The Sceptics of the Old Testament: Job - Koheleth - Agur
Emile Joseph Dillon
Part 2 out of 4
And that thou shouldst set thine heart upon him?
That thou shouldst visit him every morning,
And try him every moment?"
Bildad, the Traditionalist _par excellence_, then addresses a sharp
reproof to the just man who refused to recognise as mercy in God the
conduct which, were a man responsible for it, he must needs condemn as
wickedness. He bids him inquire of bygone generations what they thought
of the goodness of the Creator, and asks him to be guided by the wisdom
of his fore-fathers, who lived and throve on the spiritual food of
retribution which he now rejects with loathing. This attack provokes a
new outburst on the part of Job, who ironically paraphrases and develops
the ideas of his comforters, deriding the notion that the deity can
change right into wrong or that true morality needs the divine will as a
"How should man be in the right against God?
If he long to contend with him,
He cannot answer him one of a thousand."
"Lo, he glideth by me and I see him not;
And he passeth on, but I perceive him not."
His friends had recommended him to pray for pardon and repent, and had
promised him the return of his happiness as a consequence. But Job scouts
the idea. His righteousness, if he indeed possess it, is his own; no
prayers can add to, no punishment can take from, that.
"I must make supplication unto his judgment,
Who doth not answer me, though I am righteous!"
And as for a God who being almighty is yet unjust, prayer would be
superfluous, no supplications would avail aught with Him; He would cause
even incarnate holiness to appear wicked in its own eyes.
"Though I were just, my own mouth would condemn me;
Though I were faultless, he would make me crooked."
For even the will of a created being is in the hands of its Creator, and
is not, cannot be, free. Job feels and knows that he is right-minded and
good, and he puts the testimony of his own conscience above the decrees
of any beings, human or divine, which, whatever else they may achieve,
cannot shake the foundations of true justice and morality, which are
"Faultless I am, I set life at naught;
I spurn my being, therefore I speak out."
And the outcome of his outspokenness is a solemn charge of injustice
against God, a sigh of profound regret that he was ever born into
this miserable world, and a wish that his sufferings might "come to an
end before he should return to the land of darkness and of gloom" whence
After this, Zophar, the third comforter, opens his lips for coarse
vituperation rather than sharp rebuke, and regrets that God Himself does
not feel moved to give a practical lesson of wisdom to the conceited
"prattler," who persists in believing in his own innocence in spite of
the unmistakable judgment of his just Creator and the unanimous testimony
of his candid friends. Job's reply to this vigorous advocate of God is
even more powerful and indignant than any of the foregoing. He repeats
and emphasises his indictment against the Deity. No omnipotent being who
was really just and good could approve, or even connive at, much less
practise, the scandalous injustice which characterises the conduct of the
universe and the so-called moral order, and of which his own particular
grievances are a specimen. Not that the curious spectacle that daily
meets our eye, wherein wickedness and hypocrisy are prosperous and
triumphant while truth and integrity are trampled under foot, is
necessarily incompatible with absolute and eternal justice; it is
irreconcileable only with the attributes of a personal deity, an almighty
and just creator, who would necessarily be responsible for these evils as
for all things else, if he existed. If the world be the work of an
omnipotent maker, its essential moral characteristic partakes of the
nature of his attributes; and the main moral feature of our world is
evil, and not good. This is the ever-recurring refrain of Job's
discourses. Nor does he hesitate when occasion offers to proclaim his
conviction in the plainest of plain language, for he entertains no fear
of what may further befall him.
"Lo, let him kill me, I cherish hope no more,
Only I will justify my way before his face."
The three friends return a second time to the charge, each one speaking
in the same order as before, and each one eliciting a separate reply, in
which Job reaffirms his innocence, reiterates his indictment against the
Most High, and reproaches his comforters with their off-hand condemnation
of an attitude resulting from sufferings which they are slow to realise
and from knowledge which they are unable to grasp. In his rejoinder to
Zophar, he lays special stress upon the prosperity and success of the
wicked who scoff at the laws of God and yet "while away their days in
bliss." If God will not punish them, is He just? If He cannot, is He
almighty? As He does not, why speak of the moral order of His world or of
the moral attributes of Himself?
Ehphaz opens the third series of speeches by accusing his friend of
selfishness, dishonesty, hard-heartedness and avarice, on no better
grounds than the assumption that God's justice warrants us in believing
that where punishment is inflicted there also must sin have been
committed. Job, instead of condescending to refute the charge, ironically
admits it, and then bitterly remarks that he would like to know how God
would justify His conduct and convict him of sin if only they both could
argue out the question together on terms of equality. But in all the
universe he looks for God in vain:
"Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive him."
Bildad then proceeds to emphasise the omnipotence of the Creator with
whom the human worm, the maggot, dares to enter into judgment, and Job
replies to all three, refuting them out of their own mouths. His
conscience, he tells them, is proof sufficient of his right conduct,
whereas his misery, by their own admission, proves nothing at all.
"Till I die, I will not yield up my integrity!
My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go,
My heart doth not censure any one of my days."
As for the argument from punishment to sin, all three friends had in the
course of their speeches laid it down that the lines on which the
universe is governed are known to no man. If this be so, who are they
that have surprised the secret and found the clue to the enigma? Who
revealed to them that retribution is the basis of the moral order? Man
knows nothing, can never hope to know anything, of the inner working of
the world, of the why and the wherefore of our miserable being and of the
existence of all things. The Godhead alone could fathom these
mysteries, if He existed.
Job takes no notice of the succeeding brief remarks of Zophar in his
final and longest discourse which, replete with sorrowful reminiscences
of his past happy life, is less defiant than any of those that preceded.
Wandering in thought through the necropolis of buried hopes, fears and
achievements, he seems to inhale an atmosphere of soothing melancholy
that softens and subdues his wild passion. The vibration of past efforts
and of deeds long since done, trembling along his tortured frame, causes
even saddest thoughts to blend with sweet sensations. Then turning from
what once was to what now is, and missing the logical nexus between the
two states, he solemnly calls upon God to produce it, if He can:
"Here is my signature; let the Almighty answer me,
And hear the indictment which my adversary hath written."
Scarcely has Job finished speaking when Jahveh appears in a whirlwind and
the heart of the clouds is cloven by a voice of thunder startling the
silent air. The purpose of His coming is to prove men's ignorance, not to
enlighten it, at least not beyond the degree involved by affixing the
highest seal to the negative views expressed by the hero. He plies Job
with a number of questions on cosmology, astronomy, meteorology, &c.,
with a view to show that we are ignorant of the ultimate reason of even
the most familiar objects and phenomena, and practically know nothing
about anything. The natural conclusion is that they are unknowable, and
that intellect, knowledge, consciousness, is something secondary,
accidental, and as transitory as the life it accompanies. To make an
exception in favour of Jahveh Himself, would be to lose sight of the
important fact that His apparition was never meant by the poet to be
It is neither more nor less than a symbol of the insight which Job
obtains into the nature of things, of the light which enables him to see
that there is naught but darkness now and for ever. He perceives by the
simplest, clearest, and most conclusive of all mental processes, a direct
intuition, the truth of the ideas to some of which he had but coldly
assented before--viz., that things are but shadows and existence an evil;
that underlying every being, animate and inanimate, there is a force
existing outside the realm of time and space, and that it is at bottom
identical with the human will; that eternal justice lies at the root of
everything, is the ultimate basis of all existence; that the sufferings
of men, innocent or guilty, and the prevalence of evil are incompatible
with a personal creator; that intellect is secondary, and barely
sufficient for the practical needs of life, after which it ceases to be
an attribute of whatever of man may outlive his body; and, finally, that
as we can know nothing beyond the bare fact that there is an absolute law
of compensation from which there is no exemption, it behoves us to
cultivate ethics rather than science, and to resign ourselves
uncomplainingly to the inevitable.
However unpalatable these final conclusions may appear to pious readers
accustomed to seek in the Book of Job for the most striking proofs of
some of the principal teachings of the Christian dispensation, it is
difficult, not to say impossible, to study the work in its restored form
and arrive at any other. With Job, God and wisdom are synonymous. And of
the latter he says:
"But wisdom--whence shall it come?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hid from the eyes of all living,
Our ears alone have heard thereof."
These words were uttered before he had obtained the insight which brought
resignation in its train. He alludes to them in his last brief discourse.
"I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
But now mine eye hath beheld thee;
Therefore I resign and console myself,
Though in dust and ashes."
Professor Bickell puts the matter very lucidly in his short but
comprehensive introduction to the poem: "As long as Job, solicitous for
his understanding, demanded an explanation of his unutterable suffering,
whereby the mysterious, piteous condition of mankind is shadowed forth,
his seeking was vain, and he ran the risk of loosing himself in the
problems of eternal justice, the worth of upright living, and even the
existence of God; for an unjust, ruthless, almighty being is no God. But
by means of the theophany--which is to be understood merely as a process
in his own heart, and which clearly shows him the impotence of feeble man
to unravel the world-enigmas--he attains to insight; not, indeed, of a
positive kind such as a knowledge of the ways of God would confer, but
negative insight by means of that resignation which flows from excess of
pain. It is thus that his own heroic saying is fulfilled about the
reaction of unmerited suffering upon the just man."
"But the righteous holds on his way,
And the clean-handed waxeth ever stronger."
 The prologue is contained in chaps. i.-ii.; the epilogue in chap.
xlii. 7-17 of our English Bibles.
 Strophe xxxv.
 Strophe lii.
 Psa. viii. 4, 5.
 Strophe liii.
 Strophe lxv.
 Strophe lxix.
 Strophe lxxi.
 Strophe lxxiii.
 Strophe lxxiv-lxxviii.
 Strophe cxv. _Cf_. strophe clxix., where he dares his friend to
prove him guilty of blasphemy when he is merely giving expression
to the truth:
"If indeed ye will glorify yourselves above me,
And prove me guilty of blasphemy;
Know, then, that God hath wronged me!"
 Strophe ccxvii.
 Strophe ccxxx.
 As Professor Bickell rightly remarks: "At bottom what Job means is,
that God alone knows the meaning of our sorrowful existence, if,
indeed, He does know it" ("Das Buch Job," p. 5).
 Strophe cclxxvi.
 The mere circumstance that the Deity is no longer called by His
usual name when He appears in the whirlwind is of itself an
indication that the poet was not alluding to God.
 Strophe ccxxxiv.
 Strophe cccix.
 _Cf._ Bickell, _op. cit._ pp. 8-9.
 Strophe clvi.
* * * * *
[Greek: Archaen men mae phynai epichthonioisin ariston Maed' eisidein
augas oxeos aeeliou. Phynta d'hopos okista pylas Aidao peraesai, Kai
keisthai pollaen gaen epamaesamenon.]
