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H. P. Lovecraft’s Cave

H. P. Lovecraft’s Cave

Oh, that I may never have taken that option that I might have remained comfortable in my naïveté – only thinking that I knew anything when in fact knew nothing. Oh to not know now what I didn’t know before.

I was content with my daily life. I was doing fine watching shadows on the wall. But some wise man unlocked the shackles that bound me. He told me that this world of appearances was a meager reflection of a more real and more perfect world, bathed in more pure and illuminating light. He seemed strange and queer – in fact, dangerous. I saw no reason to doubt the reality of my world, but he said that was only because I grew up bound to this world and simply knew of no other possibility. I decided that if it was possible there was greater truth to be found it was worth the risk.

So I stood up from my chains and saw that the world that appeared to me was indeed nothing but shadows reflecting on the wall of a cave. I was disoriented but turned around to find another area of the cave where the light came from. But as I examined this area, I discovered that there was nothing but a random hedge if briars and that the light of a fire was passing through it and casting the shadow from it on the wall. But the fire was but a dying glow from mere residual embers and there was no definite shape to the briars. The random flickering and crackling of glow created mere blots of shadow and the illusion of noise that I took to be animals and people and their voices speaking to me. But there were no other people here besides myself and no rhyme or reason to what was going on.

I noticed that behind the embers was indeed an exit from the cave. It was rough and meandering. But I went out looking forward to a more perfect world that I longed for even more. It was indeed a torturous journey but I pressed forward taking my perplexity as as a measure of the lack if understanding that would yet be more than overcome by that brighter light of reality. But it was just the darkness that ever increased as I moved further and further away from the weak light of the embers back behind me.

I had discovered that I had already exited the cave for a while before I realized it. I had wandered randomly and tripped at the edge of a lake. But the surface had frozen over and some silt had been mixed in with the ice. I saw nothing but an empty cipher when I tried to look at my reflection on the surface. There was nothing to see. All the lines on the ice were not natural to it but had been scratched into it by what must have been giant claws scratching across it over time.

As I looked up, I could see that the only light was from distant stars that defied being formed in any constellation. The empty spaces of the cosmos were underlined by the fading paleness of the eternal twilight. There was no sun, no moon.

In the pale cold darklight all I could see were obtuse formations of grey rock and crystal. There was nothing of any particular shape. All I heard was the mechanical drone of static from the icy wind blowing hollowly through rocks like so much feedback.

Suddenly, I realized that I had been deceived. Worse, that I allowed myself to be deceived. I turned, hoping to find my way back to the cave before it was too late, – and then I saw the Ancient One. And I knew that I would never go back to any semblance of sanity.

I could not look away from the Great Perversity, even though my mind was slipping away. I was despairing of any illusion of dignity and meaning, I was absolutely terrified and denial could not keep up with the fresh stinging realizations that this was the real world I was told about. Yet I was laughing, laughing hysterically in the midst of tears that drained my ducts dry. I had lost my mind.

Then I saw that there were others like me, all attached to the Thing, with several of It’s tentacles and antennas piercing there bodies brains. I saw tubules from It penetrating them draining their blood and body fluids and infusing them with disgusting phlegms of It’s own. There faces grimaced into awful grins, reflecting a gnosis other than what the must actually possess.

Then I saw the wise man who released me in my cave, tubes going in and out of his head and belly. “See him, master, I have brought him to you”, he gurgled. “Bring them,” they all began screaming, “Bring to the master all bodies, all brains, all blood!”

I bolted, but too late. It was upon me instantly, and I was suddenly swallowed in terror as the tubes went into me. I was overwhelmed with an orgy if pain as the last bit of my sense of humanity faded into ubiquitous flesh.

But now here I am going back to my cave and to my fellow cave citizens. But thus time I come with an alien host that has taken me over like a marionette. I want to warn you not to believe anything without evidence and do not act on mere theoretical hopes like I did. I want you to go with your natural instinct. I must sound crazy. Please lock me up. For your own sake and mine, PLEASE KILL ME!

