Ecclesiastes Was Not Depressed
There are endless arguments against the book of “Ecclesiastes” and its inclusion in the Old Testament. Questions regarding why it appears in the cannon are frequently addressed and debated. One of the most frequently contested issues is that Qoheleth is an elderly man who suffers from depression. This paper seeks to explore this question from a literary perspective as well as a psychological one. Applying modes of narrative technique to the lens we use to understand Qoheleth will aid in our understanding of his predicament. Combining the latter with the theory of depression expressed in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon will bring to light the fact that there are very clear symptoms of depression that Qoheleth does not display.
Assessing the narrative structure displayed in “Ecclesiastes” is problematic because of the chapter’s status as part of the Bible. I would like to request that my reader set aside the idea that we are discussing a book in the Bible and consider “Ecclesiastes” for a moment as a piece of literary written work. The next most obvious impediments to our analysis are that the author is unknown and the text is a translation. As with any translation, we must consider the text we are working with in and of itself, slightly removed from its original but still significant. The uncertainty of the author is irrelevant to the study of his words; even without his exact identity, we have his work.
What is relevant is the uncertainty of the narrator. We know he is Qoheleth and that he is referred to as the teacher or preacher, but much beyond that remains ambiguous. Nothing about his physical appearance, his family, his love life, or where he was born is revealed. That we never know the details about Qoheleth is a distinctive and intended narrative tactic that contributes to the strength of the ideas presented. Qoheleth reveals his experiences and reflections, but is careful never to reveal any personal information about his specific situation. This is not to say that he does not allude to his financial situation or past relationships, but he does not explicitly declare this information. Not knowing if the words penned belong to a king or peasant, wise man or fool, businessman or farmer, gives every perspective a chance and allots credibility to each standpoint. The ambiguous nature of the narrator turns our attention away from issues of character and to the ideas being presented.
The tone our narrator Qoheleth employs is saturated with affectation. He writes with an air of authority that draws from his past experiences and simultaneously offers sententious bits of wisdom. The result of this is a feeling of unquestionable certainty that rises from his words into the minds of his reader: “With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God” (5:7); “All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied” (Eccles. 6:7); “Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise min will know the time and way” (8:5); “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals” (3:18). Qoheleth is doing two different things in order to establish this tone. First, he uses vague qualifiers that are undeterminable and wide-ranging, such as “many,” “multitude,” and “all.” This conveys a sense of assertiveness and certainty because of the plethora of applicable scenarios these vague words connote. Second, Qoheleth makes wide use of the imperative or command mood. Using this tense is part of what stabilizes his sententiousness because it delivers its ideas in an unquestionable and declarative manner. The use of verb “to be” reinforces the seemingly valid sententiousness of the comments that he delivers in “Ecclesiastes” as truth.
His opinions are not opinions, they are indispensable truths. Even when he invites us to question and challenge him, he leads us in the direction of his truth. “Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good – do not all go to one place?” (Eccles. 6:6). “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (3:21). The contradictions and hypocritical tendencies apparent in the content of his writing are understood in this respect to be an exploration of the questions he seeks to answer himself.
The twofold nature of the existential questions he poses is why they are only answerable in contradictory terms. And as a result the text is abundant with hypocrisy and contradictions as far as Qoheleth’s stance on issues. The reason this is permissible is because “Ecclesiastes” is written in a stream-of-consciousness manner that is saturated with introspection which allows it to be extremely inconsistent as far as content. It vacillates between extremes of attitudes, beliefs, and temperament. It is helpful to understand the narration as that of a diary. The diary format of “Ecclesiastes” is clear with the use of the first person as well as the indiscernible beginning and ending of sentences. Using this form, it often feels like we are with Qoheleth walking through each step of his analysis with him. He is not bound by the grammatical laws of maintaining and proving a consistent and strong point. He is free to move in and out of his reflections, reactions, thoughts, and opinions. He also allows himself the freedom of being brutally honest without fear of judgment.
