This issue’s Last Word comes from the Torrey Honors Institute’s Scriptorium Daily blog (scriptoriumdaily.com), where it was originally published on June 23, 2014.
“Vanity, all is vanity” is the theme of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, the fruit of wide experience and deep reflection. Pleasure, folly, great projects, householding, riches, opulence, art, sex, honor, public works, all fall under the same verdict: There is nothing to be gained under the sun. By all means, take what joy in your toil and relationships that you can, but don’t expect anything lasting. Even wisdom is subject to wisdom’s critique.
Pursuing wisdom is good, says the Teacher, but don’t expect it to give you any real profit. But here, I think, wisdom teaches us that we want too much, not from life, but from “life under the sun.” Over and over again in the first few chapters, the Teacher adds the phrase, “under the sun,” and the phrase offers a limiting factor to the vision presented here. All that is under the sun is meaningless, but not all is under the sun.
What is so curious about this, though, is that we should want so much from life under the sun at all in the first place. This last year, part of what Nietzsche had to teach me as I studied him alongside Ecclesiastes was wonder at humans’ need for meaning. Why do we alone chafe at meaninglessness, even more than at suffering? The Teacher says:
“I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:10–11).
We live under the sun with eternity set in our hearts, with desires for a kind of life that eludes by nature creatures subject to change and decay. We have been made to long after a kind of life that we ourselves do not have, and trying to get that life from things under the sun is severely rebuked by the Teacher, who yet urges us to retain the smaller joys, the limited but real good of small things.
“I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man” (3:12–13).
In fact, “find enjoyment in your toil” is a major refrain of the Teacher. This is not a “devil may care” attitude to a meaningless life. Rather, it is an exhortation to enjoy small things “small-ly,” in proper proportion, rather than demand of them eternal satisfaction or even a lasting satisfaction as if they belonged to us. Nothing good is mine to keep or preserve; all is subject not to me, but to death, disintegration, replacement. Life under the sun offers me nothing by which I can profit. Embracing this does not make a man a cynic, but helps him to enjoy limited goods in the limited way that belongs to them. A smaller love is better and greater than a disappointed or disillusioned love that quickly slides into contempt.
Here, we have a friend in boredom. Every so-called new thing never manages to deliver any true gain. To be bored is to rightly feel the meaninglessness of life under the sun. Boredom prompts us to realize what our hearts, burning with eternity, really long for, and using boredom well can renew a small love for small things. We ought not to find small goods and limited joys contemptible, only small.
Diane Vincent is an associate professor of medieval literature at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge.