Theologians have strong opinions about the book of Ecclesiastes. Some descriptions about the writer, known as the Teacher, include pessimistic skeptic, practical atheist, existential sage who shows how absurd life is, sunny optimist, and investigative reporter. Many feel he has a schizophrenic outlook on life, affirming the importance of reverence and dependence on God one minute and in the next demonstrating a pessimistic do what you want because what does it matter anyway approach.
His book begins with the mystery he has set out to solve. The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” [Eccl 1:1-2]. He asks, What does anyone gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun? [Eccl. 1:3]
In today’s culture the Teacher would be a rap star. He asks a lot of questions and his questions come out of his observations. We want, demand, answers, but the Teacher says some questions don’t have any answers.
Of the questions he asks, almost one third of them concern what comes after death. Closely related to that and next in number are questions about the lack of gain we receive from working. The rest address practical matters that come up.
It is certain had Albert Camus happened along in 3 BCE, the Teacher might have opened a bottle of exceptional wine and settled in for an evening of indepth conversation. Meursault’s apathy could be a direct result of the Teacher’s findings in his search for coherency. Like the Teacher, Meursault says in Camus’ The Stranger, “As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant but, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was futile.”
In fact, they might become buddies based on their shared observations. Meursault draws another conclusion when he says, “And so I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep.” Meursault sees no meaning in the world around him and is not moved by his mother’s death. He is indifferent to marriage to his girlfriend and even when he is in jail for committing murder, about to be hanged, he cannot summon passion against his fate.
What do the Teacher and Meursault do with these observations? Maybe they pull out the remote and watch A Serious Man together.
Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.
Zora Neale Hurston, in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Off the Beaten Path:
The book of Ecclesiastes: https://ebible.org/pdf/eng-web/eng-web_ECC.pdf
Albert Camus’ The Stranger
Camus and the meaning of life: e/pyb1nKY45Cw
A scene from the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, when the besieged professor of physics, Larry Gopnic, tries to explain the Uncertainty Principle to a group of university students. Meanwhile, he finds himself living the Uncertainty Principle, in spades: https://youtu.be/_qdieotihX0
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, explores a woman’s search for meaning in a world controlled by men. It is available as a novel, audiobook and movie.