June 18, 2020 Jason Newman

Further Musings on Dung

Further Musings on Dung

At the end of the last post, we concluded that all life is crap. Solomon breaks down all this crap in Ecclesiastes in two different ways. He does not just write about the vanities of life (of which he lists five) he also talks about five toils. We will cover the actual vanities in the coming posts, but we need to understand what Solomon means by toils.

Our Preacher uses toil as a term to define our attempts to find or make meaning. For Solomon, each of the following is a failure. They gain something – like the gaining of money. But they do not get to the real issue – the gaining of meaning.

Before we look at the five toils, Solomon does something else we need to think about. He lays out a very logical argument. It reads something like this:

All toil is under the sun

And everything under the sun is vanity

Therefore, all toil is vanity

While I can appreciate the beauty of syllogism, to put it that succinctly is almost obscene. Toil is more than just hard work. It would be any work, all and everything we do. Every lifestyle, every value, every candidate for the definition of meaning. Solomon is getting ready to show that his five broad categories are all equally vain. And the poetic beauty of “under the sun.” Solomon is trying to get us to see that part of the vanity is that it is common to all humanity. No one is exempt.

One more note before we turn to the five toils. The five that Solomon mentions can be found in other theological and philosophical writing. They can be found in Hinduism’s “Wants of Man,” Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’ Consolation on Philosophy. Aquinas writes about them in his Treatise on Happiness, Kierkegaard in Stages of Life’s Way. Even secular philosophers see the same list, Aristotle in Ethics, Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, Sartre in Nausea. And we must mention that novels from Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, and Camus deal with two or three at a time.

The five toils are:

1.     Wisdom (a life to fill your mind)

2.     Pleasure (a life to fill your body)

3.     Wealth and Power (a life to fill your pocket)

4.     Duty/Honor/Social Service (a life to fill your conscience)

5.     Piety/Religion (a life to fill your spirit)

Keeping in mind Solomon is pursuing the meaning and purpose of life, we will look at the life and toil of wisdom. In Ecc. 1:12-18 Solomon writes of his findings. His conclusion, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” The words of Socrates seem fitting here, “Philosophizing is a rehearsal for death”

But Solomon does not just consider wisdom. In the same passage, he says folly and foolishness are the same as wisdom. Both wisdom and folly are striving after the wind (vs. 17).

Pleasure. If wisdom is the mountaintop, pleasure is the valley. It is easy to get to. Indeed, most people use happiness and pleasure as interchangeable words and thoughts. Wisdom can be mysterious; pleasure is plain and easy to come by. But one thing Solomon is clear about – especially for Solomon since he had it all – is that pleasure is not the meaning of life.

Solomon considers pleasure in Ecc. 2:1-11. He says that he did not keep anything his eyes desired from himself. He kept no pleasure from his heart. But his conclusion? “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (vs. 11)

Pleasure simply for the pursuit of pleasure leads to boredom. Sometimes the pursuit of pleasure becomes an addiction – stronger and stronger is needed because the same is boring. I need more! Always needing more cannot be the meaning of life. Boredom surely is not the meaning of life!

We will consider one more before close. Solomon mentions wealth and power in connection with wisdom and pleasure. In 2:8 he writes that “I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.” No Hebrew, no king of the Hebrews, wielded more power than Solomon (until Jesus came). Solomon was the absolute of everything. Military. Economics. Territory. Wealth.

And was does Solomon learn? Money can buy anything that money can buy. It gives power over other people. And power tries to control things – and it succeeds very well at that. But control of things is not meaning. Meaning is not something we can control. Meaning must be freely given and freely received. It must be a gift. It is love.

But we run ahead. We are not ready for that conclusion yet. We have not plumbed the fullness of the problem yet. So do not think about love yet. 

So, wisdom is dung. Pleasure is dung. Wealth and power are dung.

Kind of stinks doesn’t it?