But what will I say? “Don’t you think that we will be better people if we assume a brighter world even if we cannot find it, then becoming lax and give up inquiring?”


Imminent Supernaturalism

Two types of scientists:

Suppose some astronomers are looking at Jupiter through a telescope. Call this Group A. While they do this, another group of material engineering researches confiscate the telescope and analyze it’s material properties. They look at it’s shape and the shapes and situations of it’s components. They examine each piece for it’s physical properties and interactions and for it’s chemical properties. Finally, they publish a complete physical chemical description of the telescope and insist that this is all there is to it. Call this second group of scientists, Group B. It is quite likely that Group A will say wryly to Group B, “No that’s not all there is to the telescope. One thing that is a fact about the telescope that is not in your description is that you can see Jupiter through it”.

Group A might be amused by the selective approach of Group B, saying that they looked at only what they wanted to and prejudiced themselves against the most important feature of the telescope. And then after a laugh, Group A returns to their study of Jupiter.

But Group A turns out to be trying to determine a physical and chemical description of the Jovian planet. They also want to determine it’s physical, mechanical, and chemical (including possible biochemical) features, with the belief that when they have this they will have a true and complete description of Jupiter.

And here Group B may justly fault Group A for it’s own selectivity. There is the same difference between what we see when we look at Jupiter and the alleged final description of Jupiter. Just like Group B, Group A has neglected the most important fact about Jupiter, namely that Jupiter is itself a certain kind of “scope”, showing us an object distinct from the true description of it’s extended and extrinsic interaction. Whatever may be found in this description, Jupiter is also and on top of that an intentional object and an embodied artificial substance.

We cannot really separate the idea of the supernatural from the natural into air tight zone. How “ordinary nature” presents itself to our minds is more that the instrumental conditions that are correlated with that presentation. So even the ordinary objects of the world are signs of supernatural realities.

The Future of the Gnuvembrist

Well, as is evident now, if the “Vembrist” part of the blog title is to have continuing relevance, it’s going to have to refer to future Novembers down the road, assuming we can hold on to our Republic for that long. For now, given the handful of remaining opportunities we still have, we must hold on to that hope.

However, the attempt to recover from this through political action is futile. I think that Romesh Ponuru has the best explanation going for the failure of the Romney candidacy, namely the stain on the GOP name as being the party of just the rich and not the party of the principles of the Republic, along with the failure of will by that Party to correct that impression.

The overt assault on the market by the administration tended to lead to a focus on the case of entrepreneurs, which while this includes mostly small business starters was interpreted as Bain Capitol clients. Since this is not an image most people have of themselves, which is yet another symptom of the effect our economic decline is having on our psychology, this message did not resonate with many average working folks. Even though there are many more and more substantial collateral benefits to the masses of facilitating entrepreneurship accrues the board, like creating more real jobs and innovating new sustainable career paths for new families, the administration’s claim that “we tried that before and it didn’t work” (even though it did work for Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton) was never really challenged by the campaign.

It’s too late to save November, but clearly to save future Novembers what we need to do is re-educate American adults about the contribution the Free Market ideals (as well as a strong national defense and the preservation of the old liberal arts) contribute to the Middle Class’s well-being.

During the 80’s, there was a return to more conservative principles in the ascendency of Ronald Reagan. But not so well known was that there was a Renaissance of educational writing for showing that conservativism was defensible and coherent world view based on critical thinking and reasonable risks. Works like “Wealth & Poverty” by George Gilder, “Capitalism & Freedom” by Milton Friedman, and “The Vision of the Anointed” by Thomas Sowell” were circulating and intellectually intriguing. I personally learned a lot in those days.

We need a similar thing today. Such a project runs afoul of the New Media as arguably the Internet facilitates lack of focus and lack of dialogue.

