A Book of the Bible Even an Atheist Can Love: Secular Inspiration in Ecclesiastes

By Jeffrey Tayler

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” announces Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament that I, an atheist with an ardent distaste for religion, find consoling, calming, and wise. As the years pass and cares mount, as pleasures fade with repetition, and as the senescence and deaths of family members bear down relentlessly, I find myself turning to Ecclesiastes for comfort, inspiration, and, despite its melancholy tidings, cheer.

My rationalistic, evidence-based worldview hasn’t faltered.  Luckily, Ecclesiastes barely mentions God. When it does, the words seem almost pro forma, as though the author had suddenly thought, “Hey, I better at least nod to the Lord or they won’t put my book in the Bible!” Perhaps because it is so little wedded to doctrine, Ecclesiastes has long exercised an influence on writers of every stripe (from Shakespeare to Melville, Edith Wharton, and Thomas Wolfe), politicians (Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address), and songwriters — notably Pete Seeger, the author of Turn! Turn! Turn!” (“a time to live, a time to die”). Yet how many of us today know what this text actually says?

Purportedly the personal musings of a world-weary man of wealth and stature — “the Preacher,” or more specifically, “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” — Ecclesiastes offers wisdom drawn from close observation of human life and the natural world, and the interplay between them.  It resounds with echoes of Epicureanism, nihilism, and even of Buddhism, but, most un-Buddhistically, it recommends we indulge ourselves in the here and now.  It does not equate wisdom with happiness — far from it.  Rather, it exudes a poignant fatalism that is as relevant today as it was millennia ago.

The King James translation of the Hebrew text is the version I discuss here and is the one to read.  The KJV contains errors, yes, but without its haunting, seventeenth-century English phrasing, Anglo-American literature and even our vernacular would not be the same.  Subsequent translations, at least from a literary perspective, don’t measure up. In the New International Version, for instance, the “vanity of vanities” line comes off inelegantly as “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher.  ‘Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.’”

Though I first stumbled across Ecclesiastes decades ago, I became newly enamored of it last year while reading the Vulgate — Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible.  (The things that researching a book about Dante can lead to!) Though the rapid decline of my father’s health prompted me to seek solace in literature, there’s an objective reason for the Latin text’s resonance.  As a “dead” language, Latin has certain subtle advantages over “living” tongues.  It can’t be corrupted by mundane, present-day associations.  Born and spoken in bygone eons, Latin seems to call out from — even serve as a requiem for — a perished world, a time of darkness and devastating plagues, of widespread strife and barbarian invasions, when the Roman Empire was falling, when deities were presumed to light the sun and inhabit the heavens.  Moreover, Latin is clear and exact.  The Latin of Saint Jerome in particular is simpler than that of the classical Roman authors preceding him, with a more limited vocabulary — a plus for today’s readers.

But it isn’t the relative merits of Latin and English that concern me here. It is the wisdom and beauty of both texts.  They lay out the broad, inescapably harsh truths that permeate our existence, but also provide us with ways of confronting and accepting them.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.  The Biblical Hebrew for “vanity” is hevel, which means “breath, vapor,” and connotes the fleeting nature of life; that which breathes must die. The Latin, vanitas, connotes “emptiness, aimlessness, falsehood.” In the Vulgate (but not the KJV), vanitas introduces most of the chapter headings — Vanitas Studii Sapientiae (of seeking knowledge), Vanitas Oblectamentorum (of delights, pleasures), Vanitas Laborum Humanorum (of man’s labors), and so on — driving home Ecclesiastes’ dominant thesis: our actions, or strivings, and we ourselves are ephemeral, and so ultimately insignificant. Toward Ecclesiastes’ conclusion, the Preacher addresses the vanity of the writing profession in particular, warning that “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Saint Jerome put the latter phrase differently, telling us that “frequensque meditatio carnis adflictio est (frequent contemplation is an affliction of the flesh).”  Ecclesiastes’ overriding theme for us all, though, is our mortal finitude, the futility of vainglory.

