The Cause of Vanity
I want to emphasize that the key problem Solomon saw in life that made him label existence vanity is not any one of these themes, but the way that they mutually interacted that made existence vain.
Solomon's first complaint is that of the lack of ultimate profitablity: "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?" (1:3) While he observes Cyclicity in nature, he notes that there is a lack of profitablity in it. The following is from Ecclesiastes 1:4-11, with my commentary in [bracketed italics]:
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. [see v. 11 below] 5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full [no profit, no progress toward any discernable goal or sense of completion]; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing [just as the water flows into the sea, yet it is not full]. 9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. [no lasting impact on the earth (v4), nor even on later generations.]
Solomon wisely observes in verse 11 that there is nothing special about the generation of which he happened to be a part, for just as his generation was ignorant of past generations, he expects his generation to not be remembered either by future generations. This observation is the implicit recognition of the concept of Justice, where he acknowledges that he will "suffer" from future generations that which he "inflicts" on previous ones. The theme of Death is implied in verses 4 and 11, for a living generation makes sure they are not ignored, but the imposition of silence caused by death allows the later generations to forget them. The "wise" charcters in the Disney movie "The Lion King" called this the Circle of Life, but only the production values kept all but the more wise ones in the audience from noticing the utter fuility of a cycle-called-a-circle that, at its foundation, is powered by Death.
The resentful reader may demand, "who is this who's talking?" Solomon responds in verses 12 to 18:
12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
It would seem pointless to exalt wisdom and strive to teach it to others without the teacher actually applying it. The key question wisdom asks of anything is "why is this here?" Engineers strive to understand artificial systems and scientists natural ones by asking "why is this here?" as well. Rare is a system that stands by itself, and often the key to understanding why one exists is to step back and see the larger system of which it is inevitably a part. In 1 Kings 4:29-34, we are told that Solomon's wisdom and understanding embraced the small things of life, so it does not seem possible that he arbitrarily stopped there. He kept stepping back, and back, and back, embracing larger and even larger systems.
So what did The Preacher find? What he found was an endless cyclicity that didn't seem to go anywhere and that had no impact. That had no point or goal or conclusion or that ever got finished. It was that pointlessness that made existence vain.
My modern readers of a technological bent (and thus the true progressivists of these times, and of whom I count myself one of that number) would doubtless object to such a characterization of human existence as vain. After all, Solomon lived in a world where the pace of technological progress was so much slower than it is now that it would have been logical for him to "extrapolate" from his limited experience and see vanity in what looked like an existence in which human ability appeared to be forever limited.
While somewhat true, we shortchange Solomon by failing to "step back ourselves" and see the wider picture. For instance, unlike Solomon, engineers and scientists view Cyclicity in nature as a friend since such repetitiveness helps them catch nuances that their prior observations missed and helps them test hypotheses as to their underlying causality and functionality. Cyclicity is counted upon to allow engineers to harness the power of nature: I am not ignorant of the irony that I, a software engineer at a nuclear power plant, make a very good living working with my fellow engineers to ensure that a big hunk of specially contructed steel and copper reliably spins round and round, 30 times a second, with the express design intention of making sure it doesn't actually go anywhere, powered by a nuclear reactor whose radioactive contents are subject to the supreme design intention of making sure that none of that material goes anywhere without express permission and intention.
Unlike Solomon, I and my comrades don't anguish over the futility of such a job because we know that the cyclicity of the turbine/generator (that doesn't go anywhere) is actually making electrons go "somewhere". That is, over powerlines into homes, businesses, and factories that society tells us are making "stuff" that "goes somewhere" and "has a goal". Leastways, that is what our semi-capitalist society is telling us when they give Georgia Power money in exchange for those "moving" electrons, a share of which Georgia Power passes on to us for making those electrons move. (an aside: a "capitalist" society uses "unregulated" money flows as a way of informing people that what they do is important to others and to what extent. Other societies in the world despise the United States "capitalist" economy only because they themselves have their own ideas of who is and is not important, and so strive to regulate the flow of money to direct it to people they think are important. In all cases, money is used to convey importance and the degree of that importance.)
So in a way, shouldn't engineers be proud that we took what Solomon viewed as a futility and turned it into something truly useful to mankind? If that's not progress, when what is?
The problem Solomon saw that we engineers don't becomes more visible if we step back and look more closely at the real utility or purpose of what's going on in those places that use the electricity being made by our endlessly cycling hunk of metal. Solomon did, and concluded that the cyclicity, combined with death, happening in those "higher order activities" rendered them vain and futile, thus rendering everything upstream that supports and enables those activities vain and futile as well.
Much as I am truly proud of harnessing cyclicity to human service, I believe this assessment to be essentially true. "Technological progress", represented by the ever increasing ability to harness nature to do more of the work that human muscle and brains used to do has, as an end result and goal, the support of other human activities that do "have a purpose". It is a mere assumption to think that those activities are not vain in themselves.
Part of the problem is that Solomon and we moderns use the word "progress" in different ways. To be blunt, the vast majority of what is called "progress" today is composed of improvements in enabling technologies rather than unique creations. In Ecclesiastes 2, Solomon engaged in huge building programs. He built the Temple and his own Palace. When Solomon stepped back and looked at what he had done, he realized it was all vain (v11). Why? Because the guy who comes afterwards is just going to do the same thing. From the time of Nimrod, to the Pharaohs, to Solomon, to men like Donald Trump today, to the wealthy and great men who will appear tomorrow, have all tried to make an immortal mark in the world by building stuff. Yes, the stuff may be built differently, built bigger, built better, and built quicker thanks to progress in technology (i.e. thanks to us scientists and engineers), but the whole point of men building the stuff is to outdo those who came before them. Solomon was smart enough to realize that, after he died, the guy who comes after him will outdo him. More depressingly, Solomon realized that the guy who comes after him who doesn't outdo him can't because he might be more stupid, and thus not appreciate what he, Solomon, had made or done (V17-22). If the purpose of the electricity I am helping make is to power the technology that enables the wealthy wanna-be to outdo those who came before them, then my effort and purpose in life will be equally vain since that wealthy wanna-be will be replaced, after he dies, with another wealthy wanna-be whose only claim to fame will be that he outdid my era's wealthy wanna-be's achievements using the better technology that my technological descendants will come up with. Indeed, my purpose is even more vain because the electricity I am producing now is doubtless going into the research laboratories and homes of the inventors to create the techology that will eventually eclipse mine, while my wealthy wanna-be is not contributing in any substantial way to this enabling of his future wealthy wanna-be to show him up. It appears that I myself am the real sucker in this whole cycle of vanity by contributing directly to those whose future significance will eclipse mine, causing me and my achievements to be forgotten as effectively as that of my era's wealthy wanna-be. "So why then have I been so very wise?"
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