Heritage UofT

The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 18

Video Publisher: 
Media Centre, University of Toronto
Country Published: 
Canada
Date: 
1982
Physical Description: 
3/4 inch U-matic tape
Audio: 
Gerard Beckers, Chris Rodgers
Director: 
Bill Somerville
Technical Director: 
Ted Glickman
Producer: 
Robert Sandler
Executive Producer: 
Bob Rodgers
Digitized: 
Robert Fysh (2008)
Assistant: 
Jane Widdicombe
Guide: 

Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani 

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University

TEACHERS GUIDE: Lecture 18

WISDOM: PLAYING BEFORE GOD, Part 1

Synopsis

Wisdom is originally founded on the preservation of social continuity without change. But because experience is not permanent or continuous, a more subtle conception of wisdom emerges, of wisdom as a potential, an ability to deal with the kind of situation that may occur. Thus, the particular regulations of the law become internalized as a respect for principles and consistency; and the collection of particular facts external to the individual that we call knowledge is subordinated to an attitude or sense of balance in the mind of the wise man. This attitude, however, opens out into the community; in Proverbs 7-9, it is folly who says egocentrically that 'bread eaten in secret is pleasant'. In Proverbs 8, the vision of wisdom as a female child playing before God reveals to us another characteristic of wisdom: it is a spontaneous and unselfconscious expression of energy for its own sake, a complete integrity of thinking and acting, of the means and the end.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. The original sense of wisdom is bound up with the idea of a social contract: it is embodied in institutions, which are more continuous than the individual and to which the individual must be assimilated.
  2. The preservation of custom and tradition by institutions is not enough, however, when change occurs after all, particularly when such repeated and violent reversals happen as are suggested by the U-shaped diagram of the history of Israel.
  3. A deeper sense of wisdom therefore emerges out of crisis: the particular commandments of the law, which were intended to preserve social continuity, become internalized as the potential of the wise individual to deal with types and universals, the balance of mind that can deal with the type of thing that may happen. This attitude respects principles and consistency without the reverence of superstition for the static and unchanging.
  4. Similarly, wisdom becomes seen as superior to knowledge: the collection of particular facts about objective nature becomes subordinated to the insight that knows what to do with them.
  5. Despite its transforming effect on custom and tradition, it becomes clear that wisdom is essentially a preservation of the community. The tendency to exalt the interests of the ego is rather the distinguishing characteristic of wisdom's opposite, folly, imaged as a harlot in chapters 7-9 of the Book of Proverbs.
  6. Wisdom, by contrast, is portrayed as a female child playing before God. The word 'playing' suggests energy expended spontaneously and for its own sake. This profound description of wisdom implies the recovery of an unselfconscious integrity of thinking and action, of the means and the end.

Biblical Passages Cited

Proverbs 8:1-4.—'She crieth at the gates'.

Proverbs 8:12.—'I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions'. Wisdom and knowledge.

Proverbs 8:14-16.—'Counsel is mine… By me kings reign, and princes decree justice'. Wisdom and justice.

Proverbs 9:1.—The seven pillars of wisdom.

Proverbs 9:2-5.—'Come, eat of my bread': the communal meal.

Proverbs 9:13-18.—'Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant'. Folly and self-centeredness.

Proverbs 8:22-31.—Wisdom as a girl child playing before God.

The Teacher's Perspective

Nothing else suggests more strongly that wisdom deserves a place in the Biblical tradition than the fact that the greatest, most pervasive and recurring Christian heresy, that of Gnosticism, is highly involved in a particular conception of wisdom. 'Gnosis' in fact means 'knowledge', and the Christian Gnostics were interested in replacing the revelation of the gospel, which depends upon what the New Testament calls 'faith', with a gnosis that depended upon an individual experience of illumination.

Gnosticism is far from being simply a Christian phenomenon: on the contrary, it has shown an ability to combine with an astonishing number of alternate and excluded traditions, including Judaism, neoplatonism, Cabalism, alchemy, astrology and the occult tradition that was called Hermeticism. This produced an enormous complex of underground literature whose bizarreness is in general exceeded only by its dullness, in significant contrast to the literary vitality of the Biblical mainstream. The dullness is no doubt connected with its tendency to a particular brand of intellectual error, the very misconception of wisdom as a kind of 'secret knowledge' that the Bible designates as folly, a misconception usually accompanied by a dualistic mode of thinking and a consequent weakness for abstraction and allegory.

