Three Ways of Living | The Introduction to "Three Philosophies of Life" | Peter Kreeft | IgnatiusInsight.com
Three Ways of Living | The Introduction to Three Philosophies of Life | Peter Kreeft
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 re-reading. 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 human sophistication 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.
Three Philosophies of Life
There are ultimately only three philosophies of life, and each one is
represented by one of the following books of the Bible:
1. Life as vanity: Ecclesiastes
2. Life as suffering: Job
3. Life as love: Song of Songs
No more perfect or profound book has ever been written for any one of these
three philosophies of life. Ecciesiastes is the all-time classic of vanity. Job
is the all-time classic of suffering. And Song of Songs is the all-time classic
The reason these are the only three possible philosophies of life is because
they represent the only three places or conditions in which we can be.
Ecclcsiastcs' "vanity" represents Hell. Job's suffering represents
Purgatory.  And Song of Songs' love represents Heaven. All three conditions
begin here and now on earth. As C. S. Lewis put it, "All that seems earth
is Hell or Heaven." It is a shattering line, and Lewis added this one to
it: "Lord, open not too often my weak eyes to this.
The essence of Hell is not suffering but vanity, not pain but purposelessness,
not physical suffering but spiritual suffering. Dante was right to have the
sign over Hell's gate read: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
Suffering is not the essence of Hell, because suffering can be hopeful. It was
for job. Job never lost his faith and his hope (which is faith directed at the
future), and his suffering proved to be purifying, purgative, educational: it
gave him eyes to see God. That is why we are all on earth.
Finally, Heaven is love, for Heaven is
essentially the presence of God, and God is essentially love. ("God is love.')
Three Metaphysical Moods
Heidegger begins one of his most haunting books with the most haunting
question: ''Why is there anything rather than nothing? He speaks of three moods that raise this great
question. They are three metaphysical moods, three moods that reveal not just
the feelings of the individual but also the meanings of being. And these three
are the three metaphysical moods that give rise to the three philosophies of
life that we find in Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs. Heidegger says,
"Why is there anything rather than nothing?"...
Despair is job's mood. His suffering is not only bodily but also spiritual.
What has he to look forward to except death? He has lost everything, even
God--especially God, it seems.
Many men never encounter this question, if by encounter we mean not merely to
hear and read about it as an interrogative formulation but to ask the question,
that is, to bring it about, to raise it, to feel its inevitability.
And yet each of us is grazed at least once, perhaps more than once, by the
hidden power of this question, even if he is not aware of what is happening to
him. The question looms in moments of great despair, when things tend to lose
all their weight and all meaning becomes obscured. Perhaps it will strike but
once like a muffled bell that rings into our life and gradually dies away. It
is present in moments of rejoicing, when all the things around us are
transfigured and seem to be there for the first time, as if it might be easier
to think they arc not than to understand that they are and are as they are. The
question is upon us in boredom, when we are equally removed from despair and
joy, and everything about us seems so hopelessly commonplace that we no longer
care whether anything is or is not--and with this the question "Why is
there anything rather than nothing?" is evoked in a particular form.
But this question may be asked expressly, or, unrecognized as a question, it
may merely pass through our lives like a brief gust of wind.
Joy is the mood of love, young love, new love, "falling in love".
That is the wonder in Song of Songs: that the beloved should be; that life should be; that anything, now all lit by the new light of
love, should be--as mysterious a
glory as it was to job a mysterious burden.
Boredom is the mood of Ecciesiastes. It is a modern mood. Indeed, there is no
word for it in any ancient language! In this mood, there is neither a reason to
die, as in Job, nor a reason to live, as in Song of Songs. This is the deepest
pit of all.
Three Theological Virtues
These three books also teach the three greatest things in the world, the three
"theological virtues": faith, hope, and charity.
