Areopagus Volume LIX

publishedabout 1 month ago
18 min read

Areopagus Volume LIX

Welcome one and all to the fifty ninth volume of the Areopagus — and a somewhat atypical edition. Rather than the usual seven short lessons, I present for you this week something closer to an essay. I was ruminating on a famous old adage and found myself, suddenly, writing about it. But this is not merely a catalogue of my thoughts on the subject. It is, instead — I hope — a useful and interesting exploration of a particularly important theme, throughout history and across the globe, drawing on art and literature along the way. Your answers to last week's question will be rolled over to next week's Areopagus.

And with that being said, seeing as neither tides nor days wait for any man, let us begin...

This Too Shall Pass

There is an old story about the King of Persia or, in some versions, the Sultan of Baghdad. In all cases it runs thusly; that this great lord, who was an enlightened ruler, wanted to know if there was anything he could say which would always be true, whenever and wherever it was spoken. So he gathered the wisest men in the land, calling poets and sages and philosophers from far and wide, to help him find an answer. They formed a great congregation and conferred for weeks on end until, eventually, they had agreed upon the solution to the king’s problem – they had a found a sentence which would always be true:

This too shall pass.

There are other variants of the story which involve King Solomon of the Old Testament or a king who wants to have a ring engraved with a fundamental truth which he can then pass on to his heirs, or a king who is sad and seeks consolation for his apparently endless melancholy. All end with the same four words — this too shall pass — or some other translation, perhaps all things must end.

What is the value of this aphorism? Is it true? Is it useful? Well, ask yourself — is there anything you know of, anything at all, which has not ever changed? We grow and leave childhood behind; eventually youth, too, as we leave school and enter into the so-called real world. Our parents grow older, our grandparents die — our dogs, cats, and fish also die – but our brothers and sisters or friends and cousins have children — new life. We make new friends, lose touch with old ones, and have children of our own. There are good times and bad times: moments when everything in life seemed just right, and others when each day is torture and just getting out of bed requires more effort than we can possibly muster. Summer gives way to Autumn, as the leaves begin to fall, which gives way to the snow and ice of Winter, until Spring arrives and the buds reappear, and blossom again as Summer returns. The sun rises — and at noonday heat it seems like the day shall never end! — until evening falls, and in the long dark of the night we wonder if ever we shall see the light again; the sun rises once more.

The point is this: in whatever situation we find ourselves, whatever circumstances confront us, whatever mood we are in, however we are feeling, and whether any of these are good or bad – all shall inevitably end, and thereafter change into something new. This too shall pass. It was Abraham Lincoln who best expressed the utility and wisdom of this old adage, speaking in 1859:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

“How chastening in the hour of pride!” And Lincoln is in some sense himself tragic proof of how right he was; for, in what we might call his hour of pride, when he was serving as the sixteenth President of the United States of America, he was assassinated. How great he must have seemed! How powerful! But, as Lincoln knew, any such power might — and must — eventually fade. The only question is when. Well might we say of Lincoln in his prime, and well would wise Lincoln have said of himself, what the Spartan king Agesilaus remarked when somebody pointed out the great fortune of the young Persian king:

So was Priam when he was that age.

That was a reference to King Priam of Troy, whose life ended in misery — the destruction of his city in flames and the deaths of him and all his family. So remember this, as we look up at and admire the great and the powerful of the 21st century, the Prime Ministers and Presidents, the gurus and oligarchs, the rich and famous — that all this will come to an end sooner or later. Thomas Gray said it best, and gave us words with which to rebuke all those puffed up by pride and power:

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

This was what the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had in mind when he wrote Ozymandias in 1819. A statue had recently been uncovered in Egypt — the colossal, shattered statue of Pharaoh Ramesses II, or Ozymandias as he was called in Greek — and was en route to London. Shelley imagined this statue, sculpted over three thousand years ago and once sixty feet tall, submerged beneath the sands of Egypt, and was inspired to write these words:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . 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.”

