These days, adages are commonly misattributed to the wrong source. For instance, you may have seen social media posts that attribute the “this too shall pass” quote to the Bible, but these specific words don’t actually appear in either the Old or New Testament.
So who said, “this too shall pass”? What does it mean, and how can you use this adage to improve your life? In short, "this too shall pass" dates back to Medieval Sufi literature and reflects on the impermanence and transcience of life. There are a few other theories about where the quote comes from, including some that point to similar stories appearing in Jewish folklore.
“This too shall pass” is a Persian adage that reflects on the ephemerality of the human condition. The core meaning of the quote, however, is something that is reflected in wisdom literature across cultures and throughout time.
It is difficult to precisely pinpoint who first said this phrase, as its history is largely found in fable and folklore. It is most commonly traced back to the Middle East, sometimes Turkey and Israel, but most commonly Persia.
The origin of the concept worded in this specific way appears to date back to the writings of Persian Sufi poets during medieval times. In these works, a fable is told about an Eastern sage and a sultan. Persian poet Suft Farid al-Din, for example, wrote a story about a thirteenth-century wise king who sought the answer to what would bring him happiness, with “this too shall pass” being the answer a group of wise men delivered.
Though there are many different versions of the story, the general gist is that a nameless king asks a group of wise men to make him a ring that would have the ability to make him feel happy when he was experiencing sadness. The sages deliberated for some time before returning with a simple ring with the words ‘this too shall pass away’ etched into it. The ring had its intended effect, making the king happy when he was feeling blue.
One of the reasons that ‘this too shall pass’ is such a well-known adage in the Western world is that the English poet Edward FitzGerald retold the Persian fable during the nineteenth century.
It was also famously used by the sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln before he was elected to office. In his speech, he said:
"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"
Many different versions of the fable appear in Jewish folklore as well. In some versions, the phrase is ‘this too shall pass’ rather than ‘this too shall pass away.’ In the Jewish tradition, some of the stories name Solomon as the king that was humbled by the ring, while other retellings describe him as the one that brings the ring to another king.
“Everything is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.”
– Marcus Aurelius
So, who said, “This Too Shall Pass”? The specific answer remains unknown as most of the information we have about the story comes from fables and folklore. Whether it was King Solomon himself or a group of now-nameless sages, all we know is that it was said (or, perhaps, inscribed) by a wise man many hundreds of years ago. Thanks to the work of medieval Sufi poets, this powerful adage remains part of the popular lexicon to this day.
‘This too shall pass’ is an adage that means that all circumstances are temporary. It means that no situation you find yourself in– whether you perceive it to be good or bad– will last forever.
“Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Completely heartbroken that your girlfriend broke up with you? This, too, shall pass.
Walking on air because you’re business is thriving? This, too, shall pass.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”
– Seneca the Younger
The stormy days will pass, and the sunny days will pass. Every moment, time marches forward, and the universe is in a continuous state of change. One day, you and everyone you know will pass from earthly life, too.
Whether you’re in the depths of despair or everything is going your way, remembering the eternal truth that everything is temporary can help you keep your feet on the ground.
Though it’s such a short phrase, “this too shall pass” is an incredibly powerful adage that you can remind yourself of on a daily basis in order to improve your experience and life.
To the Stoics, our experience can be divided into two camps: things we can control and things we can’t control. The things we can control include our opinions, thoughts, beliefs, and actions, while the things we can’t control include, well, everything else. All external events, to the Stoics, are out of our control.
The only good to the Stoics was virtue, while external things like health and wealth are neither good nor bad but indifferent. They posited that we should focus our attention and energy on the things that are in our control and learn to accept the things that are out of our control.
This is summed up nicely by Epictetus:
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
This worldview allows you to zoom out on your day-to-day experience and move beyond an existence where you’re constantly distraught or excessively overjoyed by things you don’t have power over. One way that you can remember that external events are something that is beyond your will is to use the phrase “this too shall pass”– not just in the bad times, but in the good and indifferent times, too.
We’ve all been there, and if you haven’t yet, your time will come.
Sometimes it feels like the universe is acting against you. You lose your job, and you lose your girlfriend, you lose your home. Maybe you’re struck with an illness, or you experience an injury. Maybe a loved one has passed away, and you’re in the depths of grief, or perhaps you’re just in a funk.
Whatever is going on in your life that is distressing you, it will pass. Remembering that “this too shall pass” is incredibly useful and even transformative when you’re experiencing intense emotion or adversity of any kind.
Simply thinking about this phrase can help you take a bird’s eye view of your life. The way you’re feeling right now isn’t forever. The trouble that you’re experiencing isn’t eternal.
Once you are able to remember that your current situation won’t continue indefinitely, it can help you realize the tremendous opportunity that lies in hard times.
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.”
– Seneca the Younger
If you’re struggling right now, remember that this, too, shall pass. Consider what fruit the trials you’re currently experiencing could bear down the road and which parts of yourself you’ve encountered along the way. There are priceless lessons hidden in each difficulty we face, and the reminder of life’s impermanence can help you focus on extracting exactly what those lessons are.
