Contemporary Value of the Book of Proverbs--The Same Channel--Is Experience Really the Best Teacher?--Human Wisdom--The Practical Guide-Book with a Touch of Poetry--Philosophy of Moderation--Quotable Value--Various Sins and Remedies-- Disarmament--Diplomatic Value of Silence--Personal Honour--Shrewish Women--Inopportune Friends--Wisdom of Distrusting Oneself--Ulysses and the Sirens--St. Paul's Quotation--The Wonderful Words of Agur--Poetry and Mystery--The Ideal Woman--The Book of Ecclesiastes--Koheleth--Professor Jastrow--Philosophy of Pessimism--Chekhov's Monologue--John Galsworthy--The Preacher and the Scribe--Modernity of this Book--Compared with Omar Khayyam--Vanity of Vanities--Fallacy of Pessimism--The Splendid Poetry--The Last Chapter-- Sorrows of Old Age---The Admonition of the Scribe.
Whatever may be thought of the scientific value of the cosmogony of Genesis, however people may disagree as to the historicity of the deeds of Elisha, no matter how sceptical may be the general attitude toward the story of Jonah--the Book of Proverbs is not obsolete. It was written a long while ago, but is more contemporary than this morning's newspaper. It cannot become demoded; it has been, is, and always will be true; for it is founded on the eternal base of human nature; less subject to change than the solid rocks.
Mark Twain used to say that the Mississippi River had the habit of changing its channel overnight; so that on each trip the pilot must be alert. But the channel of human conduct has never altered; the chart therefore remains the same. In a world where we know so little, it is interesting to remember that for the main lines of action and behaviour our knowledge is sufficient. Wisdom and folly are now what they always have been. It is not necessary to be a fool in order to discover the results of folly. There are thousands of fools today sufficiently oblig-
ing to act as examples, lending freely their experience to the profit of observers.
It is often said that Experience is the best teacher; but this is true only when we gain by the experience of others. In the case of the sufferer, Experience is not the best teacher; because she charges more for her instruction than it is worth. It does you no good to learn how you ought to have conducted your business when you are bankrupt; it does not help you to learn the proper diet when you are dying from poison.
But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof:
I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh;
When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you.
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings founded on observation of life. It is a clear revelation of human nature, showing that in Hebrew history they had the same varieties of humanity that now walk the streets of Manhattan. It is often called Hebrew Wisdom, but it should be called Human Wisdom. It is a mingling of shrewdness and piety; energy and reverence. It does not point out every danger, but it shows the safe path. Its wisdom reaches far into the future; for though it does not tell us what is wrong with our automobile--
such engines then being unknown--it tells us how to drive in security.
This famous Guide-Book is mainly given up to definite, practical instructions; but it also contains a splendid Hymn to Wisdom, wherein Wisdom is represented as being the first creation of God, practically coming into existence with the energy of the Divine Mind. Wisdom is older than the hills and the sea--and if mind be older than matter, it assuredly is. The prose of the book is specific, and meant to help travellers in this world in all emergencies, both private and public difficulties. The necessity of having a good education, relations of parents and children, wives and husbands, street-neighbours, value of hard work and the danger of shiftlessness, dangers of poverty and of wealth, civic duties both in the courts and in trade, restraint in food, drink, and speech, control of the sensual and angry passions, and how in general to conduct oneself in society.
I neither know nor care who wrote out all these proverbs; they are the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of many generations, brief and convenient summaries of conduct. The important thing is not, Who wrote them? or when were they written? but are they true? and if so, what use shall we make of them?
In the main, they teach the philosophy of moderation--perhaps never more needed than now, when so many are extremists.
The two wisest men of modern times are Goethe and Franklin; they were fond of writing aphorisms and epigrams, composing guides to life. All the wisdom of the great German and the great American may be rightly regarded as footnotes to the Book of Proverbs.
When a man thinks, talks, and acts well, he has behind him the support of centuries of experience; when he behaves badly, he is running counter to a force that has gained irresistible momentum by Time.
The percentage of alloy in this great Book is small, for nearly every verse is the pure metal, that which remains after having passed the sharpest and most searching tests. This is why they are so frequently quoted, and why without additional comment, they so often make a final answer to a proposition. It is well for public speakers and debaters to know this book; it is a quiver full of pointed arrows.
It is interesting to observe that in the Proverbs a specific application often follows a general suggestion; as if to say, Here is the general truth, and here a definite illustration.
Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.
Say not unto thy neighbour: Go, and come again, and tomorrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee.