* * * * *
CONDITION OF THE TEXT
Of all the books of the Old Testament, not excepting the Song of Songs,
none offers such rich materials to the historian of philosophy or such
knotty problems to the philological critic as Koheleth or
Ecclesiastes. This interesting treatise is, in its commonly received
shape, little more than a tissue of loose disjointed aphorisms and
contradictory theses concerning the highest problems of ethics and
metaphysics. The form of the work is characterised by an utter lack of
plan; the matter by almost impenetrable obscurity. So completely
entangled are the various threads of thought, that few commentators or
critics possessed the needful degree of hope and courage to set about
unravelling them. One paragraph, for instance, is saturated with
Buddhistic pessimism; another breathes a spirit of religious resignation,
of almost hearty hopefulness; this sentence lays down a universal
principle which is absolutely denied by the next; the thesis is followed
by proofs, in the very midst of which lurks the antithesis; a series of
profound remarks upon one subject is suddenly interrupted by bald
statements about another, the irrelevancy of which is suggestive of the
ravings of a delirious fever patient. Thus one verse begins by
recommending men to make the most of their youth by following the bent of
their inclinations and the desire of their eyes, such enjoyment being a
gift of God, and finishes by threatening all who act upon the advice
with condign punishment to be ultimately dealt out by God Himself; and
the very next verse proceeds to draw the logical conclusion, which oddly
enough, runs thus: "_therefore_ drive sorrow from thy heart, and put
away evil from thy flesh." In one place the writer solemnly and sadly
affirms that the destiny of the upright and the wicked, the wise and the
foolish is wholly alike; in another he seems to proclaim that the
unrighteous shall suffer for their evil-doing, while the God-fearing
shall be rewarded with long life, which again he stoutly denies shortly
before and immediately afterwards. It is impossible to read chap. ii. 11
and 12 without coming to the conclusion that we either have to do with
the incoherent ravings of a disordered mind, or else that the leaves of
the original manuscript were dislocated and then put together
haphazard. The "for" that connects the seventh and eighth verses of
chapter vi. is forcibly suggestive of the line of argument which made
Tenterden Steeple the cause of Goodwin Sands, while the nexus between the
sixth and seventh verses of chapter xi. is scarcely more obvious than
that which is to be found between any two of the nonsense verses that
amuse intelligent children in "Alice in Wonderland." And yet this
production, in its present chaotic condition, has been, and is still,
gravely attributed to the pen of King Solomon in his character as the
ideal sage of humanity!
 The most satisfactory translation of the word Koheleth is, the
Speaker. "Preacher" conveys a modern and incorrect notion.
 xi. 9.
 ii. 24.
 ix. 2.
 viii. 12, 13.
 The verses in question are: "11. Then I looked on all the works that
my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to
do: and, behold, all _was_ vanity and vexation of spirit, and _there
was_ no profit under the sun. 12. And I turned myself to behold
wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what _can_ the man _do_ that
cometh after the king _even_ that which hath been already done."
 Only, however, by the strictest of orthodox theologians, who
admiringly attribute to the Holy Spirit a hopeless confusion of
ideas which they would resent as insulting if predicated of
themselves. As a matter of historic fact, Solomon, so far from
meriting his reputation as a philosopher, was a rough-and-ready
kinglet, who ruled his subjects with a rod of iron and ground
them down with intolerable burdens.
* * * * *
PRIMITIVE FORM OF THE BOOK
The desperate efforts of professional theologians to smooth away,
explain, and reconcile all these incoherences and contradictions,
constitute one of the most marvellous exhibitions of mental acrobatics
recorded even in the history of hermeneutics. Many of these exegetes set
out on the assumption that a revelation vouchsafed to Solomon could not
possibly embody any statement incompatible with the truths of
Christianity which emanate from the same eternal source; and they all
firmly held that at the very least it must be in harmony with the
fundamental dogmas common to Judaism and the teachings of Christ. In
reality, what this generous hypothesis came to, whenever there was no
question of text criticism involved, was a substitution of the human
ideal for the divine execution. The best accredited contemporary
theologians however, Catholic and non-Catholic, have insight enough to
descry the stamp of true inspiration in a book which enshrines some of
the highest truths laid down in the Sermon on the Mount combined with a
good deal that obviously clashes with theological dogmas formulated at a
much later date for the behoof of a very different social organism. In
any case the original work, as it appears to have issued from the hand of
"Koheleth," was composed in a spirit as conducive to true morality as the
sublime eloquence of Isaiah or the absolute resignation of the author of
the 73rd Psalm. Critics who succeeded in satisfactorily solving many of
the philological, philosophical, and historical problems suggested by
Koheleth utterly failed to find therein any traces of an intelligible
plan. It was reserved to Professor Bickell, of Vienna, to point out what
seem to be the true lines on which alone it is possible to arrive at a
solution alike satisfactory to the reader and respectful to the author.
His theory--it is, and it can be no more than a theory--which has
already received the adhesion of some of the most authoritative Bible
scholars on the Continent, may be briefly summed up as follows: The
present disordered condition of the book, Koheleth, is the result of the
shifting of the sheets of the Hebrew manuscript from their original
places and of the addition of a number of deliberate interpolations. The
latter are of two kinds: those which seemed necessary for the purpose of
supplying the cement required to join together the unconnected verses
which, in consequence of the dislocation, were unexpectedly placed side
by side, and the passages composed with the object of toning down, or
serving as a counterpoise to the very unorthodox views of the writer.
Professor Bickell's assumption involves no inherent improbability, runs
counter to no ascertained facts, and is therefore perfectly tenable. What
it supposes to have occurred to Koheleth has, in fact, often happened to
other works, religious and profane. It can be conclusively shown, for
instance, that certain leaves of the Book of Ecclesiasticus dropped, in
like manner, from the Greek Codex, whereby three chapters were transposed
from their original places; for the Latin and Syriac versions, which were
made before the accident, still exhibit the original and only
intelligible arrangement. An old Syriac manuscript of the poems of Isaac
of Antioch, now in the Vatican Library, suffered considerably from a
similar mishap, and various other cases in point have come under the
notice of orientalists and archaeologists. In the present instance,
what is believed to have taken place is this. The Hebrew Codex, of which
no translation had as yet been made, consisted of a series of fascicules,
each one of which contained four sheets once folded, or four double
leaves, the average number of characters on each single leaf amounting to
about 525. The Codex, which most probably included other treatises
preceding and following Koheleth, possessed an unknown number of
fascicules, Koheleth beginning on the sixth leaf of one and ending on the
third of the fourth following. According to the hypothesis we are
considering, the middle fascicules becoming loose, fell out of the Codex,
and were found by some one who was utterly unqualified to replace them in
position. This person took the inner half of the second, folded it
inside out, and then laid it in the new order immediately after the
first fascicule. Next came the inner sheet of the third fascicule,
followed by the outside half of the second, in the middle of which
the two double leaves, 13, 18, and 14, 17, had already been inserted.
Although the fourth fascicule had kept its place, it was not on this
account preserved from the effects of the confusing changes caused by the
loosening of the ligature, for between its two first leaves the remaining
sheet of the third fascicule found a place. Finally, leaf 17 becoming
separated from its new environment, found a definite resting-place
between 19 and 21. The result of this dislocation was the utter
disappearance of all trace of plan in the work, the incoherences of which
would be still more numerous and glaring, had it not been for the
transitional words and phrases that were soon after interpolated for the
purpose of welding together passages that were never intended to
Such is the ingenious theory. The degree of probability attaching to it
depends partly on the weight of corroborative evidence to be found in the
book itself, and partly on the completeness with which it explains the
many difficulties which the traditionalist view could but formulate.
Thoroughly to sift and weigh this evidence, much of which is of a purely
philological character, would require a book to itself; but it will not
be amiss to give one or two instances of the nature of the arguments
Chap. x. 1, in the present text, is wholly corrupt, owing to the
circumstance that several interpolations were inserted in it at a later
date. Now a little reflection suffices to show that these additions
consist of words taken from chap. vii. 1. But if the book had been
composed as it now stands, such a transposition would be practically
impossible, because chap. x. is separated from chap. vii. by too great an
interval. In the original sequence, however, which Prof. Bickell's theory
supposes and restores, there was no difficulty. There the leaf ix. 11-x.
1 was followed by two leaves containing vi. 8-vii. 22, so that the words
"precious," and "wisdom is better than glory," might have been easily
shifted to x. 1 from the margin of vii. 1.
Again, in the primitive sequence viii. 4 was immediately followed by x.
2. After the dislocation of the leaves it was erroneously placed before
viii. 6, a few words having been previously interpolated between the two,
solely in the interests of orthodoxy. In order to bridge over the gap
between them, a transitional half verse was strung together, in an
absolutely mechanical manner, from words that precede or follow. And the
words that precede and follow are those which we find in the primitive
arrangement of the manuscript, not in the present sequence. Thus, at the
bottom of the leaf containing viii. 4, the first words, "leb
chakham," of the following verse (x. 2) were inserted, and then by
inadvertence repeated on the next leaf. Seeing these words, the author of
the transition made them the subject of his new verse. He selected the
grammatical objects of the sentence from the verse which follows in the
new sequence, and took the verb from the preceding half verse, which
is itself an older interpolation.
Lastly, Koheleth's treatise, which in our Bibles is utterly devoid of
order or sequence, falls naturally, in its restored form, into two
distinct halves: a speculative and a practical, distinguished from each
other by characteristics proper to each, which there is no mistaking. The
former, for instance, contains but few metrical passages, whereas the
latter is composed of poetry and prose in almost equal proportions. The
ethical part continually addresses the reader himself in the second
person singular, while the discursive section never does. In a word,
internal evidence leaves no doubt that, whether the dislocation of the
chapters was the result of accident or design, this was the ground plan
of the original treatise.
 Professor Cheyne discusses Bickell's theory with the caution
characteristic of English theology and the fairness of unprejudiced
scholarship ("Job and Solomon," p. 273 fol.).
 _Cf_. for instance, Cornill, "Theologisches Literaturblatt,"
Sept. 19, 1884.
 This mean estimate tallies with calculations made by the late
Professor Lagarde for another book of the Old Testament.
 The leaves 6, 7, 8, 9.
 The pages following each other thus: 8, 9, 6, 7.
 Leaves 15 and 16.
 4, 5, 10, 11.
 So that the order was then: 4, 5, 13, 14, 17, 18, 10, 11.
 12, 19.
 The sequence of the leaves was then; 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 6, 7, 15, 16, 4,
5, 13, 14, 18, 10, 11, 20, 12, 19, 17, 21, 22.
