Most graduation advice—whether given in boom times or moments of crisis—depicts a future replete with untrammeled ground and endless unknowns. And if you take a look at commencement addresses from the past, you’ll see a glimpse of what people in power told privileged young people to believe in and sketches of what the future could be, which we can now consider next to the reality of what came next. Lapham’s Quarterly is revisiting the history of giving advice to graduates and others in the process of acquiring knowledge or skills.
You can celebrate a graduate in your life by introducing them to Lapham’s Quarterly. It’s an invaluable resource for graduates beginning a lifetime of learning outside the classroom. Send a gift subscription today for just $49.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the biblical “wisdom” books and belongs to an ancient literary tradition, beginning in Sumer and Babylonia, of recording the advice of sages. The word Ecclesiastes derives from the Greek ekklesiastes, or “one who addresses an assembly,” which is a rough translation of the Hebrew word Qohelet (also Koheleth), meaning “preacher” or “teacher.” Qohelet is the name given in the text by the apparent author of Ecclesiastes. He also claims to be a king of Jerusalem and the son of David. If that is his true parentage, Qohelet was King Solomon, the tenth-century-bc ruler of the Israelites. Jewish and Christian theologians have traditionally followed this attribution by placing Ecclesiastes between the Song of Solomon and the Book of Proverbs, Solomon’s other biblical writings, in the Old Testament. Yet the text’s Aramaic loanwords suggest it was composed in the third century bc, after Solomon’s kingdom was divided and Jerusalem became one of the colonies of the Achaemenid Empire.
Qohelet was a deeply cynical thinker, perhaps because of the diminished state of the Israelites. He describes a world in which success and happiness are not guaranteed, where an individual is largely powerless in the face of human greed, fallibility, and suffering. His advice for readers is to accept the futility of their lives and welcome the knowledge that all human actions are “vanity” or “vapor.” He suggests (perhaps influenced by the Greek philosophy of Epicureanism) that the best course of action is to pursue tranquility and pleasure:
Therefore eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart. God has already given his approval to thy deeds. At all times be thy garments white, and let oil not be lacking for thy head. Enjoy life with the woman of thy love all the days of thy vain life that God has given thee under the sun. That is thy portion in life and the compensation for thy toil under the sun. Whatever thou can afford with thy substance do, for there is no activity, or reckoning, or knowledge, and no wisdom in Sheol.1
Since the first century, scholars have debated why Qohelet’s pessimistic meditation on human life was included in the Bible. Morris Jastrow Jr., an expert on Semitic languages at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in his 1919 translation, “It is a strange book to have slipped into a sacred collection.” Jastrow set out to produce a new translation of Qohelet’s words, believing that centuries of adaptation and reframing had resulted in a different work than its creator had intended; he was determined to give twentieth-century readers a new impression of a very old text:
In presenting Qohelet in a new garb, minus the trimmings which were attached to the original composition, it is my hope to make a remarkable literary production more intelligible than is possible by reading it in any of our present-day translations of the Old Testament, which are all modeled on the classic “authorized” version of 1611, and which all assume the book to be a literary unit in its present form. In other words, I have tried to give the reader the book of Qohelet in its original form, as nearly as that is at present possible.
Writers from William Shakespeare to Edith Wharton have paraphrased Qohelet’s words, and Leo Tolstoy turned to Ecclesiastes during a midlife crisis of faith, writing in A Confession that his doubts began with a single realization: “What am I?—A part of the infinite. In those few words lies the whole problem.”
What gain has a man of all his toil,
Which he toils under the sun?
Generation comes and generation goes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
And to his rising place he returns.
Around to the south and circling to the north,
Around and around goes the wind,
And on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea,
But the sea is not full.
To the place whither the streams flow,
From there they flow back again.
Everything is wearied,
Beyond human utterance,
Beyond sight and hearing.
What has been is that which shall be;
And what has happened is that which shall happen,
So that there is nothing new under the sun.
If something occurs of which one says, “See, this is new”—ages before us it has already happened. Former occurrences are not recorded, and later occurrences also shall not be remembered by the ages that are to come.
I, Qohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem, and I applied my mind to seek and explore everything under the sun—a sorry business which God has given the children of men for their affliction. I saw all that happened under the sun—and behold it was all vanity and chasing after wind.
Now I thought to myself, I have become great and acquired much more than anyone who reigned before me over Jerusalem. My mind was stored with very much wisdom and knowledge. So I set out to experience frivolity and foolishness, though I knew that this, too, was chasing after wind. I said to myself, Come, I’ll make a test of pleasure and of having a good time, but alas! This also turned out to be vanity. Of sport, I was led to conclude that it was madness, and of joy—what does it accomplish! I made up my mind to stimulate my body with wine and to pursue folly, in order to ascertain whether this was a good way for the children of men to spend the days of their lives.
I undertook great works. I acquired houses; I planted vineyards; I made gardens and parks. I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees, I made pools of water to irrigate the sprouting forest. I purchased slaves and handmaidens, and had a household of dependents, besides having possessions of cattle and flocks in large number, more than anyone before me in Jerusalem. I gathered also silver and gold, royal treasures, and provinces; I got singers and dancing maidens and all the delights of the children of men.
So I became great, in excess of anyone who was before me in Jerusalem. I did not withhold anything that my eyes desired, I did not deny myself any pleasure, for I rejoiced in all my toil, and this was my portion of all my toil. But when I looked on all what my hands had wrought and on what I had toiled for—all indeed seemed vanity and chasing after wind. Nothing seemed worthwhile under the sun.
