07 September 2010

The meaning of meaning

I promised some thoughts on Ecclesiastes and the idea of everything being meaningless. I now present them to you.

First, let's look at the way different translations deal with what was, in the New Living Translation, communicated as "meaningless". We will take Ecclesiastes 1:2 which lays out this idea. Here's what we get from our comparisons:
  • NET: "Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!
  • NIV: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
  • NLT: "Everything is meaningless," says the Teacher, "utterly meaningless!"
  • BBE: All is to no purpose, said the Preacher, all the ways of man are to no purpose.
  • NASB: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
  • NRSV: Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
  • NKJV: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
  • MSG: Smoke, nothing but smoke. [[That's what the Quester says.]] There's nothing to anything--it's all smoke.
These varied translations make it clear that the idea being conveyed in the Hebrew is more complicated any of those words convey. There are subtleties of meaning. All of the aspects above are, so it would seem, present, but none of them alone captures the essence. That same page also has this translation footnote (passage references removed for brevity):
The noun הֶבֶל is the key word in Ecclesiastes. The root is used in two ways in the OT, literally and figuratively. The literal, concrete sense is used in reference to the wind, man’s transitory breath, evanescent vapor. In this sense, it is often a synonym for “breath” or “wind”. The literal sense lent itself to metaphorical senses: (1) breath/vapor/wind is nonphysical, evanescent, and lacks concrete substance thus, the connotation “unsubstantial”, “profitless” or “fruitless”, “worthless”, “pointless”, “futile”, (2) breath/vapor/wind is transitory and fleeting – thus, the connotation “fleeting” or “transitory” and (3) breath/vapor/wind cannot be seen thus, the idea of “obscure,” “dark,” “difficult to understand,” “enigmatic”.
I bring this up to point out that, while "meaningless" is a perfectly acceptable translation, it seems to me the author is really trying to emphasize that everything is impermanent. The world is ever changing. Everything you work for in this world will someday be gone. It is futile to grasp it, to try to hold it in place.

Another aspect of this is that the world is uncertain. The future, like the wind, cannot be controlled. Attempts to control the future will result in failure and unhappiness. We do not know which way the wind will blow, so we should not make plans that depend on it behaving in the way we wish.

So where does that leave us. Everything is transitory, uncertain, changing, you could even say meaningless (in so far as meaning implies some sort of absoluteness and stability). But joy can still be found in the present moment. There is joy in what life is even if that is disappearing even as you enjoy it. But that joy comes from seeing things as they are, not as they could be.

When looked at this way, the message of Ecclesiastes is no longer that life is meaningless, in the sense that there it has no value and is not worth living. Instead, the message is much more akin to Buddhist ideas of impermanence and mindfulness. While still not satisfying to those who want their lives to have some sort of fixed cosmic meaning, this interpretation of Ecclesiastes presents its message as liberating rather than depressing.