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"Vanity Of Vanities"
by [?]

Those who have leisure to explore the history of the past, to peer into the dark backward and abysm of Time, must of necessity become smitten with a kind of sad and kindly cynicism. When one has travelled over a wide tract of history, and when, above all, he has mused much on the minor matters which dignified historians neglect, he feels much inclined to say to those whom he sees struggling vainly after what they call fame, “Why are you striving thus to make your voice heard amid the derisive silence of eternity? You are fretting and frowning, with your eyes fixed on your own petty fortunes, while all the gigantic ages mock you. Day by day you give pain to your own mind and body; you hope against hope; you trust to be remembered, and you fancy that you may perchance hear what men will say of you when you are gone. All in vain. Be satisfied with the love of those about you; if you can get but a dog to love you during your little life, cherish that portion of affection. Work in your own petty sphere strenuously, bravely, but without thought of what men may say of you. Perhaps you are agonised by the thought of powers that are hidden in you–powers that may never be known while you live. What matters it? So long as you have the love of a faithful few among those dear to you, all the fame that the earth can give counts for nothing. Take that which is near to you, and value as naught the praises of a vague monstrous world through which you pass as a shadow. Look at that squirrel who twirls and twirls in his cage. He wears his heart out in his ceaseless efforts at progression, and all the while his mocking prison whirls under him without letting him progress one inch. How much happier he would be if he stayed in his hutch and enjoyed his nuts! You are like the restless squirrel; you make a great show of movement and some noise, but you do not get forward at all. Rest quietly when your necessary labour is done, and be sure that more than half the things men struggle for and fail to attain would not be worth the having even if the strugglers succeeded. Do not waste one moment; do not neglect one duty, for a duty lost is the deadliest loss of all; snatch every rational pleasure that comes within your reach; earn all the love you can, for that is the most precious of all possessions, and leave the search for fame to those who are petty and vain.”

Such a cold and chilling speech would be a very good medicine for uneasy vanity, but the best medicine of all is the contemplation of the history of men who have flourished and loomed large before their fellows, and who now have sunk into the night. How many mighty warriors have made the earth tremble, filling the mouths of men with words of fear or praise! They have passed away, and the only record of their lives is a chance carving on a stone, a brief line written by some curt historian. The glass of the years was brittle wherein they gazed for a span; the glass is broken and all is gone. In the wastes of Asia we find mighty ruins that even now are like symbols of power–vast walls that impose on the imagination by their bulk, enormous statues, temples that seem to mock at time and destruction. The men who built those structures must have had supreme confidence in themselves, they must have possessed incalculable resources, they must have been masters of their world. Where are they now? What were their names? They have sunk like a spent flame, and we have not even the mark on a stone to tell us how they lived or loved or struggled. Far in that moaning desert lie the remains of a city so great that even the men who know the greatest of modern cities can hardly conceive the original appearance and dimensions of the tremendous pile. Travellers from Europe and America go there and stand speechless before works that dwarf all the efforts of modern men. The woman who ruled in that strong city was an imposing figure in her time, but she died in a petty Roman villa as an exile, and Palmyra, after her departure, soon perished from off the face of the earth. One pathetic little record enables us to guess what became of the population over whom the queen Zenobia ruled. A stone was dug up on the northern border of England, and the inscription puzzled all the antiquarians until an Oriental scholar found that the words were Syriac. “Barates of Palmyra erects this stone to the memory of his wife, the Catavallaunian woman who died aged thirty-three.” That is a rude translation. Poor Barates was brought to Britain, married a Norfolk woman of the British race, and spent his life on the wild frontier. So the powerful queen passed away as a prisoner, her subjects were scattered over the earth, and her city, which was once renowned, is now haunted by lizard and antelope. Alas for fame! Alas for the stability of earthly things! The conquerors of Zenobia fared but little better. How strong must those emperors have been whose very name kept the world in awe! If a man were proscribed by Rome, he was as good as dead; no fastness could hide him, no place in the known world could give him refuge, and his fate was regarded as so inevitable that no one was foolhardy enough to try at staving off the evil day. How coolly and contemptuously the lordly proconsuls and magistrates regarded the early Christians. Pliny did not so much as deign to notice their existence, and Pontius Pilate, who had to deal with the first twelve, seems to have looked upon them as mere pestilent malefactors who created a disturbance. For many years those scornful Roman lords mocked the new sectarians and refused to take them seriously. One scoffing magistrate asked the Christians who came before him why they gave him the trouble to punish them. Were there no ropes and precipices handy, he asked, for those who wished to commit suicide? Those Romans had great names in their day–names as great as the names of Ellenborough and Wellesley and Gordon and Dalhousie and Bartle Frere, yet one would be puzzled to write down a list of six of the omnipotent sub-emperors. They fought, they made laws, they ruled empires, they fancied themselves only a little less than the gods, and now not a man outside the circle of a dozen scholars knows or cares anything about them. The wise lawgivers, the dread administrators, the unconquerable soldiers have gone with the snows, and their very names seem to have been writ in water.