At any rate, it’s a necessary function that was systematically absent this time. With exception of works like “Liberal Fascism” by Jonah Goldberg and “Radical in Chief” by Stanley Kurtz, there has been an apparent systematic reluctance on the part of the GOP to engage in any Gramsci-like alternative schooling to promote the rationale for their agenda. The Romney campaigns allergic reaction to campaigning on ideas is the tip of the iceberg.

Which means unless we do this ourselves, this will not get done. So I’m going to try to get into the discipline of posting something that connects the philosophy of classical liberalism (conservativism) to the new setting of the Middle Class. More than money, we need to circulate ideas. Of course, this will by from a candidly classical Christian perspective but the audience will not be limited to other Christians.

Missing the Founders

A recent book argues that many of the key Founding Fathers were neither Deists – if Deism is the ad hoc view that God exists just to start up the universe – nor Christian – rejecting as incoherent the defining doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and substitutionary atonement. Rather, they embraced classical theism including the dependence of the world on God’s concurrence and even prayed.

This is probably true, and useful in clarifying current debates over homosexuality, abortion, and religious liberty, by bearing an intellectual witness to the possibility of such a position. In part this position was encouraged from within the heart of the church itself by distinguishing natural theology (what can be known of God by our natural lights apart from special revelation, which served as the perambulatory articles to sacred theology) and sacred, specially revealed theology. According to the church, the world prior to Christianity had this knowledge exhibited substantially in many philosophers apart from the church.

Such knowledge included knowledge of God, of man, and of morality. It served to reveal or need of extraordinary mercy and thus at best prepared the heart and mind to receive revelation if God should provide it. At least, the awareness of it acted as a curb on the selfish tendencies of humans and kept many of them from being as bad as possible. It also informed public judgements and made possible states and governments to oversee the public peace.

The rational theism and Unitarian faith of the Fathers is simply a taking on the natural theology of the church and the ancients and foregoing the sacred doctrines. Such a position is tolerant of religion in the classical form precisely because of so much common ground with it. Also, the Church recognized the existence of natural theology, would certainly appreciate that if one could not freely accept Christianity that they be encouraged to live by natural law. The church is distinct from the state but both recognize the same God, albeit from their own respective spheres.

This was illustrated in the debate between Ryan and Biden. Ryan is coherent in affirming the inseparability of his religious life from his political life since the both have an ultimate goal in common, service to God while also affirming that the rationale for his support for pro-life is separable from his Church beliefs such that a non-churched rational person can hold them and a public person can advocate them as laws. Biden on the other hand is incoherent in claiming that abortion is an exclusively church based belief that he doesn’t want to impose on others who are not in his church. His Church holds that his pro-life view is that a pro-life stance is only a Christian belief because it is true prior to Christian belief. And thus justice for the unborn is an obligation to all. (One notes in passing that Catholics like Biden often argue that they must advocate left leaning policies because that’s what Jesus would do.)

Natural or philosophical theism is thus a public position. There are arguments that metaphorically demonstrate theism that depend on premises that are not obviously false. Further, theism is arguably a necessary practical postulate for statesmanship. If God exists, then that man has a specific nature that makes humans ends as such, then there us nothing puzzling about all humans all the time having a right to life or that there is a purpose to humans being make and female, that stands true apart from church doctrine. Just as the Church appreciates the natural theistic politician, that politician can appreciate the church which treats the dictates of natural theology as God’s moral law for life, since such dispositions also make for good citizens by the natural theist’s point of view.

Thus the preponderance of both Rational and Christian theists in America created an excellent state of affairs for the institution of the separation of Church and State.

It is also the idea of rational autonomy that encourages free market thought while the idea of the social nature of humanity encourages the formation and protection of free institutions of civil society. Conservativism, whether economic or social finds it’s roots in the tradition of rational theology, by finding them in the American Founding.