And yet, for several reasons, a series about 'The Bible and Literature' is not justified in ignoring Gnosticism totally. For one thing, the Gnostic tradition is by no means always spiritually bankrupt: when modern thinkers like Carl Jung have attempted to revive aspects of it, it is because Gnosticism has tended to preserve elements that have fallen partially out of Christianity under the influence of institutional legalism. In particular, these include the emphasis on an individual spiritual experience rather than on the passive reception of a body of beliefs and a new legal code, and a willingness to read the Bible symbolically as well as historically. For another thing, the half-submerged tradition blended of elements of Gnosticism, Cabalism, Neoplatonism and Hermeticism has been a very great influence on English poetry, and on the Romantic tradition especially, in English poetry, from Blake to Yeats; in particular on the Romantics' tendency to shift perception of the deity from the transcendent to the immanent: the central study of this subject is M.H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism. (For study of these phenomena in their original Renaissance setting, see the various books by Frances Yates). Finally—and this is what makes the matter immediately relevant to this program—the central figure of Gnosticism is the female figure of wisdom, called by it the Sophia (see W.F. Albright's From Stone Age to Christianity, chapter VI).

According to tradition, the first Gnostic was Simon Magus. Simon does not appear as such in the New Testament (Acts 8), but rather as giving us the name 'simony' for the trafficking in spiritual powers (see Joyce's story 'The Sisters'). Nevertheless, the sect that grew up around him identified him with Zeus because of the resemblance of the Sophia's emanating from God to Athene's springing from the forehead of Zeus, and he was said to go around with a consort significantly named Helen, who was the Sophia trapped in a material body, and whom he had come to rescue. One can see resemblances here to the legend of Faustus, who in Goethe's and Marlow's versions is also associated with the Greek Helen; and we can also observe at this point how the figure of folly as a harlot begins to merge with the figure of the Great Whore: see programs 5 and 6.

Another place where the female figure of wisdom from Proverbs 8-9 has been adapted is the body of Jewish visionary and speculative interpretation called the Cabala. Here, she is called the Shekhinah , the female principle of Adam Kadmon, the universal man who falls and is fragmented, driving his emanation into exile (see again M.H. Abrams, op. cit.). The word 'emanation' here suggests Blake, who drew freely upon these traditions to expand imaginatively the dryly doctrinal and historical reduction of the gospel: he alludes indirectly to the Cabala in the introduction to Part 2 of Jerusalem, titled 'To the Jews'. But Blake was aware of the reductionism latent in most such 'secret wisdom' as well, as he makes clear in his criticism of Boehme and Swedenborg in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and by the female 'emanation' he means the total product of a person's creative acts. The class may compare this to Shelley's idea of the 'epipsyche', the 'soul out of my soul' in Epipsychidion: here, as the Greek work 'epipsyche' suggests, the dominant influence was rather neoplatonism, and the epipsyche is the product of the power to love; but this is really only a difference in emphasis. In Blake's Milton, the two aspects are combined, as Milton descends into the fallen world to retrieve his sixfold emanation Ololon, who is at once the form of his imaginative vision and his spiritual bride, sixfold to represent Milton's three wives and three daughters.

As for the Bible itself, the great poem on wisdom in Proverbs 8-9 is said to have strong Canaanite affinities: Wisdom is what is technically called a 'hypostasis', or projected manifestation of a god, and is said to be related to the word or breath of power and command that is a common feature in Semitic mythologies. When this came into contact with the Greek idea of the Logos, some complication was obviously inevitable, and Philo Judaeus (see program 1) takes care of it by making Wisdom the mother of the Logos. The 'seven pillars of wisdom' made familiar through T.E. Lawrence (9:1) are cosmological, the seven pillars that are the foundations of the firmament. The wisdom figure is not confined to the Book of Proverbs either: another beautiful poem by and about her is Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach) 24, which contains the phrase 'as a plane tree by the water' used by Robert Lowell as the title of a poem mentioned in program 5. The class may also take a look at the poem on wisdom in Job 28 and perhaps at the entirety of the Wisdom of Solomon (of Book of Wisdom): in both of these works, wisdom is beginning to pass over into the prophetic and apocalyptic mode. The Wisdom of Solomon, from its powerful beginning ('God made not death', 1:13) to its unforgettable end (the transformation of the elements) is a remarkable book, whether or not it merits W.F. Albright's epithet 'proto-Gnostic', which is doubtful. Its framework is a symbolic interpretation of the Exodus in which wisdom, again appearing as 'the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty' (7:25), acts as the instrument of God from the Creation through all Old Testament history (compare Proverbs 3:19-20). The slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn is also described in terms of the word of God (Logos): 'For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction, And brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death; and it touched the heavens, but it stood upon the earth' (18:14-16). Because of the Exodus-Gospel parallel discussed in program 12, this can be read as a type of the Nativity story in Matthew, Luke and Revelation 12. Like the latter, it is completely mythological: the class may compare it to the opening of the Fourth Gospel.

