Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Resistance is Futile (Unless You Have Science)

I think most readers have a pretty good handle on the problems raised by Ecclesiastes. Still, I have a small criticism in our using the word "chaos" when we really mean "change." All change is not chaotic. There is orderly (rational) change, such as the change from one political administration to another through a free election; and there is disorderly change through revolution.  But does Ecclesiastes really mean whatever we want it to mean ("a mirror to the world")? The underlying truth is that Ecclesiastes gives little comfort to those who are concerned about personal survival. Everything alive passes away. In the long view, which cosmologists take, even inorganic matter will disintegrate as the molecular bonds which hold it together weaken. But the ultimate fate of the universe lies trillions of years in the future. What most people are concerned with is more immediate. What happens to me tomorrow?

Ecclesiastes does not offer any real answers. It offers a point of view most closely associated with stoicism-- i.e., why worry about things which are beyond your control? Relax, be happy.

Ecclesiastes also does not address the root causes of injustice in the world. Even if good and evil were in perfect balance (which they are not), why is good unable to triumph over evil? Ecclesiastes has no answer for that. In fact, if you are starving to death, unable to find a job, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (Sierra Leone), you may have a pretty rotten life, then die of Ebola. There is a high probability that no one will even remember you existed. You'll just fade away into nothingness.

So, if everything eventually disappears (including me), what's the point of doing anything? Ecclesiastes has no answer.  The point of view of Ecclesiastes is that we puny human beings are not able to see "the big picture" which God has devised. So we should just relax and enjoy our brief hour upon the stage.

On the other hand, science, which is very much a product of the Age of Reason, does not have all the answers either. But it has a strategy. The strategy is based on logic, reason, imagination and the scientific method. Science may also kill us  with our hubris and our lack of virtue. Unfortunately for those of us who live today, science may not find a solution for our mortality. But it provides a strategy that might pay off some day in the future. Three thousand years from now, Ecclesiastes will be perceived as a kind of mental illness. What Americans want are solutions to problems, not consolation. The authors of the Federalist Papers were not going to sit around and let the future unfold willy-nilly. Forget about "all is vanity and vexation of spirit." What kind of solution is that? Americans primarily believe in two things: freedom and work. You work to earn money and have a better life for yourself. We want answers, not sermons. The way I read it, Ecclesiastes does not offer us any answers other than "be thankful that life is not any worse than it already is." Great!  Tell that to the Jews in Auschwitz.

On the other hand, maybe Ecclesiastes has some useful advice to impart, if only we know how to make use of it.  But the fact of the matter is that Ecclesiastes has no explanation for why things are the way they are, and no solutions on how to make it better. At best, like Stoicism, Ecclesiastes is a methodology for handling despair. But all of life's problems are not mental. When you are starving, you can't survive on a positive attitude. You have to go out and find something to eat. This is what I find irritating about stoicism. It advocates a change in attitude, but it doesn't go to the root cause of misery. Science doesn't go to the root cause of misery either. You can have all the food in the world, along with all the treasure, and still be miserable. The pursuit of happiness is a never ending journey. But it begins with finding enough food to eat everyday, and freedom from violent death at the hands of scoundrels. This was the essence of Hobbes political philosophy. He believed that most people just want to be safe from harm. But the Founding Fathers knew better. They knew that Americans want freedom as well as security. But sometimes, it is difficult to have both.

In a metaphysical sense, freedom from non-existence is what most people really desire. (Would Christianity be as popular as it is without the promise of resurrection?) Sure, we want freedom, happiness, prosperity, and love, etc. But what is the thing most people want the most? More life. On the other hand, there isn't much point to life if you are miserable; but there isn't much point to happiness either, if you are dead. That's kind of a syllogism. Life without happiness = despair. Happiness without life = ???  This is the bitter reality that Ecclesiastes fails to address. Science does a much better job of identifying our basic needs. We want food and shelter, and we need life to get those things. And yes, it is true that Man may not live on bread alone, but he sure can't live without it either. Unless you believe in miracles. But that is another discussion.


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