So I made a test of madness and folly, for what can any man do who comes after a king beyond what he has already done? And yet it seemed to me that perhaps wisdom has an advantage over folly, insofar as light is better than darkness. But then I realized that there is one and the same fate for all, and I reflected that the fate of the fool will also overtake me. Why then should I be overwise? I concluded that this also is vanity. For of the wise man, as of the fool, there is no permanent record. In the days to come everything is forgotten. And see how the wise man dies just as the fool!
So I hated life. All that happened under the sun seemed evil to me since all was vanity and chasing after wind. I hated that I must leave all that I had toiled for under the sun to one who comes after me. A man who toils with wisdom, knowledge, and integrity must hand it over as an inheritance to one who has not toiled for it—surely this is vanity and a great evil. What has a man of all his toil and of his painstaking efforts under the sun, since all his days are pains and his ambition a vexation, with no rest for his mind even at night? Surely this is vanity.
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and to drink and to enjoy himself for his toil; it seems to me that such is the will of God. Everything has its appointed time, and there is a time for every occurrence under the sun. There is a time to be born, and a time to die. There is a time for planting, and a time for uprooting. What profit, then, has the worker of his toil?
I have observed every ambition which God has given the children of men for their affliction. He has given them a grasp of the whole world without the possibility on the part of man to fathom the work which God has made from the beginning to the end. I realized that there is nothing better for a man than to be happy and to enjoy himself in his life, and that every man who eats and drinks and has a good time in all his toil enjoys a gift of God. I realized that whatever God does is forever, to which one cannot add and from which one cannot take away. Whatever has been has been before, and what is to be has already been.
I saw under the sun in the place of justice wickedness, and where the righteous should have been the wicked was. I reflected that God permits this in the case of children of men to test them and to show that they are beasts. For the fate of the children of men and the fate of the beast is the same. As this one dies, so is the death of that, and there is the same spirit to all. Man has no advantage over the beast, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are of the dust and all return to dust. Who knows whether the spirit of the children of men mounts up and the spirit of the beast goes down? It appeared to me that there is nothing better for man than to enjoy himself. That is his portion—who can help him to see what shall be after him?
I considered all the oppressions practiced under the sun, and the tears of the oppressed without anyone to console them, and the violence of their oppressors with no comforter in sight! And I praised these long since dead more than those still living; better than both is the one who has not yet been, as he has not seen the evil happenings under the sun. I considered that all toil and all honest work is merely due to man’s zeal against his neighbor—surely this is vanity and chasing after wind. Better a handful in quiet than two handsful in toil and chasing after wind. And I further considered the vanity that there is under the sun. There is a single man without a mate, without a son or brother, yet toiling without end, and with an eye never satisfied by his wealth. For whom then should I toil and deprive myself of a good time? Surely this is vanity and a sorry business.
Better is the child of humble birth and wise than an old king who is a fool and unable to take care of himself. For through a rebellion one may come to rule, even though one is born poor in one’s own kingdom. I saw all the living under the sun flocking to the side of the child, who was to stand in his place. There was no end to all the people, yet those that come after will not rejoice in him—now surely this is vanity and chasing after wind.
Observe thy pilgrimages to the house of God but draw nigh to hear, rather than to have fools offer a sacrifice, for they do not know enough to do any harm. Be not rash with thy mouth, and be not led hastily to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and thou art upon earth. Therefore, let thy words be few. If thou does make a vow to God, do not defer paying it. Whatever thou vows, pay! It is better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Let not thy mouth bring sin upon thee, and do not say before God that it was a slip. Why arouse God’s anger and destroy thy own handiwork?
A multitude of dreams results in many foolish words, for a dream comes through too much business, and a fool’s voice is heard in many words. If thou sees the oppression of the poor, and justice and righteousness in the country defrauded, do not be amazed at the occurrence, for there is some “guardian” higher up and still higher ones above this one, and overtopping them all is the king.
A sore evil that I have seen under the sun is riches hoarded by the owner, and when that fortune is lost through a bad venture, the son begotten by him has nothing. He cannot carry anything that he has acquired by his toil away with him. Surely this is a sore evil, that just as he came, so he goes. Therefore, what profit is it to him that he toils for the wind and that he spends all his days in saving and in constant worry and sickness and distress?
It seems to me the thing that is good and proper is to eat, drink, and to have a good time with all one’s toil under the sun during the span of life which God has allotted to one, for that is his portion. Every man to whom God has given riches and possessions and who has the power to enjoy it and to take his portion and to be happy in his toil—this is a gift of God. For he should remember that life is short and that God approves of joy.
There is an evil I have observed under the sun and it bears heavily on mankind—a man to whom God has given riches and possessions and superfluity with nothing lacking of anything that he might wish for, but to whom God has not given the power to enjoy it, so that a stranger enjoys it—this surely is vanity and a sore evil.
If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, be his life ever so long, and he does not get his fill of joy out of it—I say that the abortion is happier than he. Even though it comes into vanity, moves in darkness, and with darkness its name is covered and it has never seen the sun nor has known anything—yet this is preferable to the other. And though a man lives a thousand years twice told and has not had a good time—do not all go to one place?
What advantage has a wise man over a fool, or the poor man who by his knowledge sets an example to the living? Better is enjoyment than longing—though this also is vanity and chasing after wind.
Whatever is has long since been determined and what is has been fixed. Man cannot contend with what is stronger than himself. Since many possessions merely increase vanity, what advantage are they to man? For who knows what is good for a man during the span of his life of vanity? And though he spends his life like a shadow, is there anyone who can tell man who is to be after him under the sun?
1 Sheol is the Hebrew underworld, described in the Bible as “the land of gloom and deep darkness” (Job 10:21). ↩