What does it mean for desacralization to be completed? One suggestion is that happens when all the little twinkles in the universe that betoken a god have been snuffed out. No more angels; no more miracles. In that case, the task was accomplished by Leibnitz. Another way to think about it is when the idea of cause with its attendant idea that everything needs a cause is also abolished. In that case, Spinoza can be said to have accomplished that. A third view is that desacralization is accomplished when the universe is rid of purpose because that spells the end of not only gods and causes but also of even a functional plan for the universe, a final cause for it. That situation is already described within the Bible. “Ecclesiastes” is the statement of that nihilistic situation which is to be distinguished from the usual renditions of atheism which are willing to accept that there is some wholeness to the universe, just that it does not contain a presiding deity. The difficulty of coming up or even expressing such an extreme position requires the deployment of a number of ways to read a text.
First, let us do some genre analysis. A doctrine is a systematic statement of beliefs that does not explain where the beliefs come from or how they differ from other sets of beliefs. That would make the document a philosophy or a treatise, which is the case with “The Communist Manifesto” and John Dewey’s “Human Nature and Conduct”. The Nicene Creed, for its part, is a doctrine. It wants to be sure it leaves out nothing that is essential to Christian belief but does not explain the basis for its precepts or how they cohere with one another. David Petraeus proposed a doctrine of counterinsurgency that also did not spell out its premises. He said, for example, that insurgencies always have a purpose though Georg Simmel had presented a century earlier a treatise that expounded on the nature of conflict which recognized that some conflicts were ends in themselves rather than means to ends. A doctrine is also not a prayer or a psalm. It does not wind up praising God.
Even though it can be read as a set of religious platitudes because, after all, it was included as part of the canon of the Old Testament, “Ecclesiastes” is a text that is a statement of doctrine and the doctrine it propounds is that of desacralization. It presents the sense that there is no cause and effect in the universe if what is meant by that is that there is purpose or design to the universe, and that is so even though there are regularities in the universe, such as the coming and going of the seasons. Desacralization is not discovered as an inference or because the text develops a set of insights, such as those found in “Genesis” about the nature of the family. Rather, “Ecclesiastes” is a piece of discursive writing (rather than a narrative or a poem) that delivers an eloquent statement of the human condition in a document where the matter is more important than the vehicle that conveys the message, however much we may be impressed by how well it states its points.
“Ecclesiastes” is desacralized and desacralizing because it treats what happens in the world as happenstance, things, even the seasons, coming with routine regularity but nonetheless without meaning. Things just happen to happen. We are in the world of Thomas Hardy’s “crass casualty” even if commentators, across the ages, interested in somehow providing “Ecclesiastes” with a religious message insist that orderliness is testimony to design. If things happen in their season, these commentators read in that there must be a reason for that other than that different things happen in different seasons. Not so. Take “Ecclesiastes” at its word.
Yet “Ecclesiastes” is a very special kind of statement of doctrine. It does not just line up its assertions as a set of bullet points. However straightforward they may be, those assertions are presented in a rhapsodic essay-like style that shifts rhythms, repeats phrases, and does the other things that persuasive writing does even though, in this case, there is not much in the way of the progress of an argument, something that essays do, which is get from one point to another by making connections that are sometimes logical, sometimes imagistic, sometimes something else. “Ecclesiastes” uses this style because, unlike most statements of doctrine, it is out to describe the experience of desacralization rather than to only state what desacralization is. And it tries to make that experience something with which the reader can identify and so soft pedals the nihilism of that position because nihilism, straight on, as is found in John Paul Sartre before he discovered Marxism, robs life of all of its charms. “Ecclesiastes” also differs from the late Nineteenth Century atheists such as Bertrand Russell who insisted that there was a moral framework that held together an otherwise cold universe. “Ecclesiastes” presents a version of nihilism that can still provide the world as a pleasant place to live, that can stand the test of the ages, and that “Ecclesiastes” has certainly done. I can think of no parallel document (with the possible exception of “Ruth”, which is another Old Testament document and one that is a story rather than a disquisition, and where the reader is always expecting the other shoe to drop, for either Ruth or Naomi or Boaz to be presented as acting badly).
Another way to read a text is to place the text in the context of its words, which means to see a text as an assemblage of words. That might seem like saying the atoms that make up a table are the context for the table, when it is the other way around, but it is not. It is saying that the words are what are important while the plot and the overall structure are an excuse for exercises in words. Perhaps both Joyce and Nabokov practiced their art this way and certainly Nabokov said as much. Moreover, because words change their meanings and because many do not have exact equivalents in another language, the critic is a “translator” of words across time and place.
Let us consult a number of translations to see how hard it is to accomplish a statement about the human condition that is truly desacralized. Robert Alter translates the famous opening sentences from “Ecclesiastes” as “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.” That is quite different from the familiar King James Revised Standard Version, which goes “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” It is also different from the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1955, which goes “Utter futility! says Kobeleth. Utter futility! All is futile!”
