One of the reasons I think the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes is an old book well worth the reading is the ways it reminds me, “You know, you’re not the first person to have had that thought.”
Who among us doesn’t see himself, herself, as an original thinker? After all, if my thoughts aren’t “original”,” what are they? Derivative? Borrowed? Stolen? No, “original” must be the right word to describe my thinking, and the thinking of my age; “original” has to do with “origin,” where things come from, and how could my thoughts, how could the thoughts of our time, come from anywhere or anything other than ourselves?
Ecclesiastes responds to this way of thinking in a variety of ways; here’s just one, from the opening chapter:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was already here, long ago; it was here before our time.
At first blush, this seems ridiculous. The people of a thousand or five thousand years ago did not have electricity, trains, cars, airplanes, smartphones, MRIs, etc., etc. Such things are clearly “new” and “never been done before.” So Ecclesiastes is nothing more than the grumpings of an old man, frustrated that he can’t keep up with the changing times, or just plain too stuck in the past to even want to keep up.
In the ancient world, or even the world of a thousand or five hundred years ago, things didn’t change that much or that quickly, we like to tell ourselves. But now, “our time” has arrived, and everything is new, bold, and courageous; innovation abounds; we’re constantly advancing, improving, progressing.
“You know, “Ecclesiastes says to us, “you’re not the first people to think this way about yourselves.”
Every age sees itself as the pinnacle of human achievement. We look back on earlier times and say about them, “Not so much.” What we forget is that later times will look back on us and say something similar: “You think you’re the be-all and end-all of everything? That now, at last, the world can come of age because you have arrived on the scene? Not so much.”
Ecclesiastes does not require us to deny that progress has been made; it’s really fine that we can travel by automobile and airplane rather than solely on foot or horseback. Modern medical marvels are marvelous. Democratic forms of government are to be preferred to feudalism. And so on.
What every age misses is humility, and Ecclesiastes is a good soaking in the waters of necessary humility. We’re not the first people to think we hung the moon, to see our city as the eternal city or the city of light; we’re not the first people to see our nation as a beacon of hope to the world. We’re not the first to think that we surpass all that has come before us.
And we’re not the first people to have blind spots, big ones … to suffer from pride … to think that now, at last, both nature and history are controllable because we have arrived on the scene.
What makes the author of Ecclesiastes so melancholic and gloomy is not his lack of success in life. He’s actually succeeded in all he set out to do. Become a wise and insightful philosopher? Check. Enjoyed whatever pleasures he wanted? Check. Successful leader, planner, builder? Check. Wealthy beyond measure? Check. He gained all that he desired and had everything he wanted—and still felt it all added up to nothing: “It’s all meaningless!” is the refrain of the book.
For Ecclesiastes, the source of the meaningless of life is death. The same destiny awaits the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, the just and the evil, the successful and the failures, so how does it all make any sense? The “reward” for a good life and a bad life are the same: the grave. So what’s the point? Since death wins in the end, everything prior to it is rendered meaningless.
There is no answer to this question “under the sun.” If there is an answer—and the author of Ecclesiastes strongly suspects that there is, he just can’t see where to find it—it will have to come from somewhere else than “under the sun.” Or from someone else other than ourselves.