The lesson of vanitas

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:2, KJV

Over the course of our lives we must all confront death. Knowledge of our mortality can paralyse or invigorate. It can distract and destroy, or it can remind us to use what little time we have to focus on the important things, whatever they may be. It is little surprise that our fascination with death is found so readily in artwork, religion, cultural practice and, indeed, all human endeavour. Here I will briefly consider a specific genre of artwork, the vanitas painting, and how we might draw lessons from that theme.

“A vanitas painting contains a collection of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures.”
– Encyclopaedia Britannica

Vanitas paintings are interesting as they combine a moral, Christian message with rich painting of the very worldly things that the Christian mentality holds as futile. How, then, should we interpret the message of vanitas? First, we should consider the earlier definition of vanity (vanitas in Latin): futility. This is distinct from the modern meaning of the word. The Christian vanitas paintings juxtapose beautiful, worldly things with symbols of death and change to remind us that temporal things are not lasting and therefore futile when compared to the eternity of heaven.  Continue reading The lesson of vanitas

Why we should be curious

“The experiences of mankind are infinitely more complex and interesting than we could ever imagine when we gaze out from our own static narrow vantage point and it is hence a basic courtesy we should pay to the planet and its many lands to remain at all times open, curious and modest before their manifold mysteries.”
-Alain de Botton

Alain’s words evoke the spirit of errantry. It is a commandment equally applicable when reading a newspaper at home or backpacking in some far-flung place. They are words to live by in an age of meaningless distractions.

Practical virtue ethics

The last stage of the labouring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquillised’, functional type of behaviour.
– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Continue reading Practical virtue ethics