Ecclesiates Was Depressed
“Of all the psychiatric disorders, the depressive disorders have been most closely correlated with the core spiritual task of finding meaning” (Blazer 1178). According to Dr. Dan G. Blazer if one wishes to encounter old age favorably and to thus avoid “a prolonged and terminal dark night of the soul” he or she must first find meaning in life (1178). Taking Dr. Blazer’s statement into consideration, with Kohelet’s search for meaning in life as the central theme of the book of Ecclesiastes, it is probable to assume that Kohelet was suffering from depression while writing this canonical work. “In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance” (Solomon 15). The meaningless described by Solomon as depression is identical to the meaninglessness Kohelet describes in Ecclesiastes. However, unlike severely depressed patients, Kohelet suffers from dysthymia, a mild form of depression.
The diagnosis of depression in the elderly is made by compiling detailed information of the patient’s history, performing a physical examination, evaluating the patient’s mental status, and executing a variety of other possible medical tests. One of the major signs of depression is a change in the physical appearance or in the behavior of a person. According to Dr. Nathan Billig, author of To Be Old and Sad, an examination of depression in the elderly, “sometimes the onset of depression is marked by subtle signs of worry or changes in personality or behavior, which are notable because they are not consistent with that individual’s usual way of reacting or thinking” (20). The book of Ecclesiastes however, does not provide a physical description of Kohelet nor does it provide a history of his life. Thus, it is difficult to observe any changes that Kohelet may have undergone which would be considered unusual or inconsistent with his typical behavior. Although the true author of Ecclesiastes is unknown, the text does provide minimal background information with which we can infer the nature of Kohelet’s lifestyle.
Before analyzing Kohelet’s behavior and diagnosing his “condition” one must first establish his identity. For the purpose of this diagnosis, it is unnecessary to linger on the question of authorship since there is no definitive answer; whether the text is composed by Solomon, one of his contemporaries or even by a group of different scholars is of no significance. Rather, one must employ the clues that are given to form a profile of Kohelet the man, independent of Solomon. Studying the text, it is clear that Kohelet has surpassed the days of his youth and is approaching an elderly age; an age that would today classify him as a senior citizen. In Chapter 12 Verse 1, Kohelet provides the younger generation with wisdom knowledge, indicating that he has already experienced his youth and is thus capable of bestowing advice: “So remember your creator in the days of your youth, because eventually the days of evil will come” (The Artscroll Tanach Series, Eccles. 12.1). It is also evident that Kohelet does not have any children. He repeatedly references leaving his wealth to strangers. One such reference occurs in Chapter 2 Verse 18: “Thus I hated all my achievements laboring under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who succeeds me – and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish” (Eccles. 2.18-19). Kohelet also reveals that he is a wisdom teacher: “I, the teacher, when king over Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven…” (Eccles. 1.12).
In addition to studying Kohelet’s personal life it is necessary to define the society in which he lives and his position in society. Since Kohelet constantly refers to nature and farming it is logical to assume that he lives in an agricultural society. One example of this is in Chapter 6 when Kohelet offers planting advice: “One who watches the wind will never sow, and one who keeps his eyes on the clouds will never reap. In the morning sow your seed and in the do not be idle, for you cannot know which will succeed: this or that; or whether both will be equally good” (Eccles. 6.5, 7). Kohelet also enumerates the wealth he has accumulated within his lifetime:
I acted in grand style: I built myself houses, I planted vineyards; I made for myself gardens and orchards and planted in them every kind of fruit tree; I constructed pools from which to irrigate a grove of young trees; I bought slaves – male and female – and I acquired stewards; I also owned more possessions, both cattle and sheep, than all of my predecessors in Jerusalem; I amasses even silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces; I provided myself with various musical instruments, and with every human luxury – chests and chests of them. (Eccles. 2.4-8)
It is important to note Kohelet’s exceptional financial and social status within society since depression is typically more common among people living below the poverty line than in an average population (Solomon 336). Not only is Kohelet living above the poverty level but he is also at the top of the social hierarchy and never had to deal with economic hardship as he himself claims, “I grew and surpassed any of my predecessors in Jerusalem…Whatever my eyes desired I did not deny them; I did not deprive myself of any kind of joy” (Eccles. 2.9-10).
