Thursday, August 6, 2009

King Solomon Explains the Failure of the Pleasure Principle

"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?"
- Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

And again in 3:12-13, "I perceived that there is nothing better for them [i.e., the children of man] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil - this is God's gift to man."

And once more in 3:22, "So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?"

And again in 5:18-20, "Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil - this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart."

We see Solomon here looking back on his own life. He has pursued wisdom (1:13), self-indulgence (2:1), wealth (2:8), women (2:8b), and even workaholism (2:18-23). After exhausting these attempts at self-fulfillment, he concludes that it is labor in its proper sphere - to produce an enjoyable livelihood, neither as drudgery or as a source of personal significance, and then the enjoyment of the fruits of that labor - that produce a satisfying life. In other words, the greatest king in Scripture, who had every luxury known to man at his command, concluded that it was all vanity; but the labor of the common man, who then spent the fruits of that labor on enjoying life, was where true material happiness was to be found.

Even though Solomon's discovery has been available to men for about three thousand years, it is a lesson that seems to elude too many people. Our own society seems to experience only the two extremes: everyone seems devoted to dissipation, on one hand, or is an obsessive workaholic, on the other, or even both. Solomon experienced both, and concluded that there is no real fulfillment in either. Rather, fulfillment is found in meaningful labor in its sphere, and the use of the fruits to enjoy the rest of one's life.

What would our society look like if we followed Solomon's prescription? I suspect that stress-related illnesses would decrease, addiction to vices would fade, wantonness in children would be a surprise rather than expected, divorce would become the exception rather than the rule. One could imagine a host of unforced reforms that might resonate across society.

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