Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Ecclesian Aesthetic III: The Shadow of Imperfection

One final way that an aesthetic ideal is presented in Ecclesiast thought comes by view of beauty.  Again turning to the philosophy of William Morris, beauty is the semblance of an ideal life. That is to say that expression, whether in deed or in artifice, must be an unhindered action which Morris relates when he says:

I demand a free and unfettered animal life for man first of all: I demand the utter extinction of asceticism.  If we feel the least degradation in being amorous, or merry, or hungry, or sleepy, we are so far bad animals, and therefore miserable men (Society 177).

Here beauty is manifested through expression as an immediate function of the subjective self. So, Morris makes a connection to man as an animal so that there might be a heightened view of instinctual and fleshly urges thus promoting the idea of expression, not merely in art, but also in the procurement and progression of life in general.  So, in this way expression becomes the path to a higher state of being.

            Similarly, the Ecclesiast relates, "Do not be over-righteous and do not be over-wise.  Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked and do not be a fool. Why destroy yourself before your time?" (REB Ecc 7.16). Besides an obvious contrast to the Platonic stance of a high value of wisdom and knowledge, the Ecclesiast brings to light a similar idea to Morris in that the individual must not seek to over extend himself in the realm of legality, but the true essence of life comes in the free and unhindered life. While perhaps not going so far as to make extinct all asceticism, as Morris does, the author of "Ecclesiastes" most certainly presents a notion of being able to adhere to the demands of the animal side of human nature.  So, the legalistic nature of Mosaic tradition becomes, not negated, but appropriated to a new stance on the independence of the individual subjectivity.  Asceticism as far as it is related to guilt becomes obsolete, and it makes room for the animalistic and instinctual side of human nature.

            Comparably, chapter nine promotes this sort of strike at legalism when it says:

            […] the righteous and the wise and whatever they do are under God's control; but whether they will earn love or hatred they have no way of knowing. Everything that confronts them, everything is futile, since one and the same fate comes to all, just and unjust alike, good and bad, ritually clean and unclean, to the one who offers sacrifice and to the one who does not. The good and the sinner fare alike […] (REB Ecc 9.1-2).

Here legality is struck in order to more appropriately digest the suppressed nature of the exiled nation, and it presents a notion of an apathetic social outlook. This then reverts back to Morris' strike at asceticism by revealing the truly helpless nature of the Israelites. It promotes the idea that the loss of control should be followed by the ineffectual nature of power seeking.  That is to say that by noting a strike at legality, the Ecclesiast presents a means by which the Hebraic community is not uninvolved in the tenets of life, but they are untroubled by adverse circumstance;  the Jewish community is powerless to change their circumstances and so should stop trying and find meaning in what they are.  Other passages, namely chapter eight verse fourteen and chapter eleven verse four, recognize this same theme of striking legality, and this may again be tied to the ancient thoughts of Parmenides. 

            While the changing nature of the status of the Israelites may be characterized by the hope of future glory, already related to Heraclitian philosophy, the universe yet remains an unchanging constant for it is an extension or creation of the unchanging nature of God so that man has little effect on the outcome of His will.  Relating back to Morris then, this ancient philosophy notes a way in which the community members are simply untroubled as they adopt their human nature as a normative function of reality and relent to the Parimedean thought of the unchanging nature of God. The Israelites are free to adopt their new mode of life in exile and yet cling to the tradition that up until that time had expressly required their sovereign independence. 

            No more do the words of Morris ring clear than when the Ecclesiast says:

Go, then, eat your food and enjoy it, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already accepted what you have done. Always be dressed in white, and never fail to anoint your head. Enjoy life with a woman you love all the days of your allotted span here under the sun. Futile as they are; for that is your lot while you live and labour here under the sun. Whatever task lies to your hand, do it with might; because in Sheol [Hades], for which you are bound, there is neither doing nor thinking[…] (REB Ecc 9.7-10).