But the triumph of empiricism and it’s inevitable consequences of phenomenalism, behaviorism, emotivism, and prescriptive relativism has cut people off from the sources of rational theism. When given the choice between living passively in the world of images or living actively in the world of intelligible substances and persons, people have chosen the former. Based on that choice both the church and the state make no sense as institutions governed by objectively based principles and can only be the result of successful power manipulation — not that there could be anything wrong with that.

Hence we get statements like “The Tea Party has been taken over by wackos” and meaning by that that there is a preponderance of social conservatives in an ostensively fiscally conservative movement. Whatever the current character of the Tea Party is it’s inception was characterized as a spontaneous people movement unified explicitly around two things: de jure, fiscally responsible government and the reservation of the foundational document, the Constitution. The point was to keep the American experiment going. The second thing, de facto, of those who came out to rally for this cause, from the becoming there was a significantly large percentage of them that were regular church attendees. In that sense, the “wackos” were there all along. Even when they were careful to only use the TP microphone for certain fiscal issues they would still advocate for social issues on the side. This is not surprising since with the triumph of empiricism in public thought, the church has been the last safe ground natural theism of the non-Christian Founders.

Empiricists choose to view the world exclusively from a third person perspective rather than a first person perspective, even though there is no incoherence in viewing the world both ways. Consequently, they don’t “see” any philosophical basis for marriage rights, free exercise of religion as a life-system rather than a privatized “spirituality”, or pro-life arguments. That is, they don’t see because the don’t look. As a result, they don’t even “see” that their own posture is self-reverentially incoherent. The commitment to empiricism must be a priori, if it is rational at all.

This is also why it’s so hard for us to get the Founders right. The only groups that defend their secular philosophy are religious groups.

Truth in the Flesh

I am please and thankful to introduce Truth in the Flesh from Theocentric Publishing Group.

This book is an introduction to basic Christian Apologetics prepared for our adults here at our churchr in Syracuse and developed for Theocentric Publishing for everyone.  It covers both dealing with objections and putting forth arguments for Christian Theism.  It is meant for the average Christian Church member who may not have a lot of time.  Some of the things we talk about are:

–“Blank Stare” Arguments
— Christianity and Science
— Can Christianity be shown to be false?
— Do we have to be able to defend our faith?
— The authority of Scripture
— The Gospel as knowledge and as news

I hope you all find it useful.

Armchair Psychology and Missions

I want to compare and contrast some claims of three kinds of psychology: social psychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology.  Then I want to offer some suggestions for Christian psychology.


Social Psychology: Peter Berger and others have argued that the impact of globalization has been detrimental for religion.  As the world, through greater and more rapid forms of technology, political power, and economics, has increased in the awareness of alternative cultures and worldviews it has undermined more and more the presumption of truth that each culture presumes about its own religious beliefs and ways of life.  The experience of alternative total interpretations of life has a strong psychological effect on individuals, which might be called the Rashomon Effect (from Akira Kurosawa’s great film “Rashomon” about an encounter witnessed from four different perspectives with four radically distinct ways of looking at the event).  One wonders what could make one’s own cultural view the true one or the right one.


The impact of this pressure of a larger but dissonant community is what Berger calls “the Heretical Imperative”.  By this Berger means that one’s own experience of one’s own religious beliefs after being exposed to alternative beliefs is simultaneously orthodox and heretical as those positions are subjectively felt.  As a member of one’s own culture, one is satisfied with being considered right-minded.  But as one who is aware that many others totally disagree, one feels like a heretic going against the faith of others.  As a result, one can no longer presume his own faith being aware of alternatives.  One must willfully choose but even if one chooses one’s own faith, there is a social psychological dissonance.  The believer is supposed to be submissive to the assured doctrine but one can only appropriate the doctrine by a willful act more characteristic of apostasy than submission.  How can one be a believer and an apostate at the same time?


