The Victorian writer George Saintsbury said Ecclesiastes was “the saddest and wisest book ever written.” Novelist Thomas Wolfe called it “the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth.”
Many writers, thinkers, and theologians have cited the Biblical story for its profound if deeply fatalistic view of the universe.
Ecclesiastes professes that life is empty, a mere puff of air or breath, “vanity of vanities …all is vanity.”
Existence is an endless and purposeless cycle, according to Ecclesiastes, where the just and righteous can never find their proper reward, since “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
One might ask, if everything comes down to time and chance, what is the purpose of life? In the end, according to Ecclesiastes, “A man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”
This sounds like Saturday night at the frat house not much of a prescription for a full and happy life.
So here is a better one, perhaps, a simple but useful corrective to the dark vision of the Biblical prophet.
1. For starters, stay close with friends and family. Strong connections of friendship and kinship are the best ties a person can have, providing lifelong understanding, support, and enjoyment.
2. Celebrate the good news. In our current barrage of pessimism, it is easy to forget how good life is. As columnist Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times of July 2, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccination and improved nutrition and health care since 1990. He adds that there has been “a stunning decline in extreme poverty…The truth is that the world today is not depressing but inspiring.” Likewise, the writer Steven Pinker reports in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we live in the safest time in human history. It is sometimes hard to see the forest of good news from the trees of bad, but important to keep in mind.
3. Enjoy the multiple pleasures of life. Seek out the best in music, literature, drama, food, and pastoral beauty. The Chicago area is filled with great theaters, bookstores, concert halls, libraries, parks, gardens, and restaurants. Take advantage of them.
4. Pursue a higher purpose. Great passions and goals engage the mind and distract from the darker thoughts and news that sometimes surround us.
5. Keep learning. Ecclesiastes suggests there is little point in pursuing wisdom, since “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Not so! Life is full of extraordinary variety and wonder, and to study and understand it is one of our chief sources of pleasure and progress.
Certainly Ecclesiastes is profound. But so is Shakespeare, when he wrote, “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”