O. K. Bouwsma on Ecclesiastes (1958)

Consider the life of the professor.  He studies.  He reads.  “Of the reading of many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  He talks.  He, fortune favoring, learns to understand a few things.   He teaches young people, who again, fortune favoring, learn to understand a few things.  He teaches young people who, again fortune favoring, praise him at lunch and quote his words, sometimes correctly.  They may think he’s bright.  He writes a book, or more than one book, and once more, fortune favoring, he receives a check for royalties, twice each year, invests this money in common stocks and eventually buys his wife a fur coat.  He makes his mark in knowledge, in praise, and some money.  He serves on committees.  He wins a prize.  He has his say at faculty meetings.  Once he gave a public lecture.  There was applause.  He is known as a solid citizen.  At sixty-five he says that he has had enough, and perhaps some others join him and say that they have had enough, too.  So he retires.  He grows old and dies.

Is there any special way of adapting the words of the Preacher to the life of the professor?  It is common, no doubt, and in the name of Aristotle to give special honor to the intellectual life.  What about that?

The point of Ecclesiastes is certainly that how you go on in life seeking to achieve distinction, the immortality, you so much set your heart upon, in this world, makes no difference.  You may leave your name in the rock, but your name in the rock will mean nothing to anyone.  How you carve it, what initials you write after it, Ph. D., will not keep it alive.  The harm in your life, your mistake, your sin, does not consist in your becoming rich, or in your being famous, or in your knowing so much.  It is in your expectations, in your esteem of any one of these, in your expecting a profit.  So we are back to the original corruption.  Why should your life, your labor, serve you?  If you look upon your life in these terms, then, of course, you must see that your labor will not serve you.  Your labor can serve only greed, to make you more greedy, insatiable you.  Must you be paid for your life, which is a gift to you?

“Your life is not your own.”

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