The liberty to write freely allowed by a dairy or stream-of-consciousness writing style is another reason why the text is contradictory as far as content. And it is these contradictions that often lend themselves to the argument that Qoheleth is depressed. The strongest contender in the argument against Qoheleth’s mental health is his frequently repeated declaration that “all is meaningless and a chasing after the wind” (Eccles. 1:14). Though asserted in Qoheleth’s certain and authoritative tone, it is a highly contestable statement that begs us to dive into discussions of what constitutes meaning. The first page of Solomon’s book immediately proclaims that “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). How, then, can it possibly be argued that Qoheleth is not depressed if we see him repeatedly claim that everything is meaningless?
To begin, I believe that there are two types of meaninglessness being addressed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines meaningless as: “Without meaning or signification; devoid of expression; without purpose; (Philos.) not amenable to interpretation or logical processing” (“meaningless”). Qoheleth is arguing that everything is not amenable to interpretation or logical processing for we do not know God’s plan. There is purpose because in the end “God will bring every deed into judgment” (Eccles. 12:14). In depression, meaninglessness means without purpose and engenders a feeling of insignificance that causes “unnecessary extreme emotional pain” (Solomon 180). It is a self-loathing state of mind that even your efforts are not worth anything “marked by a singular mood of sadness” and “deep emotional pain” (Perry et al 22). Further, the meaninglessness that depressed patients feel begets inaction. They quit on life and “feel bad without reason” (Solomon 20).
Qoheleth has reason to believe that his efforts are meaningless and he certainly has not quit on life or become inactive. There may be a disconnect between what he practices and what he preaches, but he does not quit his quest to seek and search out by wisdom. The phrase “I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Eccles. 1:12) is repeated throughout the text. “All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun” (8:9). That he “applied” his mind is important for to apply is to act, not to dwell in sadness and “feel bad without reason” (Solomon 20).
His conclusion that everything in meaningless is an observation, not a lifestyle. “All this I have tested by wisdom” (Eccles. 7:23). Qoheleth tested his claims. He did not sit and watch. He did not drown himself in self-pity. He applied himself. He experienced life. The meaningless he preaches about is not a swift conclusion he draws to rationalize his inadequacy or explain away his misfortunes. It is a reaction to the things he has experienced and seen. His realization of the meaninglessness of all things is his “moral profundity from the experience” (Solomon 38).
The American Medical Association qualifies depression in agreement with Solomon listing the four major categories of depressive symptoms as: mood disturbances, changes in behavior, altered thinking, and physical complaints (Perry et al 25). The only one of these symptoms we are explicitly aware of for Qoheleth is altered thinking. He recounts what he believed in the past and informs us of what he thinks now. His thoughts, however, are not encumbered by “emotional pain” (Solomon 16). They do not resemble “grief out of proportion to circumstance” (16). They do not “[weaken] ordinary actions” (17) or indicate in any way that Qoheleth is “tired, bored, and self-obsessed” (17).
If we are to treat depression in the elderly as separate from adolescent or middle age depression, we will see too that Qoheleth does not display those symptoms either. Elders that are depressed “develop irritable characteristics and become grumpy, often showing distressing emotional bluntness with or an emotional indifference to those around them and occasionally manifesting ‘emotional incontinence’” (Solomon 190). Qoheleth is more than willing to express himself and his opinions. He does display emotional bluntness, but not with indifference, a point I will return to later. If he is irritable or grumpy we as readers are unaware and thus cannot reasonably conclude anything. Lastly, Qoheleth certainly does not block “psychologically effortful processes” (190). His “long-term complex memories” do not become inaccessible and the “processing of new information” is not impeded (190). His mind is not impaired “Depression is often a precursor state to severe impairment of the mind” (192), though his comments are often contradictory. Again, his inconsistencies are attributed to the nature of the issues he is exploring and not senility.
