The Infinite Wisdom of the Limit

Naked Questions/3 - Beyond the vertigo of the Apocalypse and the artificial paradises

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 22/11/2015

Logo Qohelet"Only the gods live forever under the sun. As for men, their days are numbered; their achievements are a puff of wind.

(The epic of Gilgamesh; English translation by John Gardner and John Maier).

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind." (Ecclesiastes 1,12-14).

Qoheleth is like Solomon, the wisest man in Israel, who, with his wisdom, has investigated and explored all "things under the sun." No one wiser than Solomon, no one better than Qoheleth has "applied their heart" - that is, all the entrails of their intelligence, wisdom and love - to get to know the world and the sons of Adam.

Wisdom is not the purpose of his research; it is the tool for research. It is the premise, the precondition for the pursuit of truth. Ecclesiastes overturns the common thesis that saw wisdom as the result of research, like the end of the road, and places it at the beginning, as the habit of the researcher who wants to know. It does not tell us how to obtain wisdom. Qoheleth's speech does not need it, because it is like the words of Solomon, pronounced in its maturity, after exercising his wisest royal function for a long time: “I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” (1,16).

That's where the eternal paradox of every sincere - anthropological, moral, religious, artistic - search for truth lies... To start looking and moving in the right direction, we need a kind of wisdom that we do not possess before starting the journey. Yet we have to start it. The people of Israel, and to varying degrees all peoples and cultures, have decided to dissolve this paradox by donating a collective wisdom to those who began their search for the truth without possessing their own wisdom individually. You can start looking for wisdom without possessing wisdom because the wisdom of the beginning can be inherited as a gift. Wisdom is heritage (patrimony), which is a gift (munus) of the fathers (patres). Those who begin their journey of faith are already inside the wisdom of the people, which like a teacher guides them towards the wisdom of the end which is essential for wisdom not be held only tradition and heritage but also a personal habit.

Ecclesiastes, however, with his pitiless analysis of the laws of life sends this wisdom inherited from tradition in crisis: Solomon, the climax and image of the wisdom of the fathers, the guarantor of the inherited wisdom with which the sons and daughters of the Adam can set off in search of the truth about the world and the things that are below (and above) the sun, pronounces habel over the wisdom of the end at the end of his research. The result of the pursuit of knowledge is nothing but vanity and a striving after wind; yet no wiser occupation than this exists under the sun. Seeking the truth without owning it, investigating knowledge remaining unsatisfied and needy of it is simply the human condition. A fate that Qoheleth calls "unhappy", an unfortunate "business" that God-Elohim wanted for men who were sick of an insatiable desire for the infinite. Wisdom, which is a gift and heritage is nothing but smoke, wind, waste, nothing, Abel. The wise ones are those who begin the search knowing that in the end they will find the same vanitas of the beginning. Wisdom is to recognize that we have been and will always be longing for a fullness that remains half, yearning for a light of a sun that never comes at noon. We reach a certainty and immediately feel it is deciduous, brief and ephemeral. It is the wind that does not satisfy. At the same time, Qoheleth-Solomon is still the wisest man of all. Wisdom therefore lies in becoming aware of this infinite need, recognizing the condition of impotence of our heart and intelligence: What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted." (1,15) Wisdom is to be able, finally, to sing the habel.

And from here, humbly and tragically, to start living giving up illusions and false consolations. Ecclesiastes asks a new maturity in human relations and in faith. It is a precious friend on the day when, after living for decades next to a person, we see that there is a mysterious dimension of their heart totally unknown to us that we will never know, either. Or when we finally understand that our faith was fantasy and ideology, and hear ourselves inside saying the tremendous and liberating: habel. To return, finally, to being poor. On the day of the adult awakening Qoheleth tells us that this need cannot be satisfied, and that those who deny this radical poverty of mind and heart and want to possess the whole mystery of the other and maybe of God are fools, idolaters or idols. The day on which the song of Qoheleth begins is not the end of faith, it may be just the beginning. For this reason the Bible wanted to keep the habel at the centre of its humanism. Faith becomes adult and spiritual life flourishes when we are able to sing "all is habel" and remain within the horizon of a non-empty sky.

