Some obscure sayings of Solomon and Franklin

Dear Hannah,

Many of the wisest sayings may be unclear to any but the wise. Reading Ecclesiastes, you might be tempted to take in much wisdom is much grief, and assume that wise people grieve because they know the way things might have been.  Knowing the way things ought to be done, of course, leaves plenty of room for grieving about things going unnecessarily wrong; but no more room than the average fool has when he considers the way he thinks things could have gone right. The nature of ignorance is not to know little or nothing, but to believe we know rightly when we actually know wrongly.  The idiot faces exactly the same frustration as the genius.  He says the world is a mess because nobody listens to him.  He feels powerless to fix it.

This psychological realization has spawned an entire school of philosophers who've spent their time saying they know less than they know -- which proves they knew less about knowing than they originally thought.  And this can be proved with a little examination of the nature of knowledge.  When we consider the universe and everything in it, it's very easy to say that we know very little.  But the purpose of terms such as knowledge and ignorance has little to do with what we know about the entirety of the universe, and everything to do with what we're trying to do with very specific parts of it.

To call a man ignorant for not knowing everything is an exercise in idiocy -- because then we would lose the value in the term known as ignorance. To call a man wise for saying he doesn't know everything is a cheapening of the idea of ideas.  On the other hand, to fault a carpenter for not knowing anything about carpentry is an exercise in economy; and to criticize a voter for not knowing anything about political theory is an exercise in self-preservation.  Our wisdom can only be wise if we're doing something good with it.  We can only call a man a fool for attempting too many good things in too many terrible ways.  The moment we want to do something is the moment the idea of ignorance becomes valuable.  The moment we begin watching others do things is the moment that an acknowledgment of our ignorance actually becomes our wisdom. The question, once we've admitted our ignorance, is whether we're watching the right people.

This leads me to believe that if Solomon said in much wisdom is much grief, he may not have meant it in the comparative sense.  He may have meant it existentially.  He may have meant that the more you contemplate your life the more you'll contemplate your death; and the more you contemplate your death, the more you'll ruin all your fun. For the consideration that everything is temporary is the consideration that everywhere is a mortuary.  Nobody who realizes the temporary nature of everything can really enjoy anything.  At the back of his mind, in even his most ecstatic moments, is the debilitating sensation that everything is lurching toward disaster. His happiest days are bittersweet.  His greatest loves are his greatest tragedies.

Knowing that death is the robbery of everything good out of our lives has led me to take a second (and probably unintended) meaning out of Benjamin Franklin's saying, talking against religion is unchaining a tiger.  At first glance it looks like he's telling us to never argue about religion because of the possibility of making an enemy without any chance at convincing a friend.  But an even wiser take of the matter would suggest that the reason we should never attack religion (in general) is to keep us from ruining our lives.

Although David mentions very sparingly the expectation of a resurrection (Psalm 17:13-15), Solomon, in what appears to be the totality of his writings, not only neglects to mention the afterlife, but expresses the most jaded skepticism toward it (for instance, better a living dog than a dead lion).  The overwhelming silence of the Old Testament on this issue, especially in the most fundamental portions known as the Torah, seems to further this most debilitating of religious positions -- a position which seems to be the source of the overwhelmingly negative sentiments expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes: that it's almost better to be a fool and enjoy the vanities of life, than to be wise and consider the end of them*.  Solomon's strength is ironically his struggle.  He's too intelligent.  He thinks too much ahead and ruins the moment.  And this leads me to believe that an intelligent man's only refuge from his own intelligence is the belief in a afterlife.

The advent of modern "philosophy" proves this theory entirely.  Existentialism may be an emasculation of thought, but it is the primary result of the powers of intelligence without the comforts of eternity. During the Age of Reason men would think about manly things, such as how they would be freer and stronger and saintlier than they had ever been before (and to prove this, read Samuel Johnson's Rambler before watching something like Mad Men). Now men ask what the point in fighting is, if they never know what they're fighting for.  They ask what their feelings mean, and whether romance is real.  They wonder if happiness is an illusion, and whether reality is knowable.  They wonder if anything they do has any lasting significance, and if it doesn't have any lasting significance, they wonder whether it has any significance at all.  They've gone beyond questioning their questions, and have begun to question the value of answers.

The reason they think these things is obvious.  They've lost the answers to the biggest things, and in losing the biggest things have ceased to understand and enjoy the smallest things. They've thrown away heaven to free themselves, only to find that they had also thrown earth in the gutter.  They thought they would be able to enjoy the best things in the present, without thinking they would ever see them again in the future.  Religion, to these men, is said to cause many of our problems.  But what use is getting rid of a few problems, when you've gotten rid of the only solution?

 Your father,

*When I was around the age of fifteen, my father took me to an Italian junkyard.  Pointing at the piles of wrecked and rusty cars, he reminded me that every single one of them had been new; and beyond being new, that each and every one of them had been an object of excitement.  His point was not only that the things we go wild for today may be thrown in the garbage tomorrow. It was that because we may throw them in the garbage tomorrow, we don't need to go wild for them today.  He cheapened the power of desire by attempting to cheapen the value of the desirables.

This proves to me that even the wisest thinking has the most unintended consequences.  My father's plan was to get me to make good decisions. What actually happened is that he caused me to make bad decisions even more tragically.  I never fell in love with any cars, but I did fall in love with a very random woman -- and the realization throughout our relationship, that love is temporary and everything would be ruined, led me to hold more tightly to her than to anyone else I'd ever known in my life. This not only ruined the relationship, but heightened the feeling and duration of heartbreak, as I was apparently determined to be heartbroken from the beginning. Knowing the end of things makes some men let go of them.  Knowing the end of things also makes other men ruin them.

Montaigne once wrote, in one of his greatest essays, that the purpose of philosophy is to learn how to suffer and die well.  Jesus said the only way to gain your life was to lose it. Solomon, in saying that it's better to go into a house of mourning than a house of feasting, implies that our worst fears must be met wilfully and manfully before they're met accidentally.  Wake up every day knowing that you're going to die. Remind yourself that the things and people you love are going away.  Cry about it -- and then face your day like a champion.  Laugh in the face of danger.  Mock the powerful.  Love sincerely and prejudicially.  Know that if your family is mortal, so are your enemies.  Know that if you're in pain, the end of it is around the corner.  Seize the moment and be ready to let it go -- because you will eventually have to. The question is whether you will let it go in dignity or in shame.

But never mock religion in general, or you will end up destroying yourself.  Mock religion's most ridiculous followers.  Mock scammers and false teachers and heretics and hypocrites.  Mock people who prefer forms over substance.  Praise, thank, and ask forgiveness of God.  Celebrate saints for conquering themselves, and martyrs for conquering mortality.