For a contribution to the discussion of true wisdom as the spirit of play, see Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens; also Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, Volume One, Introduction. For New Testament polemics about the wrong kind of wisdom, the class may look at I Corinthians 1 and 2, and Jesus' insistence that wisdom is a child (Matthew 11:25, 18:1-6 and 19:13-14). The Epistles of John make angry but unspecific reference to a proto-Gnostic heresy that scholars generally call Docetism.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages

Acts 8.—Simon Magus.

Ecclesiasticus 24.—Poem on wisdom: 'as a plane tree by the water'.

Job 28.—Poem on wisdom.

Wisdom 7:25.—Wisdom as 'the breath of the power of God'.

Proverbs 3:19-20.—'Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven': type of the Nativity.

I Corinthians 1, 2.—False wisdom.

Matthew 11:25—'Thou has hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes'.

Matthew 18:1-6.—'Except ye be converted, and become as little children…'

Matthew 19:13-14.—'Suffer little children'.

2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

Chapter Five. Typology II.

pp. 121-25. Wisdom.

3. Other

Natural Supernaturalism, M.H. Abrams, Norton, 1971.

From Stone Age to Christianity, William Foxwell Albright, Doubleday, 1957.

Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga, New York: Roy Publishers, 1950; Boston; Beacon Press, 1955.

The Masks of God, Volume One, Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell,Viking, 1959.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss Yeats' 'Lapis Lazuli' in light of this program, particularly the idea of wisdom as the ability to be in harmony with the rhythm of change in time, the images of the sages, and the theme of 'gaiety'.
  2. Discuss the interchanging of wisdom and folly in passages from Thomas Lovell Beddoes' Death's Jest Book, or in Yeats' poem 'A Prayer for Old Age'.
  3. Discuss the following passage from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in relation to the popular notion of wisdom as the tried and tested way of society: 'I then asked Ezekiel why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right and his left side? he answered, the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite'. In this work also appears the proverb: 'Energy is eternal delight': what might this have to do with play? Can Ezekiel's symbolic actions then be considered a kind of play? If so, might the symbolism of literature in general be considered a kind of play, and in what manner?

 

ECCLESIASTES: VANITY OF VANITIES, Part 2

Synopsis

Interpreters are often badly misled by the solemnity of the AV translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes into thinking that the author is a skeptical pessimist who is tired of life. But to the Preacher, disillusionment means tearing away the illusions that keep repressing our mental processes. It is his touchstone of 'vanity' that enables us to get through the forest of life without either going around in circles like 'realists' who assume that the forest is really there, and so end up following the cyclical rhythms of nature, or bumping into the trees like 'idealists' who assume that it is an illusion. The word translated 'vanity' has a metaphorical meaning of fog or mist: that is, of emptiness. This emptiness can be identified with the Bible's idea of an invisible world of the spirit, which, like its symbols of air and light, is the medium by which the world becomes visible. Out of this rejection of a real-or-unreal dilemma comes an ethic which rejects the traditional value judgment dilemma of wisdom-or-folly.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. The oracular solemnity of the AV translation of Ecclesiastes does not fit the tough, shrewd and humorous attitude of its author, who is disillusioned, not in the sense of being pessimistic and tired of life, but in the sense of having been released from the illusions and compulsions that normally enslave our mental processes.
  2. This release from compulsion includes a detachment from the three A's of the twentieth century: absurdity, anxiety and alienation, and therefore suggests a consequent release of energy.
  3. Because we all begin by being lost in the forest of the objective world, illusion takes the form of a dilemma about the nature of reality. If we assume that the forest is 'there', we remain caught in it, and in the cycles of nature that are suggested by it. If we assume that it is not there, we run into the trees.
  4. The wedge the Preacher drives through this contradiction is his idea of 'vanity', whose metaphorical kernel means fog or mist, and whose derived meaning is 'emptiness'. Hence, the forest is there and not there: all things are full (real, 'there'), but full of emptiness.
  5. This is a paradoxical way of stating the same attitude found in the Bible toward the invisible or spiritual world: the invisible world is the medium by which the visible world comes into being, and in which it has its being. It cannot be seen because, like its traditional symbols of air and light, if we could see it, we could see nothing else.
  6. The ethic that comes out of Koheleth's freedom from illusion includes a detachment even from value judgments about the merits of wisdom and folly: those too, he realizes, are vanity.

The Teacher's Perspective

Ecclesiastes may be the most misinterpreted book in the Bible, and that is saying a great deal. No Biblical explication by Prof. Frye diverges more dramatically from the previous history of interpretation; and yet, if the 'world-weary' hypothesis is correct, Ecclesiastes does not really belong in the Bible at all. In that case, we might as well all pack up and go home; for if the Bible is not enough of an imaginative unity to encompass one of its most brilliant inclusions, it is no good trying to study it on the basis of a total structure. True, most of the mentions of God in Ecclesiastes are probably editorial genuflections, including at least 2:26, 3:17, 5:19, 7:18b, 7:26b, 8:11-13, 11:9b and 12:1a, the word 'Creator' in the last of these probably being an alteration of the word for 'the grave' (!) But if the dialectical phases of revelation, which can expand the Old Testament covenant with Yahweh into the faith of the gospel, and the faith of the gospel into the realized vision of the apocalypse, could not incorporate the Preacher's paradox of 'vanity' into its spiritual dimension, the Bible would be a more insipid book than it is, a book incapable of admitting the invigorating and creative energies of doubt. For the complementary relation of doubt to faith, seeThe Great Code, p.230, and also program 25.

