Thursday, October 11, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part III

The Vanity of Time

As odd as it may sound, it is precisely man’s identity as a malcontent that makes him unique among God’s creatures. As Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft has pointed out, fish do not complain that their natural environment is too wet, nor do birds inwardly resent the breeziness of the air. But we humans share a collective sense of frustration with the intolerable ticking of the clock. As the wizard Gandalf mutters when setting out on a pressing errand in the film The Two Towers, “For three-hundred lives of men have I walked this earth, and now, I have no time.”

Perhaps you have been haunted by the inexplicable feeling that your very environment, the only environment you have ever known (namely time), is foreign. Could time, the very stuff of life and building block of society that greets us every morning with the buzzing of the alarm clock, and then pushes us through each day, actually be an enemy? As bizarre as it sounds, I suggest that it is, and as the Preacher argues in the book of Ecclesiastes, this enemy adversely affects all of our toil under the sun. In a word, time renders all of man’s earthly pursuits utterly pointless. Let us consider, then, time’s effect on three of man’s greatest quests for meaning in life: pleasure, philanthropy, and piety.

The Pointlessness of Pleasure

In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 we read:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
The vicious cycle described here engenders the frustrated cry, “What profit does the worker have in his toil?” (v. 9). Being born and then dying, sowing and then reaping all argue for the vanity and futility of existence under the sun. It would seem to follow then—and millions would concur—that the only reasonable response is rank hedonism: “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (Ecc. 8:15, cf. Luke. 12:19). But is this answer valid?

At first glance it would seem so, for pleasure is one of those goals whose attainment is close at hand, exciting, and easy to obtain (it is almost the exact opposite of wisdom in this respect). In fact, Peter Kreeft has remarked that “wisdom is a mountaintop; pleasure is a plain. Wisdom is mysterious; pleasure is plain. Wisdom is a walking stick; pleasure is a plane.” In other words, of all man’s pursuits it is pleasure that offers the most immediate gratification.

How, then, could Solomon decry pleasure and insist that it contributes to man’s “vexation of spirit”? He had it all: He had wine, houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, fruit trees, pools, male and female slaves, singers, 700 wives, 300 concubines, herds, flocks, silver, and gold (Ecc. 2:1-11). And yet Solomon learned what all serious hedonists eventually learn: “Behold, all is vanity, and chasing after wind. Nothing was gained under the sun” (v. 11). As is nearly always the case, pleasure becomes need, fun becomes addiction, excitement becomes boring (a word, Kreeft argues, to which no ancient culture had any equivalent). Few today realize this, for the poor still hope that riches and pleasure will bring meaning. But the rich know better, for they alone have tried and failed. All the immediate gratification under the sun will be stolen away over the course of time.


Stay tuned....