How did the author of Ecclesiastes come to conclude that all is vanity? Though he calls himself “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” which suggests that he was none other than Solomon, who may have ruled Israel in the tenth century B.C., we don’t really know who he was, and there are grounds to think there was more than one author, with influences suggesting exposure to Epicurus (of the fourth century B.C.) and to his practical counsels to face the prospect of our eventual death and live in the here and now. The Preacher claims to be wealthy, and he certainly had time at his disposal. He professes to have seen “all the works that are done under the sun,” and therefore to be wiser than all who came before him in Jerusalem. He “gave [his] heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly.”  Ecclesiastes is the result.

The Preacher’s conclusion, which he amplifies throughout his testimony, is this: “in much wisdom there is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  The Latin has indignatio for “grief” — “displeasure, indignation, disdain, anger.”  Grief, to my mind, seems more apt — unless I consider how upsetting it can be to watch part of humanity traveling down paths that will surely lead to disaster (think this year’s election).  So indignation works too.  “Ignorance is bliss” would be a crude, reductive way of phrasing the thought.  But bliss doesn’t figure in Ecclesiastes.

A more serious discrepancy between the English and Latin versions concerns the matter of obtaining wisdom.  The KJV has the Preacher saying, “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.” Saint Jerome’s Preacher declares, “Cogitavi in corde meo abstrahere a vino carnem meam, ut animam meam transferrem ad sapientiam, devitaremque stultitiam (I decided in my heart to deprive my flesh of wine in order to give my soul over to wisdom and avoid folly).” To some, the soberer Latin might make more sense, but as will be seen, the Preacher does not advocate teetotalism.  Not in the least.  The KJV got it right.  Living fully requires a touch of folly, or even more than a touch, lest a host of regrets darken our later years. At least this I can credit myself with having understood early on. In my first forays abroad (to, among many places, Greece in the early 1980s), I followed something like the modern-day cult of Dionysius, drinking, dancing, and otherwise reveling in the open-air nightclubs of the islands, accruing pleasures while I could, fully aware of their ephemerality.  “Carpe diem” wrote Horace —but more on Ecclesiastes exhortations to do just this below.

Some of the “vanity” is inspired by the ceaseless repetitions of life and the cosmos:  “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.”  We now know that the earth will not last forever, and nor will our sun, but, in our day-to-day lives, “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose” — with “goeth down” rendered more evocatively in Latin as occidit, which means both “sets” and “declines, perishes.” On a planet undergoing successive sunrises and sunsets, tidal inflows and outflows, “there is no new thing under the sun.”

Well, there have been a few new things since Solomon’s day, and we do understand tides and the effects of the earth’s orbit.  The overarching truth, though, remains timely.  The news cycle exposes us to a torrent of human folly (again, the election) that can dispirit even the hardiest among us, and certainly provides cause for indignatio.  As a species, we’ve learned a lot, but not, crucially, how to cooperate to solve our most critical problems.  The earth abides, but with ever-hotter temperatures, rising seas, and increasingly catastrophic storms. For me, the ceaselessly repetitive nature of our world has at times served to dull my senses to it — yet another Christmas, New Year, and so on; but the turn of events in recent years has warded off total complacency.

Then comes “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”  Books, the Internet, and so on, preserve records of our deeds and lives.  But this is not the same as remembering them, much less learning from them.  Images of slaughter assail us from our screens, people flee war and hunger in their homelands, squabbles among countries and religious and ethnic groups multiply.  The sheer volume of depressing information invading our consciousness inures us to the feelings it should arouse.  And, with few exceptions, the probability is that we and our loved ones will be forgotten once our generation or, at most, the one that follows “passeth away.” Even the epochal massacres of the twentieth century threaten to fade from our consciousness; hence we establish dates on which to recall them: Holocaust Memorial Day, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, and so forth.

