Ecclesiastes: The Wisest Book of All Time?

EcclesiastesI want to write about Ecclesiastes this week.  It is one of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  It is among the canonical Wisdom Books in the Old Testament that can be found in most Christian Bibles.  It has been called by some a book of skepticism.  Others see it as one of the most profound and erudite books that has ever been written.  Much of the writing in this book reminds me of the Shakespeare passage in Macbeth wherein he says:

“Out, out, brief candle!  Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  ― William ShakespeareMacbeth

vanities“Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity,” says the Preacher at the beginning of Ecclesiastes.  In some sense echoing the same sentiments as Macbeth, Ecclesiastes tells us of the folly of wealth, riches, power, fame and even wisdom.  Herein lies the great paradox in EcclesiastesEcclesiastes is a book of wisdom which has the audacity and temerity to decry the power of wisdom.  Whereas most tomes praise the power of wisdom to solve all the evils of the world, to Ecclesiastes, wisdom is also just another vanity.

“I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this also is but striving after the wind.”  — Ecclesiastes

dissipationIf power, riches, fame and wisdom are folly to pursue, that would seem to leave us with only pleasure left as a goal of life.  A sybaritic existence of hedonistic pursuits measured by the wine, women and song we have endured.  Epicurus said: It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly.  And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.”  The Hedonist position has often been criticized starting with Socrates and Plato who felt that a Hedonist was endorsing a doctrine that was contradictory to right living (see Plato’s Gorgias).

Just when it might seem we have a goal in life that can be mutually satisfying for everyone, Ecclesiastes says:  “I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.  But behold, this also was vanity.”

Everything is vanity.  If Saint Ignatius was right in proclaiming that “ingratitude” is the fountain of all sins, Ecclesiastes shows us that the other side of the coin is vanity.  Rich or poor, wise man or fool, famous or obscure, death will take us all and care not one whit about our history.  “How the wise man dies just like the fool!” – Ecclesiastes

Another book which I think has a great deal in common with Ecclesiastes was written by Max Stirner and is called “The Ego and Its Own.”  Stirner (a 19th Century German philosopher) has been labeled a nihilist for the pessimism he exudes in this book.  For instance, Stirner says:

Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea!  Do not think that I am jesting or speaking figuratively when I regard those persons who cling to the Higher, and (because the vast majority belongs under this head) almost the whole world of men, as veritable fools, fools in a madhouse.” — (The Ego and Its Own, New York 1907, p. 54)

You may well ask “what is the difference between nihilism and skepticism?”  One answer to this question which I found on the Internet is as follows:

“Skepticism is a critical attitude, orientation or outlook towards a proposition or a thesis.  It typically is characterized by doubt about, or at least dubiousness towards, its substantive truth value.”

nihilism“Nihilism, on the other hand is an attitude, orientation or outlook of indifference towards a proposition or thesis.  The nihilist refuses to engage in an epistemological process of examination, discovery or analysis into its truth value.”

These definitions and more about the differences between these two concepts can be found at http://phenomenologicalpsychology.com/2011/03/what-is-the-difference-between-skepticism-and-nihilism/

Ecclesiastes skepticalTo sum the differences up in my own words, skeptics doubt everything while nihilists do not give a damn about anything.  Some would describe nihilism as extreme skepticism.  Hence, reading the works I noted above might lead you down either path.  You could decide that nothing is worth doing since there is no truth or value in anything we can accomplish so why bother.  Or else you could decide that you simply do not care about the world so why bother with any of its myriad blandishments.  I somehow think both paths might ultimately bring you to the same place.

meaninglessThere are many people who believe that the world is nothing but a mad house and that we are all inmates in one large global asylum.  My father often said that heaven and hell were both on earth and that it was our choice which one we lived in.  As Yoda noted in Star Wars we make a choice whether to go to the dark side or the light side.  Of course, a determinist would say we have no choice, that fate or life has already determined which choice we have to make.  I am constantly at odds with a good friend of mine who has staked this position out for his life and decisions.  In some ways, it is very difficult to refute.  I can refute all of his arguments but at the same time, I can refute all of my arguments against his arguments.  This leads me to the inexorable conclusion that life is more complex than I can explain or understand.  My trying to understand it is my own particular brand of vanity and folly.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” –YODA, (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

If we do have a choice, then I think we have two coins to choose between.  We can choose a coin of ingratitude and vanity, perhaps this is the dark side or we can also choose a coin of gratitude and humility. Is this latter choice, the light side?  Jesus said:

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

It is kind of amazing when you think about it how many people today are guilty of unbridled arrogance and hubris.  Does that mean that more people are choosing the dark side than the light side?  My friend would argue that they have no choice.

prideWhen I was young I was taught that “Pride goes before a fall.”  It would seem to be an aphorism that too many of our leaders and people in positions of power have forgotten.  Some people believe that this lack of humility comes because we have forgotten God.  It reminds me of the stories in the Bible about the Israelites in the desert who had to be taught again and again that it was God who was the instrument of their salvation.  As soon as a little time went by, they would forget the help that they had been given and begin to ignore God and act arrogantly.  You don’t have to believe in a God to have this problem.

money is meaninglessWe are all much like the Israelites.  We forget the little people that helped us.  We forget the people that looked out for us or assisted us when we were in need.  We begin to think that we are smarter, stronger, wiser and better than other people.  We develop a mythology that attributes all of our success to our own self-discipline and hard work.  It is true that even Thomas Jefferson believed that luck comes from hard work, but it is also true that all the things that we will ever attain in life can be at least partially attributed to the support we have received from other people.  The Beatles set it well with their song:

I get by with a little help from my friends.  (Click here to hear the entire song)

So what would Ecclesiastes say about the folly of arrogance and pride?  I borrow from my wife’s Revised Standard Version of the Bible dated 1952 for the following:

“In my vain life I have seen everything; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil doing.  Be not righteous overmuch and do not make yourself over wise; why should you destroy yourself?  Be not wicked overmuch, neither be a fool; why should you die before your time.”  Ecclesiastes 7:15-17

This passage was from Karen’s confirmation Bible which she received when she was 13 years old.  She still has the Bible and has highlighted, annotated and nearly worn the binding out from much usage.  I am proud to say that my wife is one Christian who reads the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelations and everything in between.  We often have discussions on the meaning of certain passages and I respect her belief in Christianity as she respects my agnosticism.  We both respect Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and many other prophets whose wise words have guided us in our lives.

I conclude with some advice knowing full well the old adage “Never give advice. Wise men don’t need it and fools will not heed it.”  Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in my breast and I must break with the aforementioned sage advice to offer the following:

  1. Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see. Our senses are deceiving.
  2. Take science and religion both with a grain of salt. Today’s wisdom will be tomorrow’s folly.
  3. Regard both the expert and the idiot with a healthy bit of skepticism.

Time for Questions:

Have you ever read Ecclesiastes?  What is your view of this book?  What wisdom in it do you pay attention to in your life?  What follies do you fall prey to?  Have you found a way to avoid vanity?  How do you do so?  What advice from this book would you give others?

Life is just beginning.

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.
 

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