The lesson Ecclesiastes teaches is faith, the necessity of faith, by showing
the utter vanity, the emptiness, of life without faith. Ecciesiastes uses only
reason, human experience, and sense observation of life "under the
sun" as instruments to see and think with; he does not add the eye of
faith; and this is not enough to save him from the inevitable conclusion of
"vanity of vanities". Then the postscript to the book, in the last
few verses, speaks the word of faith. This is not proved by reason or sense
observation, as in the rest of the book. This word of faith is the only one big
enough to fill the silence of vanity. The word that answers Ecciesiastes' quest
and gives the true answer to the question of the meaning of life is known only
by faith: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty
of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing,
whether good or evil."
Ecciesiastes has intellectual faith; he believes God exists. But that is not
enough. "The demons also believe, and tremble" (James 2:19).
Ecciesiastes proves the need for real faith, true faith, lived faith, saving faith,
by showing the consequences of its absence, even in the presence of
Job's lesson is hope. Job has nothing else but hope. Everything else is taken
away from him. But hope alone enables him to endure and to triumph.
Song of Songs is wholly about love, the ultimate meaning of life, the greatest
thing in the world.
These three books also give us an essential summary of the spiritual history of
the world. G. K. Chesterton did that in three sentences: "Paganism was the
biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger, and everything since
has been comparatively small." Job shows us the heights of pre-Christian
hope and heroism. It is not strictly pagan, of course, but it is not yet
Christian. Song of Songs shows us the spiritual center of the Christian era,
the era the modern secular establishment has told such incredible lies about,
the Middle Ages. Finally, Ecciesiastes tells us the truth about the modern,
post-Christian world and world view: once the divine Lover's marriage offer is
spurned, the modern divorcˇe cannot simply return to being a pagan virgin, any
more than an individual who spurns Heaven and chooses Hell can make Hell into
Purgatory, hopelessness into hope.
"The Divine Comedy" before Dante
In these three books of the Bible we have Dante's great epic The Divine
Comedy played out, from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven. But it is
played out in our hearts and lives, not externalized into cosmic places,
circles, stairs, and airs. And it is played out here and now, as seeds, though
it is completed after death, as flowers.
There is movement between these three books, just as there is in The Divine
Comedy. First, there is movement from
Ecclesiastes to job, like Dante's movement from Hell to Purgatory. This is
found in the last two verses of Ecclesiastes. The conclusion of the rest of
Ecciesiastes is "vanity", but the conclusion of the last two verses
is: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of
man. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing,
whether good or evil." This is precisely the philosophy job lives, and the
result is that job finds God and moves through Purgatory to Heaven.
And this is the second movement: from job to Song of Songs. It takes place at
the end of job, when job finally sees God's face. Ecclesiastes is the sunset,
the end ofhope; Job is the night with hope of morning; Song of Songs is the
morning, which already begins to dawn at the end of Job. Song of Songs begins
when God appears to job, for where God is, there is love.
Love is the final answer to Ecclesiastes' quest, the alternative to vanity, and
the meaning of life. But we cannot appreciate it until we look deeply at the
question. This question is more than a question; it is a quest, a lived
question. Scripture invites us on this quest, this journey through the night to
the Rising Son. It is life's greatest journey. Will you climb aboard the great
old ark of the Bible with me? I will try to call out to you what I see as we
take this journey together. For that is really all a teacher can do.
 Note to Protestant readers: please do not throw this book away just yet. I
am not presupposing or trying to convert anyone to the Catholic doctrine of
Purgatory. Here I mean by Purgatory any
suffering that purges the soul. It begins in this life. If it is completed in
the next, you can just as well call it I leaven's bathroom, if you like. A
sanctification by any other name would smell as sweet.
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who has written over forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien.
His most recent Ignatius Press books include Socrates
Meets Descartes, You
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer. Two new books, Socrates Meets Hume: The Father of Philosophy Meets
the Father of Modern Skepticism and Handbook Of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to
Questions of Faith, will be published in 2009 by Ignatius Press.
A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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