The Search for Meaning
All is vanity
The two conflicting elements would seem to have to cancel each other out. After all, nothing can be both true and false at the same time and still be true. However, when we look at a magnetic field, we find in physics a veritable paradox. Indeed, for a magnetic field to exist, both negative and positive opposites must also exist. A magnetic field both attracts and repels.
|Paradox as literary figure|
Consider, for instance, this paradox from our Lord—
He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. —Matthew 10:39
In this paradox, we have the contrast between two opposites: to find, and to lose. Clearly, we cannot simultaneously both lose and find any more than we can turn right and left at the same time. This competing dissonance or conflict, however, lies at the rhetorical core of the paradox as a literary figure. When we encounter a paradox, our attention is immediately aroused, forcing us to look at contrary elements from a fresh perspective. In brief, the paradox forces us to look more deeply, and compels us to ponder what is being said. We cannot simply read through the paradox as we might with other words. We are forced to pause, and to ponder.
In this example from Matthew, the underlying or fundamental structure is decidedly literary or grammatical. Admittedly, we have two opposing concepts, but we also have two opposing words with each arranged in parallel structure: “He that findeth his life . . . he that loseth his life.”
In this next example, taken from Ecclesiastes, what we find is a very different structure—
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. —1:7
There are no contrasting pairs here as in the previous example. Clearly, river is not the opposite of sea as find is the opposite of lose. Seemingly, what we have instead is more a thematic contrast. What is being constantly filled should be overflowing, or at least, full. Yet, that is not what happens. The rivers may add water to the sea, but the sea remains as it is, with water somehow being returned to the rivers. The paradox describes constant activity but without progress. To be sure there is something inscrutable about it all, but rivers flowing into the seas is a part of the natural order of things.
Socrates thought of paradox as the unanswerable argument. We may disagree with someone’s premise or with someone’s conclusion, but a paradox leaves us speechless. We simply cannot
explain the paradox. Nor can we deny that the paradox is true. Nor can we refute the paradox. Because the paradox has at its core disparate or opposite elements, there can be no contrary viewpoint. In the paradox opposing viewpoints collapse into a single irrefutable statement. Socrates was right— the paradox is easily the ultimate argument. If an argument has no opposite perspective, refutation becomes impossible. We cannot refute the paradox, any more than we can explain the paradox.
As a literary figure, the paradox, is equally fascinating. In literature when the theme of the work can be reduced to a paradox, the literature has force, merit, insight, elegance. Cervantes’ Don Quixote can be reduced to the conflict between idealism (as seen in Don Quixote) and pragmatism (as seen in Sancho Panza). The one is the opposite reflection of the other. In one sense, the two characters form a paradox. At the death of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza stands crying near his bed, “Do not die, do not die.”
Understandably, Sancho Panza is grieving at the passing of his friend, but from the larger literary perspective, there is more. If Don Quixote dies, so must Sancho Panza, for he and Quixote are the contrary elements of the literary paradox. Neither character can live without the other even in fiction.
As nothing that is man’s can last for ever, but all tends ever downwards from its beginning to its end, and above all man’s life, and as Don Quixote’s enjoyed no special dispensation from heaven to stay its course, its end and close came when he least looked for it. For— whether it was of the dejection the thought of his defeat produced, or of heaven’s will that so ordered it— a fever settled upon him and kept him in his bed for six days, during which he was often visited by his friends the curate, the bachelor, and the barber, while his good squire Sancho Panza never quitted his bedside.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ah!” said Sancho weeping, “don’t die, your Grace; my Lord, take my advice and live many years; for the foolishest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die without rhyme or reason, without anybody killing him, or any hands but melancholy’s making an end of him.
De cómo don Quijote cayó malo, y del testamento que hizo, y su muerte
In addition to the paradox, another literary feature in Ecclesiastes is its recursive development. The theme of Ecclesiastes (how life should be lived) does not progress logically or in a linear manner with one point necessarily leading to a subsequent point. To be sure, the book has a logical base for its argument, but the logic is inductive rather than deductive. We are given facts, and then, led to a conclusion.
Accordingly, Qoheleth (the pen name the author uses) experimented with life and its meaning, first following one course and then another, looking at wisdom, pleasure, achievement, honor, wealth. All his pursuits led him to the same conclusion: “All is vanity and vexation of the spirit.” Nothing ultimately satisfies. No endeavor, however extensive or meticulous, offers any lasting solution to understanding life. Qoheleth ended where he began with his scheme to analyze life and its meaning ending in futility. Like a dog chasing its tail, whatever Qoheleth pursued left him without answers or solutions. However, Qoheleth was able to reach some conclusions based on what he had seen and experienced. These conclusions, based on inductive reasoning, make up much of the book. Suffering, avoiding extremes, the problem of evil — such inscrutable notions Qoheleth analyzes, with insight, pragmatic advice, and caution.
Such notions are discussed seemingly in random order, but if we think about it, there is really is no other way to discuss the major topics of life. Life, after all, refuses to be segmented into easily defined categories with one category excluding the next category. Life cannot be lived in segments; neither can life be analyzed in segments. We look at life as a whole, not as a part. We live life as a whole, not as an entity with distinguishable parts.
