Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dear John - On the Book of Ecclesiastes

I have read with interest the whole book of Ecclesiastes. I must say I find it odd that this book has been included in the bible, perhaps I need to read the whole bible in order to understand the context under which it has been included. I am going to approach this from a philosophical point of view because the book raises a fundamental question of existence, what is life, why are we here on earth. I must say I find the views of the writer, Qoheleth, or The teacher, as he is referred to in the bible, towards this age old question very interesting.

Philosophy is the study of nature and the meaning of the universe and human life. In my view the book tries to ponder the meaning of life and offers his views on what the meaning of life is. I must say from the beginning that I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian and my views here are premised on the limited understanding I have of the two disciplines.

The Teacher starts his debate by categorically stating that "Everything is meaningless, completely meaningless" and asserts that "god has dealt a tragic existence to the human race" and trying to understand life is like "chasing the wind" (Ch 1: 2-14). He goes on to talk about the futility of everything on the following chapters and offers advise on how to counter this futility. I find his advice very contradictory and very confused in most instances and also out of tune with what the bible was written for. The central message in the bible is that we are all passerby's in this earth and the kingdom of god awaits us in heaven. The central message of the teacher can be found in Chapter 9: 5-10 and this is repeated in other verses throughout the book. The verse says that " The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime-loving, hating, envying-is all go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!.....whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave there will be no work or planning or knowledge of wisdom" (see also chapter 5: 8-20).

The basic message from these chapters is work hard and party hard for when you die you are nothing. Enjoy your time on earth because when you die, it's all over. I am tempted to think that the teacher here was encouraging capitalism: accumulate as much as you can and enjoy it to the fullest for any other thing you try to do is an exercise in futility. In your accumulation and your partying hard, remember to honour god because he is the provider: This seems to be the central message for me in this book, and this is how people live their lives these days

The other central theme in this book is wisdom, in order to make it in life you need to be wise but he goes on to caution that too much of wisdom is not a good thing. At Ch 7: 16 he warns "so don't be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself". He was determined to be wise but it didn't work because "Wisdom is always distant and difficult" He goes on to assert that in being wise you also need to be rich because "...even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long." (Ch 9:13). So in my view this book is at odds with the teachings of the bible because it says that you must make your own paradise on earth and enjoy it while you leave because any other thing is like chasing the wind. (maybe this is the central theme in the bible, I don't know!)

Having said that what the Teacher is asking here is an existential question. Soren Kierkegaard, a philosopher of the early 19th century, is regarded as the father of existentialism. This is a brand of philosophy that seeks to question the meaning of life by focusing on the condition of human existence. Perhaps the Teacher, Qoheleth, should be regarded as the father of existentialism, though his views are, in my opinion, very contradictory and very simplistic at times.

I must say that the Teacher asks a very difficult question on the beginning: what is the purpose of life. He goes on to answer that this is a meaningless exercise and the best a person can do is to work hard and enjoy the fruits of your toil fully but I find the closing paragraph of the book at odds with all what has been said in the preceding chapters, almost as an afterthought : "Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone's duty."