Happenings, News

PLEASURE PALLS

PART 4 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11UNABLE to find satisfaction in the wisdom of the world, the Preacher dipped into the well of irrationalism and turned to pleasure as a solution. “I said to myself, ‘Come now, Let’s give pleasure a try. Let’s look for the good things in life”‘(2:1).

To the average person pleasure is certainly the more promising approach to life than ploughing through philosophical tomes. The Preacher has tried the latter earnestly but found it to be a futile venture. Now it’s time to try pleasure and see if it holds the true meaning of life.

It would be wrong to think that hedonism is just a matter of excessive sensualism, as if it is a mere frivolity gone to seed. Hedonism, in fact, has a long philosophical lineage that can be traced to the Cyrenaics, a 5th century BC Greek philosophical school.

The Cyrenaics thought that religion, with its belief in punishment or reward in the afterlife, places a great and unnecessary burden on human beings, preventing them from enjoying their lives. Insisting that there is really no afterlife to worry about, this school of Greek philosophy advocates unbridled freedom and total abandonment to sensual pleasures. Cyrenaic philosophy has been wryly parodied in this motto: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall have gout, cirrhosis of the liver and delirium tremens”!

The Preacher explores pleasure at various levels, from light-hearted pursuits to serious, wholesome ones in an effort to discover the meaning of life in them. Why not take life less seriously? Why not see its funny side and learn to laugh at it? Didn’t someone say that laughter is the best medicine?

Perhaps life’s true meaning will reveal itself when one looks at it this way. Perhaps this is the key to fulfilment. But alas, this approach turns out to be just another blind alley. “But I found that this, too, was meaningless. ‘It is silly to be laughing all the time,’ I said, ‘What good does it do to seek only pleasure”‘(2:2).

There is nothing wrong with good clean fun. Such activities can be meaningful and invigorating when set in a proper context. What the Preacher has found, however, is that pleasure alone, however wholesome, cannot inject true meaning to life. Life’s ultimate meaning must be sought elsewhere. Perhaps the answer can be found in wine (2:3). Someone has said, “When the books don’t give the answers, it’s time to pass the bottle!” But although wine managed to cause the Preacher some cheer, it ultimately fails to provide any answers (older commentators are careful to stress that the Preacher was a connoisseur of wine and never an alcoholic).

Unable to find neither the meaning of life nor its fulfilment in laughter and alcohol, the Preacher turns to more substantive activities that would bring satisfaction in the hope that therein lies life’s meaning. The catalogue of activities in verses 4-6 must surely impress any reader. It is important, however, to note that these activities were not engaged for the purpose of philanthropy. The ethical dative “myself”, which occurs twice in these verses, clearly indicates that these “great works” were done not for the benefit or pleasure of others, but for his own pleasure.

The grand cultural endeavours of the Preacher include buildings, gardens, parks and irrigation systems. But at the end of it all, the Preacher did not find true satisfaction or meaning in these activities. Standing back and looking at his great architectural, engineering and agricultural achievements the Preacher experiences an awful, overwhelming and sickening feeling of anti-climax. After all that effort, is that all to it? Verses 7-8 show that the Preacher also enjoys tremendous power and wealth. But the pleasure of power, the adrenaline rush that sometimes accompanies its exercise is, alas, also fleeting, and, in the final analysis, futile.

In all these experiments the Preacher never once lost his scientific objectivity, and, in verses 9-11 he makes an honest assessment of their result. As if suddenly bringing his relentless search for meaning in pleasure to a halt, the Preacher reflects in verse 11: “When I survey all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun”. The “under the sun” metaphor is used to qualify his conclusions.
Under the sun and without God, such pleasures may provide momentary satisfaction and even some superficial meaning, but they are unable to point to what life really is all about. The Preacher has succeeded in creating a kind of earthly, secular utopia for himself.

The Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner writes: “He creates a little world within the world: multiform, harmonious, exquisite: a secular Garden of Eden, full of civilised and agreeably uncivilised delights, with no forbidden fruits – of none which he regards as such.”

But as verses 10-11 show, any attempt to create a world in which nothing is forbidden and God is conveniently forgotten would yield desperately unsatisfying results. Without God, such crescendos of achievement will have an anti-climactic and depressing end.

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