Ecclesiastes (often abbreviated Ecc) (Hebrew: תֶלֶה ֹק, Kohelet, variously transliterated as Qoheleth, Göhalath, Koheles, Koheleth, or Coheleth) is a book of the Hebrew Bible. The English name derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew title.

The main speaker in the book, identified by the name Qohelet, introduces himself as “son of David, and king in Jerusalem.” The work consists of personal or autobiographic matter, at times expressed in aphorisms and maxims illuminated in terse paragraphs with reflections on the meaning of life and the best way of life. The work emphatically proclaims all the actions of man to be inherently “vain”, “futile”, “empty”, “meaningless”, “temporary”, “transitory”, or “fleeting,” depending on translation, as the lives of both wise and foolish men end in death. While Qohelet clearly endorses wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe eternal meaning to it. In light of this perceived senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one’s wife and work, which are gifts from the hand of God.

According to Talmud however, the point of Qohelet is to state that all is futile under the sun. One should therefore ignore physical pleasures and put all one’s efforts towards that which is above the Sun. This is summed up in the second to last verse: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”

TheBook of Ecclesiastesbelongs to the wisdom writings of the Hebrew Bible, along with Proverbsand Job. The Hebrew title of the book is Qohelet, a term related to the verbqāhal, “to gather, assemble.” Most likely the noun qōheletdesignates the function “gatherer,” although it remains unclear whether the term refers to the author as a gatherer of wise sayings or as a gatherer of persons for instruction. Greek translators interpreted the word to mean ekklēsiastēs, “member of a citizen’s assembly.” Although the book identifies Qohelet as “king over Israel in Jerusalem,” that is, Solomon (1:12; cf. 1:1), scholars recognize this persona as a literary fiction, one that is maintained only for the section 1:12–2:26. In the epilogue Qohelet is referred to as a ḥākām, a “sage” who taught the people.

Date, Provenance and Reception

The lack of specific historical references within the book makes it difficult to date Ecclesiastes. Consequently, its linguistic profile provides the best clue to the date of composition. The presence of Persian loan words and numerous Aramaisms, as well as Hebrew expressions and grammatical forms typical of other post-exilic texts, makes a date earlier than the mid-fifth century BCE all but impossible. Opinion is divided, however, as to whether the book is more likely to have been composed during the Persian period (540–332 BCE) or the Hellenistic period (332 BCE–165 CE). A date in the fourth or third century BCE is most likely.

Though the date remains somewhat uncertain, the social context of the book is reflected in the striking use of terms drawn from the commercial world. Ecclesiastes often uses these terms in a derived or metaphorical sense, but the commercial origin of words such asyitrôn (profit), ḥesrôn (deficit), ḥeshbôn (account), and shallît(proprietor) is readily recognized.

Moreover, a number of the sayings concern money and economic relations. Beginning in the Persian period, the economy of Palestine was increasingly monetary and commercial. The competitive economic context of Persian and Hellenistic Palestine was also combined with an autocratic and often arbitrary system of political and economic hierarchy (royal grants, tax farming, etc.) that made it difficult for individuals to have a sense of control over their economic futures. This socioeconomic situation seems to inform the perspective ofEcclesiastes, in which the inability of persons to be able to grasp the order of the world becomes thematic. One of the ways in which this perspective is manifest in Ecclesiastes is the foregrounding of the contradictoriness of experience.

Not surprisingly, Ecclesiastes was one of the books about whose canonicity certain rabbis raised questions in the late first century CE, when such issues were being discussed. The shocking nature of a number of the observations of Ecclesiastes provoked some of the opposition. In addition, the book’s odd, self-contradictory structure gave pause. As a remark in the Talmud observes, “the sages sought to withdraw the book of Qohelet because its words are mutually contradictory” (b. Shabb. 30b). Nevertheless, the book was received as canonical in Judaism and thus in the Christian canon. In fact, Ecclesiastes came to be recognized as one of the five Megillot, the scrolls read in connection with the calendar of Jewish festivals. Ecclesiastes is read during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, presumably because of the connection between the repeated calls of Ecclesiastes to enjoy the present moment and the association of Sukkot with “the season of our rejoicing.”

