Socrates vs Ecclesiastes?

The famous Socratic maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, is one of the defining propositions of the Western tradition. Yet it seems to contradict another defining source of the tradition, the Book of Ecclesiastes. According to the Socratic maxim, accepting one’s own views as they are without testing them and replacing them is far inferior to the critical pursuit of objective truth, which is worth sacrificing our naive pastimes for. But the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, named as “Qoholeth” holds that life is futile and one has nothing better to do than enjoy the work of his hands. Thus the wisdom of two great sources of western thought seems to be contrary to each other.

Ecclesiastes does present a prima facie problem for the Socratic maxim. In my opinion, however, we gain better insight into the Preacher’s perspective when we compare his views with classical thought than with modern existential thought. Modern thought presupposes a technical empiricism which committed to much more than the Preacher’s scope of “under the sun”.

The Preacher’s view is similar both to Plato’s Heracletian empiricism and to one classical interpretation of Taoism. There is a Way that life takes but it is a watercourse that seems to bend from the left to the right and back in a way that seems arbitrary to us. Yet we recognize that it is following a law or principle even if we cannot fathom what it us. There is an a priori sense that life has a purpose but experience fails to catch up with the category. So all we have is an apprehension rather than a comprehension of the point to life. Qoholeth captures something like this when he says that God has put eternity in their hearts. “eternity” is among “the reasons of the heart of which reason knows nothing”. (Pascal). This illustrated by Plato’s Meno in that we know (and yet never know in the sense of being articulate about) what virtue is. Socratic examination is a process that only entertains a reasonable wager of success. Examination only holds the hope of an answer (maybe in another life) but the process makes us more virtuous than we would otherwise be if we gave up on the pursuit. The ultimate possible reward of truth and the proximate realizable reward of virtue explain the Socratic maxim.

Another important comparison is with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the good life consists in happiness which is argued to be identical with virtuous energy. Virtue is acquired through virtue including wisdom as a virtue. However, virtue is not a necessary or sufficient condition for happiness. Bad luck could thwart your efforts at happiness with natural disasters or good luck could favor the lazy with a windfall (e.g. trust fund babies). Qs picture of happiness is characteristic of the Old Testament – namely shalom, pictured by each man sitting in the shade of his own vine, enjoying the fruits of his labors. This is happiness through earned success. According to the Aristotelian view, it’s clear that while one cannot guarantee happiness by virtue, wisdom will dictate that we strive to be virtuous to secure happiness insofar as the pursuit of happiness depends on ourselves. For Qoholeth, being an Israelite Monotheist, ‘luck’ is displaced by ‘grace’ so happiness in the form of Shalom is made possible by hard work and yet remains totally a gift from God. But unworthy descendants may benefit from other’s hard work to their own detriment. This vanity but it happens and we cannot understand why. This us a problem for theists (and ultimately for Plato and Aristotle both of whom confront the ontological puzzle of evil and waste with their mitigated theisms).

So Ecclesiastes perception of life is after all closer to Plato’s and Aristotle’s as well as Taoism and classical eastern thought than to either modern empiricism, hedonism, and existentialism. Unfortunately, modern commentators, even religiously conservative ones are more likely to examine the book through a lens shaped more by modern thought or postmodern thought.

The crucial difference between Ecclesiastes and classical thought is that Qoholeth (and His editor if there is one) deploys his biblically informed version of these insights to encourage Israelites to live life by God’s covenant. He supports special revelation by highlighting the limits and inadequacies of natural revelation without denying that natural revelation exists or that it is sufficient to hold all Israel accountable to God. The stream that begins in Ecclesiastes passes through the Wisdom of Sirach and reappears in the presuppositions of Paul in Romans 1-3, where Paul expands the application to all of humanity.

Ecclesiastes, without saying so explicitly, is observing the Socratic maxim. The Preacher is making a reflective assessment of what is really worth living for in the face of the perplexity of life to avoid living haphazardly and taking preventably unreasonable risks. Ultimately that means living life by God’s law and enjoying the good things God is pleased to give in this life. In short, godliness with contentment is great gain.

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