 The most practical and simple way of realising Professor Bickell's
theory is to make a little book of four fascicules of four double
leaves each. On these leaves write the contents of the original
manuscript leaves in chapter and verse numbers. On each of the three
last leaves of the first fascicule (counting, as in Hebrew, from
right to left) write i. 1-ii. 11. On the first two leaves of the
second fascicule write v. 9-vi. 7 (this must be written on each of
the leaves, as it is not quite certain how they were divided). On
third and fourth leaves of the second fascicule write iii. 9-iv. 8;
on each of the fifth and sixth leaves, ii. 12-iii. 8. On the seventh
and eighth leaves, viii. 6-ix. 3. Then comes the third fascicule. On
the first leaf, write ix. 11-x. 1; on the second and third leaves,
vi. 8-vii. 22 on the fourth and fifth leaves, iv. 9-v. 8; on the
sixth leaf, x. 16-xi. 6; on the seventh leaf, vii. 23-viii. 5; on the
eighth leaf, x. 2-15. Lastly comes the fourth fascicule. On the first
leaf, ix. 3-10, on the second and third leaves, xi. 7-xii. 8.
 The first half of viii. 5: "Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel
no evil thing." This interpolation is older than the accident to
 The heart of the wise.
 viii. 6.
* * * * *
KOHELET'S THEORY OF LIFE
Read in its primitive shape, the book is a systematic disquisition on the
questions, What positive boon has life in store for us? to which the
emphatic answer is "None;" and How had we best occupy the vain days of
our wretched existence? which the author solves by recommending moderate
sensuous enjoyment combined with healthy activity. He begins his gloomy
meditations with a general survey of the wearisome working of the
machinery of the world, wherein is neither rest nor profit. Everything is
vanity, and the pursuit of wind. Existence in all its myriad forms is
an aimless, endless, hopeless endeavour. The very clod of earth manifests
its striving, in gravitation, for the attainment of a central point
without dimensions, which, if realised, would entail its own
annihilation; the solids tend to become liquids, the liquids to resolve
themselves in vapour. The plant grows from germ through stem and leaf to
blossom and fruit, which last is but the beginning of a new germ that
again develops through flower to fruit, and so on for ever and ever. In
animals, life is the same restless, aimless, unsatisfied striving, in the
first place after reproduction, followed by the death of the individual
and the appearance of a new one which in turn runs through all the stadia
of the old. The very matter of all organisms is ever changing. As for
man, his whole life is but one long series of yearnings after objects,
each one of which presents itself to his will as the one great goal until
attained, whereupon it is cast aside to make way for another. We know
what we long for to-day, we shall know what we shall seek to-morrow; but
what the human race supremely desires, its ultimate aim and end, no man
can say. Existence is a futile beating of the air, a clutching of the
wind. The living make way for the unborn, the dead nourish the living; no
one possesses ought that was not torn from some other being; strife and
hate, evil and pain are the commonplaces of existence; life and death
follow each other everlastingly. All striving is want and therefore
suffering, until it is satisfied, when it assumes the form of
disappointment; for no satisfaction is lasting. In a word, the universe
is a wheel that revolves on its axis for ever--and there is no ultimate
aim or end in it all. Knowledge, wisdom, and enjoyment, each of which
Koheleth characterises by a distich, are likewise vain, or worse. What,
then, is the secret of "happiness"? Surely not wealth, which the Preacher
himself having possessed and applied to "useful" and "good" purposes,
proved emptiness in the end. Wealth, indeed, is nothing if not a
means to happiness, yet experience tells us that the pains endured in
striving for it, and the anxiety suffered in preserving it, effectually
destroy our capacity for enjoying the bliss which it is supposed to
insure, long before misfortune or death snatches it from our grasp.
Vain as pleasure is, in a world of positive evils it is at least a
negative good, in that it helps to make us forget the vanity of the days
of our life. For this reason, no doubt, it is well-nigh unattainable,
the many being deprived of the means, the few of the capacity, of
Passing on to the consideration of wisdom, the Hebrew philosopher finds
it equally empty and vain, because subject to the same limitations and
characterised by the same drawbacks. It is caviare to the million, and a
fresh source of sorrow to the few. Man is tortured with a thirst for
knowledge, and yet all the springs at which it might have been allayed
are sealed up. Unreal shadows are the objects of human intuition, we are
denied a glimpse of the underlying reality. For it is unknowable.
Even the little we can know is not inspiriting. Take our fellow-men,
their ways and works, for instance, and what do we behold? Their own
evil-doing, injustice, and violence, drag them down to the level of the
brute; and that this is their natural level is obvious, if we bear in
mind that the end of men is that of the beasts of the fields, and
that the ruling power within them, the mechanism, so to say, of these
living and feeling automata is love of life. Consider men at their
best--when cultivating such relative "virtues" as industry, zeal,
diligence in their crafts and callings, and we find these "good" actions
tainted at the very source: love of self and jealousy of others being the
determining motives. In any case we see that work is no help to
happiness, for it is too evident that toil and moil--even that of the
writer himself, who knows full well that he is labouring for a
stranger--is but the price we pay, not for real pleasure, but for carking
care and poignant grief. Such being the bitter fruits of knowledge,
the tree on which they flourish is scarcely worth cultivating.
Wisdom in its ethical aspect, as a rule of right conduct, is unavailing
as a weapon to combat the Fate that fights against man. Nay, it is not
even a guarantee that we shall be remembered by those who come after us,
and whose lot we have striven to render less unbearable than our own. The
memory of the dead is buried in their graves, and the wheels of the
vast machine revolve as if they had never lived. For a man's moral worth
goes for nothing in the scale against Fate, whose laws operate with
crushing regularity, unmodified by his virtues or his crimes.
Indeed, if there be any perceptible difference between the lot of the
upright and that of the wicked, it is often to the advantage of the
latter, who are furthered by their fierce recklessness and borne onwards
by ambition. The knowledge of this curious state of things serves
but to encourage evil-doers. The obvious conclusion is that instead
of fighting against Fate which is unalterable--"I discovered that
whatever God doeth is forever"--we should resign ourselves to our
lot and draw the practical inference from the fact that life is an evil.
Wisdom in its practical aspect is equally unpromising. In no walk of life
is success the meed of merit or victory the unfailing guerdon of
heroism. Such wisdom as is within man's reach is often a positive
disadvantage in life, owing to the modesty it inspires as pitted against
the self-confidence of noisy fools. Besides, should it contrive to build
up a stately structure, a small dose of folly, with which all human
wisdom is largely alloyed, is capable, in an instant, of undoing the work
of years. In a word, the wise man is often worse off than the fool;
and in any case, no degree of wisdom can influence the laws of the
universe; what happens is foredoomed; a man's life-journey is mapped out
beforehand, and it is hopeless to struggle with the Will which is
mightier than his own. As we know not what is pre-arranged, we can never
find out what will dovetail with our true interests or is really good for
 i. 2-11
 _Cf._ Schopenhauer, vol. i. 401-402, and _passim_.
 ii. 3-11.
 v. 9-16.
 Pain, then, for Koheleth, as for a greater than Koheleth, is
something positive; pleasure, on the contrary, negative. "We feel
pain, but not painlessness; we feel care, but not exemption from
it; fear, but not safety.... Only pain and privation are perceived as
positive and announce themselves; well-being, on the contrary, is
merely negative. Hence it is that we are never conscious of the three
greatest boons of life--health, youth, and freedom as such, so long
as we possess them, but only when we have lost them: for they too are
negations.... The hours fly the quicker the pleasanter they are; they
drag themselves on the slowlier the more painfully they are passed,
because pain, not enjoyment, is the something positive whose presence
makes itself felt."--Schopenhauer, ed. Grisebach, ii. 676, 677.
 v. 17-vi. 7; iii. 9, 12-13.
 iii. 19-iv. 3.
 iv. 4-6.
 iv. 7, 8; ii. 18-23.
 ii. 13-16.
 iii. 1-8, viii. 6-8.
 viii. 9-14.
 viii. 14, ix. 3.
 iii. 14.
 ix. 11-12.
 ix. 13-18, x. 1.
 vi. 8, 10-12.
* * * * *
Having thus cleared the ground in the first part of the treatise,
Koheleth proceeds to erect his own modest system in the second. As life
offers us no positive good, those who, in spite of this obvious fact,
desire it, must make the best of such negative advantages as are within
their grasp. Although so far from being a boon, it is an evil, yet it
may, he points out, be rendered less irksome by following certain
practical rules; and warming to his subject, he winds up with an
exhortation to snatch such pleasures as are within reach, for when all
accounts have been finally cast up and everything has been said and done,
all things will prove vanity, and a grasping of wind.
The ethics open with six metrical strophes composed, so to say, in the
minor key, which harmonises with the disheartening conclusions of the
foregoing. The theme is the Horatian _Levius fit patientia quicquid
corrigere est nefas._ Death is better than life, grief more becoming
than mirth, contemplation preferable to desire, deliberation more
serviceable than haste. The fleeting joys and the abiding evils of
existence, are to be taken as we find them, seeing that it is beyond our
power to alter the proportions in which they are mixed, even by the
practice of virtue and the application of knowledge. Hence even in the
cultivation of righteousness the rule, _Ne quid nimis_, is to be
implicitly followed: "Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself
overwise." On the other hand, wisdom is not to be despised, for it
hardens us against the strokes of Fate, and renders us insensible to the
insults of our fellows. It also teaches us the drawbacks of
isolation, the benefits of co-operation, and the advantage of being open
to counsel. The basis of all practical wisdom being resignation to
the inevitable, obedience to God is better than sacrifices destined to
influence His action. What He does, is done for ever, and our efforts are
powerless to alter it, or to induce Him to change it. God is far
off, unknowable, inaccessible, and man is here upon earth, and such
prayers as we feel disposed to offer, had best be short and few; vows
too, although to be carried out if once made, serve no good purpose, and
are to be avoided. In a word, wild speculations and many words in matters
of religion and theology are vain and pernicious. That work and
enterprise are beneficial in public and private life is obvious from a
study of the results engendered by their opposites. Simple
individuals, no less than rulers, may benefit by enterprise and
initiative, provided that prudence, by multiplying the possibilities of
profit, leaves as little as possible to the vagaries of chance. But
prudence is especially needed in order to avoid the seductive wiles of
woman, against whom one must be ever on one's guard. It also enjoins
upon us submission to the political ruler of the day, who possesses the
power to enforce his will, and is therefore a living embodiment of the
inevitable. In a word, this practical wisdom assumes the form of a
careful adjustment of means to the end in all the ups and downs of
After this follows the recommendation of the negative good: the sensuous
joys within our reach. Seeing that no man knows what evil is before him,
nor what things will happen after him, he cannot go far astray, supposing
him to be actuated by a desire to make the best of life, if he tastes in
moderation of the pleasures that lie on his path, including those of
labour. The young generation should, in an especial manner, take
this to heart and pluck the rosebuds while it may, for old age and death
are hurriedly approaching to prove by their presence that all is vanity
and a grasping of wind.
 vii. 1-6, vi. 9, vii. 7-9.
 vii. 10, 13-14, 15-18.
 vii. 21-22.
 iv. 9-16.
 iii. 14.
 v. 1-7.
 v. 7-8, x. 16-20.
 x. 1-3, 6, 4, 5.
 vii. 26-29.
 viii. 1-4, x. 2-7.
 x. 8-14a, 15.
 x. 14b, ix. 3-10, xi. 7-10.
 xi. 9, xii. 8.