Content and Themes

Although Ecclesiastes is often seen as a heterodox work, it fits quite well into the larger picture of wisdom writings in the ancient Near East. Ancient Near Eastern wisdom was fundamentally concerned with the quest for order in the natural world, especially as that order expresses itself in the sphere of human experience. While many wisdom texts, such as the Book of Proverbs, express confidence in human ability to discern and profit by perceiving such an order, there are also many that express a skeptical or pessimistic view. These include the Egyptian writings of theDialogue of a Man with His Ba, The Admonitions of Ipuwer, and the conclusion to The Instructions of Ani. In Mesopotamian wisdomThe Babylonian Theodicy and, in particular, The Dialogue of a Master with His Slave articulate skepticism toward the project of discerning the order of the universe. In Israelite wisdom the Book of Job is also reckoned among the skeptical works. It is probably incorrect to see these different opinions as representing a chronological movement from confidence to skepticism. It is rather more likely that both the confident and the skeptical perspectives were present within the dialogue of wisdom at most times.
The particular perspective of Ecclesiastes concerning the accessibility of order in the world is announced in the opening verse of the text (1:2). Following the translation of the King James Version, the line is often rendered “Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet; vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word translated “vanity” is hebel, which literally means “a puff of air.” It is, as C. L. Seow suggests in Ecclesiates: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1997), “anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory.… It cannot be grasped—either physically or intellectually” (p. 47).

Thus, Ecclesiastes does not deny that there is an order to the world—indeed, he often suggests that there is—only it is one that cannot be grasped by human knowing. Consequently, translators sometimes render hebel by such terms as futility or even absurdity.

The conviction of Ecclesiastes that humans cannot grasp the order of the world helps make sense of a frequent literary strategy used in the book in which two sayings that contradict one another are placed side by side. Exposing contradictions as the way in which the world is in fact experienced demonstrates the elusiveness of any intellectual or moral order. Moreover, it also explains why his judgment concerning the utility of wisdom is so mixed. Wisdom may in some cases be an advantage, but in other cases it affords no advantage whatsoever. Hence, persons are unable to control their futures by discerning the right deed for the right time. For this reason Ecclesiastes often characterizes the work people do in their lives with a word that has negative connotations, ʿamal, meaning “burdensome toil.” Similarly, Ecclesiastes notes that although God is just, injustice is often present in the world. Death becomes emblematic of the inability of humans to grasp any meaningful order, since “the same fate comes to all” (9:2), whether they are wise or foolish, good or evil, religious or not. Like the order of the world, God remains inscrutable for Ecclesiastes. Although much that Ecclesiastes says about God would be at home in Proverbs, he differs from that book in stressing the radical transcendence of God (“God is in heaven and you are on earth” [5:2]). Like an imperial monarch in the Persian or Hellenistic period, God is to be feared rather than loved (5:1–7).

Despite the conviction of Ecclesiastes that the order of things cannot be understood and used to human advantage, he addresses the concern of traditional wisdom for how to live appropriately in the world. Consistent with his analysis of the inability of persons to control their futures, Ecclesiastes endorses taking pleasure in the moment at hand. One should enjoy eating, drinking, being festive, loving one’s spouse, working on the task at hand (9:7–10). Even this is not in one’s own power, however, but rather is frequently described as God’s “gift” or as a person’s “portion” from God. Although this advice differs from what one finds in other Israelite wisdom texts, it is traditional wisdom, having a very close parallel in the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic. Thus,Ecclesiastes should not be seen as representing a crisis in Israelite wisdom, as is sometimes suggested, but rather as articulating the skeptical or pessimistic strand of traditional ancient Near Eastern wisdom.

Religio Medici

Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) is a book by Sir Thomas Browne, which sets out his spiritual testament as well as being an early psychological self-portrait. In its day, the book was a European best-seller and brought its author fame and respect throughout the continent. It was published in 1643 by the newly-qualified physician after an unauthorized version of his writings on the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity had been distributed and reproduced with added text.

Samuel Pepys in his diaries complained that the Religio was “cried up to the whole world for its wit and learning”, and its unorthodox views placed it swiftly upon the Papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1645. Although predominantly concerned with Christian faith, the Religio also meanders into digressions upon alchemy, hermetic philosophy, astrology, andphysiognomy. Whilst discussing Biblical scripture the learned doctor reveals a penchant for esoteric learning, and confesses, for example, that “I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magicke of numbers.”

Browne’s latitudinarian Anglicanism equally allowed him to declare: “the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes.” A rare surviving contemporary review by a distinguished member of the Parisian medical faculty, Gui De Patin (1601/2–72) indicates the considerable impactReligio Medici had upon the intelligentsia abroad:

‘A new little volume has arrived from Holland entitled Religio Medici written by an Englishman and translated into Latin by some Dutchman. It is a strange and pleasant book, but very delicate and wholly mystical; the author is not lacking in wit and you will see in him quaint and delightful thoughts. There are hardly any books of this sort. If scholars were permitted to write freely we would learn many novel things, never has there been a newspaper to this; in this way the subtlety of the human spirit could be revealed’. A translation into German of the Religio was made in 1746.

