Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas

 What’s in a word? Turns out, plenty.

A recent piece I wrote, Why Write? Finding Undiscovered Places, sparked some enthusiastic discussion. In the piece, I quoted a line from Ecclesiastes 1:9.

“What has been is what will be,
and has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9 (at least in one translation)

One reader, Dan Walsh, a former high school English teacher with a significant influence over my love of reading and writing, commented that his favorite quote from Ecclesiastes is,

“Vanitas Vanitatum… All is vanity. All is chasing after the wind.”

Ecclesiastes 1:14

My five years of Latin—which today seems to have been taught to me just shortly after the language went out of style—is rusty, but the Latin phrase seemed straightforward, if incomplete. Summoning the Oracle of Google, I searched for the entire phrase.

The full phrase in Latin is “Vanitas Vanitatum, omnia vanitas” which translates to “Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity.” This gave me pause as I wondered where the “all is chasing the wind” part came from.

Back to Google to search the phrase in Ecclesiastes. This led me to and sparked this piece.

Listed on are thirty English translations of this same verse. Thirty English interpretations of the same line. If there can be so many interpretations of English, how many versions are there from the original?

Ekklisiastés is the original Greek (actually Εκκλησιαστές is the original, original) predecessor of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name קֹהֶלֶת–Qohelet. So the path of translation, jagged and fraught with variations and interpretation, of just this one line started with Ancient Hebrew, to Greek, to Aramaic, to Latin, to German, to Old English, to Modern English.

If we do simple math, allowing for fewer numbers of literate people able to do the translating in ancient times, one version in Ancient Hebrew X 5 versions of Greek X 10 versions of Latin X 20 versions of German X 25 Versions of Old English X 30 versions of Modern English means there are possibly 750,000 translations since the original. Mathematical progression is unrelenting.

So those who would argue the Bible is the inerrant word of God might need to revise that view since there are so many versions. If one argues the underlying meaning is unaltered, it still opens much to interpretation.

This reminds me of an old joke. 

A well-respected Cardinal retires. He is invited to an audience with the Pope.

Pope: “So, my son, is there anything I can do to make your retirement more meaningful?”

Cardinal: “There is, your Holiness, I’d like to have access to the Church’s archives so I may spend the rest of my days in deeper understanding of the foundation of the faith.”

Pope: “Then you shall have full access with my blessing.”

Several months later, the Pope wanders into the archive to check on the Cardinal. He finds him in tears, sobbing, an old manuscript beneath his hand.

Pope: “What troubles you, my son?”

The Cardinal looks up from the manuscript, points to a word and says, “The correct translation is Celebrate, not Celibate.”

I’m just saying…


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A Conversation of Differences

It is not often that I stimulate a spark of deep thought and inspiring words in others (and truth be told I must share credit with Philosopher Bertrand Russell for the original thought.) Yet a good friend of mine, Kent Harrop, recently penned a post on his blog I believe was inspired by a Russell quote I sometimes append to my email.

Russell (1872-1970) said, “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.” This caught Kent’s eye and he decided to put down some thoughts.

Kent wrote ( ),

There’s much that Mr. Russell and I agree upon. But where we part company, is his belief that ‘religion is something left over from the infancy of intelligence’. For me reason and critical thinking need not be contrary to religious life. Even Russell for all his strong views towards religion considered himself an agnostic, ‘in that I cannot disprove the Christian concept of a divine being, just as I cannot disprove the reality of the mythical gods on Mount Olympus.’ Perhaps Mr. Russell has cracked open the door for a conversation.

In this, the fact that it opens a door for a conversation, Kent and I agree.

I consider myself an atheist. I define my atheism as finding no basis for a belief in an anthropomorphic God, or gods, that show an interest in how we behave, what we do with our lives, what we choose to wear or eat, or how we prostrate or otherwise demonstrate our devotion to such a being.

Russell’s quote illustrates the fact that, over the time of our human existence, we have attributed almost all natural phenomena to a divine being at one time or another. Until science and reason took hold.

I think Russell’s quote is more in line with progressive thinkers like Kent than even Kent might realize. The difficult questions we all have beg for answers.

How did we come to be?

What is the meaning of life? (42 is a good start for you Douglas Adams fans)

How did this whole thing get started?

I agree with Russell in that almost all religion is a simplistic attempt to answer an infinitely complex question. I think it fails in this and causes more harm than good.

I think Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), a MD and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, found a better answer in his book, “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Frankl’s research and life experiences showed him there is an innate essence within man for the religious. However, Frankl did not define religiousness as being in anyway associated with the common concept of religion.

Instead. Frankly believed, from his many years of research, that there was an unconscious religiosity within man. One that compels him to seek meaning in life. The many iterations of religion, from the many gods of early man to the monotheistic dominant sects today, are just stepping-stones to finding the true religiousness within us all.

It is not that we will someday become god. It is that we will someday no longer need a symbol, or a template of acceptable practices, or a script to follow to please god and lead an exemplary life. We will find that our innate, unconscious religiosity points us to a full, responsible, and meaningful life.

Let the conversation begin.

I encourage you all to read and follow Kent’s blog, The Green Preacher, ( His writing is thoughtful, articulate, and compelling. I find his intelligent and persuasive pieces to be wonderful, if inexplicable, reading considering he is a Red Sox fan. Nevertheless, I suppose no one is perfect.