew dries up, the star is shot;
The flight is past, and man forgot.
The original Themista was one of the most devoted followers of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. She was called the female Solon, and Epicurus dedicated a number of his works to her. She was also one of the first women in history to write a book of philosophy, which she entitled The Vanity of Glory. Her book was widely influential in antiquity–several hundred years after her death Cicero quoted from it in a speech before the Roman senate.
While the book is now lost, its title remains, and its truth has resonated over the centuries. A good philosopher will always understand that there is no more pathetic waste of time and energy than what is now called attention whoring. Those who succumb to the siren call of fame and celebrity are in pursuit of a sad illusion which will never make them happy. How much better to practice the Epicurean virtue of lathe biÃ´sas, kai apobiÃ´sas, which translates as live unknown, die unknown. If you wish to live a harmonious and contented existence, you need to fly under the radar. You’ll be glad you did.
I am now going to start posting an occasional vanity of glory quote, the kind of which Themista would probably have approved. I will start with one of the most memorable sonnets ever written, Ozymandias (1818), by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.