« It begins! And then begins again! | Main | Noises, or rather Songs Off »

Ecclesiastes: 1:16-18

It has been a while, hasn’t it? No, I haven’t given up on Ecclesiastes. Not yet, anyway. I’m just… slow.

Let’s try and finish out the first chapter. This is the KJV translation, as I have been starting with here in this Tohu Bohu of mine. We’ll see where we get to from there.

[Ecc 1:16-18 KJV] I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all [they] that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom [is] much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

I had been talking about the idea that kohelet may not be trying to emphasize futility so much as humility; pointing at the omnipotence of the Divine by talking about the impotence of Man. I’d like to get back to that, but first look at a few translation issues.

He talked (dibarti) to himself (ani) in his heart (im libi)—this refers back to v. 13 when kohelet gave his heart to seek and search out wisdom—he has, I think, sent out his heart as a spy, and is receiving its intel report. The verb root in 13 is lvn just as in Numbers 13, when the spies are sent into the Land to report back. Is this a deliberate reference? Who knows? Is it potentially a powerful and thus useful metaphor? Sure is!

So his heart has returned, higdalti v’hosafti, embiggened and enlargened with wisdom, and his heart ra’ah harbayh had increased its vision of hachmah vada’at, wisdom and knowledge. Keep an eye on that knowledge da’at. Because it is the gift of his heart la’da’at hachmah v’da’at holaylot v’sichlut. That first da’at is a verb, clearly, but Robert Gordis claims that the second one is a noun: he translates it not that kohelet knew wisdom and also knew madness-and-folly but that I learned that wisdom and knowledge are madness and folly. I found his argument persuasive, although of course I don’t have the grammar to really know anything. Still, it seems to match the way kohelet talks, doesn’t it? And that repetition-with-a-shift is more kohelet to me than simple repetition.

But then we follow this immediately with yada’ti she-gam zeh hu ra’yown ruach. This is, by the way, ra’yown ruach and not r’ut ruach for some reason; I don’t know why the change in form of what (Strong’s tells me) is the same root. Wind-chasing or spirit-grappling or ghost-wooing… anyway, yada’ti I knew that all this was ra’yown ruach. More knowledge! If the writer is saying that he knows that knowledge is foolishness, then isn’t that knowledge itself folly? The knowledge of knowledge is knowledge, isn’t it, and if it’s all madness, then isn’t it all madness?

If we follow Mr. Gordis, then, we are in a blind trap of knowledge, eating our tails (or our hearts)—and frankly, I find this compelling as a metaphysical matter of human humility: can we know our own knowledge? Is the attempt at knowledge not in itself a kind of ghost-wooing?

As he quotes (I agree with pretty much all the commentators that the last verse of the chapter is kohelet quoting a contemporary proverb), in much wisdom is much frustration, and by embiggening knowledge (da’at again) we embiggen troubles as well. But there’s a similar proverb about children: little children, little troubles; big children, big troubles. The job of the parent is not to keep the children and the troubles small, but to embiggen the whole world of the child—safely, as much as possible, sure, and to certainly not to deliberately increase troubles, but still, to usher a child into any new stage of life whether that’s preschool or dating or college or marriage or homeownership or parenting itself is to expose that child to more and greater dangers, frustrations and sorrows. I know that, and my kid is only in middle school.

I think, then, that we can read this whole passage about knowledge as partaking of the child’s part in the relationship. Implying, then, a metaphorical Divine parent to complete the image. I don’t think it’s the direct reading, but I also don’t think it’s too much of a stretch. What I do think is here and easily missed is this sense of knowledge-seeking as wind-chasing and ghost-wooing, not as any sort of bad thing but as a kind of Romantic idea (or do I mean ideal) of reach exceeding grasp. And I do think that the continued emphasis on our grasps not reaching so far is in implied contrast to the Divine Grasp, which is the only thing equal to the Divine Reach, that is, to the entire Divine Creation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


There is another way to read "I learned that wisdom and knowledge are madness and folly... but this, too, is chasing wind."

That is to treat the second part not as compounding and exaggerating the first part ("knowledge is folly, and even THAT knowledge is folly, it's all folly!") but to treat it as relativizing it ("knowledge is folly, but then, that knowledge, too, is after all folly...")

In other words, first, we realize that our knowledge is in the end futile, that what we wish to know is unknowable, that our reach, indeed, exceeds our grasp. But then, as a corrective, we are warned not to make too much of that insight. Sure, knowledge is futile. But gam zeh -- this supposed insight, this truth, "knowledge is futile" -- shouldn't set itself up as epistemological bedrock. It's just another thought. Rather than wallowing in self-righteous despair at the poverty of our knowledge, this relativizing meta-insight invites us to step back from that precipice, and to hold the whole matter with a lighter grip. The epistemological stance we end up with, I think, if we do that, is neither positivist nor nihilist -- rather, it's critical, Gadamerian maybe. We do not announce that we have the answers and declare the Truth. Nor do we despair of the search for truth and rail cynically at the foolishness of knowledge. Rather, we seek small-t truth, while understanding that it's just thoughts, just wind, just our minds going round and round. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't bother with it, because the thought that we shouldn't bother with it -- the cry that it's all madness --- is wind too. We may as well treat all thoughts and truths as interesting, worthwhile, provisionally valid, even if we hold them with the light touch of critical skepticism rather than the stifling grip of fervent belief.

This is all in keeping with your argument that kohelet is preaching humility, not despair, and that Ecclesiastes is a strangely modern book.

Life is empty and meaningless; but it's empty and meaningless that it's empty and meaningless. So then it's not a heavy crushing bad sort of empty meaninglessness, but a light curious reverent joyful one.

Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.