Sunday favorites

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;

round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.

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  • D9000

    A better description of a depressive episode I have yet to read. One can only hope he got better.

  • Ecclesiastes has some good bits(*), but this is not one of them.

    Incidentally the term translated “vanity” literally means “vapor”,”breath”. The use of “vanity” seems to reflect the idea of “lacking in substance” rather than the modern concept of vanity; treating it as if it reflected the modern concept would seem to me at least to be reading something into the text that’s not there. Other possible translations used or suggested range from “absurd”, “unjust”, to “futile” or “emptiness”.

    From a modern perspective much of the logic of the passage is now reversed. We know now that the earth does not remain for ever; that in a few billion years not only will the earth be destroyed but even the entire galaxy will likely have been drastically reshaped from its current form (as a result of colliding with Andromeda). We know that the weather and the seasons may be cyclic on the short term but can have long-term trends which may not be favorable to us. On the other hand we’ve spent several centuries rejecting the idea that “what has been done is what will be done”; we now know that it is possible to do better.

    (*) – for an example of a good bit, I like this one, which I commend to the attention of the political right in the USA and elsewhere:

    Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

  • Sort of buddhisty, very melancholy. I wonder if the author would react well or badly to the idea of the eventual heat death of the universe.


  • That really is depressing.

    Are you feeling okay, Fred?

  • Worthless Beast

    Fits my outlook on life much of the time.  It’s pretty well true in a world in which everything dies. 

    (If anyone wonders about me… I’m never “okay”).  Eh, one of my recent stories ended with the line “Existence is pain, but it has some bright spots, too.” 

  • ”   Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
        Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
        The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
        The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
        The best lack all conviction, while the worst
        Are full of passionate intensity.

        Surely some revelation is at hand;
        Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

    Yeats, The Second Coming

  • Fusina

     I am clinically depressed. I read this passage when I want to be cheered up.

  • badJim

    “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” – Damon Runyon

  • Amaryllis

    Yes, in a few billion years the earth will be gone.  Climate changes, seasonality changes, society changes. And for that matter,  all the  rivers do not run into the sea; some of them run into endorheic basins.

    And but so what.

    Doesn’t change the fact that, whatever people can think of to do with themselves, people have already thought of it, sometime, somewhere.

    Or that on the scale of one human life, the earth remains, for all practical purposes, forever.

    And it doesn’t change the end to which every human life is tending. If you’re even lucky enough to live that long.

    … the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in
    While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
    the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men
    shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and
    those that look out of the windows be darkened,

    the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding
    is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the
    daughters of music shall be brought low;

    when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in
    the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall
    be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home,
    and the mourners go about the streets:

    ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the
    pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

    Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

  • This is one of those passages from the Bible that reminds me of a couple different things.

    One is the Blues. There’s nothing like listening to Blues music when depressed to help cheer up, at least for me. 

    It also would fit very well in an ancient Egyptian religious text. Large portions of the Bible would. Just swap out a name or two. Ecclesiastes would fit particularly well. Which makes perfect sense.

  • Double post. Disquis is being weird.

  • Doesn’t change the fact that, whatever people can think of to do with
    themselves, people have already thought of it, sometime, somewhere.

    You’re saying that here, on a tiny part of a global communications system that allows people to talk to each other in ways that weren’t practical for many people 25 years ago and which 50 years ago were anticipated by only the keenest science-fiction writers?

  • Brooke Eikenberry

    Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of Bible, because really, what is better than a good existential crisis to start the day?

  • erikagillian

     “Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
    But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
    Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
    And meet me tonight in Atlantic City”

    This is the cheerful song on Nebraska :)
    (Bruce Springsteen, for those not fans)

  • aunursa

    This morning my 104 year-old grandmother passed away peacefully in her sleep.

    Obviously I will not be participating much, if at all, for the next week or so.

  • Dash1

    I’m so very sorry for your loss.
    Best wishes to you and your family. 

  • Dash1

    Not buying it. aunursa’s mention of his grandmother reminds me that some people now living were born when women didn’t have the right to vote, when, even in advanced nations, they were essentially considered the property of their husbands.

    So I just googled the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And via their representatives, the majority of people on earth have signed onto those principles, and they are backed by the primary international body. That is a pretty good thing, and those ideas don’t go back that far.

    On the other hand, after a week of the Republican National Convention and looking ahead to a week of the Democratic National Convention, . . . yeah, I can see why this particular passage in Ecclesiastes might come to mind.

    And on yet another hand, now I think of it, interviewing a chair–that’s something new under the sun.

  •  I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Amaryllis

    Deepest sympathy to you and your family.

  • Amaryllis

     Yes, that’s just technology.

    Which I’m a fan of. I’m very fond of the Internet, and dental anesthetics, and eyeglasses, and indoor plumbing, and antibiotics, and refrigeration, and dependable contraception (that, actually, probably comes closest to “something new under the sun.”)

    But technology just allows you to do whatever you’re doing, only more accurately, or more comfortably, or just more. We talk to people whom we’d never have met, pre-Internet, but are we saying anything that might not have been said, allowing for cultural context, any time these past eight thousand years?

