The Vanity of Human Achievement

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 1.2.3:

“Of so many myriads of poets, rhetoricians, philosophers, sophisters, as Eusebius well observes, which have written in former ages, scarce one of a thousand’s works remains, nomina et libri simul cum corporibus interierunt, their books and bodies are perished together. It is not as they vainly think, they shall surely be admired and immortal, as one told Philip of Macedon insultingly, after a victory, that his shadow was no longer than before, we may say to them,

Nos demiramur, sed non cum deside vulgo,
Sed velut Harpyas, Gorgonas, et Furias.
We marvel too, not as the vulgar we,
But as we Gorgons, Harpies, or Furies see.

Or if we do applaud, honour and admire, quota pars, how small a part, in respect of the whole world, never so much as hears our names, how few take notice of us, how slender a tract, as scant as Alcibiades’ land in a map! And yet every man must and will be immortal, as he hopes, and extend his fame to our antipodes, when as half, no not a quarter of his own province or city, neither knows nor hears of him—but say they did, what’s a city to a kingdom, a kingdom to Europe, Europe to the world, the world itself that must have an end, if compared to the least visible star in the firmament, eighteen times bigger than it? and then if those stars be infinite, and every star there be a sun, as some will, and as this sun of ours hath his planets about him, all inhabited, what proportion bear we to them, and where’s our glory? Orbem terrarum victor Romanus habebat, as he cracked in Petronius, all the world was under Augustus: and so in Constantine’s time, Eusebius brags he governed all the world, universum mundum praeclare admodum administravit,—et omnes orbis gentes Imperatori subjecti: so of Alexander it is given out, the four monarchies, &c. when as neither Greeks nor Romans ever had the fifteenth part of the now known world, nor half of that which was then described. What braggadocios are they and we then? quam brevis hic de nobis sermo, as he said, pudebit aucti nominis, how short a time, how little a while doth this fame of ours continue?

Every private province, every small territory and city, when we have all done, will yield as generous spirits, as brave examples in all respects, as famous as ourselves, Cadwallader in Wales, Rollo in Normandy, Robin Hood and Little John, are as much renowned in Sherwood, as Caesar in Rome, Alexander in Greece, or his Hephestion, Omnis aetas omnisque populus in exemplum et admirationem veniet, every town, city, book, is full of brave soldiers, senators, scholars; and though Bracyclas was a worthy captain, a good man, and as they thought, not to be matched in Lacedaemon, yet as his mother truly said, plures habet Sparta Bracyda meliores, Sparta had many better men than ever he was; and howsoever thou admirest thyself, thy friend, many an obscure fellow the world never took notice of, had he been in place or action, would have done much better than he or he, or thou thyself.”

Image result for vanitas woodcut

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