Saturday, February 01, 2020

Time and Chance (21)

It is estimated Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs, so it’s not surprising a few would show up even in the middle of the book of Ecclesiastes, which is what we might fairly call an observational treatise. He certainly had proverbs to spare.

Two of these next three are the usual two-clause parallelisms, the last antithetical, but even then they do not quite fit the standard proverbial template. The “this also is vanity” clause in the first proverb throws off the expected rhythm. The second is a fairly rare proverbial form in which the final clause extrapolates rather than reinforcing or contrasting.

It’s no surprise to see the Preacher making use of his favorite literary device, but forcing it to operate only in the interest of servicing the overall message of his book shows unusual restraint.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12  Three Proverbs

Verse 10: Never Enough
“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money,
nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.”
It is often remarked that the Bible does not teach money is evil; rather, it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evils. One of those evils is dissatisfaction.

How much is enough? For the man or woman who loves money, apparently no amount will suffice. It not just that the hoarder of wealth has lost sight of the fact that wealth is only useful when it is channeled into producing good, but that even the money itself has ceased being the objective. It is the process of accumulating wealth that is worshiped in the end: the hard work that goes into acquiring it; the cleverness with which others may be manipulated into sending it your way. Moreover, the perceived obligation to continue accumulating wealth and to tend and maximize what one has already accumulated excuses the workaholic (at least in his own mind) from all kinds of normal day-to-day human responsibilities he would rather not involve himself in: fathering, mothering or being a good spouse, for starters. These “lesser duties” are left to others who don’t possess the “gift” of making money multiply.

It’s all really rather horrible. And it often leaves the wealthy with disintegrating families and nothing to look forward to as they age.

Verse 11: Feeding the Posse
“When goods increase, they increase who eat them,
and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?”
There is certainly a perception that bigger families cost a lot. 73% of women who had abortions in 2004 said one of the major contributing reasons was that they “could not afford” a baby. But here I do not imagine the Preacher is taking a shot at big families. Even today, as throughout history, poor families are generally likelier to be significantly larger than rich ones. 3,000 years ago, when Solomon wrote, the rich and powerful had big families because they could afford to, and the poor had big families because they couldn’t afford not to. The extra hands were needed to generate income and to replace those that, well, didn’t make it.

In this case, I think the Preacher is probably referring to the fact that significant wealth, now as then, requires a whole bunch of things the poor never need, such as actuaries, lawyers, guards and other employees. At very least it is perceived to require these things. Extreme sudden wealth also tends to attract all sorts of undesirables, often referred to as a “posse”. The prodigal son had “friends” to spare when he was spending his inheritance like it was going out of style, and none when he did not.

Boxer Mike Tyson made over $300 million in the fight game. At his peak, Tyson employed as many as 200 people, including bodyguards, chauffeurs, chefs, and gardeners. What did that get him? Basically, a backseat view of his earnings flying out the window. Today, it’s all gone, and Tyson can’t even pay his tax bill.

Verse 12: A Hard Day’s Work
Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much,
but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.”
The laborer is exhausted when he goes to bed. Sleep is a wonderful thing, and hard work makes him ready to appreciate it. Oddly, the man who has everything is rarely content. Not only is rich food frequently difficult to digest, but the problems associated with growing, maintaining and protecting wealth are highly stressful.

In fact, modern research shows wealthier people are not necessarily happier for it. One reason is that they tend to be less charitable, an activity which has been documented to consistently increase overall happiness. A second is that wealth and competition tend to make the rich more isolated and lonelier, with fewer and fewer people they can trust as their wealth accumulates.

Riches are best enjoyed by those who take them the least seriously, and who are disposed to joyfully give them away.

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