Of course, “this too shall pass” doesn’t just apply to the rough times in your life. It also applies to when everything is going just perfectly.
When things are going well for us, we want to believe that they will continue on forever. The truth is, though, the good times will pass just like the bad times.
While this might seem depressing at first, it’s actually simply a call to appreciate the moment when it’s happening. Don’t be so forward-looking or comfortable that you forget to stop and smell the roses.
Remembering that “this too shall pass” during good times can also be a potent antidote to one of the dangers of things going well– pride. Keeping your pride in check and maintaining humility is key to being able to deal with rough seas when they inevitably appear down the road.
Sometimes things just chug along without any feelings of extremity. To the Stoics, all times are technically indifferent times, but sometimes we actually feel this way in our experience rather than ascribing “good” or “bad” to it.
When you feel like you’re just going through the motions, “this too shall pass” can remind you that time is always marching forward whether you’re making any progress or not. It’s easy in our modern age to settle into a comfortable routine and let our dreams and purposes fall by the wayside. When you remind yourself of this centuries-old adage, it can help give you the fire under your butt that you need to take control over the things you can and stop sitting in the passenger’s seat.
Though the phrase ‘this too shall pass’ has been traced back to the writings of medieval Sufi poets, the same general concept has emerged across cultures and throughout history.
The fact that this notion has appeared so many times in wisdom traditions that, in many cases, have no apparent connection to one another speaks to the eternal truth of its message.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember that you [have to] die.” A reminder that death is inevitable for all of us, this symbolic or artistic trope has its roots in the ideas of classical antiquity and Christianity.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Democritus, a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher best known for formulating the atomic theory, frequently visited tombs and spent time in solitude as a part of his training.
The Stoic philosophers placed a great deal of their focus on the practice of meditating on death. Marcus Aurelius reminds himself (and, thankfully, us) to “consider how ephemeral and mean all mortal things are,” and Seneca frequently writes of the need to meditate on death in his letters. Epictetus instructed his students to remember that their loved ones would die one day when they kissed them.
Beyond its association with Stoicism, the concept of memento mori is also apparent in the stories of the Roman triumph in Judaism and in Early Christianity.
“Mono no aware” is a Japanese idiom that points to the impermanence of things. The literal translation is sometimes written as “the pathos of things,” “a sensitivity to ephemera,” or “an empathy toward things,” and it originates from the Heian literary period. During the 18th century in the Edo period of Japan, the concept became central to the literary philosophy of Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga.
These days, it is considered to be “one of the most well-known concepts in traditional literary criticism in Japan.” The notion reflects the eternal flux of life on earth and has been described by Donald Richie (who wrote extensively on Japanese culture) as “the authentic Japanese attitude toward death and disaster.”
A Latin phrase that translates to ‘this passes the glory of the world,” sic transit gloria mundi was used in papal coronation ceremonies for hundreds of years to remind the pope that both earthly honors and life itself are transitory and impermanent.
Another Latin phrase that conjures up the reality of the impermanence of life, omnia mutantur means “everything changes.” Ovid used it in his Metamorphosis in the line:
Omnia mutantur, nihil interit
(everything changes, nothing perishes)
There is also a traditional saying Omnia mutantur nos et mutamur in illis that means “all things change, and we change with them.”
Related to the above phrase, tempora mutantur is a Latin adage that refers to the way that the passage of time brings about changes. It literally means “times are changed” and is often used as a part of a longer adage Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, meaning “times are changed; we also are changed with them.”
Ubi sunt is yet another Latin phrase, which literally translates to “where are… [they]?”
This short phrase comes from the longer Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?, meaning “where are those who were before us?”
This saying is meant as a meditation on the transcience of life and the inevitability of mortality. This phrase originally came from the book of Baruch in the Vulgate Latin Bible, which asked, “where are the princes of the nations?”
St. Augustine later asked: “O man, tell me, where are the kings, where are the princes, where are the emperors, who had been before us?”
An ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, a similar concept to “this too shall pass,” is presented in “Deor.” These ancient people were aware that everything we experience in life comes to an end eventually, which is encapsulated in the words “that passed over, so can this.”
Perhaps the wisdom tradition best known for its notion of impermanence and the truth that “this too shall pass” is Buddhism.
“Whatever has the nature of arising has the nature of ceasing.”
– Gautama Buddha
Based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (better known as the Buddha,) Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world these days.
The teaching of the Buddha contained what is known as the Middle Way, which is a path that aims to avoid the extremity of hedonism and asceticism. The goal is for people to liberate themselves from clinging to things that are without a lasting essence (anatman), incapable of satisfying (duhkha), and impermanent (anitya).
“Times of luxury do not last long, but pass away very quickly; nothing in this world can be long enjoyed.”
– Gautama Buddha
One of the essential doctrines of Buddhism is known as the Pali Canon, which extensively mentions the nation of impermanence. The assertion is that all conditioned existence is inconstant, evanescent, and transient, without any exceptions. All events that occur physically or mentally aren’t real in a metaphysical sense, and all temporal things are in a state of constant change. These things come into being and are subject to decline and destruction.