The author of the sixth chapter did not disdain to learn wisdom from the smallest animals; in his attack on laziness--a universal sin--he saw that a
bug might have more brains than a man, and was therefore fitted to teach humanity.
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.
Much is said in these proverbs about strange women, who were then as now a menace to the individual and to society; there is one verse in the sixth chapter that sums up the whole question in a few words.
But whoso commiteth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyed! his own soul.
And dealing with this same vice, the wise man attempts to destroy the illusion by coupling consequences with conduct, in a dramatic sequence:
Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.
But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.
Apart from the exhortations to good behaviour, there are many passages which have nothing to do with ethics, but are simply revelations of the mind of man, shedding light in dark places, as:
Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.
The heart knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.
Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness.
In the twentieth century we hear much talk of disarmament, both because of its expense, carrying burdensome taxation, and because nations know that they are not themselves to be trusted with many battleships, any more than a child can be trusted with toy pistols. But the sure way to disarm one's personal enemy is given in Chapter XV:
A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.
Curious that nine out of ten persons still do all they possibly can to strengthen the malignant purpose and fighting power of their antagonists.
The limitless range of disaster brought about by fools is picturesquely set forth in this comparison: followed later by parental grief.
Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man, rather than a fool in his folly . . . the father of a fool hath no joy.
The strength of true friendship is interpreted in this verse:
A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
The ease with which a reputation for wisdom can be gained and maintained, was understood perfectly, then as now:
Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
The reason for this is simple enough. It is the belief, usually well founded, that a fool cannot keep his mouth shut.
The apostle James, in his famous chapter on the untameable tongue, was perhaps thinking of the following verse:
Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.
The following passage undoubtedly was the cause of much lamentation among the children of Puritans:
Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.
The question of personal honour, misunderstood through so many centuries, which false interpretation has largely added to the population of graveyards, is truly stated in the Proverbs:
It is an honour for a man to cease from strife: but every fool will be meddling.
The talk of bargainers has not greatly changed.
It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer: but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth.
One of the favourite sources of humour in the mediaeval poems and plays was a woman with a bad temper; she was represented as a terror to the most valiant man. I wonder if she was as common in real life as on the stage and in fiction? and if so,
was it because her disposition was ruined by her husband? In the Proverbs, this character is repeatedly mentioned:
It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house.
It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.
(Wilderness were paradise enow!)
A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.
Many verses deal with opportune and inopportune speech; nothing seems more beautiful than just the right word spoken in just the right way at just the right time; whereas nothing is more unbearable than the fatuous presumption of those numerous babblers who seem to have a positive genius for the inopportune.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.
As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear.
As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters.
On the other hand:
Whoso boasteth himself of a false gift is like clouds and wind without rain.
A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow.
Confidence in an unfaithful friend in time of trouble is like a broken tooth, and a foot out of joint.
As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as
vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.
He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.
It would seem that even in those days the jovial back-slapper usually selected the wrong time for his enthusiasm. Practical jokers were also common, and were regarded with the detestation they have always deserved.
So is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith: Am not I in sport?
The truly wise man not only does not trust others overmuch, he does not trust himself. Some Frenchman said that the biggest fool in the world was the man who believed he could know himself. The wisest man among the Greeks was Ulysses, whose wisdom was particularly shown in his distrust of his own heart, and the preparations he made against himself. When he had been warned that the song of the Sirens was fatal, he had the ears of his crew plugged, so that they could hear nothing, for he knew that sailors are not to be trusted with women. But his supreme wisdom was shown in the way he overreached himself, providing against his folly in advance. He wished to hear this ravishing melody, for he desired to have every possible experience; so he left his own ears unstopped, but bade the sailors tie him securely to the mast, and to pay no attention to him, if he should struggle to break loose; on no account to release him. Then when he heard the
music, although he was the wisest man in the world, and had been distinctly warned of this particular danger, he struggled with all his might to be free, and cursed the sailors for disregarding his wild writhings; but he had foreseen his own danger, knew he could not trust himself, and had thus saved himself from himself. All this was clearly stated in one verse of the Proverbs:
He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.
It should be remembered that when St. Paul, in the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, gave his famous advice to overcome an enemy with kindness, he was quoting from the old book of Proverbs:
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:
For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.
Occasionally there is a touch of mystic beauty, wise with a wisdom far beyond the wisdom of this world. It is the profound wisdom of poetry and religion.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Of all the chapters in Proverbs, my favourite is the thirtieth. This is said to contain the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh, being his confession of faith and the summary of his observations and knowledge of life. I wish we knew something about Agur; but he is as complete a puzzle as Melchizedek. No one
knows anything either of him or his father except their names. He was a wise man, who had learned much in his way of life; he had keen eyes, an understanding heart, a fine sense of humour, and a vivid imagination.
