Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 6

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 6

Lines 49-56

Once more, Democritus, arise on earth,
With cheerful wisdom and instructive mirth;
See motley life in modern trappings dress'd,
And feed with varied fools th' eternal jest:
Thou who couldst laugh where want enchain'd caprice,
Toil crush'd conceit, and man was of a piece;
Where wealth unlov'd without a mourner died;
And scarce a sycophant was fed by pride;

  • The speaker calls on Democritus (an ancient Greek philosopher) to rise from death with his "cheerful wisdom and instructive mirth." The speaker wants Democritus to see modern life (in Britain), and make fun of all the fools that are around.
  • The speaker suggests that Democritus lived in a society (ancient Greece) where lack of worldly goods meant that people weren't so greedy. Back in Democritus' day, hard work crushed arrogance, people were more whole, and wealth wasn't missed or mourned. It was a place where sycophants (those who kiss up) weren't all over the place. 
  • The speaker describes ancient Greece in this way in order to set up a contrast with British society. Unlike the ancient Greece in which Democritus lived, Britain is full of greedy people, arrogant people, money-hungry people, and kiss-ups, in other words. Sounds like a terrible place for a vacay.

Lines 57-60

Where ne'er was known the form of mock debate,
Or seen a new-made mayor's unwieldy state;
Where change of fav'rites made no change of laws,
And senates heard before they judg'd a cause; 

  • Here the speaker continues to describe all that's wrong with British society. (There's a lot of stuff, apparently.)
  • For example, it's a society in which fake debates are held, and where a new mayor is inaugurated into office with lots of showy rituals (as used to happen back in Johnson's day). It's also a society where laws change according to which new favorite is put in power, and in which courts judge a case before hearing all the evidence.

Lines 61-68

How wouldst thou shake at Britain's modish tribe,
Dart the quick taunt, and edge the piercing gibe?
Attentive, truth and nature to descry,
And pierce each scene with philosophic eye,
To thee were solemn toys or empty show
The robes of pleasure, and the veils of woe:
All aid the farce, and all thy mirth maintain,
Whose joys are causeless, or whose griefs are vain.

  • The speaker thinks that Democritus would judge Britain very harshly, given how flawed British society is. He would attack the Brits with his sharp criticisms and witticisms. 
  • If he were alive, Democritus would describe truth and human nature very accurately, given how attentive his "philosophic eye" is. 
  • To Democritus, both pleasure and sorrow are just toys or empty show. The figurative "robes of pleasure" and the "veils of woe" are meaningless to him. He would maintain his good spirits regardless of joy and sorrow.

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