For, here the unfettered life is given in full proportion so that the highest value in life "is first the unconstrained life, and next simple and natural life. First you must be free; and next you must learn to take pleasure in all the details of life" (Society 178). So beauty, in all areas of life, is the main staple of it even in adversity, even in tragedy, even in toil, even in labor, and even in the midst of failure; beauty is the manifest way of life being lived for the sake of living.  The Ecclesiast aesthetic frees the Jewish people to be who they are as they are, and it frees them from the social constraints and guilt associated with their failed monarchy and suppression under foreign leaders; Ecclesiastes screams in to the human psyche (and indeed unto us) to not be hindered by the imperfect nature of its soul and surrounding darkened world, but it calls it to find beauty in the midst of spiritual failure, solace in the wake of guilt, and reassurance in shadow of imperfection.


Morris, William. "The Beauty of Life." On Art and Socialism. Ed. Norman

       Kelvin. New York: Dover, 1999. 35-56.

---. "The Society of the Future." On Art and Socialism. Ed. Norman

       Kelvin. New York: Dover, 1999. 174-184.

Oxford Study Bible. 1976. Ed. M. Jack Suggs, Katherine Doob Sackenfield, and James R.

        Mueller. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Ruskin, John. "Modern Painters, IV: Of the Turnerian

       Picturesque." Selected Writings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 82-92.

Suggs, M. Jack, ed. "Ecclesiastes." Oxford Study Bible. 1976. Ed. M. Jack Suggs,

Katherine Doob Sackenfield, and James R. Mueller. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 684.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Ecclesian Aesthetic II: Nobility in Nature

A second means by which an Aesthetic mindset is presented in the ancient philosophy of the Ecclesiast is by contrasting it with John Ruskin's notion of the "Noble Picturesque" which is an aesthetic object that gains its value through "its expression, namely, of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart" (Ruskin 85).   In seeing that John Ruskin's idea of that which is the "Noble Picturesque" necessarily accepts and finds its value in its flawed nature, one can make the parallel to the Israelite nation in the notion that the community itself must acquire the ideals of a "Noble Picturesque."  So, in light of a post exilic lifestyle, the Ecclesiast philosophy not only gives permission for the community to proceed in their oppressed lifestyle, but it also sets up a noble ideal so that the community actually finds value in its diminished nature. This allows the broken community to maintain integrity even in the midst of struggle and against their monarchic ideal.

 On this the Ecclesiast once again borrows Heraclitian thought when he says, "All streams run to the sea, yet the sea never overflows; back to the place from which the streams ran they return to run again" (REB Ecc 1.7). So while the heightened value of the flowing river for Heraclites is its changing nature, the Ecclesiast shifts this thought to maintain that change is only an intermediary state which anticipates the return of the past; the Ecclesiast gives rise to acceptance of circumstance while maintaining the hope of a future return to glory, and parallels the "Noble Picturesque" through the acceptance of flaw as the means of value.  In this way, the Israelite community is able to find its identity in its struggle and is thus able to reconcile itself to the sin that, by the Judaic tradition, allowed the downfall of its monarchy.

So, while the "Noble Picturesque" obtains its nobility through its savagery, through its necessarily diminished nature, or by its flawed essence, so too does the Israelite nation parallel this aesthetic quality by the embodiment and propagation of its flawed nature which is further seen in a return to chapter four when the author notes, "Better one hand full, along with peace of mind, than two full, along with toil" (REB Ecc 4.6).  Here, again, the author allows for the nature of the present state of being to become the means by which the community accepts its place, and while it does not neglect the hope of a future glory, it leans toward circumstance as an almost teleological function so that the nature of existence of the Israelites is the function of who they are.  By this then, struggle and flaw become the ideal. As a teleological function, the flaw of the present must be the ideal as a progression toward the future glory, and thus an aesthetic ideal is born out by a parallel to the "Noble Picturesque."


Monday, January 01, 2007

The Ecclesian Aesthetic I: The Appropriation of a Human Nature

Emerging during the high point of ancient philosophy and borrowing the famous thoughts of other Hellenistic philosophers, "Ecclesiastes" presents a starkly contrasting view to the a sundry collection of ancient philosophies. While traditionally associated with a grim out look on the uncertain nature of life, the book of Ecclesiastes actually presents an example of ancient philosophy that promotes an aesthetic outlook on life as it seeks to reconcile the grim nature of Israelite political reality with the liberation of a joyful life of a free expression. An aesthetic ideal can be seen in "Ecclesiastes" through an examination of social circumstances, by noting parallels to John Ruskin's idea of the "Noble Picturesque," and by an appeal to the search for beauty in life.