The Preacher also tells us that “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” We do indeed thrash about in search of novelty, of diversions, of distractions — never satisfied, ever hankering after some future, surely better, state of being, a time when we will really be happy. But we never get there. There’s always only the here and now, subjecting us to its familiar, eventually wearying, vicissitudes. In my case, even writing and publishing books became, if not routine, then certainly less exciting than it once was.  I also find myself wondering: why can’t we learn and apply the lessons already imparted?  Maybe we don’t need new words, more sense impressions, but a paring of them, a determination to search out the wisdom already contained therein.

The Preacher informs us thatwisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.”  Three thousand years ago, this was certainly true, but who would believe it today? Then comes, in Saint Jerome’s wording, “Et stultorum infinitus est numerus, which hardly requires translation, once you understand that stultorum (the genitive plural of stultus, or “foolish, stupid”) means “of foolish people.”  The Vulgate rendering seems a good deal more to the point than the KJV’s “that which is wanting cannot be numbered.”

How, exactly, did our Preacher acquire his wisdom? Much of the text is devoted to answering that question. He came to own or avail himself of virtually every good one could enjoy in his day: houses, vineyards, gardens and orchards, “servants and maidens,” “men singers and women singers,” herds of cattle and sheep, and, according to Saint Jerome (but not the KJV), pitchers and goblets brimming with wine. He indulged himself: “Whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor.” Yet he concluded that it was all “vexation and vanity of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”  (The Vulgate, for the last phrase, has “et nihil permanere sub sole” — “nothing endures under the sun.”) Vitiating even the little comfort the Preacher might have felt in bequeathing his property to others is his realization that there is no guarantee that one’s heirs will be worthy.  This prompts him to abandon his quest for worldly goods altogether.

Having shown that material possessions don’t ensure happiness, the Preacher declares ultimately meaningless all our strivings, even those necessary for our survival. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.  A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted,” with times also reserved for weeping, laughing, speaking, keeping silent, and so on.  But all for naught: “All the labor of Man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled.”  Worse, “As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labor, which he may carry away in his hand.”

(Make no mistake about it, the Preacher, here and elsewhere, is using the masculine pronoun for a reason: he’s addressing men.  Women, he finds, are “more bitter than death,” doing nothing more than laying “snares and nets” righteous men must avoid.  The Bible is essentially misogynistic.)

In Ecclesiastes, there is no talk of divine postmortem rewards for good deeds, though there are pro forma warnings of God’s judgment to come. Yet the Preacher explicitly describes a reigning cosmic randomness rendering senseless our ambitions, even our existence.  “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.”  In Saint Jerome’s text, “chance” is casus, meaning “chance,” yes, but with shades of falling, calamity, and death.  This is one of the most heretical passages in Ecclesiastes.  Believers in the divine justice it repudiates would do well to contemplate the myriad miseries their Lord visits upon the innocent — including, most distressingly, children, be they in Aleppo or Africa, or in cancer wards nearer to home.  The Latin, thus, is more to the point.  Learning to live with such reigning cosmic randomness is a hallmark of maturity.  Epicurus, but not Jesus, would have agreed.

Death, for the Preacher, begets futility. No matter how well we do in life, how much good we do, or how wise we become, “one event happeneth to [us] all.”  Saint Jerome specifies this as an occasus or a “failing,” a “sunset”  (Can there be any more apt metaphor for passing away in old age?)  Worse, “there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten.  And how dieth the wise man?  as the fool.”  This fact leads him to “hate” his life, and consider all “vanity and vexation of spirit.”

Saint Jerome puts it differently: “futura tempora oblivione cuncta pariter operiunt” — future times will bury all equally in forgetfulness, in oblivion.  The doctus (learned) shall die as the indoctus (unlearned), with the result that “taeduit me vitae meae” — “my life disgusted/wearied me.” The English cognate of the verb taedere is “tedium,” something different from hate, and more accurate.  Tedium vitae, we say, referring to the generalized boredom that may settle over us at times, especially in middle age or later. Tedium vitae may in fact be the most grievous psychological byproduct of aging, the most destructive of happiness.