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Little wonder it is Shelley’s most famous poem, and the most enduringly popular poem of the Romantic era. And with those words Shelley, an unremitting champion of liberty, launched a warning for any who hold earthly power — any king who thinks himself so great, any ruler who lauds his might over the weak. For like Ramesses, who when his statue was erected must have seemed — as he wished — like a god on earth, and whose broken likeness ended up glaring, pathetically, over an emptiness that has forgotten him, all who hold power will eventually lose it.

But this too shall pass does not apply only to those tyrants whose fall, perhaps, we would welcome. It is a reminder that even when all is going well, when we feel the glow of pride and the heat of glory, when we think of ourselves too highly, we ought not to become too prideful or too attached to what we have attained. It is an invocation to be humble. As it was written in the Book of Baruch:

Where are the princes of the nations, and those who rule over the beasts on earth; those who mock the birds of the air, and who hoard up silver and gold, in which men trust, and there is no end to their getting; those who scheme to get silver, and are anxious, whose labours are beyond measure? They have vanished and gone below, and others have arisen in their place.

This passage, which in the Vulgate version — a Latin translation made by Saint Jerome in the 4th century AD — begins with the words ubi sunt, meaning “where are”, created a familiar motif in literature and poetry and music which has never since vanished. But, here, it was not so much about humility as sadness — a sort of gentle melancholy about the ephemerality of all things. When Hamlet observed “Alas, poor Yorick… Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?” it was much in this tradition. So too the Medieval French poet François Villon, whose Ballad of Ladies of Times Gone By asked: “where are the snows of yesteryear?” This was the same question posed by Simon and Garfunkel in Mrs Robinson when they sang “where did you go, Joe DiMaggio?” and perhaps best of all, in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
And this first Summer month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshýd and Kaikobád away.

In art, too, we find this theme. The vanitas was a sort of subgenre of European art in which otherwise ordinary paintings – perhaps still lifes or portraits – were offset by the inclusion of a reminder of mortality, usually in the form of a skull. The name vanitas means vanity in Latin; it is a reference to the futility and hollowness of pleasures and how foolish we are to pursue them: luxuries, wealth, popularity, and the delights of the body bring us no lasting joy or meaning.

In general any such reminder of death — of life’s brevity or, rather, the finite nature of mortality — is known as a memento mori. That translates, literally, to: remember you shall die. It wasn’t always a skull; the hourglass was a much more common, and altogether subtler, associated image. Though, in typically grotesque Medieval fashion, there was also once a trend of so-called “cadaver tombs.” These were monuments erected in memory of the dead, much like any gravestone, with one gruesome twist: statues of the deceased portrayed not as they had been in life, but as they would look in death; rotting flesh, skin falling away, and a skeleton showing through. Even the rich and powerful, like the poor and downtrodden, shall decompose. All life must perish, all fine clothes must fade, all silver must tarnish, and so we must focus on what truly matters — which, in the Middle Ages, was faith in God. The cadaver tomb of René de Chalon, sculpted by Ligier Richier in the mid-16th century, is perhaps the most memorable of these macabre monuments.

Nicolas Poussin, the 17th century French artist who lived and worked in Rome, and an exponent of the more restrained, rather cerebral, but nonetheless poetic Neoclassical style – in direct contrast to the dramatic, flamboyant, furious Baroque style then popular – approached it rather more subtly. He depicted three shepherds and a shepherdess in Arcadia, which was (and is) a real place in Greece famed for its natural beauty – rugged mountains, flowing rivers, fertile fields – and which became in Classical times the poetic land of idyllic perfection, of simplicity, harmony with nature, and all the other associated trappings of a bucolic paradise. But these shepherds have discovered a sarcophagus upon which are inscribed the words:

Et In Arcadia Ego

“Even in Arcadia, I am,” says who? Death.

