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February 18, 2005

Ecclesiates on Lockean Property, Darwinian Fitness, Modern America, and Wisdom

I went to a grad student Bible study today and had 4 insights into Ecclesiastes that I had never had before: (1) It supports the Lockean/free-market theory of private property; (2) It attacks the Darwinian fitness idea of the summum bonum; (3) It attacks the modern American idea of the summum bonum as living a long time and satisfying appetite; (4) It starts from the premise that wisdom is good, rather than saying wisdom is vanity. Here are the passages: . . .

. . .

Ecclesiastes 5 says

18 Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.

19 Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.

Thus, it seems that if a man acquires riches by his labor, they are his to enjoy. To be sure, some duty of charity is required too, but that is a separate issue from ownership.

Ecclesiastes 6 says:

3 If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he.

4 For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness.

Darwinian fitness has two components: (1) having lots of offspring, and (2) having a long lifespan. Happiness and virtue are irrelevant. Ecclesiastes 6:3-4 says that fitness is a foolish goal.

Ecclesiastes 6 also says:
7 All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled.

8 For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living?

9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit.

This passage attacks the goal of satisfaction of the appetite-- which is uncomfortably close to the economist's goal of value maximization. Modern America emphasizes two somewhat contradictory goals as the summum bonum: long life, and satisfaction of the appetites (though perhaps the appetite for life, distinct from any happiness, is part of that).

Note, however, the interpolation of verse 8, comparing the wise and the foolish. In isolation, this would seem to say that wisdom is useless. Since the verses before and after it are about appetite and desire, however, there is a different, opposite interpretation. Suppose we take as a premise that wisdom is essential for the good life. We then can construct this syllogism:

1. Wisdom is essential for the good life.

2. The fool can satisfy his appetites just as much as the wise man can.

3. Therefore, satisfaction of the appetites is not part of the good life.

Similarly, the wise and the fool both die, so living forever (or even longer, perhaps) is not part of the good life.

What, then, is part of the good life? Virtue, piety, and satisfaction, all of which are inaccessible to the fool.

Posted by erasmuse at February 18, 2005 09:50 PM

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