* * * * *
KOHELETH'S PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE
Koheleth, who agrees with Job in so many other essential points, is
likewise at one with him in his views on human knowledge, or, as he terms
it, wisdom, which is the source of the highest good within the reach of
man. The only light which we have to guide us through the murky mazes of
existence, is at best but a miserable taper which serves only to render
the eternal darkness painfully visible. "I set my heart to learn wisdom
and understanding. And my heart discerned much wisdom and knowledge.... I
realised that this also is but a grasping of wind." The scenes it
reveals in the moral as well as the material order are of a nature to
make us hate existence. "Then I loathed life." Indeed, the so-called
moral order which, were it, in theory, what it is asserted to be in
truth, might reconcile us to our lot and kindle a spark of hope in the
human breast, is but the embodiment of rank immorality. "All things come
alike to all indiscriminately; the one fate overtaketh the upright man
and the miscreant, the clean and the unclean, him who sacrifices and him
who sacrifices not, the just and the sinner." What then is life?
To this question the answer is, in effect, "The shadow of a thing which
is not." The sights and sounds of the universe are the only materials
upon which the human intellect can work; and they are all alike empty,
shadowy, unreal. They are the creation of the mind itself, the web it
weaves from its own gossamer substance; and beyond this are nothing.
Space and time, or, as Koheleth expresses it, the universe and eternity,
were placed in our consciousness from the very first, and are as
deceptive as the mirage of the desert. Kant would define them to be
functions of the brain. A projection of the organ of human thought, the
world is woven of three threads--space, time, and causality--which, being
identical with the mind, appear and vanish with it. The one underlying
reality, whether we term it God, Nature, or Will, is absolutely
unknowable, and everything else is Maya or illusion.
Strange as this doctrine may sound in orthodox ears, it contains, so far,
nothing incompatible with Christianity, which teaches that time and space
will disappear along with this transitory existence, and that the one
eternal and incomprehensible Will is outside the sphere of both and
exempt from the operation of the law of cause and effect. The only
difference between the two is that Christianity admits the existence of
many beings outside the realm of space and time, whereas without space
and time multiplicity is inconceivable, impossible.
We cannot hope to know the one reality which is and acts underneath the
appearances of which our world is made up, because knowledge is for ever
formed, coloured and bounded by time, space, and causation, and all three
are unreal. They alone constitute succession and multiplicity, which are
therefore only apparent, not existent. We can conceive nothing but what
is, was, or will be (and therefore in time), nothing outside ourselves
but what is in space, and absolutely nought that is not a cause or an
effect. "Far off is that which is, and deep, deep, who can fathom
But we possess insight and understanding enough to enable us to perceive
that life is a positive evil, as, indeed, all evil, pain, and suffering
are positive; that pleasures are few, and being negative by their nature,
merely serve to make us less sensible of the evils of existence; that
happiness is a chimaera, birth a curse, death a boon, and absolute
nothingness (Nirvana) the only real good. The hope of improvement,
progress, evolution, is a cruel mockery; for the present is but a
rehearsal of the past; the future will be a repetition of both;
everything that is and will be, was; "what came into being had been long
before, and what will be was long ago." In a word, what we term
progress is but the movement of a vast wheel revolving on its axis
But may we not hope for some better and higher state in the future life
beyond the tomb where vice will be punished and virtue rewarded? To this
query Koheleth's reply, like that given by Job, is an emphatic negative;
and yet the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and of the
resurrection were rapidly making headway among the writer's
contemporaries. But he descries nothing in the material or moral order of
the world to warrant any such belief. What is there in material man that
he should be immortal? "Men are an accident, and the beasts are an
accident, and the same accident befalleth them all; as these die even so
die those, and the selfsame breath have they all, nor is there any
preeminence of man above beast; for all is nothingness." Nor can any
such flattering hope be grounded upon the moral order, because there are
no signs of morality in the conduct of the world. "To righteous men that
happeneth which should befall wrong-doers, and that betideth criminals
which should fall to the lot of the upright." Nay, "there are just
men who perish _through_ their righteousness, and there are wicked
men who prolong their lives _by means_ of their iniquity." Of
divine promises and revelations Koheleth--who can hardly claim to be
considered a theist, and whose God is Fate, Nature, eternal Will--knows
nothing. The most favourable judgment he can pass upon such theological
speculations is far from encouraging: "in the multitude of fancies and
prattle there likewise lurketh much vanity." In eternal justice,
however, he professes a strong belief, and, like Job, he formulates his
faith in the words: "Fear thou God."
To accuse Koheleth of Epicureanism is to take a one-sided view of his
philosophy. His conception of life, its pleasures and pains, is as
clearly and emphatically expressed as that of the Buddha or of
Schopenhauer. He is an uncompromising pessimist, who sees the world as it
is. Everything that seems pleasant or profitable is vanity and a grasping
of wind; there is nothing positive but pain, nothing real but the eternal
Will, which is certainly unknowable and probably unconscious. These
truths, however, are not grasped by every one; they are the bitter fruits
of that rare knowledge, increase of which is increase of sorrow. The few
who taste thereof cling too tenaciously to life, though life be wedded to
sorrow and misery, to renounce such deceitful pleasures as are within
their reach; and the bulk of mankind revel in the empty joys of living.
To all such, Koheleth offers some practical rules of conduct to enable
them to make the best of what is to be had; but the gist of his
discourse is identical with those of Jesus, of the Buddha, of
Human pleasures, whatever their origin, are limited in degree by man's
capacity for enjoyment; and this is an inborn gift, varying in different
individuals but unchanging in each. Some dispositions, cheerful and
sanguine by nature, tinge even the blackest clouds of misfortune with the
rainbow hues of hope; others impart a sombre colour to the most
auspicious event, and descry cause for dread in the most complete
success, just as the bee sucks honey from the flower which yields only
poison to the adder. All joys, although produced by the chemistry of our
consciousness, are drawn either from within its inner sphere or from
without. The former, known as intellectual pleasures, are relatively
lasting because they emanate from what man is; the latter are fleeting
because their source is either what he has or what he seems. These are
never free from alloy; preceded by the pain of desire, they are
accompanied by that of disenchantment and followed by tedium, the worst
pain of all; those are exempt from all three, because instead of
gratifying passing whims they free the intellect from drudging for the
will and afford it momentary glimpses of truth. Wisdom therefore, for
Koheleth as for Job, is the greatest boon that can fall to man's
lot. And yet the law of compensation, operating here as in all other
spheres, sensibility to pain is always proportionate to capacity for
With regard to the pleasures of possession, seeing that they are often
difficult of attainment and always precarious, we must be moderate in
their pursuit and make the most of such as fall to our lot. Contentment
here is everything, and contentment is the result of an even balance
between desire and fulfilment, the former being always in our power and
the latter generally beyond our control. To such happiness as possession
can bestow, it is immaterial whether our demands are lowered or our
prosperity increased, just as in arithmetic it matters not whether we
divide the denominator of a fraction or multiply its numerator by the
same number. Therefore, "Better look with the eyes than wander with
desire." The golden rule is to keep our wishes within the bounds of
moderation, and to adjust them to unfavourable circumstances. The rich
man who wants nothing and covets a mere trifle which is beyond his grasp,
is supremely wretched, while the poor man who needs much but longs for
nothing, is cheerful and contented. But even if wealth were as easily
obtained as it is difficult, the law of compensation should deter us from
seeking it. "Sweet is the sleep of the toiler, but his wealth suffereth
not the rich man to slumber." The only enjoyments common to all men
are those which consist in the satisfaction of natural wants; the
pleasures which wealth can purchase over and above these are trifling,
and more than outweighed by the pain of carking care which it brings in
its train. He who labours for this is, therefore, cutting a stick for his
own back: "all his days are sorrows and his work grief." "There is
no good for man," then--for the common run of mankind who, debarred from
intellectual enjoyment, yet cling tenaciously to life--"save that he
should eat and drink, and make glad his soul in his labour." Health
being the condition of all enjoyment, and one of the greatest of earthly
boons, care should be taken to preserve it by eating, drinking, labour,
and rest, and by moderation in all things. For painlessness, which is
positive, is always to be preferred to pleasure, which is negative. It
matters little to the strong man that he is otherwise hale and thriving,
if he suffer from an excruciating toothache or lumbago. He forgets
everything else and thinks only of his misery. The world, then, being a
terrestrial hell, they who love it as a dwelling-place cannot do better
than try to construct a fireproof abode therein. To hunt for pleasures
while exposing oneself to the risk of pain is folly; to escape suffering
even at the sacrifice of enjoyments is worldly wisdom. As Aristotle put
it, [Greek: _ho phronimos to alupon diokei, ou to haedu_.] But when
all has been said and done, the highest worldly wisdom is but a less
harmful species of folly. Existence is an evil, and the sole effective
 i. 17, 16b.
 ii. 17.
 ix. 2.
 iii. 11.
 vii. 24, _cf_. also v. 1.
 vii. 24, _cf_. also viii. 16, 17.
 "I appraised the dead who died long since, as happier than the
quick who are yet alive; but luckier than both him who is still
unborn, who hath not yet witnessed the evil doings under the
sun," iv. 2, 3.
 In truth, time existing only in the intellect as one of the forms
of intuition, there can be neither past nor future, but an
 iii. 15.
 iii. 19.
 viii. 14.
 vii. 15.
 v. 7.
 vii. 11, 12.
 vi. 9.
 v. 12.
 ii. 23.
 ii. 24.
* * * * *
THE SOURCES OF KOHELETH'S PHILOSOPHY
To what extent are these pessimistic doctrines the fruits of Koheleth's
own meditations, and how far may they be supposed to reflect the views of
the nation which admitted his treatise into its sacred canon? The latter
half of this question is answered by the desperate efforts made from the
very beginning to correct or dilute his pessimism, and by the grave
suspicion with which Jewish doctors continued to regard it, long after
the "poison" had been provided with a suitable antidote. Thus the book
known as the Wisdom of Solomon, which is accepted as canonical by the
Roman Catholic Church, contains a flat contradiction and emphatic
condemnation of certain of the propositions laid down by Koheleth, as,
for instance, in ch. ii. 1-9, which is obviously a studied refutation of
Koheleth's principal thesis, couched mainly in the identical words used
by the Preacher himself:
"For they have said, reasoning with themselves, but not
right: the time of our life is short and tedious, and in the end
of a man there is no remedy, and no man hath been known to
have returned from hell.
"For we are born of nothing, and after this we shall be as
if we had not been: for the breath in our nostrils is smoke;
and speech a spark to move our hearts.