And so, as is frequently the case, we find that the most brilliant and complex discoveries of Science serve to confirm the most ancient of inherited truths. For the Law of Entropy states that all energy spreads out over time; the consequence being for all things in the universe that everything must change and is always doing so — that no state whatsoever is permanent. The man who first introduced the concept of entropy, Rudolf Clausius, chose its name based on the Ancient Greek word for transformation. What he theorised, and what a century of brilliant scientists afterwards proved true, was not so different from the old Persian adage with which we began.

But what shall we conclude from this? For if it is true, indeed, that this too shall pass, why bother to do anything at all? We pursue happiness – but it cannot last. We admire beauty – but it must fade. This feeling, that the world as it really is can never match what we want it to be, has a name: Weltschmerz. This is a German word which literally translates as “World Pain”, but which is better understood as the fundamental and irremediable dissatisfaction that comes with a knowledge of the world’s impermanence and all the ills that plague it. Weltschmerz lies at the heart of a certain kind of Romanticism, as it emerged in the early decades of the 19th century. Not all Romanticism – remember Shelley’s Ozymandias, which doesn’t express a dissatisfaction with the way of the world so much as an observation of it – though much of it. And nowhere do we find it more acutely than in Lord Byron, who was seen in his lifetime and now as the embodiment of Weltschmerz. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which tells the story of a world-weary youth, we find this feeling entire:

Ancient of days! august Athena! where,
Where are thy men of might, thy grand in soul?
Gone—glimmering through the dream of things that were:
First in the race that led to Glory's goal,
They won, and passed away—is this the whole?
A schoolboy's tale, the wonder of an hour!
The warrior's weapon and the sophist's stole
Are sought in vain, and o'er each mouldering tower,
Dim with the mist of years, grey flits the shade of power.
Son of the morning, rise! approach you here!
Come—but molest not yon defenceless urn!
Look on this spot—a nation's sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
E'en gods must yield—religions take their turn:
'Twas Jove's—'tis Mahomet's; and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eyes to heaven—
Is't not enough, unhappy thing, to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given,
That being, thou wouldst be again, and go,
Thou know'st not, reck'st not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies!
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.

So the realisation that all things must pass can become negative, discouraging, or even dangerous. In the Middle Ages it was regarded as a vice to, being aware of the world’s impermanence, fall into a state of wandering inertia and wondering apathy. To the people of the Middle Ages, it was seen as a form of spiritual failure – and inability to overcome, with the strength of one’s faith, the challenges of the material world. They called it accidie, from the Ancient Greek akidía. Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, describes its symptoms:

Accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful, and wrawe

Perhaps this darker side was best captured by Albert Dürer’s Melancholia I, in which we see an angel – usually so bright, glorious, and definitionally happy and eternal – consumed by a deep and pensive gloom which verges on anguish. It has been called one of the great psychological insights in art, such was the intensity of Dürer’s portrayal.

But this sadness is not the inevitable result of realising that this too shall pass. Remember that, in one version of the story, the Persian king sought out this statement of eternal truth because he was suffering from melancholy. And, as Lincoln said:

How consoling in the depths of affliction!

For it is precisely when we are consumed by anguish – or bored, or frustrated, or angry, or any other of the darker and more painful feelings which plague us – that this old adage is most important. Because if it really is true that nothing is permanent, then that also applies our suffering. When Cicero’s daughter died he received a letter of consolation from his friend, the lawyer and consul Servius Sulpicius Rufus, which included this famous passage:

I wish to mention to you a circumstance which gave me no common consolation, on the chance of its also proving capable of diminishing your sorrow. On my voyage from Asia, as I was sailing from Ægina towards Megara, I began to survey the localities that were on every side of me. Behind me was Ægina, in front Megara, on my right Piræus, on my left Corinth: towns which at one time were most flourishing, but now lay before my eyes in ruin and decay. I began to reflect to myself thus: “Hah! do we mannikins feel rebellious if one of us perishes or is killed—we whose life ought to be still shorter—when the corpses of so many towns lie in helpless ruin? Will you please, Servius, restrain yourself and recollect that you are born a mortal man?” Believe me, I was no little strengthened by that reflexion.