Ecclesiastes refers to the spiritual world as 'emptiness' rather than as the presence of a personal deity (when the Preacher does speak of God, he uses the more general 'Elohim' instead of 'Yahweh'); but The Great Code cites Romans 1:20 and Hebrews 11:3 to demonstrate that these ideas are anything but mutually exclusive. God can be a presence, even a presence with a personality; but he cannot be a presence as we normally think of one. When we say that something is 'present' or 'there' or 'real', we normally mean discrete, substantial, limited and excluding. But these limited conceptions are shattered even by the Yahweh of the Old Testament, whose great difference from the idols of the Canaanites was his transcendence, his invisibility, his omnipresence and his universal lordship over all places and all of history. In the New Testament, God is actually incarnated as a human being; and yet, within his presence, there must be a metaphorical space or absence 'in which we live and move and have our being', so that we can become included in the divine personality itself without having to abandon or dissolve the sense of our own identity.

Thus, God may be a personality, even one with a historical existence; but he is also an unlimited personality not fully describable in psychological terms. Arguments about whether or not Jesus realized that he was the Messiah usually founder on this point, since Jesus' personality must have united the infinite consciousness of God with the finite and circumscribed consciousness of a man in a manner fully expressible only by metaphor: this is a point wrestled with in Jung's Aion. It was in fact probably fortunate for Christianity to have ended up with four Gospels, each one giving a somewhat different version of the personality of Jesus: comparatively speaking, the Synoptic Gospels emphasize Jesus' humanity while the Gospel of John emphasizes his divinity, but this is a statement that demands a lot of qualification. At any rate, in thinking of the 'vanity' or 'emptiness' of Ecclesiastes, one may remember an aphorism that Yeats was fond of quoting: 'Where there is nothing, there is God'. This sense that God may be closest when he seems to be most absent is found in those late religious sonnets of Hopkins sometimes called the 'terrible sonnets', among other places. It can even be implied in something like Dante's Divine Comedy, where the narrator begins in God's absence, lost alone in the same metaphorical forest that Prof. Frye uses as an illustration, but ends taken up and enveloped in the divine presence, without, so far as ordinary experience goes, having left thirteenth-century Italy: 'In my end is my beginning', as T.S. Eliot says in a poem powerfully influenced by Dante.

Prof. Frye remarks that this concept of 'vanity' is similar to that of the Buddhist shunyata, the void; some of the class may also be reminded of the 'being' and 'nothingness' of existentialism. There is indeed one aspect of Ecclesiastes that could be called existential, its insistence on beginning with the hard data of experience, including 'vexation of the spirit', and its eschewal of pie-in-the-sky symbology. The class may compare Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be, with its concept of the 'God beyond God', the God who appears when God has disappeared in anxiety and despair. Tillich also spends a good deal of time explaining why God cannot 'be' in the normal sense: God is not a being; he is Being-itself. But Ecclesiastes differs from most existentialist philosophies in not resting with the 'three A's' as definitive categories; also, in fact, in not being a philosophy: it does not really translate into philosophical concepts. For a sharp attack on the tendency of Christian existentialism to translate Christianity's metaphors into philosophical abstractions, see W.F. Albright's introduction to the Matthew volume of the Anchor Bible. Tillich himself has been influenced by Stoicism, as The Courage to Be makes evident; some scholars have tried to claim the influence of both Stoicism and Epicureanism on Ecclesiastes also, but without much success. It is true that Stoicism has a concept of achieving serenity by adapting oneself to the rhythms of a great cosmic order consisting of interlocking cycles; but there is a stiff-upper-lip attitude in Stoicism, a resignation to being locked into a great imprisoning structure of moral and natural law, that is almost the opposite of the freedom and detachment of Ecclesiastes' 'there is a season'. The teacher may want to ask the students to discuss what this famous passage in fact means: after all, they may remember that Pete Seeger turned it into a folk song and sang it to an audience that was interested in anything but submission to law and the sense of unalterable duty.

