Saturday, October 12, 2019

Time and Chance (5)

If you’ve ever read the biography of a genius, you’ll understand that a high IQ on its own is not necessarily a recipe for a successful or happy life.

Beethoven is thought to have been bipolar. Michelangelo was probably a high-functioning autist. Isaac Newton may well have been schizophrenic. Before becoming a Christian, Leo Tolstoy suffered from deep depression and regularly contemplated suicide.

Obviously there is more to living well than thinking at a high level and possessing a large number of facts.

Guns, Ammunition and Aim

Political philosopher Vox Day distinguishes the various factors that contribute to understanding with a martial analogy:
“IQ is the size of the cannon. Experience and knowledge are the ammunition. Wisdom is knowing where to aim it.”
I find that helpful. The smarter you are, the more capacity you have. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got the right information to work with or that you know how to make use of that information. You need knowledge and experience in order to live up to your intellectual potential, and then of course you need to be perceptive enough to know how best to make use of what you have learned.

Or, to extend the original analogy a bit, a small firearm with a single bullet can often accomplish everything you need if only you manage to point it in the right place.

Back to Ecclesiastes

With this in mind, let us return to the Preacher and his reflections on wisdom and knowledge:
“I said in my heart, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.”
We do not know the Preacher’s IQ, and for our purposes it is unimportant, having established that mere intelligence is quite insufficient to both understanding and effective governance. But whatever we may label it, we may reasonably infer that God had given him a unique capacity for effectively processing information. He had “breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore,” says the narrator of 1 Kings.

But here the Preacher too speaks of multiple aspects of understanding: experience, wisdom and knowledge. He speaks of having “acquired great wisdom”, which strongly suggests it did not come without extensive study. The book of Kings says Solomon “spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish,” indicating an unsurpassed knowledge of biology in his day.

The Preacher then goes on to say that he “has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge,” meaning, I think, that he had tried out his ideas in the real world and found that to at least some extent they correlated with reality. They worked.

Languages and Meaning

Students of language know there is rarely an exact, one-for-one correspondence between any given word in one language and any specific word in another. Thus it is worthwhile asking how the English translators of Ecclesiastes have handled the various Hebrew words that have to do with understanding.

The Hebrew chokmah appears in the book 27 times, and in most translations is consistently rendered “wisdom”. In scripture it is very often used to refer to the practical outworking of knowledge in the real world. In Exodus, the chokmah granted to the workmen was not merely theoretical: it resulted in beautiful garments. Here in Ecclesiastes, a poor man delivers a city from a siege by wisdom. He was a tactician, and his ideas did not just make sense in theory, but were effective in battle.

The Hebrew da`ath appears in Ecclesiastes seven times, and is fairly consistently translated “knowledge”. However, its usage in scripture makes it apparent that da`ath does not always mean simply “information”, but quite frequently how to make use of that information.

Going back to our earlier illustration, while we might fairly say that in general da`ath refers to “ammunition” and chokmah to “where to point the gun”, there is quite frequently more of an overlap in the semantic range of the two ideas than might be obvious in English. Sometimes they are used pretty much synonymously. Thus, it would be unwise to insist too stridently that either word means exactly this or that in any given context.

Striving After Wind

In any case, the Preacher’s conclusion is more important than fine distinctions in Hebrew terms. Here he says that the attempt to investigate wisdom to its limits (or to do the same with madness and folly; more on that in chapters 2, 7 and 10) is like “striving after wind”.

This is the second time he has used this expression, and with very slight variation, we will find it used on another eight occasions throughout the book. The KJV opts to translate the same phrase as “vexation of spirit”. This is probably because the Hebrew ruwach may mean either “wind” or “spirit”, and there are simply not enough references to ra`yown (“striving”, “vexation”) to be sure which English word is the better translation of the two.

However we may choose to interpret it, it is difficult to see that there is much material difference between the options; chasing the wind is the sort of activity that is bound to lead to vexation. When we add “vanity” to the mix, it appears what the Preacher is telling us is that the search for understanding is both difficult and frustrating.

Frustrating But Not Pointless

He does not say it is pointless, and you will notice that for all of his frustration with his search for meaning, he neither gives it up nor counsels others to abandon the quest. He does, however, give us fair warning:
“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Perhaps this accounts for Tolstoy’s depression, a characteristic he shared with Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens and a great number of other thoughtful men and women down through the centuries.

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