In the early nineteenth century Religio Medici was “re-discovered” by the English Romantics, firstly by Charles Lamb who introduced it to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who after reading it exclaimed, “O to write a character of this man!” Thomas de Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater also praised it, stating:

‘I do not recollect more than one thing said adequately on the subject of music in all literature. It is a passage in Religio Medici of Sir T. Browne, and though chiefly remarkable for its sublimity, has also a philosophical value, inasmuch as it points to the true theory of musical effects’.

In the twentieth century the Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung used the term Religio Medici several times in his writings. Though little read nowadays, in Virginia Woolf’s opinion Religio Medici paved the way for all future confessionals, private memoirs and personal writings. In theseventeenth century it spawned numerous imitative titles, including John Dryden’s great poem, Religio Laici, but none matched the frank, intimate tone of the original in which the learned doctor invites the reader to share with him in the labyrinthine mysteries and idiosyncratic views of his personality.

It is far from clear that Thomas Browne ever considered publishing Religio Medici, his first and most influential work. Written during his medical apprenticeship in the mid-1630s, this essay on the religion of a doctor was (in typical fashion) circulated in multiple manuscripts among friends for seven years until 1642, when Andrew Crooke, an enterprising publisher of controversialist writing, obtained it and printed it anonymously, without the author’s permission or knowledge. What Browne would later describe as “a private exercise directed to myself” was an immediate commercial success, and Crooke quickly brought out a second edition. Browne, meanwhile, had wind of a work about to be published by the colourful savant Sir Kenelm Digby, apparently responding to Browne’s essay. He immediately set about revising the pirated text for authorised publication in 1643. Together with Digby’s Observations upon Religio Medici, the 1643 edition, now with Browne’s name on it, established his reputation in English and Continental writing.

Religio Medici has been described as spiritual autobiography, but it has in fact only occasional resemblance to the true seventeenth-century exponents of the form like Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. Although Browne’s subject is his own beliefs, the essay is better understood as a manifesto (a very modest and retiring one, it is true), a proclamation of tolerant Anglicanism in a period of repressive Laudian intervention and rising sectarian dissent. He uses his own history of theological discovery and devotional meditation to propose a generous conception of religious practice and belief. This generosity was received with mixed enthusiasm in some quarters: the book was placed on the Vatican’s Index Expurgatorius in 1645 (where it apparently remained until the mid-twentiethcentury), while the most vocal English critics suspected Browne of Papistry and atheism; the Quakers, on the other hand, invited him to become a member of their church.

Pamela or Virtue Rewarded

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, first published in 1740. It tells the story of a maid named Pamela whose master, Mr. B., makes unwanted advances towards her. She rejects him continually, and her virtue is eventually rewarded when he shows his sincerity by proposing an equitable marriage to her. In the second part of the novel, Pamela attempts to accommodate herself to upper-class society and to build a successful relationship with him. The story was widely mocked at the time for its perceived licentiousness and it inspired Henry Fielding (among many others) to write two parodies: Shamela (1741), about Pamela’s true identity; and Joseph Andrews (1742), about Pamela’s brother.

Epistolarity

Epistolary novels, that is, novels written as a series of letters, were extremely popular during the eighteenth century and it was Richardson’s Pamela that made them so. Richardson and other novelists of his time argued that the letter allowed the reader greater access to a character’s thoughts – Richardson claimed that he was writing “to the moment,” that is, that Pamela’s thoughts were recorded nearly simultaneously with her actions.

In the novel, Pamela writes two kinds of letters. At the beginning of the novel, while she is deciding how long to stay on at Mr. B’s after the death of his mother, she writes letters to her parents relating her various moral dilemmas and asking for their advice. After Mr. B abducts her and imprisons her in his countryhouse, she continues to write letters to her parents, but because she is unsure whether or not her parents will ever receive them, they are to be considered both letters and a diary.

In Pamela, the reader receives only the thoughts and letters of Pamela, restricting the reader’s access to the other characters; we see only Pamela’s perception of them. In Richardson’s other novels, Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753), the reader is privy to the letters of several characters and can thus more effectively evaluate the motivations and moral values of the characters.

Pamela Plot

Volume 1

A plate from the 1742 deluxe edition of Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded showing Mr. B intercepting Pamela’s first letter home to her mother.

