Monday, 21 December 2015

Everything is Futile!

Its just like old times today on my blog. Not old times for the blog, but for me. Today I'm going to be reading something from the Bible and talking about it. In the 1990s and early 2000s you would have found me doing this normally because it was my academic education. I learnt Hebrew and Greek, studied history and literature and learnt about things such as "textual criticism" (which is the history of the reception and modification of ancient texts). But it all came to a couple of abrupt halts and now I barely do it at all. That is not to say that today is to be all about God. The book of the Bible I'm going to talk about, Ecclesiastes, barely has any interest in God at all. He is barely mentioned and more simply assumed. Were this not a book in the Bible you might not have much cause to think that the speaker in the book even thought that much about God himself. And, as we shall see, the God he talks about doesn't seem to do much anyway. This isn't a God who parts the Red Sea, feeds the 5,000 or sends down lightning from heaven. Maybe that's why he's not very interested in him?

"Everything is futile!" is the testimony of the speaker in the book of Ecclesiastes and from now on I'm going to call this person Qoheleth. This is the Hebrew name for the speaker in the book. It just means the speaker at a gathering and its not his real name. The book is headed with the name of Solomon, son of King David, him who was supposed to be full of wisdom, but that's likely just to get the book some attention. It doesn't matter anyway. I'm here for the content not the fame of the writer or speaker. And the content is about filling out the theme of the book which is announced in the very second verse: "Everything is futile!" A book that claims “Everything is futile!” as its opening gambit is a book that I want to read, think and write about. I want to know what it means by that and I want to know how it stands it up as a genuine assessment of anything. Hopefully in the next 10 minutes we will find out.

The book of Ecclesiastes opens like this according to the New Jerusalem Bible:

Sheer futility, Qoheleth says. Sheer futility: everything is futile! What profit can we show for all our toil, toiling under the sun? A generation goes, a generation comes, yet the earth stands firm forever. The sun rises, the sun sets; then to its place it speeds and there it rises. Southward goes the wind, then turns to the north; it turns and turns again; then back to its circling goes the wind. Into the sea go all the rivers, and yet the sea is never filled, and still to their goal the rivers go.

All things are wearisome. No one can say that eyes have not had enough of seeing, ears their fill of hearing.

What was, will be again, what has been done, will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun.

Take anything which people acclaim as being new; it existed in the centuries preceding us. No memory remains of the past, and so it will be for the centuries to come - they will not be remembered by their ancestors.

Sounds quite modern, doesn't it? Life is a bag of shit, right? No god to be seen. Life is just drudgery. Recurring drudgery. What's it all for? ("What does it profit?" is a recurring theme of the book as is futility and "chasing after wind".) It seems like 2,500 years ago, somewhere in the Middle East, things weren't so different after all. And back then they couldn't pass the time by tweeting cat pics either. Quite often in life "futility" is taken as the thought of naive and depressed teenage boys - and thus thoroughly (and all too simply) dismissed. But this statement is here being made in a major book of a world religion (or two if you also include Christianity which would controversially come to claim all things Judaism as related to itself). So this is not something that we can brush aside if we wish to take the considered thoughts of our fellow human beings seriously. I find it intriguing in the extreme that such a statement should be found in such a place. Ecclesiastes is one of those Jewish books regarded in its traditions as a part of the gathered earthly wisdom. So what is the wisdom in saying "everything is futile?"

A translation of the word here rendered “futile” is sometimes the word “absurd”. This is not absurd in the sense of funny. Its absurd in the sense of “inscrutable without end” - something which literally makes no sense - and so becomes a futile pursuit. The idea here is of things ungraspable - no matter how much you try or how strong your grip is. The Hebrew word at the root of all this is “Hebel” in English transliteration, a word which suggests an insubstantial fog. Life is fog. Everything is fog. And you can’t grasp fog because it will always slip through your fingers. Its insubstantial. There never was anything to grasp.

The thought is unpacked further beyond the bold statement. The reader is asked directly “What profit can we show for all our toil, toiling under the sun?” The book is thus addressed to everyone and is asking about life generally. This is not some dusty tome for a few clerics or academics. The book addresses you and asks you for your answer to the question. It seems to me that this is very important. Everyone needs his or her own answer to this question. What are you working for? What do you get from it? What of ultimate value and worth remains? Qoheleth or I or some treasured mind or someone else cannot answer for you. You need your own answer to this question. And, in the end, having your own answer that you feel resonating in your heart is the only one that will satisfy anyway. Psychologists, existentialists and philosophers have said the same thing in previous blogs of mine.