Clearly, there is a lot of room for maneuver in these translations. Sometimes there is one exclamation mark and sometimes three, and in Alter there are none, as if how and how strongly to emphasis is a choice on the part of the translator. Sometimes emphasis comes from doubling down on an emotion, as in “vanity of vanities” and sometimes emphasis comes from providing an extreme adjective, as in “utter futility”. Alter emphasizes by saying “merest”, which is very weak unless he is sure that the phrase is not meant to be a strong declarative but rather a description of a barely perceived reality. But there is more to the choice or invention of a proper translation than hitting just the right degree of emphasis.
Why are the three translations so different? Alter is not interested in mere originality of translation. Rather, he wants to get it right, which means to him in all the concreteness that is available in the original Hebrew. That means not Westernizing the Bible by filling it with Hellenistic abstractions, an anachronistic endeavor in even so late a book as “Ecclesiastes” which, Alter points out, does not use Hellenistic words and so seems purely a production of the Jewish cultural tradition. Alter takes the RSV’s “vanity” to be an abstraction and, to boot, one which conveys an emotion that is a vice. That is, in his view, much too much a Christian way of approaching the root of things. The Hebrew, Alter believes, suggests that the human situation is objective and not merely the product of a human failing. Alter’s phrase has the virtue of being reminiscent of the image of the breath of God or of the gods used this time to suggest impermanence rather than permanence. The Burning Bush, in its time, might burn forever, however ephemeral a flame might be. By the time of “Ecclesiastes”, permanence has become an illusion. Everything falls apart, like a will o’ the wisp.
So what of the Jewish Publication Society translation? Alter does not take that up directly. It would seem to do the trick of not being about a vice, and yet it does use an abstract word, “futile”, which also might be taken to have a subjective component. “Futile”, like “hopeless”, is an emotional purchase on the human situation, rather than just an objective characterization, as would be the case if the voice of “Ecclesiastes” said of life “All is meaningless” or “All is without morality”, even though those words do not capture the same meaning as “futile”. “All is meaningless” has to do with ontology and “All is without morality” has to do with ethics, and “All is futile” does not have to do with either but rather with the sense that there is nowhere to go from here, there is no way to form a purpose, not that there are no such things as purposes, which is what “meaningless” would imply, or that purposes are always or often bad, which is what a despondent view of ethics would imply.
One trouble with Alter’s “merest breath”, however, is that it is not English. There is no metaphor like that in English and it does not read grammatically except by very careful placement that leads the reader away from noticing that “mere breath” would require a specification of context, such as “mere breath as opposed to solid rock” in order to make sense. “Vanity” or “futility” pass the test of fitting into English nicely. So Alter reads as if it is a translation in the bad sense of a word being asked to do what it is not, which is suggest a meaning that might be there but which cannot be adequately rendered in the language into which the text is being translated.
Moreover, “mere breath” has two meanings, depending on what the phrase is taken to refer to. All of life may be a mere breath, in the sense that it is fragile and ephemeral. Or else our understanding of the world is mere breath, which means that it is superficial, in which case a better translation would be “pure bullpucky” so as to emphasize that breath is merely hot air. People say a lot about life that is just talk. The talk evaporates as soon as one faces the realities that are spelled out in “Ecclesiastes”. Philosophers and apologists are silenced by the intractable qualities of life. We are all going to die; we are going to go through the seasons of our lives and the rhythms of social life, and all for what? For nothing. And so there is nothing else to say.
If translation is at least in part about conveying meanings rather than words correctly, I would suggest the following translation. The phrase should be rendered as “All is pointless” or, even better, as “Life is pointless” which is more in keeping with English, where “life” is a conventional way of referring to the human condition as opposed to the physical world or even the biological world insofar as that impacts on what goes on a person’s life. “Pointless” captures the sense of being about life rather than being an emotion about life. It does not claim poignancy nor does it overreach; it is about the deadness that encompasses everything and to which everything returns. And, unlike “futile”, the word “pointless” does not encourage thoughts of what might be tried even if that will still fail to accomplish any goal; it posits, merely(!), that nothing adds up to anything in the scheme of things.
Alter opts for his translation because it is originalist. It avoids the question of how words change their meanings by going back to what is purportedly the original meaning, which is an empirical question, however fraught are the difficulties in establishing what that might be. Being a superb scholar is a big help. The originalist interpretation avoids making a word into an objective or eternal concept where various versions of the word appear throughout history all pointing to the essential meaning. That form of interpretation is often misconstrued as relativism because it connotes that meanings change, people reading new meanings in the old language of the United States Constitution. But in fact it is not relativist at all. It is literalist in that words are words; the words once written do not change, but the times change, and so what the word is taken to mean changes, all the while remaining the same. There is no need to consult history but only to interpret what the word means in one context or another. “Vanity” and “futility” are just two different renderings of the same concept, not much to choose between them.
