A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
AN APPRECIATION OF SOLOMON THE WISE
I have said a bit about Solomon previously on this blog but I think he is well worth reflecting on again
I wonder how many people realize that they do have copies of most of Solomon's surviving writings? They are, of course, in the Bible. I should perhaps initially note that King Solomon's words are so much at variance with all else that occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures (they are amazingly modern) that they do serve to attest that the Hebrew scriptures (the "Old Testament") are not some coherent canon but rather a simple and unauthoritative accretion of what was seen as popular or profound over many years. That was saved and revered which people liked or respected for one reason or another.
"Practical" men sometimes say with great pride: "Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we may be dead -- that is my motto. I don't worry about all that Bible stuff". How amusing it is that they are in fact quoting the Bible in saying that. The "motto" concerned is in fact Solomon's most frequent advice in the book of Ecclesiates.
In psychological terms, much of Solomon's writings (e.g. chap. 1 verse 14 in the Revised Standard Version of Ecclesiastes) could be seen as classically depressive ("Vanity of vanity, all is vanity and a striving after wind") so one could conclude that Solomon was probably something of a drug abuser by the standards of his day (the relevant drug probably being alcohol) As King of Israel he certainly would have been free to booze all he liked.
Let us note, however, that the decrying of human strivings is a very common theme in religious thought and it would surely be stretching it to claim that all such decriers have been boozers! Most were in fact ascetics.
I myself am no ascetic but I am nonetheless acutely conscious of how unimportant most of what we do is to anyone but ourselves. Even the most famous man of today will almost certainly be totally forgotten in a thousand years -- and a thousand years is as nothing in geological time. We remember a few people from the past (Solomon, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha Gautama etc) but they as nothing compared to those who have been forgotten. Hammurabi is hardly a household name today, is he? Yet he was probably one of humanity's great minds and he was certainly a bigshot in his day. Knowing that sort of thing does make it hard to take oneself and one's concerns seriously.
Note however that Solomon WAS a religious thinker. If you read ALL that he says (e.g. the last two verses of the book -- though they COULD have been added by a later hand), you will see that he does in fact repeatedly profess some quite clearly religious beliefs -- though they are rather sparse by the standards of his times.
My favourite quotes from Solomon: "Cast thy bread upon the waters for thou shalt find it after many days" (Ecclesiastes 11:1); "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest" (Ecclesiastes 9:10); "The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
There is however much more to Solomon than these few short quotes. I would very much recommend the careful reading of the whole of what he wrote -- preferably in a modern translation. His words are sometimes more Delphic than those of Mahatma Gandhi or Dale Carnegie but that poses a challenge that is well worth rising to. The "bread on waters" quote, for instance, is generally taken to refer to good deeds done without foreseeable reward. Solomon has the perhaps optimistic message that you will get an unforseen reward for such deeds. In modern terms we might translate Solomon as saying: "Be kind to others whenever you can as you never know when that will come back to benefit you": A sort of pragmatic idealism!
I think the immediate reason why Solomon sounds so modern is that he was King in Jerusalem and, as such, had everything. In those days only a King could have many of the things that we now take for granted -- extensive leisure, constant entertainment, effectively infinite booze, high quality and varied food, for instance. Having everything that people normally want or idealize, however, he could see how trivial normal materialistic aims in the end are and successfully developed a deeper set of values. That he was able to do this in conjunction with his clear rejection of belief in an afterlife is, however, strong evidence of what a remarkable mind he was -- particularly in the context of his times. He was in my view a supreme realist.