THE WISDOM OF GREAT RULERS
A REVIEW OF THE ECCLESIASTES AND OF MARCUS AURELIUS’ MEDITATIONS
When we think of wisdom, we tend to think of people whose words overflow with useful knowledge for our life. Philosophers, writers, pastors, gurus – we think of thinkers, of people who seek (and sometimes find) enlightenment on questions that usually leave the common human being bewildered.
These are questions that many people want to see answered, yet few can find the answer for themselves; after all, wouldn’t it be nice if we all knew what was the meaning of life, for example, or where we go after we die? (And that once knowing these things, we could all be in agreement?)
So it happens that, in previous times, people tended to look to their leaders as fountains of wisdom. It was the people’s expectation that their highest power possessed discernment, that valuable capacity of objectively understand the reality in which people lived, as well as wisdom to act accordingly. History recognizes several leaders as being wise, yet two distinguish themselves as true “philosopher-kings” for their love for wisdom and for their ability to rule: Solomon, King of Israel, and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome.
Solomon is to many people the wisest man who ever existed. His proverbs and songs, as well as the descriptions of his rule in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles, attest to the sagacity, wealth, influence and power of David’s son and successor to the throne. Solomon enjoyed a peaceful rule in which Israel reached the very height of its prosperity. He built the temple his father David had dreamed of, he forged good relations with other rulers of his time (such as King Hiram I and the Queen of Sheba) through diplomacy and commerce, and he enjoyed a lifetime of pleasure – that is, he and his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines.
Nevertheless, a new face of Solomon is revealed in what I believe to be his magnum opus, even though it is quite likely he was not the actual author. (See “Solomon & Ecclesiastes”). Solomon, the Qohelet or Ecclesiastes, “one who convenes an assembly,” confesses his anguish about the meaning of life upon realizing that all his great deeds and wise words will mean nothing to him after his death. The text narrates that anguish and grief in the first person, as if we were face-to-face with one of the greatest kings of ancient times, a king who no longer could keep his thoughts locked within his heart and thus decided to share with us how he faced life, its brevity and insignificance.
The Ecclesiastes (also called “Teacher” and “Preacher” in different translations) states that things to which man attributes worth – such as material goods, labor, and even wisdom itself – are ephemeral and devoid of meaning; “all is vanity,” as the author puts it. He also reflects on the ubiquitous injustice in this world, in the blessings the Lord pours to man without him ever being satisfied, and in death that is the end of all things and which makes us all equal – that is, it turns us all into dust. The earthly life, filled with pain, suffering and injustice, is a true affliction to the Ecclesiastes, who points out that the happiest are those who haven’t been born and did not have to experience the ennui and torture that life is. Chasing after the wind, suffering the injustices and evils of this world on our flesh, working so others may enjoy the fruits of our labor – all to end up as dust, seven feet underground, with our name and our deeds forgotten. All is vanity, is an illusion, ephemeral and without meaning and value; our life is short, and its end is inevitable.
Amongst all this melancholy, the Ecclesiastes finds hope in the fear of the Lord, in humility, and in savoring the present time. He believes God will judge the dead for their actions in life and concludes that we should be glad for the good things we have, as they are gifts of God and we do not know how long we’ll be able to enjoy them.
A thousand years after Solomon (who supposedly reigned in the tenth century BC), a new philosopher-king appears in the form of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” as Machiavelli named them, who ruled the Roman Empire. However, Marcus Aurelius distinguishes himself from his predecessors by his dedication to philosophy; Meditations, the compilation of his writings, is considered to be one of Greco-Roman philosophy’s greatest works.
Such praise is not unfounded. The Roman emperor’s Meditations offer a detailed and singular perspective of Stoicism (the Hellenistic school of thought which Marcus Aurelius adhered to) since Marcus Aurelius, much like Solomon, was not just a thinker: he was the supreme leader of Rome, seen as a god by his people. However, Marcus Aurelius had a rare interest in those questions that leave us puzzled, so much that he would write about his perspective in life and the world in which he lived in even while he was in military campaign.
As expected, Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom does not fit one hundred percent with that of Ecclesiastes. This happens especially due to the divergence between Judaic monotheism and Roman polytheism with Stoicism’s pantheistic emphasis. Marcus Aurelius believed in the union of all things and of all mortal beings with the universe; he also believed in value of reason and virtue, essential to a life in accordance with what’s natural, in deference to emotions and earthly pleasures, which stoics saw as destructive.
Even so, both philosopher-kings agree that life is short, a dot on the infinity of time; that death is an end inescapable, one which we should not fear if we live a life which we do not regret. The two also agree that wisdom is beneficial to all men and that its search is a more than a mere wish – it’s a way of life. Other areas where the two find common ground is the exhortation both do about living in the present, in experiencing for ourselves that which was done by our ancestors (“there’s nothing new under the sun!”), and in obeying the law, which is applied for our own good.