His prayer is for neither poverty nor riches; lead me not into temptation. If I am poor, I may steal, or become morose, and blaspheme God. If I am rich, I may become self-satisfied, and worship myself instead of God. His ideal in everything is moderation, for he has observed the never-dying greediness of man, and how increase of desire brings misery.
The horseleach hath two daughters, crying: Give, give. There are three things which are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough:
The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, It is enough.
The beauty and mystery of life filled his mind; he meditated often and deeply. He thought about the progress through the air of the still-winged eagle, which no one yet understands; of the swift gliding of the snake across a stone; of a ship close-hauled to the wind; and above all, of that mystery of mysteries, on which both human life and human art are founded, the relation of man to woman.
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a
rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
As he looked back on the vexations of life, he tried to think of what is most intolerable; and he decided that there were four things which cannot be borne--a servant when he reigneth, (see Kipling), a fool when he is filled with meat, an odious woman when she is married, and an handmaid that is heir to her mistress.
From these unpleasant spectacles, he turns to the contemplation of four small and weak animals, who nevertheless may teach us much.
There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise:
The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer;
The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks;
The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands;
The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces.
The ants are not strong in body, but strong in mind; they prepare themselves against the evil day, and thus in time of distress are really stronger than giants, for they have enough. The conies were little rabbits, who had no aggressive weapons and no defence except flight; but by building their houses in the rocks, these feeble folk became just as strong as their impregnable home. The locusts learned what no community of human beings have ever yet
learned, how to make their world safe for democracy; they have no tyrannical and capricious king, no written constitution, yet they understand how to govern themselves and can live and work together harmoniously; the ugly spider rises aloft, and dwells, with all her ugliness, in the splendid palace of the king. She aspired. And so these four humble creatures are illustrations to the observing Agur of four ideas: The wisdom of preparedness, the wisdom of safety, the wisdom of cooperation, and the wisdom of beauty.
The last chapter is said to contain the words of King Lemuel, who is generally believed to be no other than Solomon. It is full of deep insight, because, as we are told in the first verse, he is simply repeating what his mother taught him. She told him how to become and how to remain a wise king and a beneficent ruler; two excesses must be resolutely avoided--strange women and strong liquor. Both indulgences have destroyed innumerable kings. If it really is Solomon talking, he resembles other men in neglecting his mother's counsel. A king, she added, is also a judge, and if he drinks too much, his power of judgment is perverted, and his wisdom will be turned into folly. Use wine only as medicine, as a stimulant for those who are desperately ill, and to comfort those suffering from melancholia.
Then suddenly she passes to the consideration of that subject, which is a perennial theme--Woman.
Who is the ideal woman? What does she do? how does she dress? what does she say? Now although fashions in garments, in manners, in appearance, change bewilderingly from generation to generation, it is safe to say that the ideal woman as herein represented, will never go out of style, and will never cease to be attractive. Modesty is accompanied by the charm of mystery; character withstands the insidious decay of years; good sense is always current coin; kindness is the glory of a woman's conversation, as venomous speech is its degradation.
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She stretcheth out her hands to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
The phrase, "She shall rejoice in time to come," when literally translated, reads: "She laughs at the time to come." She has no fear of advancing years, which strike so many women with terror; for she knows that her charm is not wholly external, and that old age will only increase it.
After so many attacks on women in the Book of Proverbs, it is inspiring to read this magnificent tribute, evidently drawn from the life. And it is well to compare this ideal woman with those who, according to Addison, spend all their time decorating that part of the head known as the outside. A pretty girl without brains is described elsewhere in these proverbs, in the following homely phrase:
As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.
Let us hope that among Solomon's seven hundred wives, he found one that approached the ideal set forth by his mother.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, as we have it in the Bible, may be considered as a treatise on philosophy, just as the Proverbs are a collection of wise sayings dealing with conduct. The latter belongs to the world of action, the former to the world of thought. The philosophy represented in Ecclesiastes is Pessimism--pessimism as complete and thoroughgoing as that expressed by two other literary artists, Schopenhauer and Thomas Hardy.
It is supposed to be the conclusion about life
reached by the wisest man of the world, Solomon the king, the son of David. If this be true, it is quite natural, and should call for no surprise. David was a man of action, with tremendous zest for life, who enjoyed himself thoroughly; he loved women, fighting, statesmanship, singing, dancing, good company, poetry, and music; he was too busy to be a pessimist, just as a mother of ten children seldom has nervous prostration. She hasn't the time.
