Ecclesiastes and the Art of Memory

Ecclesiastes is one of the most profound explorations on the meaning and enjoyment of a fleeting life “under the sun.” As Solomon wrestles with whether human experience possesses anything of lasting meaning and enjoyment, he visits the idea of “memory” and “remembrance” as something necessary to finding meaning in life, but also something that does not persist. I want to briefly explore what Solomon might mean by “remembrance” within the context of the work and why it is an essential idea to his argument. 

The first mention of “remembrance” comes at the end of the first poem of Ecclesiastes, which introduces the main theme of “vanity” and the fleeting nature of human experience. In this context, Solomon claims that “what has been is what will be” (1:9) and that there is nothing new under the sun (1:10), and yet it doesn’t matter because “there is no remembrance of former things” (1:11). 

On the surface, he seems to mean that no one remembers the wisdom of previous generations, such that everyone will continue to experience the same things but have no capacity to understand it or live wisely, because no one remembers what has come before. Solomon indicates that memory could be an antidote to the “vanity” of life if only wisdom persisted. But it doesn’t, so man is stuck living in a cycle of experience that is not new, but cannot be understood. This is reaffirmed a few verses later, when Solomon claims that there is little value to being wise “for of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (1:16). 

Similarly, being remembered seems to be a kind of reward for a wise life–something that gives life meaning, even though a person will soon die. And yet, there is no guarantee that anyone will be remembered: for “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (9:5). The living know they will die, but after they are dead, no one will know them. Even heroes are forgotten: “But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man” (9:15). Remembrance would give life meaning and purpose, but no one remembers. 

At first, Solomon indicates that the only hope for a world without memory is to be so caught up in joy that one doesn’t remember that he will die and be forgotten: “For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (5:18). And yet, if he is caught up in enjoyment, he may forget that there will be difficult days ahead, and thus find himself unprepared. Hence, Solomon says, “if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many” (11:8). Memory, then, can be a way of being prepared for the harshness of life, while forgetting can be a means of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of life. 

At the end, however, Solomon indicates that there is something else one can remember, and that this kind of memory gives life meaning, even if one will not be remembered once one dies. It is a kind of memory that leads to enjoyment of life but also preparation for life’s hardships, because it is a memory that transcends life under the sun. It is a recognition of the existence and presence of the Creator, the only One who will not pass away but always abides. In all of chapter 12, Solomon lays out what it means to “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” for in remembering the Creator, one is rooted in the Creator’s commandments and in the fear of the Lord, which is a firm path through the verities of life under the sun.  

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