The teacher may have the class as an exercise look for passages where the Preacher seems directly to contradict himself, and to attempt to formulate reasons why he may have done so. For this book more than any other in the Bible is concerned with driving a wedge between inadequate distinctions, such as the fundamental one between wisdom and folly. Another very basic contradiction that the writer simply walks right through is that between sorrow and joy. Perhaps the bewildered editor who tacked on the phrase about much study being a weariness to the flesh (12:12) thought merely that he was acting on the precedent of the book itself, which after all says such things as, 'For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow' (1:18), as well as the terrifying, 'Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad, and a gift destroyeth the heart' (7:7). What guide to behavior can be deduced from a comparison of 7:2-4 with 9:9: of 'the heart of fools is in the house of mirth' with 'live joyfully'? A similar paradox is inherent in the opposites of labor and enjoyment: students may compare 2:20-24 with 9:10 and with 5:19-20, with its beautiful, 'For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart'. A key to this one is found in chapter 6, where the Preacher establishes his central distinction between laboring for a future end and enjoying the process of the labor itself, which includes enjoying the fruits of labor, so that the work and the reward become two aspects of a single thing and not a means leading to an indefinitely deferred end. As he says in 3:22, 'Wherefore, I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?' That is why the sight of the eyes is better than the wandering of the desire (6:9). The class may note that the harlot figure of folly appears in Ecclesiastes in 7:26, one of whose connections would logically be with an indefinitely deferred desire. What Koholeth condemns is the projection of donkey's-carrot rewards into the distance: it is a fulfillment within the cycles of nature depicted in chapter one that is the only real wisdom. This does not mean an epicurean pleasure in transience; it means, in T.S. Eliot's words, that the present is where the past and future are gathered: 'That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been' (3:15). With such a conception of time as this, even value judgments about life and death become meaningless, so that the two statements, that the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth (7:1) and that 'For him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion' (9:4) become equally true.

Thus, when the Preacher says (3:11; see The Great Code, p. 124) that God has put 'olam' into a man's mind, translated 'the world' in the AV, but meaning either 'eternity' or 'enigma', he means something that forces us out of dualizing modes of thought by forcing us to contemplate opposed things which have nevertheless become one, like the Ouroboros serpent with its tail in its mouth. If this seems to replace easy comfort with the necessity for energetic mental labor, one must remember the admonition found in 5:4: 'he hath no pleasure in fools'.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages

Romans 1:20.—'For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made'.

Hebrews 11:3.—'Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear'.

Ecclesiastes 12:12.—'much study is a weariness of the flesh'.

Ecclesiastes 1:18.—'For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow'.

Ecclesiastes 7:7.—'Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad, and a gift destroyeth the heart'.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4.—'the heart of fools is in the house of mirth'.

Ecclesiastes 9:9.—'Live joyfully'.

Ecclesiastes 2:20-24.—'therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun'.

Ecclesiastes 9:10.—'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might'.

Ecclesiastes 5:19-20.—'For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart'.

Ecclesiastes 3:22.—'a man should rejoice in his own works'.

Ecclesiastes 6:9.—'Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire'.

Ecclesiastes 7:6.—The harlot figure.

Ecclesiastes 3:15.—'That which hath been is now'.

Ecclesiastes 7:1.—The day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth.

Ecclesiastes 9:4.—'a living dog is better than a dead lion'.

Ecclesiastes 3:11.—God has put 'olam (eternity, an enigma) in men's minds'.

Ecclesiastes 5:4.—'he hath no pleasure in fools'.

2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

Chapter Five. Typology II.

pp. 121-25. Wisdom.

Chapter Eight. Language II.

p.230. Faith and doubt.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. What is the relation of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises to Ecclesiastes, from which it takes its title? Is this consonant with the Catholicism of Jake Barnes?
  2. Compare Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat with Ecclesiastes. What differences are there? What similarities?
  3. Wallace Stevens is a poet with affinities to the wisdom tradition: he even has a collection of aphorisms called Adagia. Compare the attitude of his 'Sunday Morning' to Ecclesiastes. How does the denial of supernaturalism in this poem fit with the 'mythology of modern death' in 'The Owl in the Sarcophagus' (note the image of the bird of wisdom alive in the tomb)? Compare his delightful poem 'Ploughing on Sunday' to the exhortation to work in Ecclesiastes, and to the idea of play in our previous program. What New Testament echoes does it evoke?
  4. Compare the opening of Eliot's 'East Coker' to the opening of Ecclesiastes. What is said about wisdom in this poem?

 

 

Transcript: 

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University

LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 18

WISDOM: PLAYING BEFORE GOD (Part 1)

ECCLESIASTES: VANITY OF VANITIES (Part 2)

I was speaking of the development of the conception of wisdom in the Bible, and of its being in its more elementary forms the individualizing of the law that appears in Psalm 119 and various other Psalms, speaking of the love of the law and of its permeation of the individual life. That leads to a sense of wisdom as founded on a sense of social continuity, and in particular of its being embodied in institutions. The continuity and the dignity of the institution is greater than that of the individual; and a great deal of our sense of wisdom is still bound up with a sense of continuity as embodied in institutions of the nation, university, church and law courts.