Alter leaves out another way of reading words. Some words are meant to be abstract and so to point to being ever applicable, while other words are clear, from the local context, to mean something much more narrow and historical. “Thou shalt not lie with men” is a statement of a custom akin to “Thou shalt not eat shellfish”. In context, it is not a universal prohibition, only a cultural one. On the other hand, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a universal statement as befits a speaker who is telling what a perfect world soon to be realized will be like. “Vanity”, for its part, is a deliberate abstraction and so allows itself to be taken for some millennia as a statement of sin or as a personal failing and also to be taken for even longer as a statement of pointlessness, something Greeks as well as Jews and Christians can appreciate, even if the Greeks never heard of “Ecclesiastes” and even if the author of “Ecclesiastes” did not know Greek.
The evidence for saying that the word is meant to be an abstraction rather than an image is the context in which the word is placed. That requires going beyond the issue of translation to the making of comparisons between texts. We are not used to doing that because we think of novels as all being novels and poems as all being poems, as if it were even true that literary forms were stable for the length of a literary period, when there are in fact a great many kinds of literary forms each of which intersect with our lives in very different ways. There are cookbooks and travel memoirs and diaries, and there are reflections on history that are different from books of history and also different from theories of history. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is a reflection on history while Gibbon is a history and Mosca provides a theory of history. We expect different things from each of these kinds of books and misread them when we look to find in them something else than what they are. Don’t ask Gibbon to explain whether it is just Christianity or all religions that lead to the ends of empires. Don’t ask Machiavelli to expound the theory of human nature that lies behind his saying it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved, however much he does provide a literary vision of a rather dour theory of human nature in his play “Mandragola”. Don’t ask Mosca to explain why his theory that elites replace one another suits Italy better than it does the Atlantic democracies, where elites are always newly invented.
“Ecclesiastes” qualifies as wisdom literature, which simply means that it is also reflective and not a narrative, while other, earlier, Biblical documents are given over to telling stories or to retelling stories, as is the case with “Deuteronomy”, so that history will be understood differently. The emotions in “Ecclesiastes” are distinctive in that the document is not given over to stories of injustice and to the description of pain and suffering. It also differs from the prophetic books, which are much closer to it in time than are the ancient histories, because it is not self-righteous nor are its moral queries directed by what is happening in history.
The wisdom books differ very much among themselves. “Job” is a muddled attempt to present a very un-Hebrew thing, which is a theogony. It sets up a number of interlocutors who do not, in fact, have distinctive positions. The argument is not allowed to arrive at a conclusion but merely a suspension of discussion because God does not want to allow Job’s persistent questioning to continue. The discussion is presented in dramatic form and its climax is the appreciation of God as pure power. “Proverbs”, for its part, is a hortatory speech devoted to the claim of a natural morality. Follow God’s dictates and your life will be better off for it. Its insight is that clichés embody wisdom and that God has created morality just as He has created the world so you can take His word for it about what morality requires of a person.
These two books remove God from day to day affairs by making His morality rather than His Being the object of worship, just as “Job” also makes God more remote, more obscure, by making Him arise out of the whirlwind only to squash doubts by making the believer realize the breadth of His powers. God is not involved in history, as he was earlier on, whether by instructing Noah and Moses or telling the priests how to instruct Saul and David, and is instead just a reminder that there are powers beyond comprehension who it is better not to offend, thereby reintroducing the power of pagan religion without the need of magic or numinous experiences.
“Ecclesiastes”, for its part, intensifies the remoteness of God by presenting what seems a very modern view of a God whose plans for mankind are so obscure as to be inaccessible except insofar, and this is a stretch, mankind will indulge in thinking about the meaning of life. This task is accomplished because the author presents a poetic overview of the universal condition that is neither bleak nor full of fear but merely quotidian: everything proceeds at its pace until you die. There are a lot of rhymes and rhythms to life, but not much reason.
God is no longer engaged by people who, in the course of their lives, come across Him and one or another aspect of the world He created that bears His mark. That may have been the case when a reader was left to infer that David thinks about what God makes of David’s various transgressions, and the reader knew what God thought about what seem the rather minor transgressions of Moses. People have to think about God when He is there as an intruder into their personal narratives. That is the way it is with the texts that precede the wisdom texts.
A book in the wisdom collection, however, is not up to that: the declaration of the presence of God. These books are concerned with being present in the world that God created. God in “Job” is portrayed as a natural event, like a whirlwind, which will bring what it may; God in “Proverbs” is portrayed as Polonius, who you laugh at to your own peril; and God in “Ecclesiastes” is portrayed as simply silent, whatever that might mean and whatever is read into that. It follows, then, as a corollary, that if a document is about abstract and general philosophical matters and is meant to sound objective, even if poetic, to the point that the document is an assemblage of wise sayings rather than one point of view, then "vanity" is properly understood as an abstract word rather than to be understood in terms of its original intent.