In order to determine if Kohelet is suffering from depression it is essential to define depression and determine how it affects the elderly. Depression can be roughly divided into two categories: major depression and mild or dysthymic depression. According to Billig, “the characteristic feature of dysthymic disorders is a chronic mood disturbance in which there is a generalized loss of pleasure and interest in almost all usual life activated; however, the disturbance is not sufficiently severe or does it have to necessary elements to qualify as a major depressive episode” (56). Unlike those who have severe depression, people with dysthymic disorders do not suffer from loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, weight loss, physical pain, delusions, and suicidal ideation. While Kohelet has a negative approach to life and while his philosophy seems irrational, more so than the average person, he does not exhibit symptoms to classify his melancholy attitude as severe depression. Nowhere in the text does he inform us of physical pain nor does he seem to suffer from weight loss or sleep disturbance. While his thoughts are jumbled and his advice sometimes contradictory, he has never presented with a delusion or hallucination. Furthermore, although Kohelet argues that death is superior to life, he does so simply to stress the meaninglessness of existence. He never actively encourages suicide nor does he himself ever express a desire to terminate his life prematurely. While Kohelet does not fit the profile of a severely depressed individual he does present with symptoms of dysthymia, a more mild form of depression.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), a person suffering from dysthymic disorder must fulfill eight requirements. Firstly, the person must exhibit a depressed mood for most of the day or for more days than not for at least two years. The DSM-IV next gives a list of six symptoms for which the depressed must present with at least two. These include low self-esteem, poor concentration or difficulty making decisions, and feelings of hopelessness (Gwirtsman). Other common symptoms of dysthymic disorder are social withdrawal, generalized loss of interest or pleasure, pessimistic attitude toward the future and brooding about past events (Billig 57). The DSM-IV criteria also states that the disturbance must be absent of psychotic features such as delusions and that the symptoms are not due to the direct psychological effects of a substance or a general medical condition. The description concludes by stating that symptoms of dysthymic disorder must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social occupational or other important areas of functioning. Furthermore, studies for risk factors of dysthymia have shown that social class has no relationship with vulnerability to the disorder (Gwirtsman Table 21-15).
Beginning with the structure of the book of Ecclesiastes, it is clear that Kohelet does not present his thoughts in a logical manner as a sensible author would do. He constantly repeats and contradicts himself and fails to present his message in a clear or systematic fashion.
From the opening line of the book, Kohelet introduces the reader to his pessimistic view of life. Throughout his many experiences he has reached the conclusion that life is ultimately empty and meaningless: “Futility of futilities! – said Kohelet – Futility of futilities! All is futile! What profit does man have for all his labor for which he toils beneath the sun? I have seen all the deeds done beneath the sun, and behold all is futile and a vexation of the spirit” (Eccles. 1.2-3, 12). According to Kohelet man’s accomplishments and struggles in life are pointless reminiscent of a breath or a chasing of the wind. Eventually all men will be presented with the same fate; ultimately everyone will die regardless of their achievements or failures. This theory is evident in Kohelet’s comparison of humans with beasts: “For the fate of men and the fate of beast – they have one and the same fate: as one dies, so dies the other, and they all have the same spirit. Man has no superiority over beast, for all is futile. All go to the same place; all originate from dust and all return to dust” (Eccles 3.19-20).