Solomon asked for purely mental gifts and he received them in abundance. Big, hearty David had a thoughtful son, given to introspection and much solitary meditation. It is a modern instance. One often sees today a captain of industry, who at seventy years of age, is cheerfully active; while his son, far better educated, having begun in childhood to ask awkward questions of his parents and having received no answer, now asks them of himself.
In the English text, Solomon is called the Preacher: the Hebrew word for that is Koheleth, and therefore in modern translations and commentaries this book--with the exception of the moralising passages--is said to be the work of a man named Koheleth. The late Professor Jastrow, in his interesting version and discussion of Ecclesiastes, believed Koheleth to be an assumed name. Professor Jastrow deserves the gratitude of scholars and readers for his investigations; one must always remember, however, that the largest part of his book is conjecture, and also that his translation,
however close to the Hebrew, resembles all other modern translations in its inferiority in English style to the Authorised Version.
Remember that it makes absolutely no difference whether Solomon wrote it, or some obscure preacher, or a man named Koheleth, or some other man who called himself Koheleth. The important thing is that we have a magnificent piece of literature, containing a pessimistic view of life, accompanied with religious admonition. If Solomon wrote both, well and good; with his mentality, and appetites jaded by excess, it would fit him perfectly.
In the Note-Book of the Russian novelist, Chekhov, we find this interesting monologue:
Solomon (alone). Oh! how dark is life! No night, when I was a child, so terrified me by its darkness as does my invisible existence. Lord, to David my father Thou gavest only the gift of harmonising words and sounds, to sing and praise Thee on strings, to lament sweetly, to make people weep or admire beauty; but why hast Thou given me a meditative, sleepless, hungry mind? Like an insect born of the dust, I hide in darkness; and in fear and despair, all shaking and shivering, I see and hear in everything an invisible mystery. Why this morning? Why does the sun come out from behind the temple and gild the palm tree? Why this beauty of women? Where does the bird hurry; what is the meaning of its flight, if it and its young and the place to which it hastens will, like myself, turn to dust? It were better I had never been born or were a stone, to which God has given neither eyes nor thoughts. In order to tire out my body by nightfall, all day yesterday, like a mere workman, I carried marble to the temple; but now the night has come and I cannot sleep......I'll go and lie down.
Phorsco told me that if one imagines a flock of sheep running and fixes one's attention upon it, the mind gets confused and one falls asleep. I'll do it......(Exit.)
Elsewhere Chekhov wrote in his Note-Book, "Solomon made a great mistake when he asked for wisdom."
It is interesting to observe that the English novelist, John Galsworthy, in his novel, To Let, has created a character whose philosophy is exactly similar to that expressed in Ecclesiastes. This man is the Belgian, Monsieur Profond, who has completely exhausted life, and has neither enthusiasm nor principles; his remark about every occupation, interest, and life itself is simply that there is nothing in it.
If Solomon wrote only the pessimism in the book of Ecclesiastes, and some pious scribe added the religious admonitions, very well; they are both true, taken separately or together. Without any faith in God, life ceases to have any meaning, which is precisely the view taken in the body of the text; with faith in God, even the sorrows of life have significance, because everything has a meaning, which is the view taken by the commentator.
Therefore it is not surprising to find this book in the Bible. The objections to it as a portion of Holy Writ are based on the fact that it expresses pessimism and despair; but it does not teach pessimism and despair. Jezebel expresses in her life, conduct, and talk a certain kind of woman; but she is not meant to be a model.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most modern of all the sixty-six parts of the Bible-- because pessimism is to-day an extremely popular attitude of mind. One reason why pessimism is popular is because the majority of people have the insidious taint of self-pity, and imagine that their particular troubles are more severe than those carried by others. Furthermore, a great many have lost all religious faith and with it the key to life; life is certainly a mystery to all of us, but to some it is a marvellous and challenging mystery, to others a hopeless and purpose-crushing puzzle. One man rises higher by reason of an obstacle; another is tripped by it, never to rise again.
It is also characteristic that modern critics like the pessimism of this book better than the religious teaching it contains; for many would much rather be told what a wretched time they are having, poor fellows, than to be told how to improve the situation--especially when the latter plan means real work.
It is often said that the Preacher is like Omar Khayyam; so he is, if you leave out the practical philosophies of both. Omar says that we know not whence we came nor whither we are going; therefore, take a drink. This book says we know nothing about life, therefore fear God and keep His commandments.
