Contrast the void of hedonism with the headiness of accomplishment. Qohelet gives accomplishment three times the attention as hedonism. “I undertook great projects…” he says, and then catalogs what he has done: building, planting, accumulating, creating culture. Qohelet proficiently executes the cultural mandate of Genesis 1: 28 “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.”
When I was first out of college, I sought out inspiration through motivational books and speakers. At that time, the 1990’s, the classic authors of the genre were Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, and Og Mandino. They all partook of the old positive thinking mantra of W.Clement Stone:
“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
In other words, live your dreams. Aggressively pursue your goals. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. Think positive and believe in yourself. YOLO.
Qohelet claims to have lived that mantra to the fullest.
And he finds it too is meaningless. Hebel. Smoke.
“Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil that I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (2:11)
Not terribly uplifting, is it?
Qohelet ruthlessly topples our idols.
In 1849, the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia ordered the arrest of members of a little group of Christian intellectuals. Among these reformers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who would later go on to greatness as a novelist. After a four month trial, headed by the Tsar himself, the group was sentenced to execution. They were lined up and tied to stakes. The firing squad arrayed before them, took aim, and at the last second, a rider came up with a message from the tsar: their sentences had been commuted to servitude in the cold barren wastes of Siberia. After 4 years, Dostoyevsky was released, and he finally wrote of his experiences in the 1861 book House of the Dead (public library):
“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”
Dostoyevsky’s “most terrible punishment” was not the tsar’s cruel psychological trick with the mock execution. Rather, it was the absolutely pointless labor in the prison camp in Siberia.
Qohelet concludes that all endeavor is meaningless, just like labor in Siberia.
The poet Percy Shelly catches this sense in his work “Ozymandias.” It’s about a traveller in Egypt who tells of finding a ruined ancient colossal statue. All that was left of this monument are two great legs, broken off at the thighs. Beside them lay the great stone face of the statue, half buried in the sand. Shelly finishes the poem with this scene:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
When we make accomplishment our source of meaning, we find that it is just as hollow as pleasure. Qohelet doesn’t let us get away with a thoughtless exaltation of accomplishment.
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve” – but that doesn’t mean that the achievement that we conceive and believe is worth the price we pay to pursue it.
But Qohelet doesn’t leave us here. Remember, the journey is the message. Qohelet has more places to take us