Kohelet makes the same comparison with the wicked and the righteous. Although society would like to believe that the righteous get rewarded and the wicked get punished accordingly, Kohelet warns that this is untrue: “All things come alike to all; the same fate awaits the righteous and the wicked, the good and the clean and the unclean, the one who brings a sacrifice and the one who does not. As is the good man so is the sinner, as is the one who swears, so is the one who fears an oath. This is an evil about all things that go on under the sun: that the same fate awaits them all…” (9.2-3). Thus, according to Kohelet’s logic, there is no value to ethical behavior in the universe since both the righteous and the wrong-doer die the same death. Since all men ultimately die regardless of their struggle in life, whether to achieve wealth, wisdom, or piety, both their past actions as well as their future actions are fruitless. “Once more I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift; nor the battle by the strong, nor does bread come to the wise, riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the learned; but time and death will happen to them all” (Eccles. 9.11). Kohelet’s feelings of hopelessness, his brooding over the past, and his pessimistic attitude toward the future are clear symptoms of dysthymic disorder. His inability to control his destiny adds to his sense of helplessness and pulls him further and further away from finding purpose in life.
Furthermore, as a patient suffering from dysthymia, Kohelet suggests that death is more valuable than life: “So I consider more fortunate the dead who have already died, than the living who are still alive; but better than either of them is he who has not yet been…” (Eccles. 4.2-3). However, unlike severely depressed patients, Kohelet is not making an argument for suicide. In fact, even in all the meaninglessness of life, he encourages the exact opposite of suicide. While Kohelet understands that everything in life is a “chasing after the wind” he still advises the youth to enjoy the days of their existence:
So I praised enjoyment, for man has no other goal under the sun but to eat, drink and be joyful; and this will accompany him in his toil…Enjoy life with the wife you love through all the fleeting days of your life that He has granted you beneath the sun, all your futile existence…Whatever you are able to do with your might, do it. For there is nether doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave where you are going…Even if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in all of them, but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is futility. (Eccles. 8.15, 9.9-10, 11.8)
Throughout his “experience-guided” account, Kohelet maintains truthfulness and presents the youth with facts of life as melancholy and distressing as they may be. “One must learn to live with what cannot be altered and to submit to the inevitable. What is cannot be changed by man’s efforts, and man does not now, and will never know, why God acts the way He does. In other words, the world keeps moving, regardless of our wishes and our feeble efforts to intervene” (Marcus 242). However, despite the uncertainty and the emptiness that results at the end of man’s life, Kohelet never advocates suicide. Instead, he encourages dedicating oneself to striving after joy in life because “the search for joy is the only sensible goal considering the frustrating, tragic, and fundamentally futile nature of existence” (Marcus 248).
As a sufferer of mild depression, Kohelet exhibits symptoms of helplessness, indecisiveness; he perceives the future in a negative light, and ultimately fails to find any sense of meaning in his life. He writes Ecclesiastes to share his wisdom and experience and impart messages of truth. Kohelet’s encounters have taught him to accept his incapacity and vulnerability and to understand that he will forever live a meaningless life. It is this comprehension of the eternalness of his vain existence that characterizes Kohelet’s depression as dysthymic. Using physical pain as a metaphor for dysthymia, Andrew Solomon, in his atlas of depression, describes suffering similar to that of Kohelet:
Like physical pain that becomes chronic, it is miserable not so much because it is intolerable in the moment as because it is intolerable to have known it in the moments gone and to look forward only to knowing it in the moments to come. The present tense of mild depression envisages no alleviation because it feels like all knowledge. It is this acute awareness of transience and limitation that constitutes mild depression. (16).
Similarly, Kohelet’s depression stems from his frustration with the workings of the world and more importantly, his recent realization of this fixed perpetual reality.
Andrew, Solomon. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Billig, Nathan. To Be Old and Sad: Understanding Depression in the Elderly. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1987.
Blazer, Dan G. “Spirituality, Depression, and the Elderly.” Southern Medical Journal 99.10 (2006): 1178-79.
Ecclesiastes, The Artscroll Tanach Series. Ed. Meir Zlotowitz. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1994.
Gwirtsman, Harry E., Loosen, Peter T. Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Marcus, Paul. “The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes and Its Meaning for Psychoanalysis.” The Psychoanalytic Review 87.2 (2000): 227-50.