And, besides, is it not true that transience of all things is what lends them beauty? Yoshida Kenko, a deeply enlightened and perceptive monk who lived in Japan in the 14th century, thought as much:

If man were never to fade away... but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.

Perhaps nowhere else has transience been better understood than in Japan, where a concept called mono no aware has been developed over the centuries. It belies translation, but is best understood as a deep sensitivity to the impermanence of the world – that this too shall pass – which inculcates a placid sadness about the passing of all things and, as a direct result, a greater appreciation for their beauty. We would be wrong to mistake the Japanese hanami – the season from March to May during which the sakura, or cherry tree, blossoms, and people gather to watch its petals fall – as anything other than the lasting embodiment of this spirit.

Though, of course, we would be equally wrong to imagine that in Japan there is a universal and perfect understanding and application of this notion in people’s behaviour. For, as Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in the 1930s, when discussing a similar custom of tsukimi, or “moon viewing”, it was all too easily ruined by people who failed to see what it was all truly about:

This year I had great trouble making up my mind where to go for the autumn moon-viewing. Finally, after much perplexed head-scratching, I decided on the Ishiyama Temple. The day before the full moon, however, I read in the paper that there would be loudspeakers in the woods at Ishiyama to regale the moon-viewing guests with phonograph records of the Moonlight Sonata. I cancelled my plans immediately. Loudspeakers were bad enough, but if it could be assumed that they would set the tone, then there would surely be floodlights too strung all over the mountain. I remember another ruined moon-viewing, the year we took a boat on the night of the harvest full moon and sailed out over the lake of the Suma Temple. We put together a party, we had our refreshments in lacquered boxes, we set bravely out. But the margin of the lake was decorated brilliantly with electric lights in five colours. There was indeed a moon if one strained one’s eyes for it.

Where ever do we, even in sure awareness of old wisdom and encouraged by custom to abide it, live truly by its principles? But you see the point. Suddenly, rather than an invitation to despondence, realising that nothing can last becomes a call to arms! As Robert Herrick said:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

This is the essence of carpe diem, which means “seize the day” in Latin, made famous by the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. From one point of view this might mean a sort of heedless indulgence in pleasures – perhaps it does, though this too shall pass, as we have seen, is also a condemnation of that. Perhaps Pindar, a Greek poet of the 5th century BC who wrote epinikia – victory odes for triumphant athletes – understood it better,

There a man’s strong prime endures its toils,
And the victor all his remaining days
Breathes a delicious and serene air
When he remembers the Games.

His point was that if we make the most of what we are given – if we do noble deeds and achieve great things – than we can enjoy the fruits of these worthy efforts long after they have since passed. In other words: that glory, because of its brevity, echoes through the ages when rightly and truly won. Or, more weightily, that there is a fundamental moral goodness in making the most of this brief and changeful life we have been given. So this too shall pass does not only give us an enhanced appreciation for life and its beautiful things, or an anchor to ground us when we are carried away, or a buttress against suffering – it also exhorts action, and not just indulgence, but of the right and worthy sort.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, which retells the story of Aeneas, who fled from Troy during its destruction by the Greeks and after a long and arduous journey eventually settled in Italy, where his descendants Romulus and Remus founded Rome, we find these lines:

He stopped and cried weeping, 'What land is left, Achates, what tract on earth that is not full of our agony? Behold Priam! Here too is the meed of honour, here mortal estate touches the soul to tears. Dismiss thy fears; the fame of this will somehow bring thee salvation.'

Aeneas and his fellow refugees have just landed near Carthage, in North Africa. There, in the Temple of Juno, he finds murals of the Trojan War from which he has only recently fled: scenes of the destruction of Troy, of vicious Achilles, of his countrymen defeated, and his great city and people fallen. And what you have just read are his remarks upon seeing them.