Wisdom as continuity of institutions goes back to the fact of a social contract, to the fact that we belong to something at least nine months before we are anything. Consequently ninety-five percent of what our lives are going to be is already predestined in the instant of conception: we were all predestined to be middle-class twentieth-century Canadians before we were born. That sense of continuity is also embodied in many conceptions of education. I was speaking of the curiously penal quality of education down to our own century, which is not founded really on sadism so much as on the sense that the existing tradition or custom is that to which the individual has to be assimilated, and if the individual does not succeed in accommodating himself to it, then so much the worse for him.

On that basis, wisdom is distinguished from knowledge, knowledge being knowledge of particulars, and most of those particulars being derived from nature, from the objective world, from human society or from whatever else is objective to the person being educated. Wisdom is rather a sense of the potential, a sense of the ability to deal with the kind of situation that may emerge, and from this emerges a more subtle conception of wisdom. The primitive basis of wisdom is the acceptance of the permanent continuities of society. But society isn't permanent, and it isn't continuous; things happen. So the question arises, what is the quality of mind that deals with changes in society or with unforeseen circumstances?

If you look at the conception of wisdom as dominated by an anxiety to preserve the continuity of doing things as they have been done, you can see that in many societies, such as Confucian China, that can be a very powerful basis of ethics. And yet, if you look at the history of Israel, with that manic-depressive chart of ups and downs that I drew for you at the very beginning of this course, you will see that that is a different kind of sequence altogether. A person who is going to live in that society needs something a bit more than a sense of the preservation of tradition and custom: because one moment you may be in a relatively independent and prosperous country; the next moment, you may be in a country which is occupied by an enemy, where your social circumstances and status may be totally different.

And so you will find yourself living in a very insecure world, and will find that you'll have to rise above this fixation on continuity with the past and realize that what is continuous from the past is a more flexible thing. That is the difference, precisely the difference, between religion and superstition. Superstition is persisting in a thing out of habit without investigating whether it is worth persisting in or not. There is continuity in wisdom, and there is consistency in behavior as one of the sources of genuine human dignity; but of course there is always inorganic consistency, a persisting in things out of what is really an automatic habit.

If you look at the Book of Proverbs, in the 7th and 8th chapters particularly, you find the conceptions of wisdom and folly symbolized by two women, wisdom represented by a wise woman and folly by a harlot. Wisdom speaks in the beginning of chapter 8 of Proverbs, 'Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, Old men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man'. Verse 12: 'I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions'. Here, wisdom is being spoken of as the power out of which knowledge emerges, as an attitude of mind that drives one to seek knowledge, even though one realizes that the knowledge itself is not at all what one is after.

Verse 14: 'Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom: I am understanding; I have strength. By me kings reign and princes decree justice'. Thus, wisdom is associated also with the permanence of authority, when the authority is embodied in justice. And as she goes on, it becomes clear that wisdom is essentially a preservation of the community; and that the distinguishing characteristic of folly is its tendency to turn its back on the community, to be self-seeking, to regard the ego as the basis of all one's interest.

If you look at chapter 9: 'Wisdom hath builded her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars: She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table: She hath sent forth her maidens: She crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled'. Thus, wisdom calls to people to partake of a communal meal of bread and wine, symbolizing again the actualizing of a community; because in the long run the basis of the wise individual is the wise community. It is that aspect of wisdom, of which the social and the individual cannot be separated, that genuine wisdom is addressing. Then in verse 13, there is the contrasting figure, the foolish woman who represents folly. Her sales pitch begins with the same formula as that of the wise woman. Verse 16: 'Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: and as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant'. That is the sense of egocentric knowledge, of the possession that nobody else is to have, the secret knowledge which is being associated in the Bible with folly.

In the latter part of chapter 8 in Proverbs, wisdom, still being personified as a woman, goes back to the beginning of Creation, when she was presumably a child, and says in stanza 22, 'The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water'. Then she goes on to describe the process of Creation, and herself as a part of the process of Creation; because in the Biblical theory, wisdom is an essential part of the creative act. In it, wisdom is again spoken of as female, as a daughter of God, present with him at the time of the Creation.

In verse 31, she says, 'Rejoicing in the habitable part of the earth; and my delights were with the sons of men'. That's the King James: but the King James version is an extremely weak form of the tremendous Vulgate phrase that has haunted the imagination of western Europe for centuries, which doesn't say 'rejoicing', but comes much closer to what the Hebrew means, and says 'playing'; and speaks of wisdom as ludens in orbe terrarum, playing throughout the earth. That notion of wisdom as playing before God at the time of the Creation I think throws an entirely new light on the more subtle forms of wisdom that are taught in the Bible.