As a result, the psychological tendency is to reduce tension by avoiding commitment to any religion.  Thus social psychological dynamics tend to move the person into religious or point of view skepticism.  Forces of globalization guide each person in the world to the sort of arguments provided by philosophical skepticism and methodological doubt.  Not surprisingly this tends to go hand in hand with a tendency toward naturalism, scientism, and emotivism.  Quantifiable results based on direct experiences are not so open to controversy and do not demand religious commitment.  One does not have to really choose between, say, quantum physics and general relativity as a commitment to ultimate truth even though they contradict each other.  They are both continued works in progress demanding no further doubling down.  But metaphysical commitments and ethical commitments are not judge by science or logical consistency and do not have a basis in anything like public truth.


It is important to see that there is a causal account of the prevalence of skepticism, naturalism, emotivism, and scientism that is not simply the logic of holding certain presuppositions.  Yet if these tendencies follow through without any qualification, it is clear that they will lead to one particular worldview, namely Pyrrhonic skepticism like David Hume’s and the related value placed on ataraxia or the absence of conflict.  In fact, ataraxia maximizing seems to be the dynamic.


Cognitive Psychology: On the other hand, we need to be careful about just looking at things from the point of view of social psychology.  For starters, the same Peter Berger has noted that even though the social psychology of the heretical imperative and the craving for ataraxia leads us to predict growing widespread secularization and the adoption of a secular worldview, this is not happening.  Secular societies are the exception not the rule, suggesting that there are other sources of causation that mitigate the effects of globalization.


Research in cognitive psychology suggests that humans are hard wired to believe certain things no matter what.  Developmental psychology has discovered that, no matter what culture they are raised in, children have a common pattern of cognitive development in theoretical and moral judgment making as they age.  Further, linguistic psychology has discovered that all humans seem to have a common capacity to learn a language from birth as if all humans shared a universal grammar behind the particular grammars of each language in the world.


It also seems that we are hard wired to form particular beliefs until later experiences lead us to give them up.  We tend to believe that things have a natural teleology, such as that the stomach is for digestion and gravity is for holding things down.  There are certain moral beliefs that seem immediately true such as that torturing babies for fun is wrong.  We have a belief that we are subsistent subjects that exist through time as well as rational agents that impinge upon the world of causes.  We also seem to believe that there are other people besides ourselves and that there are states of affairs in the world that must have adequate causes.  We also seem to begin life with a belief in God and other non-material agents that cause good or evil.  These beliefs are not necessarily irresistible but they do not just get erased either.


These beliefs point to a species-capacity to form the framework of a non-naturalist and non-skeptical worldview as a feature of humans as a natural kind.  Such beliefs reinforce each other since God could see to it that our belief forming mechanisms are reliable, the world is intelligible, and that morals have objective status and things have objective purpose.


Evolutionary Psychology: In light of these competing visions from two sub-disciplines, it is interesting to read that some evolutionary psychologists are arguing that the evolution of human psychology has brought to a point where the species no longer is adapted to its environment.  This seems other than expected since, if natural selection is true, survival over time is an indication of successful adaption over time.  This does not rule out the possibility that such a thing as failure to adapt may occur.  And so the discrepancy between the exogenic factors of the social environment that tend to lead to skepticism and the endogenic factors of the cognitive powers of the human species that tend to lead to deism at least.  It seems that we have a case of a nearly irresistible force meeting a nearly immovable object.


Of course, evolution will tolerate free riders – the appearance of traits that come up randomly but do not play a role that contributes to either the survival of failure to survive of the organism.  But the cognitive tendencies to such beliefs do seem to effect the behavior of humans in ways that impact survival (the Libyan attacks on Sept 11 for example) so again it is other than expected.  So it seems that at first glance, the evolutionary approach makes conceivable that species and social factors could be so diverse, but it also makes it seem incredibly odd.