Take something as simple as aging. All of us know we are growing older. Even the small child relishes his birthday as an achievement of vast importance. Also, the old man easily acknowledges his advanced age and can look back on his life. So, we are very much aware how time and life somehow intertwine. Yet, none of us can tell exactly how life and time intertwine. The old man cannot say when exactly his youth left him, or when he became old. As the child, we can look forward. As the old man, we can look backwards. But we can never really tell you what we see, tell you at what point the changes took place. Did we stop being a child at our seventh birthday, or was it our ninth birthday? Did we become old at forty, or was it at eighty that we became old? We know that we were young once, and we know that we are old now. And that is all that we know. We can see life as a spectrum or continuum, but we cannot say with any precision that it was here that I became an old man.
The same is true with the other areas of our life. We cannot separate our sorrows from our joys. A woman gives birth at the moment of her greatest sorrow, but that sorrow immediately is transformed into joy when she hears the sound of her newborn infant crying for life. The sorrow and the joy blend. Clearly, we know when we are in pain, and when we are not, but the transition from one to the other is something we do not know.
Life, then, can only be looked at as a whole, not as segments or parts. Qoheleth knows this, and as a result, his discussion of life is discursive rather than linear. But life does have a distinctive line; just as life has a beginning, life also has an ending. We sometimes call that line a timeline, but what happens on that line tends to happen all throughout that line. Joy cannot be segmented or restricted to a given point on the timeline in the same way age might. We are seven years old only once in life, but we laugh and cry all throughout our lifetime. Qoheleth knows this and in Ecclesiastes discusses life holistically.
As you make your way through Ecclesiastes, think of Don Quixote, think of Sancho Panza, think of contrasting pairs and paradoxes. Look for the different aspects of life and how such aspects overlap into a single coherent whole. As you discover some fresh insights, pause and think about what God may be saying to you.
Whatever you do, don’t read through the book in a hurried fashion. Just as the paradox is intended to slow us down and cause us to think, so are the lessons recorded in Ecclesiastes. The literary outline below will guide you through Ecclesiastes. You may want to put the outline on a nearby table as you read through a part of Ecclesiastes. Make notes to yourself if that will help you. Write out some questions, even though you may not know the answer. Be sure to begin with a prayer as you read this book of God.
|Questions that touch the heart
|1.||What is a paradox? What is unusual about this literary figure?
|2.||How might Don Quixote and Sancho Panza be a literary paradox?
|3.||Which is more satisfying— the doing, or the final completion of a project?
Do you ever find yourself rushing through life, thinking that one day you will pause and begin to live?
Why are you postponing living?
|4.||Ecclesiastes repeatedly cites a refrain, “There is nothing better.” What do the words mean?
|5.||Why is injustice such a problem?
What is envy and how does envy cancel what we may have achieved?
How does popularity fail us?
|6.||If I win the lottery, will I be happy? If I win the lawsuit, will I be happy?
What’s wrong with buying lottery tickets anyway?
What’s wrong with seeking fortune through lawsuits?
I mean, if they have the money, why shouldn’t I sue them?
|7.||Why has my wife turned against me, causing me shame and humiliation in public?
What does Ecclesiastes advise me to do when confronted with such suffering?
|8.||What does God tell me to do with my own hands?
Should I build furniture or play a guitar? Why are such things important?
|9.||My boss is completely unreasonable. At times, I almost hate him.
How did someone who is so stupid ever become a boss?
What does Ecclesiastes tell me to do?
|10.||How quickly will my life pass before my eyes?
Essays on the Meaning of Life
1:1 Title to the work
1:2 Prologue: All is vanity (passing, frail, unsatisfying). Existence is a vicious circle.
1:12 — 2:26 Qoheleth’s search for Meaning in Life
Emptiness of all endeavor (1:16— 2:11)
Conclusion: “All is vanity and a striving after wind” (2:9-11)
Mortality and the Problem of Life (2:12-26)
3:1-22 Divine Providence and Life
Reflections on Providence (3:1-9)
Conclusion: “Enjoyment of life is a gift from God (3:12, 13). Whatever God does endures. His works are not vanity, fleeting, transitory (3:14). Man’s duty and happiness consist in making the best use of the present and improving the opportunities which God gives him.
Helplessness of man (3:16-21)
Conclusion: “There is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work” (3:22).
4:1— 5:9 Vanity of Life Illustrated Further
Obstacles to happiness in life (4:1-16)
Importance of religion in life (5:1-7)
Comfort in the face of oppression (5:8, 9)
5:10 — 6:12 Vanity of Life Illustrated a Third Time
Emptiness of wealth (5: 10—17)
Conclusion: Man should enjoy all the good which God give him (5:18-20).
Wealth without God (6:1-7)
Meaning of life hidden from man (6:10-12)
7: 1-14 Value of Suffering
7:15-22 Caution against Extremes
7:23-29 The Problem of Evil in Life
8: 1 — 9:12 Perplexities of Life
Mystery of God’s moral rule (8:16 — 9:10)
Uncertainty of Life (9:11, 12)
9:13 — 10:20 Excellence of Wisdom
Limitations of wisdom (9:13 -10:9)
Advantages of wisdom (10:10 -15)
Wise conduct under unreasonable tyrants (10: 16 20)
11:1 — 12:7 Remedies for the Perplexities of Life
Exhortation to benevolence (11:1-6)
Exhortation for a cheerful and contented spirit (11:7-9a)
Exhortation to piety in youth (11:9 — 12:7)
12:8 – 14 Epilogue: All is Vanity
Qoheleth’s concluding remarks (12:8-11)
The Final Conclusion (12:13)
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