In depression, “the first thing that goes is happiness” (Solomon 19). We have no reason to believe that Qoheleth is unhappy. In fact, we know nothing of his personal state of affairs beyond mere generalizations that lead us to conclude nothing more than his state of discontentment and intellectual confusion. An unhappy person who “cannot gain pleasure from anything…[loses] the ability to trust anyone, to be touched, to grieve…” and is eventually “absent from [himself]” (Solomon 19) does not write a book of inspiration to a younger generation chronicling his own obstacles in hopes for a better future to those who read his words. It cannot be denied that Qoheleth writes to be read. It is known as well that he includes proverbs (some recycled, some his own) and so we may agree that he had an intention in handing out his wisdom.
The fact that Qoheleth is writing and teaching in and of itself indicates that he has not stopped living and not lost hope. If he had lost hope, why is he writing? Whether it is a diary or a public manuscript, why is he writing it if it does not matter? If it is meaningless, why does he continue to write? He continues to write because, as I mentioned before, it is not meaningless, he has not lost hope, and there are several different types of meaninglessness we are confusing. The despair he displays resembles existential angst more so than despair that “every day of life makes one’s self-destruction more acceptable” (Solomon 258). Jean-Paul Sartre explains that “just as anguish is indistinguishable from a sense of responsibility, despair is inseparable from will. With despair, true optimism begins: the optimism of the man who expects nothing, who knows he has no rights and nothing coming to him, who rejoices in counting on himself alone and in acting alone for the good of all” (Sartre, Characterization of Existentialism 159). In this sense, meaninglessness can be the starting point for discovering meaning. For example, if all is a chasing after the wind (meaningless), then at least while you are here be happy (meaning).
Qoheleth’s deliberate choice to write and teach does not contradict his assertion that all is meaningless. The point Qoheleth is trying to make is that we do not know the meaning. We act in vain because we “do not know the work of God, who makes everything” (Eccles. 11:5). He passes down his wisdom because “wisdom helps one to succeed” (10:10) and he has devised an approach to life that is foolproof: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat, drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (2:24) and “there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live” (3:12). Though he observes the contradictions in life (bad befalling the good, good happening to the wicked, et cetera), agrees that everyone dies in the end, and questions the point of working for the future generations who will only destroy your efforts, he never quits searching for meaning and never once preaches that others should quit their journey. He advises the future generations and bestows upon them his own experiences and conclusions, an act that in and of itself is a meaningful enterprise. He also always returns to the point that God is the creator, humans are subordinate to God, and God will judge all of our actions in the end.
The meaninglessness that Qoheleth reiterates over and over has an intended purpose. That purpose is to bolster the power of God. In The Noonday Demon, Solomon claims that at the lowest point of his depression he “prayed to a God [he] had never entirely believed in” (19). Qoheleth stands in direct contrast to this with his unwavering trust in God. Qoheleth never once denies, disagrees, or discredits a divine power. He knows God is omnipotent. He never questions God’s existence, power, or authority. It is this fact that holds the most oppositional stance to the notion that Qoheleth is depressed; Qoheleth has yet to abdicate any faith.
“Ecclesiastes” is not about depression or depressed man. It is not about the pointlessness of our endeavors or a cynical viewpoint of life. It is a guidebook to life. It is an old man’s account of his life complete with his personal conclusions and suggestions for the future. Qoheleth contemplates the inconsistencies and injustices he observed in his lifetime and asks why and how. His answer does not change: God is the only one who knows and we must simply “accept [our] lot and find enjoyment in [our] toil – this is the gift of God” (Eccles. 5:19). Qoheleth is an old man with a lot of wisdom.
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Contat, M., M. Rybalka, et al. The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974.
“meaningless” Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online 30 April 2008 <http://dictionary.oed
Sartre, Jean-Paul. A More Precise Characterization of Existentialism.” In Contat 155-160.
Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression. New York: Scribner, 2001.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Iowa, Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1997.