After this we get a series of examples which, to my mind, basically concentrate on an appreciation of time. Time goes on and on forever in its inscrutable, absurd, futile and foggy way. We cannot discern or divine its meaning or purpose. We make no sense of it. All things pass as it rolls along on its way and we become tiny and insignificant and forgotten. Suns rise and fall, rivers run, winds turn. Chapter 3 will tell us, patiently, that there is a time for everything. Life is variety and change. But then a slap in the face: all things are wearisome! Our writer has seen and heard enough, overcome by the deluge of time he, and us with him, have become lost in. Time is a void and in it we are as nothing, lost as the universe goes about its interminable business. These days we have much more time and space as our increased vision has revealed the enormity of it all. But even in his small, Earth-bound world Qoheleth felt insignificant.

This is a great context for us human beings, creatures who constantly need to be snapped out of our self-regarding, egoistic and exceptionalist focus on ourselves. I am sure that each succeeding generation of human beings sees itself as reaching out into the universe, attempting to be gods. Certainly, for some this is true today. We are fallible and trapped in futility, as Qoheleth claims, and yet we have visions of eternity. There are those of us who want to extend human life indefinitely. Others want to reach out to the stars and colonise other worlds. This, for me, is a case of Qoheleth’s “nothing new under the sun”. For it is not new that human beings, in their hubris, seek to grasp the ungraspable. Of course, it may not be that those so minded agree with Qoheleth and his assessment of everything. But then this is meant to be a piece of wisdom and its not always the case that the most knowledgeable are the most wise. We each take from the store of human wisdom as we are able to.

So am I saying that our technological advances and the associated knowledge and learning that come with these things are futile too? From the context of this section of Ecclesiastes, yes I am. The view espoused here is that everything together as a whole in the end makes no sense. This is surely true. And no amount of gizmos, gadgets and technological achievement can or will change that. Living an interminably long time, far beyond what’s currently possible, would not remove the question “What’s the point of life?” anymore than living for the 70 or 80 years we hope to live now. Unless your shallow answer is that the point of life is to live as much of it as you can - calculated in terms of number of years. One day the universe itself will die from heat death - and there will be no escaping that - and so the shallow desire for  extra years gives no satisfying answer to me. Its just one more grasp which grabs only at more fog.

There is a final focus in this opening gambit of the book which lays out its main concerns. This is the issue of memory. Qoheleth is concerned to describe a world in which nothing changes, nothing is new. This, in a way, is a very modern view of the world and of the universe. The universe, it can be said at a fundamental level, is merely the history of differing forms of energy. (This is a level far beyond most humans who see “the world” as being a story of human beings. Arrogant, stupid and wrong.) All that is is because of energy, because of energy in its varying forms. So nothing is new. The universe is just energy doing its thing until it gets so cold that all meaningful activity ceases.

Qoheleth sees this as a problem. And its a problem of meaning as most things in this book are. This is why clever people with their science and technology or their philosophies based on knowing things are somewhat impotent here. For meaning is not a subject which requires a PhD or science degrees. The question of meaning is a human question that addresses each one of us regardless of earthly status or egotistical qualifications. I myself regard the question of meaning as the fundamental human question of life. Put simply, we are thrown into the world and from that point on each one of us has to wrestle with questions of what things mean - and what everything means. These questions, and our ability or inability to find satisfying answers, will shape our lives. It is clear that they have occurred to Qoheleth too and his survey in this book indicates they seem to be generally occurring.

In this situation it is somewhat grievous for Qoheleth that nothing is remembered. Things are forgotten. Even today with our vastly increased archiving capabilities all the fine details fall through the holes in the sieve that is our ability to collect and preserve things. We may be able to save some things and a few facts. But we no longer know what things felt like. Memory is more than being able to reconstruct an event or tell a story just as understanding things is more than being able to measure or re-create them - which is what science basically does. Its to know what it was like to be there, how things felt. And that will not be remembered. As people pass away so their ability to explain and express dies with them. We are just left with relics, a very incomplete and insufficient record of past times. We fall inevitably into time’s void, unable to escape its irresistible magnetic pull. This is the way it is, Qoheleth plainly states. All things must pass. Time is a treadmill and we must take our allotted steps along it before being shot off the back to be forgotten.

