The Inexhaustibility of Wisdom Literature
I have been a philosopher for all of my adult life, and the three most profound books of philosophy that I have ever read are Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs. In fact, the book that first made me a philosopher, at about age fifteen, was Ecclesiastes.
Books of philosophy can be classified in many ways: ancient versus modern, Eastern versus Western, optimistic versus pessimistic, theistic versus atheistic, rationalistic versus irrationalistic, monistic versus pluralistic, and many others. But the most important distinction of all, says Gabriel Marcel, is between “the full” and “the empty”, the solid and the shallow, the profound and the trivial. When you have read all the books in all the libraries of the world, when you have accompanied all the world’s sages on all their journeys into wisdom, you will not have found three more profound books than Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs.
These three books are literally inexhaustible. They brim with a mysterious power of renewal. I continually find new nourishment in rereading them, and I never tire of teaching them. They quintessentially exemplify my definition of a classic. A classic is like a cow: it gives fresh milk every morning. A classic is a book that rewards endlessly repeated rereading. A classic is like the morning, like nature herself: ever young, ever renewing. No, not even like nature, for she, like us, is doomed to die. Only God is ever young, and only the Book he inspired never grows old.
When God wanted to inspire some philosophy, why would he inspire anything but the best? But the best is not necessarily the most sophisticated. Plato says, in the Ion, that the gods deliberately chose the poorest poets to inspire the greatest poems so that the glory would be theirs, not man’s. It is exactly what Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians. And we see this principle at work throughout the Bible: the striking contrast between the primitiveness of the poet and the profundity of the poem, between the smallness of the singer and the greatness of the song, between the absence of humanys,istication and the presence of divine sophia, divine wisdom. Something is always breaking through the words, something you can never fully grasp but also never fully miss if only you stand there with uncovered soul. Stand in the divine rain, and seeds of wisdom will grow in your soul.