If you distinguish work and play, I think you may see that work is energy expended for a further aim in view; whereas play is the expression of energy for its own sake, or the manifestation of what the end in view is. A tennis player or a chess player may work very hard to win a match or to improve his game, but what he is doing when he actually comes in contact with chess or tennis is playing. As I have tried to show in dealing with Biblical imagery, the images are the revealed world in the Bible, are the images of human work, the city, the garden, the sheepfold, the farm and so on. But the word 'play' as associated with wisdom is the living in a way which is a manifestation of these forms when they are completed. Whenever a thing exists for its own end, rather than as a means to a further end, that thing is associate with play rather than with work.

That is why even such terrible and horrifying works as King Lear and Macbeth can still be called 'plays': because they manifest the way human life is as it is, and are not presented to you with any further end in view.

The wisdom playing before God at the Creation again suggests a girl child; so that while the Greek goddess of wisdom is a woman in plate armor with a petrifying gorgon's head on her shield, the Biblical conception of wisdom is something much more like a little girl with a skipping rope. And it's arguable, I think, that that is a far more convincing picture of genuine wisdom, of the expression of energy for its own sake. Certainly it is closer to Matthew's vision of the infant Christ as the goal of the journey of the wise men.

While wisdom is unattained, it doesn't follow that the thing which is unattained is essentially unattainable. It is certainly true that the history of Israel recorded in the Old Testament is not a history of continuous wisdom. But it is possible to attain it, if only for brief moments at a time. The Bible insists all the way through that wisdom is not something you get or something you have: it is something that you are; and consequently it's basis has to be an existential basis. In the hymn to wisdom in the 28th chapter of Job, for example, it says in verse 14: 'The depth saith, it is not in me; and the sea saith, It is not with me'. That is, it is not something you can find, it is not something that is there. It begins in a 'here' consciousness, and genuine wisdom is defined at the end by the fear of the Lord and the departure from evil. As I say, the basis is an existential basis, and that kind of life is nowhere presented as unattainable, difficult as it is to maintain it.

The primitive conception of wisdom is the permeation of the individual life by the communal tradition and prudence. But there are different degrees of absorption of that: and complete absorption comes at the point of complete spontaneity. That is why I said that the figure of wisdom in the Bible suggests the little girl with the skipping rope, and why Jesus places a child in the middle of his disciples, not as a symbol of uncritical intelligence, but as a symbol of genuine wisdom, where the absorption has gone to the point of complete spontaneity. There are many Eastern religions, like Taoism in China and some aspects of Zen Buddhism, that also stress the recovery of the child's spontaneity, that complete integrity of the rhythm of thinking and of doing as the goal of what they are teaching. In practically all of our ordinary life, action comes first, and thinking about the action comes a second or two later, as in T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, where the shadow falls between the idea and the response. That split second of time between acting and thinking about acting is part of what is meant, in Christianity at least, by the Fall. It's the shadow thrown over life that is bound up with the passing of time, and that makes it so difficult for us to live the purely spontaneous life exhorted by the Sermon on the Mount, where the comparison is drawn with lilies of the field.

I think that in Paul's argument, one works for a further end in view, but that is not the central thing that he's talking about, because that becomes a kind of donkey's carrot. You chase a retreating goal, and eventually find that the means don't lead to the end because the means replace the end, and eventually you lose sight of the end. Certainly some of the things that the New Testament means by faith correspond to what the Book of Proverbs means by wisdom: it's the same integrity of action and reflection on the action, the process no longer schizophrenic but the activity of a conscious being. That is why the Book of Proverbs says, 'I dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions'. I think the sound of that in English is right: I don't know how close it is to the Hebrew. But the sense of creativity is I think included in the whole conception of wisdom.

If we turn to the Book of Ecclesiastes, we get a little closer to a fuller treatment of the conception of wisdom. The word 'ecclesiastes' is an attempt to render in Greek the Hebrew word which means preacher,koheleth, and the Preacher, who identifies himself with the legendary Solomon, actually lived many centuries later than the actual King Solomon. He is also, like so many wise men, a collector of proverbs; but he has a kind of touchstone, a phrase which is translated in the King James Bible as 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity', which he applies to all the proverbs that he collects and quotes, and which means: practically all of this is baloney anyway, and you don't need to take it too seriously.

The phrase 'Vanity of vanities' is from the Hebrew way of forming the superlative, as in the holy of holies, or Song of Songs. The word 'vanity' has a metaphorical kernel which means 'fog' or 'mist'; from there it developed a derived sense of 'emptiness', and it's from the sense of 'emptiness' that the Vulgate gets the word vanitas, which is the source of the King James 'vanity'. So that to put the essential position of 'ecclesiastes' into the form of its central paradox, one would say that all things are full of emptiness.