  • Amaryllis

     “For all the shut-down strangers and hot-rod angels
    Rumblin’ through this promised land,
    Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
    And wash these sins from our hands.”

     Bruce Springsteen, from “Racing in the Street”

    Because it’s race weekend where I am, and because I used to quote Springsteen on these Sunday posts all the time.

  • Amaryllis

      interviewing a chair–that’s something new under the sun.

    What’ll be really new is if the chair talks back.

    As for the rest,  those are fine ideals. And a society that implemented them all, fully, would be something new. I don’t think we’re there yet, but there’s always hope.

    “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a
    man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see
    not, then do we with patience wait for it.”  (Romans 8:24-25)

    I’m just not sure that the ideals, or the hope, sprang fully formed out of nowhere in 1948. Many of them have been around, in one form or another, for much longer than that.

  • mmy

    And on yet another hand, now I think of it, interviewing a chair–that’s something new under the sun. 

    Actually, it is quite a common practice in broadcasting, if someone doesn’t turn up for a promised interview, for the host to make a point of asking the planned questions to an empty chair.  For example, when Craig Sooner–George Zimmerman’s lawyer–didn’t show up for a schedule appearance on the Lawrence O’Donnell show, O’Donnell proceeded to direct his angry questions at the empty chair. 

    @aunursa:disqus — my sympathies.

  • We Must Dissent

    interviewing a chair–that’s something new under the sun

    That was just Bob Newhart’s shtick done poorly with a different prop.

  • Dash1

     I thought about that–I spend a good bit of time with ancient literature. And I agree that the principles of the Declaration did not “spring fully formed out of nowhere” in 1948. Certainly, they were developed over the course of the Enlightenment.

    But before that, I’m not so sure. The ancient Hebrews felt that fellow ancient Hebrews (mostly)–or at least the male ones (mostly)–shouldn’t be treated like other slaves, and the Greeks were horrified when the Spartans enslaved other Greeks. But I don’t see anything pre-Enlightenment that has the universal view that the Declaration does.

    And there’s definitely something about recognizing the humanity of all people. Granted, we don’t live up to it. But that’s something that I don’t see in the ancient world, or even the medieval one.

    So I’m going to stick by my claim.

  • Dash1

    Truly! And Newhart noticed.

    Actually, before tea, coffee and cocoa as breakfast drinks became the norm, it was pretty common to get up in the morning and drink wine or ale and then keep drinking alcohol the rest of the day, water safety being pretty dodgy otherwise. So I’d be surprised if there weren’t quite a few cases, as the day wore on, of people talking to chairs.

    So I will happily walk that claim back. 

    [Edited for punctuation.]

  • Mike Timonin

    But I don’t see anything pre-Enlightenment that has the universal view that the Declaration does.


  • Dash1

     Well, the potential roots go back to the first time one bunch of hominids tried to look at things from the perspective of another bunch.  But there are lots and lots of examples of people finding a way to incorporate this or that group of Others into the Us. The Samaritan, after all, turns out to be “our neighbor.” And I recall reading that the Pope decided at some point that crossbows couldn’t be used because they were too cruel.

    Excuse me, couldn’t be used against fellow Christians. As for the Saracens, well go to it.

    But it’s one thing to regard fellow soldiers as . . . fellow soldiers (especially from two adjacent countries). And another to at least sign on to the idea that some female child from a far-distant place is as worthy of an education as your children are.

  • Lori

    May the memory of your grandmother’s long life be a blessing.

  • Worthless Beast


    When my guy and I were watching Colbert make fun of that, I brought up an anime convention joke that is surely long-forgotten by most fans by now… Back in the late 1990s-early 2000s at a con called Otakon, there was a running gag in which attendees to the masquarade shouted for the apperance of Chair, because one year, the masquarade was started late and a lone chair stood on the stage – and, well, bored young anime fans will find or make hiliarity out of anything.  Of course, I knew this by word of Internet and word of mouth until I actually got to go to Otakon. By then, the joke  had run its course over a couple of years and was passe.  Instead, a computer snafu at the AMV contest when I was there had us all chanting “Oh, Hell! It’s a Dell!” 

    The point being, ascribing personality to an empty chair is nothinig new.  Anime-nerds were doing it at a convention before Republicans caught on.

  • Joshua

    Aunursa – sorry for your loss.

  • Mike Timonin

     …[I]t’s one thing to regard fellow soldiers as . . . fellow soldiers (especially from two adjacent countries).

    As I understand it, the (informal) agreement was that French soldiers would be treated like British soldiers by the British, and vice versa – a clear antecedent to the Geneva Conventions, wherein all soldiers are to treated as you wish your soldiers to be treated. 

    [it’s] another to at least sign on to the idea that some female child from a far-distant place is as worthy of an education as your children are.

    True. Indeed, I think we are entirely in agreement here – the 1948 declaration was a huge step, and, hopefully at some point in the future, we will be able to live up to it. I’m merely suggesting that the step started before the Enlightenment. Mind you, it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    My deepest condolences, aunursa.