Personally, I have never been able to see why ignorance of life should produce a thirst. I suppose
that what is meant, is to drug one's puzzled mind into oblivion, so that one can forget the mystery of life. Now inasmuch as mind is the best thing we have, I prefer to keep it as clear as possible. A tiny candle may not go far in the darkness, but it is better than more darkness.
It is a curious fact that people who are sick, or poor, or crippled are not as a rule pessimists; the pessimists are recruited from the ranks of the healthy and wealthy, who have grown dull from easily satisfied desires.
The Preacher loses no time in stating his philosophical position. His first word is Vanity--vanitas vanitatum. There is nothing new under the sun. Generations come and go, and the earth abideth forever. The Preacher had seen everything, had tasted all experience, had eaten freely of the tree of knowledge, and had come to this conclusion-- there is nothing in it! Life is meaningless. Observe that, like a genuine philosophical pessimist, he does not lay the main emphasis on the sorrows and discomforts of life; for these could be borne, bad as they are, if we knew we were going somewhither, if we knew pain had a meaning. Real pessimism rises not from experience of pain, but from the fear that life is without significance. Nothing makes any difference. Oblivion swallows us all. He hated life, with that common and yet peculiar fallacy of thought; he hated life, because he hated death. If life is hateful, death should be welcome; if life is
wretched, its shortness should be counted as an asset; but in reality nobody loves life deep down in his heart like your pessimist--whose two reasons for hating life are first, that it is short, and second, that it is followed by oblivion.
Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.
For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool forever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? As the fool.
Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation; of spirit.
Later, this hater of life reveals his love of it,, which explains what I mean by saying that no one loves life like your pessimist.
For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
One of his statements, which is constantly quoted, is certainly not true: "Increase of knowledge in-creaseth sorrow." One might as well say that the view at the base of a tower is finer than the view from the top thereof; or that one leg is better than two. Although the famous assertion of the Preacher
is false, his philosophy is consistently founded upon it; youth is the best time of life and old age the most miserable. The noble poetry of the book, which in the Authorised Version, is full of solemn and mournful music, reaches its splendid climax in the last chapter; the language of despair has never reached elsewhere such an elevation as in this lamentation on old age, where one hardly knows which to admire more, the language or the rhythm; the swiftly following succession of vivid metaphors, or the swelling adagio music:
While the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened.
The keepers of the house are either the ribs or the hips; the strong men are the legs; the grinders are the molars; the windows are the eyes, and the sight is dim with advancing years.
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low.
The doors are the ears, which age closes up; the sound of the grinding is low presumably means that penetrating noises reach old ears dim and muffled; he shall rise up at the voice of the bird--one of the
all but universal accompaniments of old age is inability to sleep late in the morning; in the days of Ecclesiastes, as now, the old man woke at
The earliest pipe of half-awakened bird
and wondered how he would get through the three hours before breakfast. The daughters of music shall be brought low does not mean that the voice will be of lower register, for in the only passage fit to be compared with this, the soliloquy of Jaques in As You Like It, he has the manly voice change into thin, childish treble; what it means is that the music of health will leave the voice of old age, which will have no vibration, but will be thin and unpleasant; the daughters of music are slain.
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.
Fear of that which is high means that old age does not like hills, not even stairs; fears shall be in the way refers to the timidity that accompanies the old man in every movement; the almond tree has white blossoms, referring to the white hair; the grasshopper shall be a burden probably means simply that even the merest trifle causes worry; desire refers to the loss of virility.
Because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be
broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
The funeral processions in the streets mean more to an old man than to youth, being a kind of public rehearsal of his own tragedy; the silver cord may be the spine, and the golden bowl the head, containing the brain, which has lost its activity; what is meant by the pitcher and the wheel nobody knows; Professor Jastrow thinks they may refer to the kidneys and intestines. But they may mean simply the inability of the old man to carry out any plan; at the very moment of action, his purpose is made sterile by weakness, as the pitcher is broken just when you want to fill it, and the wheel broken at just the time when you need its revolution.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Which speech Shakespeare put into the mouth of an idle and disillusioned spectator, as the Bible places similar views in the mouth of a tired and jaded king.
The commentator could not let such philosophy pass without an antidote; just as a physician gives a remedy for disease, so this commentator, whether he were the original philosopher or some one who
had read the despairing words with curiosity and dissent, added very sensibly:
This is the conclusion of the whole matter; fear God and keep His commandments.
Or, as Tennyson says,
Hold thou the good; define it well
For fear divine Philosophy
Should push beyond her mark, and be
Procuress to the Lords of Hell.