"Which being put out, our body shall be ashes, and our
spirit shall be poured abroad as soft air, and our life shall pass
away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist,
which is driven away by the beams of the sun, and overpowered
with the heat thereof.
"And our name in time shall be forgotten, and no man shall
have any remembrance of our works.
"For our time is as the passing of a shadow, and there is
no going back of our end: for it is fast sealed, and no man
"Come, therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that are
present, and let us speedily use the creatures as in youth.
"Let us fill ourselves with costly wine, and ointments; and
let not the flower of the time pass by us.
"Let us crown ourselves with roses before they be withered;
let no meadow escape our riot.
"Let none of us go without his part in luxury: let us everywhere
leave tokens of joy: for this is our portion, and this
Although the book was accepted as canonical by generations of Hebrew
teachers and was quoted as such by men like Gamaliel, there was always a
strong orthodox party among the Jews opposed to its teachings and
apprehensive of its influence; nor was it until the year 118 A.D.
that the protracted dispute on the subject was at last definitely settled
at the Synod which admitted Koheleth into the Canon. It was natural
enough that Hebrew theologians should have hesitated to stamp with the
seal of orthodoxy a book which the poet Heine calls the Canticles of
Scepticism and in which every unbiassed reader will recognise a powerful
solvent of the bases of theism; and the only surprising thing about their
attitude is that they should have ever allowed themselves to be persuaded
to abandon it.
For Koheleth's pessimistic theory, which has its roots in Secularism, is
utterly incompatible with the spirit of Judaism, whichever of its
historical phases we may select for comparison. It is grounded upon the
rejection of the Messianic expectations and absolute disbelief in the
solemn promises of Jahveh Himself. Koheleth cherishes no hope for the
individual, his nation, or the human race. The thing that hath been is
the same that shall be, and what befell is the same that shall come to
pass, and there is no new thing under the sun.... "I surveyed all
the works that are wrought under the sun, and behold all was vanity and
the grasping of wind." Persians had succeeded Chaldeans; Cyrus, the
Anointed of Jahveh, had come and gone; Greeks had wrested the hegemony of
the East from Persians, but no change had brought surcease of sorrow to
the Jews. They were even worse off now than ever before. Jahveh, like
Baal of old, was become deaf to His worshippers, many of whom turned away
from Him in despair, exclaiming, "It is vain to serve God, and what
profit is it that we have kept His ordinance?" Koheleth, like Job,
never once mentions Jahveh's name, but always alludes to the Eternal
Will, which alone is real and unknowable, under the colourless name of
Elohim. To say that he believed in a personal God in any sense in which a
personal God is essential to a revealed religion, is to misunderstand
ideas or to play with words. And Koheleth was a type of a class.
Literary men of his day having mockingly asked for the name of the
Creator, Koheleth answers that He is inaccessible to men, and that
prayer to Him is fruitless. The Jewish aristocracy of his day,
desirous of embodying these views in a practical form, sought to abolish
once for all the national religion, as a body of belief and practices
that had been weighed in the balances and found wanting; while the party
that still remained faithful to the law was composed mainly of
narrow-minded fanatics, whose wild speculations, long-winded prayers and
frequent vows, Koheleth considers deserving objects of derision. He
himself held aloof from either camp. He took his stand outside the circle
of both, surveying life from the angle of vision of the philosophical
citizen of the world. But it would be idle to deny that he had far more
in common with the "impious" than with the orthodox.
Thus he scornfully rejects the old doctrine of retribution, and he is
never tired of affirming premisses from which the obvious and indeed only
conclusion is that the popular conception of a deity who spontaneously
created the universe and vigilantly watches over the Hebrew nation, is
erroneous, incredible, inconceivable. The Jahveh of olden times, with His
grand human passions and petty Jewish prejudices, he simply ignores. He
naturally rejects the immortality of the soul--a tenet or theory which
was then for the first time beginning to gain ground and to be relied
upon as the only means of ultimately righting the wrongs of existence.
The fact is that he had no belief in a soul as we understand it. Modern
theology regards the indestructible part of man as essentially
intelligent, while admitting the fact that intellect is indissolubly
associated with the brain, partaking of its vicissitudes during life and
vanishing with it apparently for ever at death. Job, Koheleth, and many
other writers of the Old Testament hold that if anything of the man
persists after the death of the individual, it is unconscious. "The
living know at least that they shall die, whereas the dead know not
anything at all." In a word, no other philosopher, poet, or
proverb-writer of the Old Testament is less orthodox in his beliefs or
less Jewish in his sentiments--and Agur alone is more aggressive in his
Much has been written about the sources from which this writer may and
even must have drawn his peculiar mixture of pessimism and
"Epicureanism," and considerable stress has been laid upon the profound
influence which Greek culture is supposed to have exerted upon Jewish
thinkers towards the second century B.C., when the moral atmosphere was
choked with "the baleful dust of systems and of creeds." The
"Epicureanism" of the man who said: "Better is sorrow than laughter,"
"the heart of the wise is in the mourning house," hardly needs the
hypothesis of a Greek origin to explain it. My own view of the matter,
which I put forward with all due diffidence, differs considerably from
those which have been heretofore expressed on the subject. I cannot
divest myself of the notion that Koheleth was acquainted, and to some
extent imbued, with the doctrines of Gautama Buddha, which must have been
pretty widely diffused in the civilised world towards the year 205 B.C.,
when the present treatise was most probably composed.
Buddhism, the only one of the world-religions which, springing from an
abstruse system of metaphysics, brought forth such practical fruits as
truthfulness, honesty, loving-kindness and universal pity, spread with
extraordinary rapidity not only throughout the Indian continent but over
the entire civilised world. Its apostles visited foreign countries,
touching and converting by their example the hearts and minds of those
who were incapable of weighing their arguments, or unwilling to listen to
their exhortations. They introduced a mild, tolerant, humane spirit
whithersoever they went, preaching entire equality, practising perfect
toleration, founding houses for meditation, erecting hospitals and
dispensaries for sick men and beasts, cultivating useful plants and
trees, gently suppressing cruelty to animals under any pretext, and
generally sowing seeds of sympathy and brotherly love of which history
has noticed and described but the final fruits. From the earliest
recorded period Indian culture manifested a natural tendency to expand,
which was intensified at various times by the comparatively low ebb of
civilisation in the adjoining countries. One can readily conceive,
therefore, the effects of the strenuous and persevering efforts of one of
the most powerful Indian monarchs, Acoka Piyadassi, king of Magadha,
to propagate that aspect of his country's civilisation which is
indissolubly bound up with the doctrines of the Buddha.
Acoka, grandson of the great king Tshandragupta, was the first monarch
who openly accepted the tenets and conscientiously practised the precepts
of the profoundest religious teacher ever born of woman; and no more
eloquent testimony could well be offered to the sincerity of the royal
convert than the well-nigh miraculous self-restraint with which he
forebore to cajole or coerce those of his subjects whom his arguments
failed to convince. Satisfied with the progress of the new religion in
his native place, he despatched his son, Mahindo, to introduce it into
Ceylon; and so successful were the young prince's missionary efforts that
that island became and remains the chief seat of Buddhism to this day.
Acoka next turned his attention to foreign countries, in which traders,
travellers, emigrants and others had already sparsely sown the seeds of
the new faith, and making political power and prestige subservient to
zeal for truth and pity for suffering humanity, he induced his allies and
their vassals to purchase his friendship by seconding his endeavours to
inculcate the philosophic doctrines and engraft the humane practices of
Buddhism on their respective subjects. The results he obtained are
recorded in his famous inscriptions composed in various Indian dialects
and engraven upon rocks all over the continent, from Cabul in the West to
Orissa in the East; and among the monarchs whom he there enumerates as
having co-operated with him in his apostolic labours, are Antiochus,
Turamaya, Alexander, Magas and Antigenes; into whose
hospitable dominions he despatched zealous Buddhist missionaries,
empowered to found monasteries, to open dispensaries and hospitals, at
his expense, and to preach the saving word to all who cared to hear.
The following literal translation of one of Acoka's inscriptions
will help to convey an idea of the nature of his activity as the royal
apostle of Buddhism, the Constantine of India: "All over the realms of
the god-favoured king, Priyadarsin, and (the realms of those) who (are)
his neighbours, such as the Codas, Pandyas, the Prince of the
Satiyas, the Prince of the Keralas, Tamraparni, the King of the
Javanas, Antiochus, and (among the) others who (are) vassals of the said
King Antiochus, everywhere the god-beloved, king, Priyadarsin, caused two
kinds of hospitals to be erected: hospitals for men and likewise
hospitals for animals. Wherever there were no herbs beneficial to
men or animals, he everywhere gave orders that they should be procured or
planted. In like manner, where there were no health-giving roots and
fruits, he everywhere commanded that they should be procured or planted.
And on the highways he had trees put down and wells dug for the behoof of
men and beasts."
History confirms Acoka's testimony and declares him to have been no less
successful in sowing the seeds of medicinal plants than those of the
"saving doctrine." Buddhism enrolled numerous converts and zealous
apostles all over the civilised world, and in Ceylon, Egypt, Bactria, and
Persia, the yellow flag floated aloft from the roofs of the monasteries
of _Bhikshus_. But its influence, in other ways equally
powerful while considerably more subtle, has oftentimes escaped the
vigilance of the historian. None of the great religions of ancient or
modern times succeeded in escaping its contact, or failed to be improved
by its spirit. In the second century B.C. there were flourishing Buddhist
communities in inhospitable Bactria, where they maintained a firm footing
for nearly a thousand years. A Greek, who wrote about the year 80
B.C., and a Chinese pilgrim, who passed through the land in the
beginning of the seventh century A.D., allude to them as important
elements of the population of the country in their respective ages, and
the Buddhist monastery founded in Balkh, the capital of Bactria, in the
second century B.C., was become a famous pilgrimage in the days of Hiuen
Thsang. The Zoroastrian priests of Eran hated and feared the followers of
the strange creed while silently adopting and unconsciously propagating
many of its institutions. Several of the Eranian kings incurred the
censure involved in the nickname of "idolaters" in consequence of the
favour they extended to the preachers of Nirvana. No religion of
antiquity was less favourable to a life of passive contemplation than
Zoroastrianism, which defined life as a continuous struggle, and
considered virtue as a successful battle with the powers of darkness; and
yet little by little Zoroastrian monasteries sprang up by the side of the
Fire Temples, and offered a quiet refuge from the turmoil of the world to
the pious worshippers of Ahura Mazda.
