Saturday, March 29, 2014

Brief Musing from Qohelet: Egalitarian Leanings

Wealth and equality are modern themes that have ancient roots. While Qohelet has much to say about and around the issue of economics and justice, its overall message seems to advise toward cultivating our lives and society where the masses live and being content somewhere in the large middle between the dualism and language of extremes—rich and poor.  This follows the prayer in the oracle of Agur (Prov. 30:7-9).

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.

The vital relationship of enjoyment and death and the corresponding commendations in Qohelet affirm an egalitarian sort of ethos that is best described as grass roots in nature (internal good). At the same time Qohelet warns against the habits that encourage oligarchic structures (see Ecclesiastes 5.8-17, “The Problem with Wealth”). This gets close to a common complaint about capitalism—it breeds greed and a consumerism that enslaves the masses, and contributes to a maddening effect of “meaninglessness.” While advertisements (modern day “oppressors”) on the surface point to what is important, in the end they provide only an empty promise that what they offer will make us safe and to make us happy.  Without the investment of charity (a fundamental logic of generosity, 11.1-6) a society grows apart into “those who have” and “those who have not.” History teaches us that such rigidness will only lead to uprising and revolution.

What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. (Ecclesiastes 2.22-24a)

It would seem that the various, repeated commendations of enjoyment in Qohelet point to a simple and profound solution in the form of an egalitarian culture without a total decentralized ruling class. Living thus is not about everyone having the same amount of money or distributed wealth per se. It is more a collective psychological achievement where people with different economic lives are able to get on well with each other, and status is not tied to one’s bank account. Hence, life (the way of life) itself is richer and deeper (i.e. "good life"). It attaches to more important things; e.g., whether you are good at camping, riding a bike, enjoy art or a good beer, make time to be with a few good friends, or willing to put in an honest day's work. 

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