Philosophical and Christian Observations:  Obviously I can take no credit for being any kind of psychologist.  There could be many places where my fundamental assumptions which are simply false and lead me astray.  I defer to the experts but don’t spoil my fun now.  But taking things as they stand, it seems that merely empirical approaches to psychology are coming up against each other.  Further, it seems that what is mystifying on the empirical level is what we might expect on a rationalist level.  Instead of tending to think of the situation as bottlenecked. It may make more sense on the view that some tendency toward certain knowledge is baked into the mind.  On this view, those tendencies are common to all members of the human species in virtue of their kind.  But since those tendencies require appropriate contexts to be actualized, it is not necessarily the case that all of them are actualized in all times and places.  But because there is a common feature in all properly functioning persons, the apparent perplexity of diverse narratives is potentially resolvable.  When one is perplexed, it does not seem to be the case that a clear answer is available but there may be “a light at the end of the tunnel” if we keep going further in.  It might be worth our while to endure dissonance to see what may come of it.


It is also clear that on closer examination, the Rashomon effect is not totally peculiar to our time.  Past cultures had to deal with rival perspectives and either survived and thrived or become taken up in a larger but still not a skeptical perspective.  Some cultures survived because their environment prevented interaction with other cultures.  And some cultures actively contained or eliminated rival cultures by force.  There is something to be learned from cases of flourishing cultures in rival environments that seem to have overcome to some extent the Rashomon effect and not sink into skepticism. 

One source of explanation for the divergence of cultures is the difficulty of incorporating different types of inquiry.  Certain methods and disciplines may tend to different conclusions and it becomes necessary to take a meta-disciplinary or genuinely philosophical perspective on the whole.  We see that illustrated here in the diverse explanatory tendencies of different parts of psychology.


Finally, in light of this, we see the point of Leslie Newbigin’s claim that though we are Christian in a culture once thought to be a Christian culture, we need to think and live more like cross-cultural missionaries.  This reminds us that the mandate for Christian mission necessarily incorporates a mandate for cross cultural exposure, that one of the engines of globalizing and one of the forces that lead to the Rashomon Effect is global missions.  Christ must know and he assures that in going and making disciples of all nations that he would be with us.  Christ calls us to experience the heretical imperative and to work through the perplexity and apparent contradiction of it.

All of my Left wing and evangelically atheistic friends who teach philosophy in Australia have severally as well as jointly declared today to be “Christian Left Appreciation Day”. I also would like to say this much of a word of appreciation for fellow Christians who are on the Left. They bear a living witness to the fact that in Christ there is no Right or Left.

It is not the responsibility of the Church to dictate the specific politics of it’s members. Each Christian is responsible to wise judge how the message of the church relates to their obligations as citizens in practice. It was the failure to distinguish between the mission of the church and the duties of citizenship that led to many forms of Constantinianism, including the social gospel movement.

This is not deny a fact of the matter about there being a “Christian Answer” to political issues, it rather puts the jurisdiction for finding that answer in the scope of the Christian citizen rather than in the ecclesial authority. Every Christian answers directly to God for their political judgements. Christians are called to pray and by implication adopt an attitude of good will toward the well being of the communities, cities, and states they find themselves in. It is up to them as to anyone else to decide how best to operationalize that good will.

Of course, respecting the total hardcoreness of this set of people, I charitably expect that by appreciating the Christian Left, they do not mean any Christian who is also left and would also agree with me about the distinction of spheres of church and citizen. What they would have on mind is the religious liberalism expressed by the “Social Gospel” which was not simply the combination of left wing causes with the ordinary historic proclamatory mission of the church, but the substitution of left wing (or right wing) causes for that historic mission. On this view, what Jesus commands when filtered through critical skeptical scholarship just is nothing but these causes. This eliminates the jurisdictional distinction by identifying the church with politics in leu of offering supernatural gifts. That would be more fitting for an evangelical atheist’s “Christian Left Appreciation Day”. But I admit for that I have no appreciation at all.

UPDATE: The release of “Truth in the Flesh” has been postponed but is expected sometime in the Fall. I regret any inconvenience to you

Socrates vs Ecclesiastes?

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.