We do not understand all the value of the bare words of Ecclesiastes unless we set them in their time (which is also ours). When this book was written, a new religious literature of apocalyptic nature was flourishing in Israel. It denied the condition of limitedness and need for knowledge and truth, and relied on filling the "gap" by visions and special revelations and dreams that pointed to a future fulfilment of the need for knowledge and wisdom. Ecclesiastes does not only fight the ideology of retributive theology, apocalyptic and visionary religion is also its enemy. Apocalyptic literature met the Biblical tradition, the people of Israel felt the charm of it, and it has even penetrated into some of their traditions and books. Some more radical apocalyptic texts (such as those of Enoch) did not enter into the canon; but while Qoheleth was being written, confrontation was very intense, and many Israelites were captured by the new apocalyptic faith. Thanks also to the ethical and spiritual struggle of Qoheleth, the ancient scribes left Enoch on the margin and placed Ecclesiastes at the centre of the Bible. If the apocalyptic line had prevailed we would not have just had another Hebrew Bible: the interpretation of the Christian experience itself would have been very different, as well as the canonical and apocryphal gospels, and there would be a different reading of the figure of Jesus Christ, a different story of Europe and the world, we would have different science, philosophy and life. We would have had a Bible that's less on the side of men and the poor, and would be a guardian of an easier and less true God. It would be further away from habel-Abel. We would have had less true words to try to stammer something, in this November 2015, in the 'time for crying'.

This dialogues between faith and ideology, between apocalyptic and historical humanism, continue to this day, in our societies, religions, churches, when there is much temptation for those who in front of the hardness of the art of living under the sun, instead of welcoming meekly the truth of our moral and spiritual poverty, build artificial paradises, spectacular faiths and revelations that respond to all the questions of yesterday and tomorrow, that promise to reveal all the secrets and mysteries under and above the sun. They are the ones who will not settle for a true faith that's black and white but want an imaginary one that's multi-coloured. Ecclesiastes tells us, with all the force of his painful (because not ideological) wisdom, that the only "revelations" that help to live are those that reconcile with the finiteness, fragility and precariousness of life and faith, with habel. There is no greater folly than to build illusions to answer our disillusions. It is foolishness that becomes immensely great when these constructions become collective, real empires of illusion. Men and women have always done so, they still do so, and will continue to do so. But in this invincible production of faiths and artificial paradises you will never find an ally in Ecclesiastes.

Faith - any faith - also lives of promise and of the not-yet. But there are times of crisis in which the search for paradise becomes the enemy of the research of Abel, where the expectation of the not-yet threatens to kill Abel who is already here, with his destitute, wounded, partial, imperfect and penultimate humanity. In such times - and ours is one of those - it is essential to return to Ecclesiastes if we do not want to turn faiths into collective illusions and religions in the temples of consumption of emotional experiences that are just too far from Abel.

And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow." (1,17-18)

This striving after wind cannot be satisfied, it grows with the desire of wisdom, and it does not let us die if we manage to call it by name. Sister vanitas, brother Abel. The only solidarity that saves is the one that blooms from the recognition of our mutual fragility. If fraternité is able to rise again, it will be the resurrection of an endless number of Abels.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is read during the "Feast of the Tabernacles" (Sukkot), when together with the joy of the harvest, the humble and fragile huts of the Exodus are also remembered that families build in the gardens of their houses, with simple and temporary materials. Ecclesiastes keeps the memory of the transience of life alive. But the hut is also a symbol and reminder of the crossing of the sea, when free men and women (since they had been freed from slavery of the pharaohs and their idols) began a new life in the desert. A reed hut is a good home for those who want to free themselves from the empires of comforting illusions. For those who want to continue to be on Abel's side while the hand of Cain keeps striking down on him.

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