Vanitas vanitatum (if everything is vain...)

"Sweet is the light; it is good for the eyes to see the sun"

Qoelet, 11:7

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas, 1628

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas, 1628


The next episode in our journey across time is in the Old Testament: the Ecclesiastes introduces a powerful interpretation of Time. From the Biblical Wisdom Literature we gain a strong perspective through the words of Qoèlet, son of David king of Jerusalem, who after a deep investigation came to the memorable conclusion:

“I saw all the deeds that were done under the sun, and behold, everything is vanity and frustration trying to follow the wind”.

His perspective on the Human Time becomes very strong.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
— QOELET, 3, 1-9

The human being is analyzed from all temporal perspectives. Qoélet seems to define all the possible combinations of time within which life takes place. Humans take part in it in a natural, spontaneous way, but almost trivial. Because time is defined, responsibility and choice are taken away from us. “There is a time for war, and a time for peace: what can I do about it?”

Everything is defined. The emergence of vanity is a way to regain choice, responsibility, and life. Human vanity is the root of Carpe Diem. It takes life away, and at the same time it gives it strength: the meaning of life vanishes when we let Time define a suffocating frame around us (a time for war); but human life gains power and strength, when we realize the absurdity of everything, and the absurdity of nothing.


Human life is small and insignificant within the immense, circular movement of the universe and nature. Within this frame it emerges the absurdity of everything. And here we can gain the strength to dare, to seize the moment. If everything is absurd, we can dare to go beyond the the defined limits. This is vanity in itself, the human vanity to think that we can go beyond.

For this reason Qoèlet represents an extraordinary example of Carpe Diem, placed within the apparent frame of the Memento Mori. “Remember that you have to die”, seems to say Qoèlet. “Remember that everything is defined, there is a time for everything. With this in mind go and seize your moment because sweet is the light, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun”.


Here is an important twist, though. If everything is vain, then Carpe Diem itself is vain. What is the point of seizing the moment? Also Memento Mori is made relative and vain. What’s the point of everything if everything is vain?

Meanwhile, life takes place. And everything makes sense in each moment, isolated from the immensity of the universe. It is in that undefinable present moment that everything occurs and makes sense. The drawing on the sand is as beautiful as it can be. Now. Not tomorrow, not after the wave takes it away. Now. And that is everything. The present. Because there is nothing else but the present moment. The whole universe is conceived in that moment. The vanity of life is consumed in that moment. Everything is there.


Even the memory of the drawing on the sand becomes present moment, as Augustine will very well describe. There is no past and there is no future. Vanity vanishes in the present moment.

The vanity of nothing and the value of everything. Chronos and Zeus come back, in the never ending struggle.



Take your time.



LiteratureJohanna Bülling