Pamela Andrews is a young servant of 15, very pious and innocent, serving Lady B. as a waiting-maid, in Bedfordshire. When the lady dies, her son, the squire Mr B. shows more and more his attraction towards Pamela, first by being kind to her (he gives her his mother’s clothes), then by trying to take advantage of her in the Summer House. But she resists, and as he wants to pay her to keep the secret, she refuses and tells Mrs Jervis, the housekeeper (her best friend in the house, a motherly figure although faithful to Mr B.). Pamela thinks of going back to her parents, who are very poor, to preserve her innocence, but can’t make up her mind. Mr B. plans to marry her to Mr Williams, his chaplain in Lincolnshire, and gives money to her parents in case she then lets him take advantage of her. She refuses and decides to go back to her parents.

But Mr B. intercepts her letters to her parents and tells them she has an affair with a poor clergyman and that he will send her to a safe place to preserve her honour. Therefore, Pamela is driven to Lincolnshire Estate and begins a Journal (because she is a prisoner and can’t write letters anymore) hoping it will be sent to her parents one day. The housekeeper there, Mrs Jewkes, is very different from Mrs Jervis : she is a vulgar, rude, masculine woman devoted to Mr B. She imposes Pamela to be her bedfellow. Mr B promises her that he won’t approach her without her leave (indeed he’s away from Lincolnshire for a long time).

Pamela meets Mr Williams and they agree to communicate by putting letters under a sunflower of the garden. Mrs Jewkes beats her because she calls her “her Jezebel”. Mr Williams asks the gentry of the village for help and even though they pity Pamela, no one agrees to help her because of Mr B.’s social position. Mr Williams proposes marriage to her, in order to escape Mr B’s wickedness.

Mr Williams is attacked and beaten by robbers. Pamela wants to escape when Mrs Jewkes is away but is very frightened by two bulls watching her (they are actually cows). By mistake, Mr Williams reveals the correspondence to Mrs Jewkes, and as a result Mr B. is jealous and says he hates Pamela. He wants to marry her to one of his servants. Mr Williams is arrested. Pamela is desperate, she thinks of running away and making them believe she has been drowned in the pond. She tries to climb a wall but can’t do it: she is injured and renounces escape.

Mr B. comes back. He sends her a list of Articles which would rule their partnership : she refuses each point because it would mean to be his mistress. Mr B. tries to go to bed with her disguised as Nan (the housemaid) with the complicity of Mrs Jewkes. But Pamela faints nd thwarts his designs. He seems to repent then, he is kinder in his attempts to seduce her. She implores him to cease. When he talks to her in the garden, he implicitly says he loves her but can’t marry her because of the social gap.

Volume 2

A gypsy fortune-teller wants to predict Pamela’s future, but only in order to give her a bit of paper warning her against a sham-marriage. Pamela has hidden a parcel of letters under a rose bush and when she comes to take them back, Mrs Jewkes seizes them and gives them to Mr B. After having read the letters, Mr B. feels pity for what she has undergone because of him and really decides to marry her.
But she still doubts him and begs him to let her return to her parents. He is vexed but lets her go. She bids him goodbye and feels strangely sad. On her way home, he sends her a letter wishing her a good life. Pamela is moved and realizes she is in love. Then he sends her a second paper asking her to come back because he’s very ill : she accepts. Mr B.’s sister, Lady Davers, is very cross with him for taking Pamela as his wife.

Pamela and Mr B. talk of their future life as husband and wife and she agrees with everything he says. She explains why she doubted him. This is the end of her trials : she is more submissive to him and owes him everything now as a wife. Mr Williams is released. Some neighbours come to the estate and all admire Pamela. Pamela’s father comes to take her away but he is reassured when he sees Pamela happy.
Finally, she marries Mr B. in the chapel. But when Mr B. has gone to see a sick man, Lady Davers comes to threaten Pamela and considers she is not really married. Pamela escapes by the window and goes in Colbrand’s chariot to be taken away to Mr B. The following day, Lady Davers enters their room without permission and insults Pamela. Mr B. is furious, he wants to renounce his sister, but Pamela wants to reconcile the two of them. But Lady Davers is still contemptuous towards Pamela. Vexed, she mentions Sally Godfrey, a girl Mr B. seduced in his youth, with whom he had a child. He is cross with Pamela because she dared approach him when he was in a temper.

Lady Davers accepts Pamela. Mr B. explains to Pamela what he expects of his wife. They go back to Bedfordshire. Pamela rewards the good servants with money and forgives John who betrayed her. They make a little “Airing” to a farmhouse and encounter Miss Goodwin, Mr B’s child. Pamela would like to take her with them. They learn that Sally Godfrey now lives happily in Jamaica with a husband. Pamela is praised by the gentry of the neighbourhood who once despised her.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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