So saturated were the Eranian populations with the spirit of
Buddha--antagonistic though it was to their own--that the two great
Eranian sects, one of which bade fair to become a universal
religion, were little else than adaptations of the creed of the
Buddha to the needs of a different time and people. Mani, for instance,
prohibited marriage, which was one of the principal duties and holiest
acts of a true servant of Ahura Mazda; forbade the killing of animals
which, in the case of ants, serpents, gnats, &c., was enjoined by the
priests of Zoroaster, and discouraged agriculture lest plants should be
destroyed in the process. And the two classes of perfect and imperfect
disciples in Mani's community were copied from those of Buddhism, which
divides all believers into two categories: those who sincerely and
fervently seek to attain to Nirvana and are termed Bhikshus, and the
Upasakas or laymen who, while holding on to life, practise such virtues
as are compatible with this unholy desire.
The Jewish religion, in certain of its phases, reveals in like manner
unmistakable traces of the influence of the religion of the Buddha. To
take but one instance, the Essenians in Judaea, near the Dead Sea and the
Therapeutes in Egypt, practised continence, eschewed all bloody
sacrifices, encouraged celibacy, and extreme abstemiousness in eating and
drinking. They formed themselves into communities, and lived, after the
manner of Buddhist Bhikshus, in monasteries. During the life of Jesus,
the Essenians, who lived mostly in cloistered retirement on the shores of
the Dead Sea, played no historic role; but after the destruction of
Jerusalem, they embraced Christianity in a body, and originated the
ascetic movement of the Ebionites, which did not finally subside until it
had deposited the germs of monasticism in the Church of Christ.
Koheleth, who lived either in Jerusalem or in Alexandria--more probably
in the latter city--about the year 205 B.C., had exceptional
opportunities for becoming acquainted with the tenets and precepts of the
religion of Buddha. He was evidently a man of an inquiring mind, with a
pronounced taste for philosophical speculation; and the social and
political conditions of his day were such that a person even of a very
incurious disposition would be likely to be brought face to face with the
sensational doctrine which was responsible for such amazing innovations
as hospitals for men and for animals. Alexandria, the museum and library
of which had already been founded, was one of the principal strongholds
of non-Indian Buddhists. It is mentioned in the Milindapanho, a Pali work
which deals with events that took place in the second century B.C.;
it is expressly included by Acoka in the list of cities into which he
introduced a knowledge of the "path of duty," and so devoted were its
inhabitants to the creed of Sakhya Mouni, that thirty years after
Augustine had died at Hippo, thirty thousand Bhikshus set out from
Alasadda to annex new countries to the realm of truth.
 _Cf._ the epilogue (xii. 9-14), for example, which is one of the
most timid and shuffling apologies ever penned.
 i. 9.
 i. 14.
 Malachi iii. 14.
 Professor Cheyne remarks: "To me, Koheleth is not a theist in any
vital sense in his philosophic meditations."--"Job and Solomon,"
 _Cf._ Proverbs xxx. 4.
 iii. 14, v. 2.
 Eccles. ix. 5.
 vii. 3, 4.
 The view of several of the most authoritative scholars--in which I
entirely concur--is that Koheleth was written in Alexandria during
the reign of Ptolemy V. (Epiphanes), who came to the throne as a boy
under the guardianship of tutors and was alluded to in the verse:
"Woe, land, to thee whose king is a child."
 Some of them were foreigners resident in India who, after their
conversion, preached the new doctrine to their fellow-countrymen.
Thus, one of the earliest and most successful missionaries was a
Greek, whose Indian name was Dharmarakshita.
 Plants, too, were included in their care and profited by their
 Acoka is a Sanskrit word, which means "free from care;" and
Piyadassi a dialectic form of the Sanskrit word Priyadarsin, which
means lovable, amiable. It was applied as an epithet to King Acoka,
who reigned from 259-222 B.C.
 Antiochus II., called Theos, who was poisoned by his divorced wife
Laodike in 247 B.C. I am aware that some scholars identify the
Antiochus here mentioned with Antiochus the Great. Although both
views make equally for my contention, I fail to see how Acoka,
who died in all probability in the year 222 B.C., could have
carried on important negotiations with Antiochus the Great, who
came to the throne of Syria two years later.
 Ptolemy of Egypt, probably Ptolemy Philadelphos, who founded the
Museum and Library of Alexandria, and his successor Ptolemy
Euergetes (247-221 B.C.).
 Magas, king of Cyrene.
 The identity of this monarch is uncertain.
 The second Edict of Girnar, Khalsi version.
 A South Indian people.
 Usually a dispensary was opened for the distribution of simples,
and a hospital hard by for those who could not move about. The
Buddhists were almost as anxious to relieve the physical pain and
illness of animals as of human beings.
 _Cf._ Buehler, "Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenlaendischen
Gesellschaft," Band xxxvii. folg. p. 98.
 The monks or real disciples of Buddha who endeavour to attain
Nibbana or Nirvana. The bulk of the population contents itself with
almsgiving and the practice of elementary morality, the reward for
which will be a less unhappy existence after death; but not Nirvana,
to which only the perfect can hope to attain.
 Alexander Polyhistor, quoted by Cyrillus (_contra Julianum_);
_cf._ also Clemens Alexandrinus, _Stromata I._, p. 339.
 Hiuen Thsang.
 Their names and deeds are preserved in the Persian epic known as
the Book of Kings (Firdoosi, Shah-Nameh, _cf_. 1033, v. 4, 1160,
v. 2, &c.).
 Ormuzd. An instructive instance of the way in which foreign
institutions become nationalised in Bactria is afforded by the
Buddhist monastery in Balkh, which was at first known by its
Indian name, _nava vihara_, a term that was gradually changed to
_naubehar,_ which in Persian means "new spring."
 Mani and Mazdak.
 The religion of Mani.
 Ed. Trenckner, p. 327.
AGUR, THE AGNOSTIC
* * * * *
AGUR, SON OF YAKEH
Embedded in the collection of the Book of Proverbs is an interesting
fragment of the philosophy of a certain "Agur, son of Yakeh, the poet,"
which for scathing criticism of the theology of his day and sweeping
scepticism as to every form of revealed religion, is unmatched by the
bitterest irony of Job and the most dogmatic agnosticism of Koheleth.
Unfortunately it is no more than a mere fragment, the verses of which are
thoughtfully separated from each other by strictures, protests, and
refutations of the baldest and most orthodox kind. Indeed, it is in all
probability precisely to the presence of the infallible antidote that we
owe the preservation of the deadly poison; and if we may found a
conjecture as to the character of the whole work on a comparison of the
fragments with what we know generally of the sceptical schools of
philosophy prevalent among the Jews of post-Exilian days, we shall feel
disposed to hold the seven strophes preserved in our Bibles as that
portion of the poem which the compiler considered to be the most innocent
because the least startling and revolutionary.
To the thinking of the critics of former times the Proverbs displayed
unmistakable traces of the unique and highly finished workmanship of the
great and wise king Solomon. At the present day no serious student of the
Bible, be he Christian or Rationalist, would raise his voice on behalf of
this Jewish tradition which, running counter to well-established facts,
is devoid even of the doubtful recommendation of moderate antiquity. A
more accurate knowledge of history and a more thorough study of philology
have long since made it manifest to all who can lay claim to either, that
however weighty may have been Solomon's titles to immortality, they
included neither depth of philosophic thought nor finish of literary
achievement. And an average supply of plain common-sense enables us to
see that even had that extraordinary monarch been a profound thinker or a
classic writer, he would hardly have treated future events as
accomplished facts without being endowed with further gifts and marked by
graver defects which would involve a curious combination of prophecy and
The Proverbs themselves, when properly interrogated, tell a good deal of
their own story; sacred and profane history supply the rest. In their
present form they were collected and edited by the author of the first
six verses of the first chapter, who drew his materials from different
sources. The first and most important of these was the so-called "Praise
of Wisdom" which, until a comparatively recent period, was erroneously
held to be a rounded, homogeneous poem. Professor Bickell conclusively
showed that it consists of ten different songs composed in the same metre
as the Poem of Job, each chapter being coextensive with one song, except
the first chapter, which contains two. The fifth collection,
containing the proverbs copied "by the men of Hezekiah," is characterised
by the strong national spirit of the writers. Most of the others make
frequent mention of God, give a prominent place to religion, and adapt
themselves for use as texts for sermons; these, on the contrary, never
once mention His name, reflect religion as it was--viz., as only one of
the many sides of national existence, and deal mainly with the concrete
problems of the everyday life of the struggling people. The other sayings
may be aptly described as the pious maxims of a sect; these as the
thoughts of a nation. The seventh part of the Book of Proverbs contains
the remarkable sayings of Agur, which were quite as frequently
misunderstood by the Jews of old as by Christians of more recent times,
the former heightening the impiety of the author and the latter
generously identifying him with the pious and fanatical writer to whose
well-meant refutations and protests we owe the preservation of this
interesting fragment of ancient Hebrew agnosticism.
 The Book of Proverbs begins with ten songs on wisdom, which
constitute the first part of the work. The second part is made up
of distichs, each one of which, complete in itself, embodies a
proverbial saying (x. i-xxii. 16). The third section is composed of
the "sayings of the wise men," which are enshrined in tetrastichs or
strophes of four lines, among which we find an occasional
interpolation by the editor, recognisable by the paternal tone, the
words "My son," and the substitution of distichs for tetrastichs.
Then comes the appendix containing other proverbial dicta (chap.
xxiv. 23-34. chap. vi. 9-19, chap. xxv. 2-10), followed by the
proverbs "of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah copied out"
(xxv. 11-xxvii. 22), and wound up with a little poem in praise of
rural economy. Chaps. xxviii. and xxix. constitute another collection
of proverbs of a more strictly religious character, and then come the
sayings of Agur, written in strophes of six lines, the rules for a
king and the praise of a good housewife.
 Prov. i. 7-19 and i. 20-33.
 Chap. xxx.
* * * * *
FORM AND CONTENTS OF THE SAYINGS OF AGUR
It is needless to discuss the condition and the contents of the entire
Book of Proverbs, seeing that each one of its component parts has an
independent, if somewhat obscure, history of its own. The final compiler
and editor, to whom we are indebted for the collection in its present
form, undoubtedly found the sweeping scepticism of the poet Agur and the
pious protestations of his anonymous adversary, the thesis and the
antithesis, inextricably interwoven in the section now known as the
thirtieth chapter. He himself apparently identified the two
antagonists--the scoffing doubter and the believing Jew; most modern
theologians have cheerfully followed his example. The fact would seem to
be that the orthodox member of the Jewish community, who thus
emphatically objected to aggressive agnosticism, was a man who strictly
observed the "Mosaic" Law, and sympathised with the people in their
hatred of their heathen masters and their hopes of speedy deliverance by
the Messiah; in a word, an individual of the party which later on played
an important role in Palestine under the name of the Pharisees.
