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.

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