I believe there is nothing like reading the writings of these two great leaders to understand why after thousands of years past their time, they are both still revered by their wisdom. The books of Ecclesiastes and Meditations are the most intimate thoughts of two men who, despite their majestic positions of power, maintained a profound, humble, and realistic judgment of the world and of themselves. It is now up to us to follow on their footsteps, seeking wisdom that enlightens our minds, cleans our hearts, and changes our surroundings through our words and our actions.
Solomon & Ecclesiastes
Judeo-Christian tradition attributes the authorship of Ecclesiastes to Solomon, himself the author of Song of Songs, most of Proverbs, and other writings not included in the Old Testament. However, many historians and theologians have come to reject that theory on several factors, among which is the book’s theme and the language used by the author, placing the date of Ecclesiastes around the third century BC – seven hundred years after Solomon’s reign.
In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Dr. Michael V. Fox presumes that the Qohelet, the supposed author of the book, is actually a fictional character made in the image of Solomon, and not the king himself nor any person directly related to him. Fox recognizes a strong influence of Greek thought in the text, as the Ecclesiastes seeks the truth through logical reasoning, rather than through divine revelation or the study of traditions. The critic even identifies traces of stoicism in the Ecclesiastes’ message, especially in the cyclical form of how he sees the past, the present, and the future.
With this in mind, there are still pastors and leaders in the church who continue to support the tradition that King Solomon is the Qohelet. In O Livro Mais Mal-humorado da Bíblia, Ed René Kivitz links the Ecclesiastes to Solomon several times throughout the book, though he admits from the very start that there are no assurances as to the Ecclesiastes’ identity.
The Fear of the Lord
The “fear of the Lord” is one of the toughest concepts to grasp in Ecclesiastes, as it does not mean “fear” as simply “being scared.” The “fear of the Lord” is an attitude of profound reverence and apprehension in response to God’s magnitude. In his Journal of Biblical Accuraccy, Anastasios Kioulachoglou compares the fear of the Lord to the way a subject faces his king: with uncommon respect and admiration, being fully conscious that the king is the highest authority, capable of elevating or destroying his subject.
Ed René Kivitz also connects the fear of the Lord to reverence, admiration and fascination: “God is too great,” Kivitz writes in O Livro Mais Mal-humorado da Bíblia (free translation). “We fear of being crushed by his very greatness even as we love him and long for him.”
In his proverbs, Solomon speaks of the immense benefits resulting from the fear of the Lord, including wisdom. It makes sense that the Ecclesiastes, in his search for wisdom, also pondered on the fear of the Lord.
Marcus Aurelius and Christians
Christians continued to be persecuted during Marcus Aurelius’s reign, despite him being considered one of the most benevolent emperors prior to Constantine. Justin Martyr, for example, was decapitated in the co-reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, according to Eusebius’ writings.
Nevertheless, it is not clear how far Marcus Aurelius was personally involved in the persecutions. We know Marcus Aurelius was seen in a positive light by the early church: Tertulian praises the Emperor in his Apologeticum, whom he calls “patron” and “protector” of the church, highlighting the way he interceded for Christians. Other equally positive evidence are the letters of Marcus Aurelius himself, where he depicts the miracle of Legio XII Fulminata, and the supposed presence of Apollonius the Apologist in the Roman senate while Marcus Aurelius was emperor. Apollonius was tried and executed for being a Christian in the reign of Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, considered by many to be an unworthy successor, incapable of honoring his father’s legacy.
In spite of it all, Marcus Aurelius was against the Christian stance on certain aspects. In his Meditations, the emperor criticizes the fanatical way Christians embraced death in their faith’s defense, which deliberately went against his rationalist philosophy. His constant reflecting on abiding by the law and the value of the common good could be related to the church, who at that time was a minority infamous for its refusal in paying tribute to Roman gods, thus defying the law of Rome, and consequently, the power of the Emperor.
“The Most Unhappy Book in the Bible”
Ecclesiastes is a book well known for its bittersweet and apparently disheartening tone (“all is vanity!”), but Ed René Kivitz offers a different standpoint in O Livro Mais Mal-humorado da Bíbilia.
In his interpretation of Ecclesiastes, Kivitz remarks how the study of Ecclesiastes provides the basis for knowing how to deal with life’s circumstances. Conscious that our life is short yet that God has power over all things, we are encouraged to trust in the plan He has for us and to live with joy.
As Kivitz puts it: “Live intensely, with dignity and trust in God. Do the best you can at all times. Commit with an open heart, believing that God’s hand rests over all things and over this life filled with hardships. […] Live, because we can only beat the hardship by living in the trust that God’s good hand will rest over us.” (free translation)