sacred letters
Sacred Letters

Greek Philosophy and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes)

The two major systems of Greek philosophy that were popular during the Hellenistic Period across the lands that Alexander the Great conquered were Epicureanism and Stoicism. Jerusalem was greatly influenced by Hellenistic thought, often thoroughly embracing or violently rejecting its tenets. The Second Kingdom of Judea was deeply divided by the traditional Jewish philosophy and the Greek-Hellenistic philosophical traditions. The divide was more than philosophy, encompassing rituals, entertainments, clothing, public displays, food, education, politics, architecture and language – nearly every aspect of daily life. Qohelet, as one of the educated elite, surely had exposure to both the Jewish and the Hellenistic systems.

Qohelet is a Second Temple Jew and commentators often speculate that he was a priest, either a Levite or a Kohan. However, his training in the Greek system of logic and argument comes through much of the text. He is comfortable using syllogisms as explicated by Aristotle. The structures he uses to build his line of argument demonstrate a regimented application of step-by-step rhetoric. The next step in his arguments always builds upon the previous step. Above and beyond these technical clues of applied logic, his entire presentation reflects the most common element of both Epicurean and Stoic philosophies. The aim of all three philosophies is pragmatic. Practical philosophy aims to not simply establish what is true, but to explain how one might live wisely and happily. Qohelet was neither an Epicurean or a Stoic but he borrowed from these traditions when it served his purpose.

Happiness was the result of pleasure for Epicurus (Letter to Menoecus, 6). However, Epicurus defined happiness as “the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.” The negative definition is surprising within the context of the Greek systems but Qohelet embraces the rhetorical power of a negative definition.

Qohelet describes happiness first as a fool’s absence of wisdom. The fool neither thinks nor worries about death and therefore, is never troubled with morbid thoughts until death is upon him. The second definition of happiness is the absence of hevel, absurdity. The wise man is tormented by case after case of absurdity, where the received wisdom is contradicted by one’s experiences. The wise man who cannot resolve the absurdities in his life cannot be happy. Finding resolutions to hevel removes the torment. The absence of absurdity is a positive state of being or to an Epicurean, happiness.

Epicurean philosophy focuses on the impediment of “trouble in the soul” and how it’s presence prevents the departure of mental or emotional pain. Trouble in the soul can easily describe the torment of the wise man confronting absurdity in Qohelet’s system, “for as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.” (Eccl. 1:18) Qohelet may have easily borrowed this element of Greek philosophy, but he will transform this trouble into a Jewish context. For him, vexation and heartache are markers that an absurdity is present.

Epicureans explain that “trouble in the soul” is caused by two factors: superstitious beliefs and unnatural desires. As a Jew though, the first of the two factors demonstrate why Qohelet is not an Epicurean. The invisible God of the Jews and the divinely-entangled history of the Jews is an object of ridicule, a prime superstition in the classical Greek world. Religious Jews are viewed as backward, ignorant people who reject the great advances of modern civilization, the worship of physical beauty and the pantheons of gods in their supernal human forms. Qohelet believes in the monotheist God, the God of his people.

Unnatural desires, contrary to modern expectations of the term, refers specifically to an obsession with death in the Hellenistic world. For Epicurus, the source of pain in the soul is not the animal fear when confronted with a lethal circumstance but the idea of death, which throws human beings into various states of despair. (Menoecus, 3) Qohelet dwells on the topic of the idea of death as well, emphasizing that wise men suffer because they dwell upon their fate. According to Qohelet’s account, a feature of wisdom is the contemplation of mortality, an observable fact that wise men seem unable to overlook. Wise men bring upon themselves despair, anxiety, melancholy and fear because they refuse to put aside or make peace with human mortality. He concludes that fools have a better approach to the idea of death, ignoring it. (Eccl. 2:15-17) His conclusion begs of the question of who is really the fool.

Turning to Stoicism, the most important idea that Qohelet shares with this philosophy is the absolute mutual exclusivity between what is in human control and that which is not. For things over which humans have control, the physical pain can be removed leading to an absence of pain. Things not under human control, adiaphora, cause pain by the idea of not having control over it. (Enchirideon, 5) Qohelet does not discuss the distinction between the types of pain or the differences in the description of pain by the two Greek philosophies; he is not interested.

Qohelet’s interest is the two categories of how the world is divided: things humans control and things humans do not control. What humans control is found “underneath the sun.” God controls everything else. What humans cannot control, by definition divine, is also unknowable. While the Stoics are abstract about the nature of what humans cannot control, Qohelet assigns these items as divine. What humans cannot control that nonetheless happens, such as death, is a sign of God’s presence under the sun. Humans cannot understand the why of what happens outside of their control but they can identify the nature of this unknowing as divine. “God only knows” is not a cliché in Qohelet’s world view, but rather a statement of God’s presence in the world under the sun.

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