There’s something funny about the phrase ‘in vain’. Look it up in a dictionary and it is given to mean ‘fruitless’, ‘unsuccessful’, ‘not yielding the desired result’. This sense – of futility – is actually the older meaning of the word vanity, and the main sense operating in the phrase ‘in vain’; and yet, it carries with it the flavour of that other meaning of vain – of showing excessive self-regard, of pride in one’s appearance or abilities. Often, the two meanings of the word vanity blend: it is as if failure somehow makes us look arrogant, as well as hopeless – as if, without the balm of success, the vanity of our endeavour becomes starker.
In its newer sense, vanity is a close cousin of pride, and pride, so Christian theology tells us, is the primeval sin, the one that begets all the others. ‘Pride comes before a fall’, we are warned, in words that remind us of the first of the fallen angels, Lucifer – Satan, man’s long-time frenemy and collaborator.
Of course, that is not quite the way we think these days. The modern world encourages vanity and values pride; over-reaching and arrogance are the bedrock of the western economies, while sin has been shelved as a relic of a bygone era, and replaced by apparently more rational concepts. ‘In vain’ survives in our language, but has the air ofthat past age, one in which most of the population attended church and, whether they were listening much or not, heard services railing against sin, pride and vanity.
They might occasionally have heard these enigmatic, fatalistic verses:
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Ecclesiastes goes way beyond the normal Biblical injunctions against pride and vanity – it seems to be equating all human action, thought, planning with vanity. Everything – everything – is how it will be and has always been, and it is wrong to think that any human action can change this.
Its second line has inspired many poems and a whole genre of painting – vanitas, after the Latin version of that line ‘Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas’. There’s a fairly light-hearted spin on the genre by the great engraver, Thomas Bewick at the top of this post.
But my favourite in the genre is a little poem from Antonio Machado’s Songs and Proverbs from the great Campos de Castilla.
Where is the utility
in our utilities?
We come then to the truth:
vanity of vanities.
For all the great utilitarian progress of the modern world, the words of Ecclesiastes still, after all, ring true…