PART 3 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’
“KNOWLEDGE is Power!” Ever since Michel Foucault, the French post-modern philosopher, formulated it, this slogan has been repeated, mantra-like, by politicians, scientists, policy makers and intellectuals of every stripe.
Of course, the slogan does give expression to that which is true in our world. There is power in knowledge: technical and scientific knowledge, for example, has the power to increase the quality of life and to contribute to human flourishing. Knowledge is therefore highly prized in our society and both the philosopher and the politician have waxed eloquent about the worthiness of the “quest for knowledge”.
Against this almost universal enthusiasm for knowledge and its possibilities, the Preacher declared it to be “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (1:14).
What was the writer of Ecclesiastes trying to say?
The Preacher certainly was not a non-participant observer, an armchair theorist. “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven … I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (1:13, 14).
And again, “I thought to myself, ‘Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem. I have experienced much wisdom and knowledge’ ” (1:16).
The Preacher was determined to engage himself in rigorous study and copious experimentation, determined to personally discover the truth instead of relying on second-hand sources. His investigation was thorough and he explored every conceivable option. But in the end, he concedes that human wisdom is futile.
The crucial question is, What does the Preacher mean by wisdom in this passage? Bearing in mind the Preacher’s concern with that which is done “under the sun”, wisdom in this context refers not just to human learning as such but the esteem that human society has accorded it.
By wisdom, the Preacher is referring to the best thinking that man is capable of on the one hand, and on the other, the way in which such knowledge is prized.
In a word, he is calling to question the excessive – and almost idolatrous – elevation of human wisdom.
Although this inflated view of human wisdom is found in all ages and cultures, it is seen most markedly in our modern scientific culture in which science is said to have the ability to uncover the mysteries of life itself.
The Preacher graphically describes the frustration and futility of human wisdom in verses 15 to 18. Knowledge is never gained without strenuous effort: the frontiers of knowledge take pioneering sweat! This quest is described as a “heavy burden” (v 13). All this effort would be worthwhile if after attaining knowledge one gains a sense of fulfilment and mastery over one’s life and circumstances. But this is not the case. Instead the opposite results seem to yield themselves.
A German saying, “Viel Wissen macht Kopfweh” (“Much knowledge gives one a headache!”) appears to sum up verse 18 quite ably and with untranslatable pathos. The more we understand, the less we understand. The more we peer into the mystery, the more out of focus we get. While a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, too much can be downright depressing!
And if we think that our knowledge can make things better, the Preacher tells us bluntly to think again! “What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (v 15).
The impotence of human knowledge in solving the mystery of life is compounded by its inability to change things. Despite the exponential growth of human knowledge, some problems appear to be incapable of resolution. This realisation is particularly painful in our age.
In this scientific age, we expect answers. We expect our doctors to heal the sick, and we expect our engineers to build better planes and bridges. Modern scholarship assures us of answers to all our questions and solutions to all of life’s practical problems. But the reality is very different. The enigma of life stubbornly remains. And the thick fog of mystery remains impenetrable.
In his usual provocative way, the Preacher invites us to take a hard look at human wisdom, a “commodity” that is highly exalted in our culture. However, it would be too naïve to interpret verse 18 to mean “ignorance is bliss”. To do so is to miss the point.
The Preacher does not advocate that we rubbish human learning; he merely invites us to look at it realistically. The world that we inhabit is a fallen world, and human wisdom, insofar as it is an aspect of this fallen world, is limited.
By bringing our attention to the larger picture, i.e. that ours is a fallen reality, the Preacher hopes to confront us with the meagreness of what we can do to change the world and ourselves.
Ecclesiastes is not anti-science and anti-progress. But it warns against the conceit of the human spirit which thinks itself capable of solving all of life’s problems. It puts human wisdom in its proper place in order to point to a higher wisdom, the wisdom of God.
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.