Possessing a copy of Agur's popular philosophical treatise, this zealous
champion undertook to refute the theory before he had ascertained the
drift of the sayings in which it was enshrined, or grasped their primary
meaning. Thus, in one passage he fancies that the taunts which Agur
levelled against omniscient theologians who are well up in the history of
everything that is done or left undone in heaven, while amazingly
ignorant of the ascertainable facts of earthly science, are really aimed
at God; and he seeks to parry the attack accordingly. His numerous and
amusing errors are such as characterise the fanaticism that would refute
a theory before hearing it unfolded, not those which accompany and betray
pious imbecility. Hence it would be unfair to tax him with the utter
incoherency of the prayer which our Bibles make him offer up, when
warding off the supposed attack upon God: (8) "Feed me with food
convenient for me, (9) Lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the
Lord? or lest I be poor and steal, and take the name of my God _in
vain_." The mistake is the result of the erroneous punctuation of the
Hebrew words, which may be literally rendered into English as
"Feed me with food suitable for me,
Lest I be sated and deny thee,
And say, Who is the Lord?
Or lest I be poor and yield to seduction,
And sin against the name of my God.'
In the ensuing verse the controversialist, full of his own Pharisaic
views of politics, and fancying he detects in certain of Agur's
words, an apology for the heathen rulers and contempt for the
orthodox people of God, inveighs against the traitor who would denounce
his fellow-subjects to their common master, and holds him up to
One or two other false constructions put upon Agur's sayings by the
champion of the "Law of Jahveh," are likewise worthy of attention. In the
second sentence, which can be traced back to the proverbial philosophy of
the Hindoos, Agur, enumerating the four things that are never satisfied,
lays special stress upon two which are, so to say, the beginning and end
of all things, the alpha and omega of human philosophy--viz., the grave
and the womb; the latter the bait as well as the portal of life, the
former the bugbear and the goal of all things living. The idea, no less
than the form, is manifestly Indian. Birth and death constitute the axis
of existence; the womb is the symbol of the allurement that tempts men to
forget their sorrows, to keep the Juggernaut wheel revolving and to
supply it with fresh victims to be mangled and crushed into the grave.
The lure and the deterrent--love of sensuous pleasure and fear of
dissolution--are as deceitful as all the other causes of pain and
pleasure in this world of appearance. Schopenhauer puts it tersely thus:
"As we are decoyed into life by the utterly illusory impulse to
voluptuousness, even so are we held fast therein by the fear of death,
which is certainly illusory in an equal degree. Both have their immediate
source in the Will, which in itself is unconscious."
The only reward which life offers to those who crave it, is suffering and
death. The desire of life--the Indian _tanha_ or thirst of
existence--Agur represents in the form of the beautiful but terrible
Ghoul of the desert who has two daughters: birth and death. By means of
her fascinating charms she entices the wanderer to her arms, but instead
of satiating his soul with the promised joys, she ruthlessly flings him
to her two daughters who tear him to pieces and devour him on the spot.
Desire is the source of life which in turn is the taproot of all evil and
pain; insight into this truth--the knowledge or wisdom lauded by Job and
prized by Koheleth--affords the only means of breaking the unholy spell,
and escaping from the magic circle.
This ingenious and profound philosophical image was wholly misunderstood
by Agur's orthodox adversary, who founds upon the deprecatory allusion to
the womb a general accusation of lack of reverence for maternity and a
specific charge of disrespect for Agur's own mother.
Agur's third saying has been likewise sadly misconstrued by the ancient
Pharisaic controversialist and by his faithful modern successors. He
enumerates therein four things which to him seem wholly incomprehensible,
the fourth and last being the darkest mystery of all: the flying of an
eagle in the air, the movement of a serpent--which is devoid of special
organs of locomotion--along a rock, the sailing of a ship on the ocean,
and "the way of a man with a maid." It is very hard to believe what
is nevertheless an undeniable fact, that the bulk of serious commentators
classify these as the trackless things, whereby, strangely enough, they
understand the last of the four in a moral instead of a metaphysical
sense. The error is an old one: it was on the strength of this arbitrary
and vulgar interpretation that Agur was accused by his Jewish antagonist
of a criminal lack of filial piety towards his own father, and
threatened with condign punishment, to be inflicted by the eagles that
fly so wonderfully in the air; while another scribe, unaware that
the mystery of generation could be chosen as the text for a treatise on
metaphysics, and firmly convinced that the philosopher was condemning
unhallowed relations between the sexes, penned a gloss to make things
sufficiently clear which was afterwards removed from the margin to the
text where it now figures as the twentieth verse.
In truth, Agur gives utterance to a natural sentiment of awe and wonder
at the greatest and darkest of all mysteries whose roots lie buried in
the depths of the two worlds we conceive of. What could be more
awe-inspiring than the instantaneous metamorphosis of pure immaterial
will into concrete flesh and blood, throbbing with life hastening to
decay, the incarnation in the sphere of appearances of an act of the one
being which is not an appearance only, but the denizen of the world of
reality? Will is primary, real, enduring; intellect secondary,
accidental, fleeting; the one, abiding for ever, is identical in all
things; the latter varies in different beings, nay in the same
individuals at various times, and perishes with the brain, of which it is
a function. Will is devoid of intellect, as intellect is deprived of
velleity. We know will through our inner consciousness which has to do
exclusively with it and its manifold manifestations; all other
things--the world of appearances--we know through what may be termed our
Now in our self-consciousness we apprehend the fierce, blind, headstrong
sexual impulse as the most powerful motion of concentrated will. The act
is marked by the spontaneity, impetuosity, and lack of reflection which
characterises the agent, will being by nature unenlightened and
unconditioned. And yet that which in our inner consciousness is a blind,
vehement impulse, appears in our outer consciousness in the form of the
most complex living organism we know. Generation, then, is manifestly the
point at which the real and the seeming intersect each other.
Birth and death--the inevitable lot of each and every one--would seem to
affect the individual only, the race living on without change or decay.
This, however, is but the appearance. In reality the individual and the
race are one. The blind striving to live, the will that craves existence
at all costs, is absolutely the same in both, as complete in the former
as in the latter, and the perpetuity of the race is, so to say, but the
symbol of the indestructibility of the individual--_i.e._, of will.
Now this all-important fact is exemplified quite as clearly by the
phenomenon of generation as by the process of decay and death. In both we
behold the opposition between the appearance and the essence of the
being, between the world as it exists in our intellect as representation,
and the world as it really is, as will. The act of generation is known to
us through two different media: that of the inner consciousness which is
taken up with our will and all its movements, and that of our outer
consciousness which has to do with impressions received through the
senses. Seen through the former medium, the act is the most complete and
immediate satisfaction of the will--sensual lust; viewed in the light
supplied by the outer consciousness, it appears as the woof of the most
intricate texture, the basis of the most complex of living organisms.
From this angle of vision, the result is a work of amazing skill,
designed with the greatest ingenuity and forethought, and carried out
with patient industry and scrupulous care; from that point of view it is
the direct outcome of an act which is the negation of plan, forethought,
skill, and ingenuity, a blind unreasoning impulse. This contrast or
rather opposition between the seeming and the real, this new view of
birth and death, this sudden flash of light athwart the impenetrable
darkness, is what provokes the wonder of this scoffing sceptic.
In the fourth saying, Agur mentions, among the persons whom the earth
cannot endure, a low-bred fellow who is set to rule over others, and a
fool when he acquires a competency and becomes independent. The anonymous
Pharisee, who keeps a vigilant watch for doctrinal slips and political
backslidings and frequently finds them where they are not, descries in
the first of the four unbearable things a proof that Agur was a Sadducee
and an aristocrat who would rather obey a monarch who is "every inch a
king"--even though he be a heathen--than a native clodhopper who should
climb up to the throne on the backs of a poor deluded people and grind
them down in the sacred name of liberty and independence. Agur is
therefore duly reprimanded and classed with the shameless oppressors of
the multitude and the devourers of the substance of the poor, as the
Sadducees generally were by their Pharisaic opponents.
The sentence that follows, enumerating the things "which are little upon
the earth, is not from the pen of our philosopher, but a harmless
passage inserted subsequently as a _pendant_ to the four things
which "are comely in going." The main considerations that point to this
conclusion and warrant us in ascribing the verses to a different author
are these: all the other "numerical sayings" which are admittedly the
work of Agur, contain first of all the number three and in the parallel
verse four, whereas this sentence speaks of four only. Again, all
Agur's proverbs are in the form of strophes of six lines each; but this
passage consists of five distichs. Lastly, it is a manifest digression,
leads nowhither, and, what is still more important, has no point, as all
Agur's sayings have.
The final sentence of this interesting fragment needs no elaborate
explanation: it contains the pith of Agur's practical philosophy in the
form of an exhortation to renounce honour, glory, the esteem of men, &c.,
if we possess legitimate claims to such, and still more if we have none;
the acquisition of peace and quiet is cheap at the price of obscurity;
freedom from care and worry and from the evils they bring in their train,
being of infinitely greater value than the chance and even the certainty
of so-called "positive" enjoyments.
 Prov. xxx. 4.
 The Hebrew text consists of vowelless words. The correct vowels
must be ascertained before the meaning of a word or sentence can
be definitely established. The vowel points of our Hebrew Bibles
are not older than the seventh century A.D., and are frequently
erroneous. In the present case the word stealing does not occur
in the text, but only the being stolen--viz., seduction, temptation.
 I employ the word in its natural, not in its conventional, sense.
 Prov. xxx. 21, 22.
 _Ibid_ xxx. 10.
 The word "barren" added in our Bibles (Hebrew _'oczer_,
"barrenness") is not only excluded by the metre, but is also
wanting in the Septuagint version--conclusive proofs that it is a
 _Cf_. Schopenhauer, "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung," herausg.
v. E. Grisebach, ii. p. 585. Grisebach's is the only correct edition
of Schopenhauer's works.
 Prov. xxx. 11.
 _Ib_. xxx. 18, 19.
 _Ib_. xxx. 11.
 _Ib_. xxx. 17.
 _Cf_. Schopenhauer, "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung," vol. ii.
p. 583 fol.; also vol. i. pp. 424-426; and Bickell, "Wiener
Zeitschrift fuer Kunde des Morgenlandes," 1891.
 Prov. xxx. 19.
 _Ib_. xxx. 24-28.
 For example, Prov. xxx. 15:
"There are three things that are never satisfied,
Yea, four things say not, 'It is enough!'"