I think that there is no book in the Bible worse served by its translators than the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the King James Bible is I think particularly misleading. A translation of anything is likely to be, and certain to be if it's a translation of the Bible, much more homogeneous than the original. The King James Bible is extremely good when it comes to the solemn and rather somber eloquence that you get in so many of the prophets and the legal parts of the Pentateuch. But the closer the Bible comes to expressing a distinctively human tone, the further the King James goes astray, not so much in its rendering of the sense as in its rhythm and its sound. When you get to Paul, for example, with his very lively conversational style and his abundance of commercial and business metaphors, you often find that modern translations are really closer to the mood of Paul than the King James, simply because they are modern: simply because the kind of English we speak now is closer to the kind of Greek that Paul spoke.

Ecclesiastes is a very late writer, and so his style is on the whole much less oracular than the earlier parts of the Old Testament. For example, if you look at chapter 2, verse 3, the King James Bible says 'I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom'.  Now what that means is that the Preacher went through a stage in which he tried to be a sensible Epicurean. That is, he tried to get pleasure without hangover, so he experimented in drinking without getting drunk. But when that is presented in language that sounds like something out of an oraison funebre by Bossuet, the reader is badly misled, not so much about the sense of what he's saying as about the tone.

And so, when you read in the commentaries that the author of Ecclesiastes is really an old, pessimistic man who is tired of life, (A) throw the book in the basket and, (B) read the Book of Ecclesiastes again, because you are being totally misled about the actual emotional attitude of a shrewd and humorous and toughminded writer. Being tired of life is the very last thing he is, and in fact being tired of life is the one disease for which he has no remedy to suggest. You should get rather the impression of somebody determined to tear off all the veils of illusion and superstition that keep repressing our mental processes. We often speak of being disillusioned as something that leaves us feeling dismal. But of course we shouldn't feel dismal if we get disillusioned: we ought to feel as though we've been let out of jail. Illusions are a prison.

There was a time when we went to school to learn the three R's. But we now go to learn the three A's: anxiety, absurdity and alienation. That is the primer of twentieth-century man: if a person knows the meaning of those three words, he knows all the wisdom that the twentieth century can teach him, which, God knows, is little enough. Anyway, the author of Ecclesiastes is aware of all these three A's, and he tells you how to get through them. Most of it, of course, consists simply of ignoring them; but there are other things to do as well.

I think I've said before, in commenting on the imagery of the Bible, that in the Bible as in other works, you find the world divided between visible and invisible reality. There are many thinkers for whom the invisible world forms an order of reality superior to that of the visible world. In commenting on creation, I've suggested that while the Bible recognizes an invisible world, it doesn't think of it as a superior order of reality. It thinks of the invisible world rather as the means by which the world becomes visible. That is, if you start to think of things that you can't see but know to exist, the first thing you might think of is the air. You can't see the air because if you did, you could see nothing else. If you could see the air, you would be living in a dense fog or mist, which is one of the metaphorical meanings of this word 'vanity'. You can't see the air because its being invisible enables you to see what is not air. In the account of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the first things created are light and the firmament, that is, the basis of vision and sound. Because there is a sense in which you don't see light either: you see a source or reflection of light.

Thus, when the author of Ecclesiastes speaks of vanity, he has in mind a conception rather like what some Oriental religions are talking about when they speak of the void—shunyata I think is the Buddhist term. That is, everything is there, but everything is in nothingness. The objective world is neither there nor not there. It is rather a forest that man has got lost in, and his schedule of behavior is connected with finding a way out of it. If he is oppressed by the objectivity, by the thereness of the forest, he will find himself tramping around in a circle, which is the inevitable symbol of lost direction. If on the other hand he assumes that the forest is not there, he will very soon find himself bumping into trees. So to find the way out, you have to steer a middle course. There is something in the forest which is there, and something which is not there. When you find a wedge between those two things, you've started to find your way out.

That, I think, is what the author of Ecclesiastes means primarily by vanity. It means that he is abandoning all the things that I've called donkeys' carrots: for one thing, the value judgment that wisdom is better than folly. He says that he decided that wisdom was better than folly; then he found that that was vanity, because the wise man and the fool both die, so there's no advantage in wisdom. 'Then said I to myself, this also is vanity'. That is, once you stop with the notion that there's no difference between wisdom and folly, you're in as bad a muddle as you are when you assume that there is a difference. If I can give an example of what is meant here, we may say of the village saint and the village sinner in a small community that the saint is the better man than the sinner, and that all our moral standards would collapse into chaos unless we assumed that the saint was the better man than the sinner; and that if they were both threatened with peril or disaster, the saint would be the more important man to save. That's all right, except that the saint himself would be very unlikely to take such a view, and would certainly in a crisis be more likely to try to save the sinner than to save himself. Consequently, the axiom of his behavior is not at all that sanctity is better than sinning: he has got to a position where 'this' and 'this not' are equally meaningless. That is the basis of the ethic of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is very close to that of the Sermon on the Mount.