This article originally appeared at SI July 7, ‘06.
Does Ecclesiastes teach Epicureanism? In a word, no. Despite certain passages in Ecclesiastes that “sound” Epicurean, if we take the message of Solomon as a whole and the message of Epicurus as a whole, we discover that the two views of life under the sun are quite at odds with one another. The philosopher known for “vanity of vanities,” in the final analysis, is life-affirming, and the philosopher known for “eat, drink, and be merry” actually sucks the joy out of life.
I would like first to correct what is probably a popular misconception of Epicureanism. Then I would like to lay out four contrasting points between the two views: their views of God (or the gods), of death, of humanity and human desire, and of the summum bonum–that is, the greatest good.
First, a word of clarification. Epicureanism has somehow earned a false reputation for reckless and dissipated hedonism. Actually, it is ascetic hedonism. The original Epicurus pursued maximum pleasure and minimum pain, but his strategy was anything but the “party till you drop” lifestyle that the word Epicurean brings to mind nowadays. Some parties bring pain, Epicurus observed. His strategy was actually one of detaching oneself from the cares and concerns of this world, to keep one’s mind free from turmoil (a state he called, in Greek, ataraxia). Instead of trying to fulfill all one’s fantastic desires, one should instead concentrate on keeping one’s desires simple, thus achieving a higher satisfaction rate. Why desire much and fail, since this is a lot of work and discomfort only to be disappointed?
What kind of worldview supported such a policy? This leads to the points of contrast.
First, there is the question of God. Epicureanism is not philosophical atheism but practical atheism. Epicurean cosmology is one of indeterminate atoms falling through space, randomly swerving about. These randomly swerving and colliding atoms give rise to all that we see, including human consciousness and any divine consciousnesses “out there.” Although Epicurus believes in gods, for him they are by very nature hermetically sealed off from human concourse. Immortal, invisible, gods all aloof. Since these gods arise from the same stuff as humans, they are not any more in charge of things than mankind is. Epicurus’ universe has no room for providence nor authoritative revelation. Everything is indeterminate. The gods don’t bother us, and we needn’t—can’t—bother them. There is no problem of evil, for there is no one to blame. There is no god’s-eye view, so what you see is what you get. Epicureanism opts for a rigidly empirical epistemology and ignores what are thought to be unanswerable or bothersome questions. Epicurus disdains superstition, because superstition engenders fear, and fear doesn’t play out well on the pleasure/pain continuum. A truly penetrating mind will understand that there is no cause for sorrow or fear.
Solomon, in contrast, trusts Jehovah, transcendent Creator and immanent Revealer (Eccles. 12:1, 11). We owe reverent fealty to Him (Eccles. 5:1–6). God is busy at work with men He “made … upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (KJV, Eccles. 7:29). God is not only involved, but He also prods us with the big questions. God has worked providentially in general revelation to teach men the limitations of their own wisdom and resources (Eccles. 3:11–15); He puts answers to the really important questions elusively out of reach (Eccles. 7:23–24), drawing mankind on to demand a God’s-eye view. Epicurean empiricism is insufficient; in fact, man cannot really understand even the things he perceives empirically—such as conception and gestation (Eccles. 11:5)—let alone the big philosophical questions of life. Ecclesiastes makes explicit what God has confronted us with in nature, and it, too, goads us (Eccles. 12:11).
Second, there is the question of death. Unsurprisingly, Epicurus, who attributes his entire life to randomly swerving atoms, does not make much of death. Your atoms just kind of swerve elsewhere, and that’s it. Why fear it? It hasn’t happened yet, and when it does, you won’t be around to experience it. If you cogitate long and hard along those lines, your problem with death goes away. (Or perhaps it just gets covered up like rotten fish and a can of strong air freshener.)
Solomon, on the other hand, won’t let us get through Ecclesiastes without bringing the stench of death to our noses over and over. And he comes right out and tells us that exploiting the topic of death is a good thing (Eccles. 7:1–6)! Solomon understands that God’s most horrific means of confronting sinful man is death, and if it takes death to get our attention, Solomon will talk about death. Death is not just an isolated event in time. It’s a shadow that looms up over the horizon and reaches the very birthing ward. Death relativizes all earthly values (Eccles. 2:13–14; 5:13–17), and relative value is not enough.
