Saturday, March 07, 2020

Time and Chance (26)

The much-maligned Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, once said this: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

That may sound like bafflegab, but it’s actually a fairly lucid breakdown of the possibilities.

Rumsfeldian Analysis

We have come to a portion of Ecclesiastes which invites Rumsfeldian analysis. Apart from divine revelation, there are things which we may know from human experience. To set them aside and pretend we don’t know them is foolishness. We regret it when we do. Then there are things which may never be known with certainty unless God chooses to speak. They are philosophical and theological questions our senses cannot answer for us. They involve matters of purpose and destiny, and exceed our capacity to draw logical inferences about them from those things we do know.

As for unknown unknowns, we must leave these with God. For all that he has yet to produce a clear word from God, the Preacher treats God’s existence as a given.

First the “knowns”:

Ecclesiastes 6:10 — It is Known

Naming Names
“Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.”
“Whatever has come to be has already been named.” Experience has taught mankind a thing or two, and we have worked out how to describe what we observe. Two things are certain. The first is that we know what man is. We know he is on a one-way march from cradle to grave. We know all his life is a quest to feed his never-ending hunger, be it hunger for food, wealth, knowledge, sex, the approval of his fellows, or even the quest to find a window into eternity. The Preacher has touched on all of this.

The second “known” is that man cannot dispute with one stronger than he. This can be taken any of three ways: (1) man cannot successfully dispute with God; (2) men cannot successfully dispute with stronger men; or (3) there is no possible negotiation with death. I favor the last of these. Death is the Preacher’s subject. That is our context. In the prior few verses, he has been speaking of burials, stillborn children and that fact that “all go to the one place”, the grave. In the few verses which immediately follow, he will tell us the day of death is better than the day of birth, and mourning is better than feasting. So death is the most plausible candidate for the “one stronger than he”.

Reaching the Limit

I believe what he’s saying here is that man’s limits are well established. History tells us all die, and that apart from divine revelation, there exists not even a hint that anyone might be able to prevent that eventuality. Death is the bane of mankind, the “last enemy to be destroyed”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians. It is only through the cross of Christ that the sting of death is taken away and the perishable will ever put on the imperishable. The Son of God participated in the human condition for the express purpose of delivering all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

We cannot reasonably expect the Preacher to anticipate this glorious conclusion in his treatise. It is well outside the scope of natural observation.

Ecclesiastes 6:11 — Wasted Words
The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?”
Again, this allows for multiple interpretations. It is a general principle that when words multiply, nonsense generally ensues, and sin is not absent. But I doubt very much this line in Ecclesiastes 6 is a proverbial truth dropped in out of nowhere. Rather, I believe it continues the thought begun in the previous verse, that man cannot change his destiny. His march toward the grave is one-way, and no amount of protesting will change that. There is no value in moaning about it or denying it. The sensible man factors the inevitable into his calculations and makes his plans in awareness that it is coming. The fool does not.

Ecclesiastes 6:12 — Two Unknowns

What is Good?
“For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”
Here we pass into the “known unknowns”, which is to say we know that we do not know these things. In the absence of a word from God, we are ill equipped to speculate about the best way to spend an existence that is rushing pell-mell towards its inevitable terminus.

So what exactly does the Preacher mean by “good”? The Hebrew has a range of meaning so broad as to admit synonyms as divergent as “sensible” and “tasty”. It may refer to moral good, or simply to that which is agreeable and makes one happy.

The Preacher is probably not asking how men should spend their lives to use their time on earth to best possible effect — he will touch on that subject more than once elsewhere. More likely he is pointing out that what seems a reasonable choice about priorities varies from man to man. The things that make me happy are not necessarily the things you enjoy, and the things I value may not be the things you do. Since our time here is limited, each man must determine what he values and order his life accordingly. It is only possible to do so much in one lifetime, and apart from a word from God, no man possesses the moral authority to compel another to spend his time on activities that do not seem important to him.

It is only once God has spoken that men can begin to meaningfully address the question of what they ought to be doing with their time.

The End of the Story

A relative of a woman I work with passed away recently, leaving strict instructions that he was to have no funeral or public acknowledgement of his life. His family simply refused to comply. They went ahead and had a ceremony anyway. You may think that a good or bad thing, but either way, it well illustrates what the Preacher is saying here: the final thing we are conscious of not knowing is the end of our own story, let alone how best to exercise control over events once we are no longer on the scene.

The Preacher is not saying that apart from revelation, a man cannot know what will happen to him in eternity. That is true too, but it’s not the point. Rather, he is saying that a man cannot know what will happen to his family, friends, position, and to the work of his hands after he dies. He cannot tell what will be after him under the sun. He can plan for it, leave money to deal with it, and make the best possible arrangements, but he cannot control or be sure of anything.

More broadly, apart from revelation, a man can have no idea what the future holds either for his nation or for mankind generally. It is amusing to go back in time and read the predictions of wise men in their day. Economists tend to be the worst possible prophets, but even theologians have embarrassed themselves repeatedly. Who can tell man what will be after him? No mere observer of the natural world. There are way too many variables in play, and our faculty of pattern recognition is simply not that refined.

Again, the implicit message is to govern ourselves accordingly.

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