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Ecclesiastes 1:10-11

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Let’s look at two verses this time:

[Ecc 1:10-11 KJV] Is there [any] thing whereof it may be said, See, this [is] new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. [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.

This of course goes back to verse 9, that there is nothing new under the sun. As argument, it isn’t very convincing—if I say there’s nothing new, and you say of course there is, there are new things all the time!, and my response is that those so-called new things are actually just forgotten old things, well, that’s just not very convincing. Even if it’s plausible that some novelties are just coming around again—were there pre-Columbian Rainbow Looms? Were there Ancient Egyptian hula-hoops?—surely there are enough actual new things we experience or read about every day that someone who claims that, oh, touchscreen computer tablets or pink fundraising ribbons or fracking are actually of old time which was before us would need some sort of actual evidence of some kind, wouldn’t they?

If you abstract it out, of course, fracking is a new technology but destructive resource abstraction is scarcely new. Rainbow Looms are new but weaving is not. The Big Picture, remember? On the other hand, if you abstract things out enough that everything has been done before, you may lose so much detail that nothing actually is anything: tablet computers are new, but— communication is not? Images are not? The sense of touch?

Well, that’s not helping. Let’s look at the words. One interesting thing is that the words he is using for already is one of those words that shows up in this book and not elsewhere in the Scriptures. That, by the way, is one of the things that makes it so unlikely that Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs were written by Solomon; the language of each is distinct from the language of the rest of scripture, but they are very different from each other. Anyway, the word is unclear but seems perhaps to be connected to something like upstream, which is kind of a cool way of thinking about already, isn’t it? Although not a metaphor that (I think) suits the other image of the world as being essentially unchanging and of the illusory nature of novelty. Still, perhaps time is yet another river that flows into the sea.

By the way, the Sages of Blessed Memory, back in Roman Times, take great care to interpret this section, not as meaning that nothing is new but as meaning that nothing important is new, that is, that there is no new reading of Torah. Thus they say that kohelet’s dialogue in verse 9 is describing a scoffer talking about the Mishnah and the Oral Law.

It is written, And the LORD delivered unto me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you. R. Joshua b. Levi said: [The text has not] ‘on them’ but ’and on them’, [not ‘all’ but ‘according to all’, [not] ‘words’ but ‘the words’, [not] ‘the commandment’ but ‘all the commandments’. This is to teach you that Scripture, Mishnah, halachoth, oral laws not included in the Mishnah, homiletical expositions, and the decisions to be hereafter given by eminent scholars already existed and were communicated as a law to Moses from Sinai. Whence do we know this? From what is written, Is there a thing whereof it is said: See, this is new? [Were a scholar to maintain this], behold his colleague can prove to him It hath been already.

This is the translation from Avraham Cohen in the Soncino Press edition of 1939. The point being, of course, that the Oral Law has the same authority as the tanach, because it was part of the Divine Revalation at Sinai, even if it was not revealed until recently. And of course this interpretation requires simultaneously a level of abstraction and a certain narrowness of vision—I think the text goes to great pains to indicate that we are talking about everything in the world, not just the Law. And, of course, Avraham Cohen was himself creating something new, an English translation. As in fact am I creating something new, I hope, here on this Tohu Bohu.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


So if it isn't a convincing argument, does it serve a purpose other than argumentation? Or is it just a bad argument? Would it have looked better before 1800 C.E. than it does now?

If we look at the statement from the standpoint of physics, which avers that, with limited exceptions, matter is neither created nor destroyed, then that which is with us now is that which has been before us, and the natural processes that re-shape matter into different (living) forms are themselves cyclical, as the earlier verses have suggested. I guess part of the challenge here is that this statement about nothing being new is easier to accept with respect to the natural world framework that appears in part of the preceding verses than it is with respect to the human labor framework that appears in other parts of the preceding verses.

I don't know if it does serve a purpose—I mean, as an argument it does tie up this idea of permanence within impermanence, but as a bad argument it does so, well, badly.

As for the distinction you draw between natural world forces and human labor, aside from my own rejection of that distinction (which is perhaps idiosyncratic and ought not be projected onto kohelet) the Land under the Persians must have been a time of great technical advance development. I'm really, really not an expert, though.

Still and all, what your comment gets at is the tension between opposites that I had been looking at earlier in the poem: towers of nothingness, permanence and change, novelty and memory. It's an excellent point. I'm still not convinced by the 'nah, it's old but forgotten' argument, but that doesn't take away from the poetic tension as we transition into a very different kind of rhetoric in the next section.


All these modern things, like cars and such, have always existed. They've just been waiting in a mountain for the right moment, listening to the irritating noises of dinosaurs and people dabbling outside.


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