One way to see the book of "Ecclesiastes" as an ancient appeal to an Aesthetic mindset is to see the social aspects of the Jewish community of the day. Having an original composition of sometime around the third century BCE, "Ecclesiastes" meets the Jewish nation at a place in their history when they are broken and exiled (Suggs 684). The fall of Judah to Babylonian power had grave effects on the religious psyche of the Hebraic community. No longer able to maintain the claim of the sovereign and chosen people of God, "Ecclesiastes" meets this once independent nation in a place where they are desperately and completely destroyed, and it is here that the mindset of the Ecclesiast intermixes with the Hellenistic philosophers. Operating at around the same time as Aristotle, the author of "Ecclesiastes" presents a philosophic and religious view that would entertain and satisfy the arising need of a broken subjectivity, in the Kantian sense, of a community of folks that has been stranded and forgotten.

It is here that one might look to chapter four as the mainstay and call toward a Marxian notion of power. As the author proceeds there is a strict sense of a parallel to a sort of class struggle. While not expressly in the bourgeois sense as with the rise of capitalism, what chapter four presents is the notion of an oppressive ruling group opposing the lower class. So, when the text says, "Power was on the side of their oppressors, and there was no one to afford comfort[,]" it intrinsically creates a sense in which the Jewish community is experiencing such oppression at the hands of the dominant ruling society (REB Ecc 4.1). The once powerful and independent nation is now at the whims and fancies of their oppressors.

This becomes important in chapter five when the author mentions that God, in terms of their oppressors, "has watch over them all" (REB Ecc 5.8). Here what develops is the notion that, though suppressed and in the hands of the enemy, the Jewish God still maintains the authority over his subjects. In this way, God appropriates the role of the panoptic gaze in the Foucaultian sense so that God becomes the all seeing eye of all humanity's action. This striking development presumably extracts the notion of a collective responsibility to the Jewish deity, and replaces it with an independent and individual nature of faith; by placing God in the role of the panoptic gaze, the author of "Ecclesiastes" creates the means by which judgment is no longer based on the deeds of the Jewish community but on the individual self. This becomes more striking when one returns to chapter three and begins to contrast it with previous ancient philosophers such as Parmenides and Heraclites, and here the famous "for everything its season" passage takes on new meaning as it embraces the Heraclitian ideal of changeability especially in light of the Jewish exile to Babylon. The exile becomes necessary and inevitable which then allows the community to rightly assume a new identity as exiled members and calls for permissible acceptance of circumstance. So too, when the chapter later goes on to say about God's power that "there is no adding to it, no taking away[,]" the deity necessarily assumes the function and embodiment of Parmenides' philosophy of the unchangeable nature of the world so that appropriation of both philosophies allows the nation to function as they must without losing the power of their deity (REB Ecc 3.14).

In all of this, the aesthetic ideal emerges as one focuses on the newly acquired relationship between the individual and the Jewish deity. The adoption of a Heraclitian type philosophy of change allows the community to step beyond a communal look at a relationship with God and into one in which the individual affects the way the two interact. For the Ecclesiast, this relationship is manifested in the familiar progressions of human activity. So while the universe is unchangeable through the nature of the deity, by the acquisition of Parmenides' thought, the individual becomes more sanctified merely by being human; every action has its place; every detail has its setting; every individual is liberated to be the human that they are. One might here bring in the aesthetic ponderings of William Morris when he says, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful" (Beauty 53). In this way, what is beautiful for Morris becomes the necessary outpouring of the subjective individual so that, in the noumenal sense, the mind must take action on the evaluation of beauty, and in such liberate itself from any sort of overt and dominant cultural ideology that might strike at the genuinity of such an evaluation. One might postulate that the same liberty is found in the exercise of the individual subjective of the Ecclesiast philosophy because it allows for the individual to assess for himself the means by which any and all action is within its right "season" so that a relationship with God comes not only by usefulness or reverence for Him but also by gaining beautiful aspects. Here the Aristotelian thoughts on the high value of moderation is implied since excess might cancel out the appropriation of beauty and negate reverence for God; the Ecclesiast does not promote hedonism, but he merely makes human nature and endurance of circumstance permissible.