The Church-Man’s Skepticism

Here is Mgr. Knox’s translation of the opening of Ecclesiastes:

A shadow’s shadow, he tells us, a shadow’s shadow; a world of shadows!  How is man the better for all this toiling of his, here under the sun?  Age succeeds age, and the world goes on unaltered.  Sun may rise and sun may set, but ever it goes back and is reborn. Round to the south it moves, round to the north it turns; the wind, too, though it makes the round of the world, goes back to the beginning of its round at last.  All the rivers flow into the sea, yet never the sea grows full; back to their springs they find their way, and must be flowing still.  Weariness, all weariness; who shall tell the tale? Eye looks on unsatisfied; ear listens, ill content. Ever that shall be that ever has been, that which has happened once shall happen again; there can be nothing new, here under the sun. Never man calls a thing new, but it is something already known to the ages that went before us; only we have no record of older days. So, believe me, the fame of to-morrow’s doings will be forgotten by the men of a later time.

And here is Montaigne closing “Of Vanity”:

This opinion and common usage to observe others more than ourselves, has very much relieved us that way; ’tis a very displeasing object: we can there see nothing but misery and vanity: nature, that we may not be dejected with the sight of our own deformities, has wisely thrust the action of seeing outward. We go forward with the current: but to turn back toward ourselves is a painful motion; so is the sea moved and troubled when the waves rush against one another. Observe, says every one, the motions of the heavens, of public affairs; observe the quarrel of such a person, take notice of such a one’s pulse, of such another’s last will and testament; in sum, be always looking high or low, on one side, before, or behind you. It was a paradoxical command anciently given us by the god of Delphos: “Look into yourself; discover yourself; keep close to yourself; call back your mind and will, that elsewhere consume themselves into yourself; you run out, you spill yourself; carry a more steady hand: men betray you, men spill you, men steal you from yourself. Dost thou not see that this world we live in keeps all its sight confined within, and its eyes open to contemplate itself? ‘Tis always vanity for thee, both within and without; but ’tis less vanity when less extended. Excepting thee, oh man”, said that god, “everything studies itself first, and has bounds to its labors and desires, according to its need. There is nothing so empty and necessitous as thou, who embracest the universe; thou are the explorator without knowledge; the magistrate without jurisdiction: and, after all, the fool of the farce.”

And here is Samuel Johnson’s Imlac, speaking of the pyramids in Rasselas:

But  for the pyramids no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work…It seems [that this pyramid] has been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must always be appeased by some enjoyment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use, till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish.

I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a pyramid, the satiety of dominion and tastelessness of pleasure, and to amuse the tediousness of declining life, by seeing thousands labouring without end, and one stone, for no purpose, laid upon another. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids , and confess they folly!

What emerges across these quotations is a form of skepticism that I want to call Church-Man’s Skepticism, after the writer of Ecclesiastes.  It is a form primarily of practical skepticism, not theoretical–call it an existential skepticism.  But it is not existentialism, unless it be Christian existentialism.  I plan to write more about this over the next few weeks.  Let me finish with one more quotation, this time of Mgr. Knox himself, from a remark about Ecclesiastes:

The argument of the book does not progress in strict logical fashion, but the general sense is clear:  no human value is entirely satisfying; life itself therefore is an enigma.  But it still remains livable, and the doctrine of the author is that a wise man will be satisfied with living it, while remembering its deficiencies.

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