  • Joshua

    IIRC there’s a chunk of Proverbs that seems to be textually related to an Egyptian document, but I can’t remember the details. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes both come from the same genre of First Testament literature, called Wisdom literature among Christian theologians.

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    I wondered what Newhart would think of that.

    The bit where he offered to help Clint work on his stand-up routine was hilarious.

  • erikagillian

     He sure does use religious imagery.  That Catholic eduction proving useful :)

  • Turcano

    As far as themed music for this passage goes, here’s an old favorite.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

    The Unnamable, Samuel Becket

  • We talk to people whom we’d never have met, pre-Internet, but are we saying anything that might not have been said, allowing for cultural context, any time these past eight thousand years?

    Well let’s see. Here are some things I say and know to be true:

    Consent is central to sex.

    All genders are equal. 

    The gender binary is false.

    What is true for one person is not necessarily true for another in all cases.

    There is no such thing as magic.

    Parents do not own their children.

    Everyone has the right to a good education, shelter, food, and health care.

    Here I am, a disabled poor woman, talking with healthy and wealthy men who usually listen to me. I’m an atheist who is not in danger of being killed for not believing in X religion. I’ve been having sex with men for half my life and I have no children, though as far as I know I’m fertile. 

    World War One changed the world, and we’ve been changing quickly ever since. There are new things under the sun — and there were when that passage was written, too. That humans are unchanged in many ways does not mean that we have not also changed in many ways.

  • christopher_young

    My sympathy to aunursa and his family.

    I’m not sure the way this discussion has developed is the most constructive way to respond to a poem which was probably written in response to specific circumstances and was certainly written a very long time ago. Personally, and nobody has to agree with me about this, I think it’s a wonderful poem, but probably not one for every day.

  • flat

    my thoughts are with you aunursa.

    One of the most thought provoking pieces in the bible in my opinion

  • Dash1

     Ah, but if you did die on it, I would treat you like one of my own soldiers. ;-)

    I don’t actually think we disagree that much. Definitely, the seeds are there, and definitely, there was a long road full of baby steps. But I do think that there is something different–in kind, rather than merely in degree–in how we are looking at the world now. Some of it is the Enlightenment, which, I think, carried within it the seeds of anti-tribalism. Some of it, I would suggest–and I’ve heard this cogently argued–is the development of the novel and increase in literacy, with the result that ordinary people are able to develop empathy for those who aren’t like them. (Yes, I know Chinese and Japanese writers have been creating novels for a long time. I don’t mean to make this Euro-centric. I do mean to say that overall when literacy increases, more people have access to more information about, and the potential for more empathy, for other people. And people can speak for themselves who could not before.)

    Some of it is the dissemination of information. Some of it is space flight, which gave us an external view of the world as a ball floating in space.

    Some of it is the development of non-literacy-based means of communication that, again, allow people to speak for themselves who might not have had access to such means before.

    True, there are pressures pushing back to tribalism because there are those who benefit from such things. But I do see some hope in at least some of what is happening now.

    Also, what Lliira said, much more succinctly and poetically than I have.

  • Amaryllis

     And I won’t argue with any of that. And maybe a society where all those
    things are commonly held to be true, at the same time, is something new.
    Would be something new.

    As indivdual beliefs, people have been saying them, and even living by some of them, for a long time. Soemtimes individual people, sometimes whole societies.

  • Amaryllis

     I think it’s a wonderful poem too.

    Look one way at the world, and “there is nothing new under the sun.” Focus your eyes a little differently, and as another poet once said, “In every wood, in every spring / There is a different green.”

    Both true.

  • Dash1

     Bingo! And well said, to boot!

    I also agree with Fusina and Lliira that the poem can have the same effect as the blues, of pulling one into the mellower areas of a down period. Which is also good.

  • Dash1

     Wait a minute! Looking carefully at what the poet seems to be saying, might be saying, and how the world might or might not fit what he sees, and how the poem does and does not match what we see when we look at the world–these are not constructive ways of responding to a poem?

    We took as given that it was written in response to specific circumstances–what poem isn’t? And that, while  we might not be able to retrieve those exact circumstances, the poet was saying something timeless as well as specific. And we tried to figure out what that might be and if it told the whole story.

    Every poet I know is delighted to have his/her poetry receive this kind of discussion.

  • Fusina

     Actually, I read it to remind myself that one can get a bit silly with the melodrama. Because in spite of the depression, this is a pretty good world. I have things I like to do, books to read, and in the end, it is all good. Even the bad stuff–it gives me a chance to be a better person than I might have been. Not that I am a saint–except it does say in the bible that we all are, so how bout that all you wonderful saints out there–and not that bad stuff happening is good, I don’t mean that either. It’s complicated.

  • The first time I read Ecclesiastes, I felt deeply sorry for the author’s frustrated curiosity: he was asking questions which science actually can answer, but he lived and died too soon to know that.