The Preacher stresses our mortality, with inklings of the inherently transient limning through in “vanity.”  “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death . . . .  For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.”   Just watch the news: an “evil time” is, across the globe, ensnaring more and more innocents.  For me, the truth of our not always being able to foresee our demise manifested itself in my mother’s death from cardiac arrest; it happened so suddenly that she collapsed on the floor with no time to raise her hands to break her fall and protect her face.  Furthermore, “that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”  The Preacher, with these words, put humans in their place, and seems to deprive us of the favor the God of Genesis had bestowed on mankind, with which He endowed “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Death often comes as a disorienting shock.  It consigns to oblivion entire chapters of our lives: our parents pass away, taking with them their accounts of our childhood, a part of who we are.  In my case, my mother alone knew answers to questions I now have about my early years and our family.  As we age, the deaths multiply.  Samuel Johnson, in The Idler, declared them to be “the calamities by which Providence gradually disengages us from the love of life.”  He may be wrong in assigning agency to Providence, but he’s right about the effect.  In any case, there can be no lasting respite — until our own occasus overtakes us, and we ourselves fail, slip over the horizon, and drift into the Void: “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”  Our urgent passions, our daily Sturm und Drang, dissipate: “[Our] love, and [our] hatred, and [our] envy is now perished.”  Even our good name will vanish.

The Preacher’s assessment is unremittingly bleak.  If the Void eventually engulfs us and everything we possess, then how are we to live?  In more than one passage he proffers an answer, of which Zorba the Greek and Epicurus (if not the Apostle Paul, to say nothing of Jesus) would have approved: live fully in the present, for “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave.”  Or, as the Vulgate has it, “apud inferos, quo tu properas (among those in the nether world, to whom you hasten).”  We are “to do good in [our] life. [… E]very man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God. [… T]here is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his portion.”  And just so you get the point: “eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart.”  And please, do so with a little style: “Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.”  The Preacher “commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”  Enjoy married life (at least if you’re male): “Live joyfully with the wife whom though lovest all the days of thy vanity.”

Surely the latter exhortation is to enjoy sex.  This should come as no shock, for the KJV, in Proverbs 5:19, tells us to “let [our wife] be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be though ravished always with her love,” the latter part of which Saint Jerome renders more flatly as “ubera eius inebrient te in omni tempore, in amore illius delectare iugiter (let her breasts intoxicate you at all times, and let her love delight you continually).”

All this pleasure and partying comes from “the hand of God,” and is, in fact, “the gift of God.”

To be sure, “Eat, drink, and be merry” is a straightforward command.  But the Preacher himself hardly seems a reveler; such behavior, as he sees it, is largely for the young: “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth.” With time, partying grows dull, merriment wanes. Other passages introduce sobering notes of gloom, reflecting, again, the verity of our impermanence:  “[The] day of death [is] better than the day of birth.  It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men. […]  Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the countenance is the heart made better.  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

In any case, later, darker years will come — “evil days” (better put in Latin as “tempus adflictionis,” a time of affliction). As Ecclesiastes moves toward its conclusion, marvelously poetic lines evoke the truths that unite us all: “In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened.  And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:  Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.  Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.  Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.”

Here the English of the KJV far outdoes Saint Jerome’s Latin.  Still, the Vulgate has its moments; for “desire shall fail” it has, more evocatively, “dissipabitur capparis” — the effect of “the caperberry,” a plant once esteemed as an aphrodisiac, “shall dissipate.”  And for “goeth to his long home” (the grave), Saint Jerome has “ibit domum aeternitatis suae (goes to his eternal home).”

Ecclesiastes ends with the above-mentioned pro forma words about God and his coming judgment, but if, as the Preacher says, “the words of the wise are as goads,” readers might be little inclined to heed them.  The uplifting takeaway: eat, drink, and be merry.  And when you no longer feel like it, read Ecclesiastes.

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