There is one line in Virgil’s original Latin which has long puzzled translators and captivated readers: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent. This line has been translated many different ways; here, by Robert Fitzgerald as:

They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes / Touches their hearts

It is two words – lacrimae rerum; the tears of things, or the tears for things – that have been the primary cause of this longstanding fascination. And, by and large, it has generally been understood as a meditation on impermanence, a sadness that overcomes Aeneas as he realises how all things must pass, looking as he is upon the men who have come before him, who seemed so glorious once, and his former city, one so mighty and prosperous, all condemned to oblivion. And yet! Aeneas, even as he is brought to tears by all of this, is nonetheless not cast into doubt or inaction, or into akidía; it is this very realisation that spurs him to continue in his perilous quest for safety, leading his lost people from one danger to another until at last they find safety in Latium. The fame of this will somehow bring thee salvation. Somehow. Aeneas does not quite know, nor see fully the forces at work inside him – but the proof is in the pudding, and this legacy of what has been becomes an invocation to strike forth, and continue, with an eye to posterity, so that he ensures their names will never be forgotten, their memory never wiped out, and that he may rise to match their glory. A sentiment captured well, it seems, by Gianlorenzo Bernini in his 1619 sculpture of Aeneas fleeing Troy with his father, Anchises, in his arms, and his son, Ascanius, by his side.

This too shall pass can also mean, then, that we ought to strive, to fulfil our potential, to reach out, to try and do what we know we should do. And – what’s more – this knowledge itself, this realisation of the world’s changefulness, can also be our guide in doing so. Few wiser people have lived than Thomas à Kempis, who wrote this in the early 15th century:

Trust not thy feeling, for that which is now will be quickly changed into somewhat else. As long as thou livest thou art subject to change, howsoever unwilling; so that thou art found now joyful, now sad; now at peace, now disquieted; now devout, now indevout; now studious, now careless; now sad, now cheerful. But the wise man, and he who is truly learned in spirit, standeth above these changeable things, attentive not to what he may feel in himself, or from what quarter the wind may blow.

And there we have it – reconcile yourself to the impermanence of all things, to the fickleness of Fortune, to the strange workings of your heart and mind that make you sad now and happy tomorrow, and rise above it all to see clearly, as though from a mountaintop overlooking the plains below, what it is you seek, what it is you wish to be, even falteringly, like Aeneas, perceiving the truth in the distance, fully aware of the eternal way of the world, as wise men and physicists have told us, though not despondent but uplifted and encouraged by this realisation, to strive, though never too prideful nor ever losing faith, and always remembering: this too shall pass.

Writing online has changed my life; perhaps it can change yours. What follows is a brief message from Write of Passage – for the past year they have been sponsoring me as a Writer-in-Residence so I can focus on my work and share it with as many people as possible.

You’ve spent years honing a unique perspective, whether you realize it or not. Your experience is valuable. Ideas that feel obvious to you would amaze others if you started writing online. Maybe you have…

  • Years of hard-won wisdom at work, but it’s trapped in your head.
  • The perfect idea for a product, but no audience to listen.
  • Creative potential swirling inside you, but no outlet.

Write of Passage helps you get your best ideas out of your head and into the world. You’ll publish your writing and start building an audience with the support and encouragement of hundreds of curious, driven students.

Join our community here.

And that's all

What remains to say? I have, surely, said enough already. And so I only hope that you have found this week's Areopagus interesting, perhaps even thought-provoking, and in some sense useful, Gentle Readers. The usual seven lessons will return next week, along with your answers to last week's question. Until then I extend to you my deepest gratitude and wish you all, wherever you are in the world, a bright and fruitful day.


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

Read more from The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LXIII

4 days ago
16 min read

Areopagus: The Golden Age?

12 days ago
19 min read

Areopagus Volume LXII

20 days ago
25 min read