Saturday, March 21, 2020

Time and Chance (28)

Many years ago I went for counseling. A man with a big white beard (I am so not making this up) asked me a number of questions, listened quietly to my responses, then assured me I was a good person and that I should not be down on myself.

Needless to say, I never went back. I can’t tell you whether he was right or wrong, but I can tell you he had taken all of twenty minutes to reach his conclusion. He was pronouncing on my life in utter ignorance. He could have made a more meaningful diagnosis of my situation by hurling darts at a dartboard.

Advice is only useful when it comes from people with actual knowledge. That is true whether we are talking about praise or criticism.

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6 — Crackling Thorns
“It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.”
Crackling thorns fill the air with noise and not much else. They don’t even burn all that well.

Flattery and Uninformed Praise

Many translators render the “song of fools” as “flattery” or “praise” in contrast to the rebuke of the wise man. But just because a person always seems to have something affirming to say about you does not mean he has actually discovered anything worth knowing. All the enthusiasm in the world for your cause is of limited value when it comes from the wrong sort of people.

Social media is the modern “song of fools”. Share almost any sin you have ever engaged in, and you will reliably receive all manner of expressions of support from people who know nothing about you other than what you have just told them. People who opine in ignorance are behaving foolishly. They are contributing nothing helpful. They are filling your head with meaningless noise to help you drown out the clamoring of your conscience. They are enabling you and making themselves complicit in your ongoing sin.

A Study in Contrasts

Moreover, the fool’s bad advice is forgotten the moment he gives it, and he is too self-absorbed to become deeply offended if you do not follow it. Far better and more useful in the long run is sharp critique of a perceptive man. It may sting at first, but it provides lasting benefit.

Thorns only serve a useful purpose in being consumed. Likewise, the self-destruction of a fool may serve as a warning to others. His inability to comprehend the shambles he is making of his own life may remind us not to emulate him.

Ecclesiastes 7:7 — Oppressing People Makes You Crazy
“Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.”
There are several ways we might read this:

Being Oppressed and Contemplating Evil

First, the Preacher may be saying that being oppressed can drive one mad. That’s possible. It is true that weak-minded individuals often become overwhelmed by the injustices they experience in life, lose hope and fall apart. Those who place their faith in the system are far too often shocked and horrified when it fails them, as it frequently does. However, I think that an unlikely outcome for wise men and women, who tend to better anticipate the unfairness of the world and condition themselves to deal with it.

Alternatively, the Preacher may be saying that the fundamental unkindness of the world may overwhelm intelligent people who are too frequently exposed to it. He may be speaking of the danger to the philosophically-minded of attempting to make sense of the inexplicable. As Neitzsche put it, “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” The high suicide rate of medical professionals seems to bear this out.

Destroying Your Moral Compass

Then there is a third possibility which I think most likely of all: that succumbing to the temptation to oppress others in order to get what you want in life destroys your moral compass and makes you incapable of right judgment. This makes the most sense to me. We are analyzing a proverb, and the second half of the parallelism says, “a bribe corrupts the heart”. To pair that with a line that boils down to something like “oppressing people makes you crazy” seems like the most logical fit.

The objection that wise people do not generally become oppressors does not hold up to careful observation. The Hebrew chakam does not always refer to moral wisdom; it is frequently used to describe those who are simply crafty, such as Jonadab, who counseled his friend Amnon about the most effective way to get a decent woman into his bedroom where he could have his way with her.

In the real world, it is highly intelligent people in powerful positions who inflict the most comprehensive and long-lasting forms of oppression, and who are capable of rationalizing their inhumanity in ways that mere midwits could never manage.

Ecclesiastes 7:8 — Proud or Patient
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.”
In a previous instalment, we considered the relative merits of mere potential vs. actual achievement, and noted that the Preacher preferred the long-term success story to all the hope and promise in the world that remains unrealized. In this sense, the end of a thing is better than its beginning.

A Long-Term Advantage

Likewise, the patient man has a long-term advantage which the proud man does not, even when the proud man has legitimate reasons to be conceited. The proud man may be volatile, overconfident, self-deceived, or undone by his own vanity in ways the patient man will not be. In a sprint, pride will not hamper and patience will not help much. But life is not generally a sprint; it is more like a marathon. In that case, the man who plans and prepares with a view to all possible contingencies is more likely to succeed than the man who is conditioned to rely on his own natural skill set.

The story of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind.

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