Saturday, September 28, 2019

Time and Chance (3)

The book of Ecclesiastes is often referred to as poetry. In a general sense I suppose this is true: there are numerous poetic passages within Ecclesiastes.

But if the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the “poetic books” of scripture leads us to expect another Psalms, we will probably be disappointed. The majority of the book is made up of prose (usually arguments and observations of one sort or another) and proverbial sayings of various lengths that do not conform to any standard poetic structure even in the original Hebrew.

Modern English versions distinguish the obviously poetic passages for us by indenting them. We are going to look at one today.

All is Vanity

As we noted last week, the Preacher begins his poem with the declaration that “all is vanity”, and indeed, “vanity of vanities”. He is occupied with the brevity and relative insignificance of the human experience when viewed from the perspective of the natural man observing reality with only his six senses and normal powers of observation. In order to better understand the nature of things, he says repeatedly, “I applied my heart” — by “heart” meaning his intellect, will, understanding, memory, conscience and emotions; all the tools available to mankind with the solitary exception of the most important of all: divine revelation.

He follows this general declaration with a rhetorical question, which is in turn followed by seven observations from both the natural world and human society which appear to amplify and provide evidence for his argument.

The question is this: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”

Yeah, What DOES Man Gain?

Now, the question is very much related to the thesis “all is vanity”. As mentioned last week, “vanity” is not to be understood in the sense of either pride or pointlessness, but rather as referring to that which is ephemeral, transient and exceedingly difficult to pin down. So the immediate answer to the rhetorical “What does man gain?” is “Apparently nothing.” That is not the final word, of course. This is the just the beginning of a 12 chapter consideration of the subject, so we should not be too concerned at the Preacher’s initial inability to get beyond the obvious.

And obvious it is. It can hardly escape us that the Preacher’s point of view is awfully similar to that of the modern uniformitarian. He looks at the world and sees nothing but endless repetition of the same tired things: cycles of various kinds which wrap around on themselves like Ouroboros eating his own tail:
Uniformitarianism is the principle or assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.”
Thank you, Infogalactic. Here then are the Preacher’s seven pieces of evidence that in the absence of divine revelation or the personal experience of a miracle, something like uniformitarianism appears to be the nature of things on planet Earth.

1. Humanity is Cyclical
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”
When he says “the earth remains forever”, we should not take this as some kind of wacky pseudo-scientific claim that the planet itself is eternal. The Preacher is making a natural observation, not writing a theological or scientific treatise. Moreover, the Hebrew `owlam is often used in scripture to refer to eternity, but not exclusively. In this case, what he is saying is that where individual generations of men are born into the world and are just as quickly taken out of it, comparatively speaking, the earth appears perpetual. It continues to exist throughout each generation, and while there are remarkable human individuals in each generation, and remarkable generations among generations, no particular generation lives much longer than any other. They are all gone in a comparative snap of the fingers.

Anyone doubting this need only look at some of the photographs online of human dwellings that are in the process of being reclaimed by nature. The works of man disappear with astounding rapidity. In the grand scheme of things, each generation is ephemeral.

Vanity, says the Preacher.

2. The Rotation of the Earth
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.”
Whether you are a Flat Earther or convinced the Earth is the standard oblate spheroid shape we see in photographs taken from space, the fact remains that the same events happen to all of us morning after morning and night after night, if we are paying attention. Look east toward the horizon, and a great lit orb gradually appears. Do the same toward the west at evening and we can observe the same great light gradually disappearing back beneath the far horizon. Now of course the Preacher is not opining about whether the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth; that is not his point. What is evident is that something cyclical is going on, and going on with grim, mechanical regularity. To all appearances, this is uniformitarianism at work. Scripture records for us the occasional remarkable catastrophic exception, but as always, the exceptions demonstrate the validity of the general principle.

3. The Wind Follows Cyclical Patterns
“The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.”
The Preacher is not wrong: winds do indeed follow general patterns. These too are cyclical. From the equator to 30° north, the winds blow from the northeast. From the equator to 30° south, the winds blow from the southeast. From 30-60° north and from 30-60° south, the winds blow from the west, and from further than 60° north or south, the winds blow from one of the poles.

Once this predictable behavior has been observed, it cannot easily be unseen. This too tends to argue for a uniformitarian viewpoint.

4. The Water Cycle
“All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.”
We do not need to consult NASA or resort to scientific terminology like “water molecules” and “cooled water particles” to make the point that there is indeed an observable water cycle of precipitation, evaporation and condensation at work in our atmosphere. Solomon has done it nicely and more poetically here in a single sentence.

5. Biological Processes are Continuous
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”
All things are full of weariness because even biological processes never stop until we are dead. Even when we are asleep, our eyes are always moving under their lids and, as every mother with a small child is painfully aware, our ears continue to work too. As long as we live, we cannot easily shut off the input they provide. Even blind people undergo REM sleep, and even deaf people imagine sounds. A continuous flood of vigorous neuron activity sends information to the brain. There will be an end to it one day, of course, but the human eye will not be satisfied nor the ear filled until that final millisecond.

Until that time, no amount of input decreases the appetite for further input, though we may certainly prefer one sort of input to another.

6. Human Activity is Cyclical
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.”
The study of history repeatedly gives the lie to the notion that human nature changes in any significant way over the generations. We are constantly astounded at what the ancients discovered, took for granted, thought and wrote down for us. The politics of the Roman Empire or ancient Assyria, when studied, look remarkably like the politics of today. Ask the Romans about the potential consequences of mass migration, and what happens when you put foreigners to work doing jobs your citizens won’t.

There really is nothing new under the sun. Again, uniformitarianism raises its ugly little head and demands to be acknowledged.

7. Civilizational Memory is Cyclical
“There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”
As a race, we are continually erasing and relearning almost everything we know. The individual human memory is one thing, but the memory of civilizations is quite another. For long periods of history, vast swaths of previously-accumulated information have been lost to the effects of natural disasters, wars and the predations of time. It does not matter whether the Hebrew here reads “former things” or “former people”, the fact is we do not consistently retain the memory of either. You would think the advent of the internet would provide a secure way to retain information that would previously have been lost, but one can hardly fail to notice that agenda-driven and politically-motivated purging of millions of gigabytes of uncomfortable or narrative-disturbing data is already well underway.

If the human race lasts long enough, we will have to regather this information all over again.

Put It All Together

The accumulated weight of the Preacher’s uniformitarian observations is this: the human race is on a treadmill and we can’t get off. When we ask ourselves “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”, the answer is not obvious. Certainly at the individual level, our labors enable us to provide better lives for ourselves and to leave behind us small indications of our presence here on the planet. But at the civilizational level, it is difficult to argue that all this hustle and bustle actually gets us any further ahead. We may have better technology, flush toilets, the NFL and Nespresso, but it is not easy to demonstrate convincingly that on the whole we are any happier, more fulfilled or closer to perfection for all that.

The evidence for the genuine progress of humanity in not compelling.

Original image courtesy Kulttuurinavigaattori [CC BY-SA 4.0]


  1. That to me seems a little too negative. I for one do appreciate flush toilets instead of peatmosss buckets or logs. Evidently this all has to be driven by the Holy Spirit to make the material existence feasible and less cumbersome than it would be otherwise. That, among many other things, does increase happiness and a sense of wellbeing for the modern person. Does it also provide greater opportunity for negative traits and activity? Of course, but overall, on average, there is observable improvement.

  2. Q, you would get along well with a few postmillennialists I know.