Friday, 8 July 2011

Under The Sun

Recently, I saw an advert for a book called "Everything Under The Sun". I don't know what kind of associations that phrase evokes for you, but for me it evokes King Solomon. And not in a good way.

There is, of course, a better known sun-related phrase, which I was reminded of while flicking through the Meditations of my adopted son (!), the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

I happened to be reading the wonderful old translation of Casaubon (1692), and came to the passage (VII.1) where he writes:

Generally, above and below, thou shalt find but the same things. The very same things whereof ancient stories, middle-age stories, and fresh stories are full: whereof Towns are full, and Houses full. There is nothing that is new. All things that are, are both usual and of little continuance.

C.R. Haines translates the same passage in the 1916 Loeb edition:

Look up, look down, everywhere thou wilt find the same things, whereof histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full; and full of them at this day are cities and houses. There is no new thing under the sun. Everything is stereotyped, everything fleeting.

His addition of the words "under the sun" betray the fact that Haines knew the Casaubon edition with its commentary by Monsieur and Madam Dacier, who wrote (in 1692) "Seeing there is nothing new under the Sun, and all things are at all times the same, we can renew our whole Life by renewing and bringing under our review, the things that have happened in our own time; for they are the same that we shall see afterwards".

The Wisdom of King Solomon

Of course, the Daciers did not invent the phrase. And here we return to King Solomon, because the phrase was first coined by him three millennia ago, as the writer of The Book of Ecclesiastes (1:9):

What has been will be again, What has been done will be done again, And there is nothing new under the sun.

The sentiment, evoking universal familiarity, is a hopeful one. Everything is renewed, everything begins again.

Perhaps less well known is another of Solomon's sayings, based around the phrase with which I began this post. The saying encapsulates quite a different sentiment: the opposite, negative version. On the subject of the vanity of pleasures, riches and wordly goods, he writes:

I was weary of my life, when I saw that all things under the sun are evil, and all vanity and vexation of spirit.

These words, which seem to sum up the opposite meaning, struck a chord with the seventeenth-century proponents of the "decaying world" theory. Far from everything repeating itself in a naturally renewing cycle, on the contrary, the world is constantly decaying.

In his History of the World in Five Books of 1614, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

And as all things under the sun have one time of strength and another of weakness, a youth and beauty, and then age and deformity; so time itself (under the dreadful shade of whose wings all things decay and wither) hath wasted and worn out that lively virtue of nature in man, and beasts, and plants, yea the heavens themselves, being of a most pure and cleansed matter, shall wax old as a garment.

Raleigh well knew the connotations of the phrase "Everything under the sun". And they are quite different from the philosophy of "Nothing new under the sun". A philosopher like Marcus Aurelius would never make the mistake of confusing the two.


  1. Link to the medieval festival I did yesterday

    Prettiest bride I ever gave away!

  2. The wisdom of King Solomon ... a medieval fayre in Ontario ... sure, I see the link! (Thanks for stopping by, STAG.)