This Week’s Guest: Peter Kreeft
This week, Jews celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, during which it is traditional to read one of the most philosophically interesting books of the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes. The narrator of the book, identified by Jewish tradition as King Solomon, has spent his life exploring the many corners of human endeavor, from the responsible life of politics to the pleasures of body and mind, and he has come to say that each corner, no matter how satisfying to certain parts of us, cannot answer our deepest needs—or perhaps cannot answer anything at all. Everything is vanity, the book whispers famously, and nothing more.
This week’s podcast guest, the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, admires Ecclesiastes not for its ultimate answers to the fundamental questions of life but for its honest look at human problems. As he writes in his own commentary, “honest hedonism is spiritually superior to dishonest self-delusion.” In conversation with Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver, he mines the biblical book for the wisdom it may offer.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
In my reading of the book, I’m doing a kind of philosophical psychoanalysis. The unconscious or subconscious mind is sometimes wiser than the conscious mind. I interpret the overall argument of the book in terms of Aristotellian logic as a profound syllogism. Aristotle first discovered the syllogism, but he didn’t invent it; it’s inherent in the human mind. We inherently know that if everything is b and this is an a, then this must be b, and I see that structure in Ecclesiastes’ argument. If all things under the sun in human life are vanity, the reason for that is that all things under the sun share certain vain qualities such as death, imperfection, misery. So his conclusion that all things are vanity is based on evidence. It’s not simply an expression of an attitude; it’s a rather scientific argument. If whatever has x, y, and z is vanity, and this has x, y, and z, then this is vanity. In this case, it’s under the sun. Vanity here, of course, doesn’t mean the moral fault of thinking too highly of yourself. Vanity means it’s in vain.
More about: Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, Religion & Holidays, Sukkot