 _Cf_. Bickell, "Wiener Zeitschrift fuer Kunde des
* * * * *
DATE OF COMPOSITION
The sayings of Agur cannot possibly be assigned to a date later than the
close of third century B.C. The ground for this statement is contained in
the circumstance that Jesus Sirach found the Book of Proverbs in
existence, with all its component parts and in its present shape, about
the year 200 B.C. He mentions a collection of proverbial sayings when
alluding to Solomon and his proverbs. Jesus Sirach's canon--if we can
apply this technical term to the series of scriptures in vogue in his
day--comprised the books contained in our Bibles from Genesis to Kings,
further Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, the twelve Minor Prophets, Psalms,
Proverbs, and Job. Moreover, it is no longer open to doubt that the
arrangement of the various parts of the Book of Proverbs which he read
was identical with that of ours. For the last part of this Book contains
an alphabetical poem in praise of a good housewife, and Jesus Sirach
concluded his own work with a similar poem upon wisdom, in which he
imitated this alphabetical order. It is obvious, therefore, that Proverbs
in their present form could not have been compiled later than the date of
Jesus Sirach's work (about 200 B.C.). This conclusion is borne out by the
circumstance that the final editor of Proverbs in his introduction,
mentions the Words of the Wise, which occur in chapters xxii. 17-xxiv.,
and "their dark sayings," or riddles, by which he obviously means the
sentences of Agur. For Proverbs and for Agur's fragment, therefore, the
latest date is the beginning of the second century B.C. Chapter xxx., in
which, on the one hand, Agur develops very advanced philosophical views,
some of them of Indian origin, and, on the other, his anonymous
antagonist breathes the narrow, fanatic spirit so thoroughly
characteristic of the later "Mosaic" Law, is among the very latest
portions of Proverbs. For it is in the highest degree probable that the
sayings of Agur are of a much later date even than the promulgation of
the Priests' Code; and the circumstance that the anonymous stickler
for strict orthodoxy already begins to accentuate the political and
religious opposition between the two great parties known as Pharisees and
Sadducees, as well as other grounds of a different order, disposes me to
assign the fragment of Agur to the third century B.C. This conclusion
would be borne out by the influence upon Agur's scepticism of
comparatively recent foreign speculation. Some of his sayings have an
unmistakable Indian ring about them. A few are even directly traceable to
the philosophical sentences of the Hindoos. The enumeration of the four
insatiable things, for instance, is but a slight modification of the
Indian proverb in the Hitopadeca which runs: "Fire is not satiated with
fuel; nor the sea with streams; nor death with all beings; nor a
fair-eyed woman with men." Still more striking and suggestive is the
correspondence between the desire of life, personified in Agur's fragment
by the beautiful Ghoul, and the thirst of existence denoted by the Buddha
and his countrymen as _tanha_--the root of all evil and suffering.
"Through thirst for existence (_tanha_)," the Buddha is reported to
have said to his disciples, "arises a craving for life; through this,
being; through being, birth; through birth are produced age and death,
care and misery, suffering, wretchedness and despair. Such is the origin
of the world.... By means of the total annihilation of this thirst for
existence (_tanha_) the destruction of the craving for life is
compassed; through the destruction of the craving for life, the uprooting
of being is effected; through the uprooting of being, the annihilation of
birth is brought about; by means of the annihilation of birth the
abolition of age and death, of care and misery, of suffering,
wretchedness and despair is accomplished. In this wise takes place the
annihilation of this sum of suffering." The same doctrine is laid
down by the last accredited of the Buddha's disciples, Sariputto: "What,
brethren, is the source of suffering?" he is reported to have said. "It
is that desire (_tanha_) which leads from new birth to new birth,
which is accompanied by joy and passion, which delights now here, now
there; it is the sexual instinct, the impulse towards existence, the
craving for development. That, brethren, is what is termed the source of
 Prov. xxxi. 10-31.
 Prov. i. 6.
 444 B.C.
 _Cf_. Hitopadeca, book ii. fable vi.; ed. Max Mueller, vol. ii.
 Samyuttaka-Nikayo, vol. ii. chap. xliv. p. 12; _cf_. Neumann
"Buddhistiche Anthologie," Leiden, 1892, pp. 161-162.
 Majjhima-Nikayo; _cf_. Neumann, _op. sit.,_ p.25.
* * * * *
Of the three Hebrew thinkers of the Old Testament who ventured to sift
and weigh the evidence on which the religious beliefs of their
contemporaries were based, Agur was probably the most daring and
dangerous. He appealed directly to the people, and set up a simple
standard of criticism which could be effectively employed by all. Hence,
no doubt, the paucity of the fragments of his writings which have come
down to us and the consequent difficulty of constructing therewith a
complete and coherent system of philosophy. To what extent he assented to
the theories and approved the practices which constitute the positive
elements of the Buddha's religion, is open to discussion; but that he was
a confirmed sceptic as regards the fundamental doctrines of Jewish
theology, and that his speculations received their impulse and direction
from Indian philosophy, are facts which can no longer be called in
To the theologians of his day he shows no mercy; for their dogmas of
retribution, Messianism, &c., he evinces no respect; nay, he denies all
divine revelation and strips the deity itself of every vestige of an
attribute. Proud of their precise and exhaustive knowledge of the
mysteries of God's nature, the doctors of the Jewish community had drawn
up comprehensive formulas for all His methods of dealing with mankind,
and anathematised those who ventured to cast doubts upon their accuracy.
"Whatever sceptic could inquire for,
For every why they had a wherefore,"
the unanswerable tone of which lay necessarily and exclusively in the
implicit and tenacious faith of the hearer. Now, faith may be governed by
conditions widely different from those that regulate scientific
knowledge, but if its object be something that lies beyond the ken of the
human intellect it must be based either upon a supernatural intuition
accorded to the individual or upon a divine revelation vouchsafed to all.
In the former case it cannot be embodied in a religious dogma; in the
latter it cannot--or should not--be accepted without thorough discussion
and due verification of the alleged historical fact of the divine
This is the gist of Agur's reasoning against the allwise theologians of
the Jewish Church.
These sapient specialists, whose intellects were nurtured upon the
highest and most abstruse speculations and who could readily account for
all the movements of the Deity with a wealth of detail surpassing that of
a French police _dossier_, were utterly and notoriously ignorant of
the rudimentary laws of science which every inquisitive mind might learn
and every educated man could verify. Now, as truth is one, Agur reasoned,
how comes it that the persons who thus lay claim to a thorough knowledge
of the more difficult, are absolutely ignorant of the more simple?
Whence, in a word, did they obtain their perfect acquaintance with the
mysteries of the divine nature and the mechanism of the universe, the
elementary laws of which are yet unknown to them? Surely not from any
source accessible to all; for Agur, possessing equally favourable
opportunities for observation and quite as keen an interest in the
subject, not only failed to make any similar discoveries, but even to
find any confirmation of theirs. For this he sarcastically accounts by
admitting that he must be considerably more stupid than the common run of
mankind, in fact, that he is wholly devoid of human understanding--a
confession which he evidently expects every reasonable man to repeat
after him to those who assert that crass ignorance of fundamental facts
is an aid to the highest kind of knowledge.
"I have worried myself about God, and succeeded not,
For I am more stupid than other men,
And in me there is no human understanding:
Neither have I learned wisdom,
So that I might comprehend the science of sacred things."
Still he is a very docile disciple, and, having failed to make any
discoveries of his own, would gladly accept those of a qualified
master--of one who endeavours to know before setting out to teach and who
prefaces his account of the wonders of the unseen world by pointing out
the bridge over which he passed thither, from this. But does such a
genuine teacher exist?
"Who has ascended into heaven and come down again?
Who can gather the wind in his fists?
Who can bind the waters in a garment?
Who can grasp all the ends of the earth?
Such an one would I question about God: 'What is his name?
And what the name of his sons, if thou knowest it?'"
And if even specialists do not fulfil these conditions, are we not forced
to conclude that their so-called knowledge is a fraud and its
Agur's views of right conduct--if we may judge by the general tenour of
his fragmentary sayings and by the principle embodied in his sixth and
last sentence, in which he rejects as a motive for action "a high hope
for a low heaven"--are marked by the essential characteristics of true
morality. An action performed for the sake of any recompense, human or
divine, transitory or eternal, is egotistic by its nature, and therefore
not moral; and the difference between the man who, in his unregenerate
days, cut his neighbours' throats in order to enjoy their property, and
after his conversion gave all his goods to feed the poor, in order to
enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, is more interesting to the legislator
than to the moralist. But, were it otherwise, Agur holds that, even from
a purely practical point of view, all the honours and rewards which
mankind can bestow upon their greatest benefactor would be too dearly
purchased by a ruffled temper; in other words, mere freedom from positive
pain is a greater boon than the highest pleasure purchased at the price
of a little suffering.
Agur's politics gave as much offence to the priests as his theology. Like
most original thinkers, he is a believer in the aristocracy of talent,
and he makes no secret of his preference of a hereditary nobility to
those upstarts from the ranks of the people who possess no intellectual
gifts to recommend them. For the former have at least training and
heredity to guide them, whereas the latter are devoid even of these
recommendations. These views furnished the grounds for the charge of
Sadduceeism preferred against him by his adversary.
To what extent Indian thought, and in particular the metaphysics and
ethics of Buddhism, influenced Agur's religious speculations, it is
impossible to do more than conjecture. Personally I am disposed to think
that he was well acquainted and indeed thoroughly imbued with the
teachings of the Indian reformer. In the third century B.C., as already
pointed out, the spread of the new religion through Bactria, Persia,
Egypt, and Asia Minor was rapid. Moreover, the turn taken by the
speculations of cultured Hebrews of that epoch was precisely such as we
should expect to find, if it stood to Buddhistic preaching in the
relation of effect to cause. The scepticism of the philosophers of the
Old Testament, not excepting that of Agur who may aptly be termed the
Hebrew Voltaire, was not wholly destructive. Its sweeping negations in
the spheres of metaphysics and theology were amply compensated for--if
one can speak of compensation in such a connection--by the positive,
humane, and wise maxims it lays down in the domain of ethics. And the
cornerstone of the morality of all three--Job, Koheleth, and Agur--would
seem to be virtually identical with that formulated in the Indian
"Alone the doer doth the deed; alone he tastes the fruit it brings;
Alone he wanders through life's maze; alone redeems himself from
Buddhistic influence in the case of Agur, therefore, is all the more
probable that it admirably dovetails with all the circumstances of time
and place known to us, even on the supposition, which I am myself
inclined to favour, that Agur lived and wrote in Palestine. This
probability is greatly enhanced by the striking affinity between the
Buddhist conception of revealed religions, of professional priests and of
practical wisdom, and that enshrined in the few verses of Agur which we
possess. It is raised to a degree akin to certainty by the actual
occurrence of Indian images, similes, and even concrete aphorisms in the
short fragment of seven strophes preserved to us in the Book of Proverbs.
* * * * *
THE POEM OF JOB
TRANSLATION OF THE RESTORED TEXT
* * * * *
CHAP. I. A.V.]
1 _There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man
was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil._
2 _And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters._
3 _His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand
camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a
very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of
4 _And his sons went and feasted_ in their _houses, every one his
day; and sent and called for their three sisters to eat and to drink with
5 _And it was so, when the days of_ their _feasting were gone
about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the
morning, and offered burnt offerings_ according _to the number of
them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed
God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually._
6 _Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves
before the Lord, and Satan came also among them._
Back to Full Books