“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible... If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest.”
– Nhat Hanh
If you’re interested in the idea of impermanence in Buddhism, there is an endless amount of literature to explore. Heady and complex, it’s worth noting that this is only a brief summary and introduction to the idea of the ephemeral nature of everything in human life, according to the Buddha.
The first appearance of the notion of impermanence in Western philosophy shows up in the writings of Heraclitus.
“There is nothing permanent except change.”
A philosopher that lived in the Persian empire around 500 B.C., Heraclitus earned the nickname known as “the weeping philosopher” (in contrast to Democritus, who was dubbed “the laughing philosopher,) because he was believed to have been a melancholic misanthrope.
“Everything flows and nothing abides. Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”
Very little is known about the life of Heraclitus, as only fragments of his one single work have survived. His philosophy of the “unity of opposites” was central to his writing, an idea he applied to the notion of impermanence. He proposed the idea that the world was constantly changing as it remained the same and ever in flux.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Heraclitus is considered one of the founders of ontology (the philosophical study of being) along with Parmenides, a pre-Socratic philosopher who also only has one single known work in existence.
“Whosoever wishes to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details. Knowledge is not intelligence. In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging. The same road goes both up and down. The beginning of a circle is also its end. Not I, but the world says it: all is one. And yet everything comes in season.”
A number of other Greek philosophers touched upon the notion of impermanence, but it wasn’t a universally accepted notion. Plutarch, a Greek Middle Platonist philosopher (among other things), wrote that if nature is subject to the same conditions as time, then nature doesn’t have “being” nor permanence.
“In human life there is constant change of fortune; and it is unreasonable to expect an exemption from the common fate. Life itself decays, and all things are daily changing.”
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates illustrates the existence of two worlds using the allegory known as the “Myth of the Cave”– a world of impermanence and a world of permanence.
“Remember, no human condition is ever permanent. Then you will not be overjoyed in good fortune nor too scornful in misfortune.”
In this worldview, the world of becoming and changing is the place where humans reside. Beyond the human world, though, there is a realm that can only be known through contemplation or philosophical inquiry– the world of Forms, ideals, or absolute virtues.
The notion that the experiences in our lives– both those we perceive as good and those we perceive as bad– will pass away soon enough is present in the writing and speech of great minds throughout history. Before we sign off, here are some other quotes that contemplate the impermanent nature of our lives on earth.
“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.”
– Marcus Aurelius
“Happiness belongs to those who are sufficient unto themselves. For all external sources of happiness and pleasure are, by their very nature, highly uncertain, precarious, ephemeral and subject to chance.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
“Change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
“Mortal through I be, yea ephemeral, if but a moment
I gaze up at the night's starry domain of heaven,
Then no longer on earth I stand; I touch the Creator,
And my lively spirit drinketh immortality.”
“Every possession and every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
“To resist change, to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist you kill yourself.”
– Alan Watts
“If you ever hear yourself or anyone you care about starting to express the belief that a problem is permanent, it’s time to immediately shake that person loose. No matter what happens in your life, you’ve got to be able to believe, 'This, too, shall pass,' and that if you keep persisting, you’ll find a way.”
– Tony Robbins
“The lifetime of a human being is measured by decades, the lifetime of the Sun is a hundred million times longer. Compared to a star, we are like mayflies, fleeting ephemeral creatures who live out their lives in the course of a single day.”
– Carl Sagan
“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.“
– Nhat Hanh
“Life has got to be lived - that's all there is to it. At seventy, I would say the advantage is that you take life more calmly. You know that 'this, too, shall pass!'”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”
– W. Somerset Maugham
“Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
“Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.”
– Robert Frost
“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?”
– Marcus Aurelius
“Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say “I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me.” Then repeat to yourself the most comforting of all words , “This too shall pass.””
– Ann Landers
“Live in each season as it passes; breath the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
– Henry David Thoreau
“Nothing which is, is static.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
“Life s picture is constantly undergoing change. The spirit beholds a new world every moment.”
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
– 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
“There is no such thing as permanence at all. Everything is constantly changing. Everything is in a flux. Because you cannot face the impermanence of all relationships, you invent sentiments, romance, and dramatic emotions to give them certainty. Therefore you are always in conflict.”
– U.G. Krishnamurti
“Pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.”
“Look at their minds, the nature of their thought and what they seek or avoid. And see how, just as drifting sands constantly overlay the previous sand, so in our lives what we once did is very quickly covered over by subsequent layers.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Everything that we know now will pass away. There are different seasons to life, and as each one begins, another one ends. The fruit left on a tree will rot, fall to the ground, and decompose. The once blossoming flower will wither and die.
Whether your life is going perfectly or you are intensely suffering, remember that this, too, shall pass. The realization of the impermanence of things can give you tremendous power not to get overcome by life’s pain or overinflated by life’s glory.
Stoicism is a powerful philosophy that can help you lead a virtuous and good life. If you’re searching for more Stoic insight and inspiration, check out our Stoic Quotes blog.
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