In chapter two of the book Qoheleth decides to try pleasure and see if that can bring relief in a world of futility. "And this was futile too." So no joy there. He muses on the fact that the wise and the foolish have the same end. And so what really is the difference between them? This reminds me of something I blogged about before, thinking of life as a matter of moving from Point A, birth, to Point B, death. For Qoheleth it is grievous that this path is the same for all people. There is no benefit to being wise in terms of an outcome. Both the wise (which can also mean the morally good) and the foolish (which can mean the sinful) have the same end. At the time this book was written there was no conception of Hell as a place for the wicked. All alike went to Sheol, the place under the Earth which was just for the undifferentiated dead. Later Hell would be developed to make the choice of wisdom on Earth a more consequential one. But Qoheleth knows nothing of this when he writes and concludes that all one can do is get the happiness one can get from eating and drinking and enjoying such achievements as life grants. And that's it.

Chapter three is a musing on time and an interesting distinction is drawn between Men, who must simply take what fleeting pleasure they can get, and God, whose ways are eternal and inscrutable. Men are likened even to animals, since they both draw the same breath, and we are no better off than our fellow beasts. The Bible, as a collection of books and as a handed down tradition, of course knows that human beings were created and especially chosen by God and are the pinnacle of his creation. But that thought is not reflected so much here and we are far away from the thought of the book of Genesis. Here human beings are much like animals. They know as little about eternal truths as a sheep or a pig. God seems as far away from them as he does from the rabbit or the horse. Qoheleth even muses if human beings and animals go to the same place after death, so entwined does he see their positions relative to God. "The way God acts inspires dread," says Qoheleth, struggling under the weight of the eternal, something so very different from the life he sees around him.

Chapter four lapses into a familiar literary style, that of the Jewish wise man, and there are some snappy sayings such as "A threefold cord is not quickly broken" which praises the strength of togetherness. The section as a whole is loosely labeled as being about "society". Here, too, there is futility. It is futile how much injustice takes place and how people are robbed and cheated with no one to help them. Qoheleth is shocked at the amount of "power their oppressors wield". Again, this is all very modern and its easy to think of current situations that this description fits. Qoheleth congratulates the dead that they are beyond the injustices of life and even more so the unborn that have never had to see them. Life is full of jealousy and ego for Qoheleth and it poisons life. How true. How very true! Everything is futile and a chasing after wind. Life is not fair, it doesn't add up. Today we would be cynical about this as if it was a given. Qoheleth is not. He is trying to do the arithmetic on life and make it add up to something sensible. But he can't. There follows in chapters five and six various truisms about life. They add up only to more futility. But Qoheleth can contradict himself. Later on he will say "Better a live dog than a dead lion" and we can surely see the sense of that.

The rest of the book is a catalogue of observations about life and more traditional Jewish wisdom concerning it. People still have to live and so still need to know how to go about that, to judge between better and worse courses of action and, all things considered, cultivate a little practical wisdom for living. The big statements and overarching viewpoints thus recede as these more every day matters are concentrated on. Here we see that Qoheleth views life as something we are supposed to get on with and take responsibility for. Yes, he thinks that God is in his heaven but he does not think that God does everything for you. He knows that life is struggle and you must do what you must do to survive and that this is your responsibility. Its just that, in the context of the bigger thesis I have outlined, he wonders what it was all for. Qoheleth is a man who is honest and realistic about life. He does not turn away the difficult questions and neither does he fall back on unquestioning orthodoxies. All being said and done, he agrees with most other Jewish wisdom of the time that it is better to be wise than foolish and better to be alive than dead but its just that, even so, these things never amount to anything in the end and we humans remain terminally blind as to the point of any of it.

So this book of futility and frustration, that has expressed the absurdity of life as much as any book from a theistic tradition could do, could be summed up in some words from near the end of the book in chapter eleven:

However many years you live, enjoy them all,
but remember, the days of darkness will be many:
futility awaits you at the end.

The book itself ends as it began:

Sheer futility, says Qoheleth, everything is futile.

And so it is that even in a world of gods the absurdity of a world of foggy uncertainty and blindness, of an emptiness waiting to engulf us all, breaks in and infects every area of life. For Qoheleth the eternal is inscrutable and completely other. It is not for human beings to understand even if they can contemplate it. Indeed, we share more in common with all the other creatures of the Earth than with anything that could. We are weak and limited beings. Life adds up to zero for us whichever way we slice it and from whatever angle we approach it. What else can you do, then, but eat and drink and enjoy it while you can, if you can? But it will not be fair and judicious and there's nothing to be gained at the end. It is empty struggle. Is this a pessimistic message? I don't think so. It seems fairly honest to me. This can be summed up in the fact that, as far as I can see, for Qoheleth even believing in his god has got him nowhere in the end. Qoheleth does not live in a world where if you believe in the right god you are saved. Of course, he would still choose to believe in his for he thinks his is true. But, still, life is empty and pointless, in the grand scheme of things, for everyone equally. And surely he was right about that.

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