A while back I read a famous story by Roger Zelazny called “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” In that story a human man (from Earth obviously) falls in love with a Martian woman and must talk all the women of Mars out of giving up on life. So he reads them Ecclesiastes and show them that this depressing book that has no belief in a good future was written long ago, yet here we still were, advancing and making a better life for ourselves.
So I decided to re-read Ecclesiastes for my scripture study. To my suprise, I found that its underlying message (at least to me) was actually about the meaningless of life if (and only if) we exclude God from the equation. When understood in that way, it seems far less pessimistic and far more hopeful. In fact Ecclesiastes to me is a very strong argument for belief in God.
Skeptic Martin Gardner claims that only religious people can write really good pessimistic literature because they don’t really believe any of it. He claims atheists have no where to run, so they aren’t as likely to like pessimistic literature. I personally believe this is true of the author of Ecclesiastes.
So this made Ecclesiastes (when read with my interpretation) my favorite book of scripture for a few weeks. I even got really excited about writing a ‘modern interpretation’ of the book. The idea was that I was going to keep the same structure of Ecclesiastes, but rewrite it for a modern audience.
The problem was that it started making me depressed, so I quit after chapter 2. But, for your enjoyment, here is a modern interpretation of the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes.
Some of you may notice that this is actually what later inspired me to write my post “Imagining the End of the World” and later “Are Atheists as Rational as They Think They Are?” (Along with the Bertrand Russell quote I put at the end of the post. I will be revisting that frank quote later.)
I hope this doesn’t depress you too much. Instead have fun with it. There is nothing else to do with pessimistic literature but have fun with it anyhow. That and just keep reminding yourself that you don’t believe a word of it and no one — not even die hard atheists — really believe it. Deep down, we all know life just isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems.
Do you often wonder about the meaning of it all like I do? Atheist and Nihilists tell me that each of us makes up for ourselves what the meaning of our life is. Human beings are very good at finding meaning in the meaningless. We see shapes in clouds or secret messages that don’t exist. Conspiracy theorists and testimonial product purchasers are experts at finding meaning where there is none. I do not begrudge those that believe this, but for me pretending to pretend is still just pretending. What I really crave is not pretended meaning in life, but the real thing.
Yet I cannot blame people who feel the only meaning we will find in life is through pretending. For life — as we see it under the sun – seems devoid of meaning. Absent the concepts of God and an afterlife, pretending is the highest hope we can have.
Life sometimes feel repetitive. I wake up, eat, drive to work, drive home, eat, go to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sometimes I just want to shout “there is nothing new under the sun!” (ch 1. v. 2-10)
Sometimes I have dreams. I want to be a writer and to write something truly original. But then I think: it’s all been done before. And I worry that I might be just one more person thinking that very thought.
But why can’t I be different? Why can’t I be someone that is remembered for having made a real difference? Can I not place my hope in that at least? But can this be true of everyone, or only a lucky few?
When my time is over, most likely I will cease to exist and be gone and none shall remember me. I take no solace that this is the common fate of all humankind in the end; for eventually the same fate over takes us all be they rich or poor, famous or obscure, wise or foolish, saint or sinner. (ch1. v. 11) Our lives — under the sun — even the greatest, happiest, most fulfilling of lives, have cause to tremble at the truth: that our fates are all the same, so what do we gain by being wise, famous, or saints?
Should we instead give up on meaning and seek pleasure? Many have tried and failed. Indeed pleasure accomplishes nothing and brings us no lasting joy. Trying to live for pleasure is like chasing after the wind. (ch 2. v. 1-2)
Nor can meaning be replaced by under taking great projects. But what project – no matter how great – won’t be sponged away by time? Nothing last forever, no empire, no literature, no reputation. One day even the great pyramids of Egypt will be erased. For we fight against the inevitable power of entropy, and in the end we will lose. Because in the in the long run we’re all dead. There will not even be someone to remember us. (ch 2. v.11)
Betrand Russell expressed it thus:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Ug! That’s enough for me. No wonder I quit writing it.