Solomon, continuing to rub in what God has already rubbed in, constantly returns to a gnawing discontent with this life (cf. Eccles. 3:16; 4:1, 4, 7–8, 13; 5:8; 7:20; 9:3). Oppression. Misfortune. Injustice. Age. Dissatisfaction with wisdom, folly, riches, pleasure. And after many hardships in life, we face an uncertain future (if all we have is empiricism). We cannot tell what will come after our death, either on earth or for ourselves. Should we seek to find out for sure? While Epicurus is not concerned with immortality, Solomon regards what comes “after us” as a legitimate and necessary concern (Eccles. 3:22; 6:12; 7:14; 10:14).
The third and fourth points of contrast between Solomon and Epicurus—their treatment of human desire and their thoughts on the summum bonum—are too intertwined to discuss separately. Epicurus, being a practical atheist with no higher authority (in his thinking), is free to select his own summum bonum, and he does: ataraxia, or a mind free from disturbance. To achieve this mental quietude, one should calculate his ethics to achieve maximum pleasure and minimum pain in this lifetime. This pursuit of individual pleasure is the unifying basic criterion for ethical decisions. For instance, Epicurus defines the four cardinal virtues of his day (justice, prudence, temperance, and courage) in terms of pleasure. (Incidentally, Epicurus is confident that virtue, and not vice, is the better and surer means to the goal of pleasure.)
Even politics and altruism are explained in terms of self-interest. For the next step to achieve mental quietude, one should curb his desires to reasonable proportions. Curbing one’s desires, instead of pursuing extravagant pleasures, leads to a higher attainment of good—relative to one’s desires. Start by disciplining the stomach. Eliminate the “unnatural” desire for affection and settle for mere sex. (What’s love got to do with it?) Forget the arts, sciences, and politics, for in them one risks trouble. But observe what Epicurus is doing here. He is not so much pursuing positive pleasure as avoiding pain. Indeed, the very word ataraxia is a negative concept. Epicurus’s ethic is not a positive pursuit; in fact, it requires a man to squelch his own humanity. These desires are built into us, and Epicurus is fighting nature. Even the “spiritual” desires for human contact and involvement are squelched. Animals have sex without affection, but people? “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (ESV, Eccles. 3:21)
In stark contrast, Solomon exploits what Francis Schaeffer calls the mannishness of man: some worldviews (e.g., Epicureanism) clash with man’s very nature. The first chapter of Ecclesiastes makes clear that Solomon feels the fallen human condition (Eccles. 1:3, 14). While Epicurus asserts that true wisdom leads to peace, Solomon (the most qualified man to speak, cf. Eccles. 1:12–15) finds that wisdom actually amplifies discontent (Eccles. 1:18). Solomon would agree with Epicurus that contentment with what one has is better than desiring too much (Eccles. 6:9a), but he pronounces even what one has—relative advantages—to be likewise “vanity” (Eccles. 6:9b).
Repeating the phrase “under the sun” some 30 times in his book, Solomon shows how death runs roughshod over everything under the sun. And we are left with the question: if death is just a natural thing, if we’re just random collisions of atoms, why do frustrations and fears arise at all? Where do they come from? Might there be something beyond the sun? Epicurus tries to pull the intensity of our desire down to the level of what we actually possess, but Solomon places human aspirations squarely in heaven and writes of the human condition as being more or less in the pasture. Everything about man—particularly his aspirations and desire for pleasure—points beyond the sun: man is hardwired that way. Likewise, he is hardwired to be relational. Self-centered work and self-centered laziness are truly bad (Eccles. 4:4–6). Epicurus feels the tug to be relational, to be altruistic; but the moral altruism that Epicurus inconsistently incorporates into his thought witnesses to the conflict between who he really is and what he thinks himself to be. He is a man in God’s image with “eternity in [his] heart” (ESV, Eccles. 3:11, perhaps the key phrase of Ecclesiastes).
Solomon forces us to find eternity, and he forces us to live our lives in light of eternity. What “eternity” tells us is that God made us, and He has given us much good, but because of our sin we face frustration and death and struggle. However, the pursuit of real good and real joy and real kindness is not in vain. There is wisdom from above, namely godly fear to unify and motivate human ethics. Yes, go and seek what is pleasant, but remember that for all these things, you will give account to God. For Solomon, man’s summum bonum is two-fold: the fear of God in ethics and contentment with things under the sun in light of what is beyond it (Eccles. 8:15; 2:24–26; 9:7–10; 10:7–10; 12:1, 13–14).
This article is an adaptation of an academic paper. Please refer to the paper for bibliographic references.