Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26

Philosophy, Pleasure, and Folly

Commentaries by Chloë Reddaway

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Bartolomeo Bimbi

Lemons and Limes, 1715, Oil on canvas, 174 x 233 cm, Museo della Natura Morta, Villa Medicea di Poggio a Caiano; Castello 597, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Paradise on Earth

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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Read by Ben Quash

In Ecclesiastes 2:4–8, Qohelet describes how he built houses, and created gardens and parks filled with fruit trees, with pools to water them. He also acquired slaves, animals, treasure, singers, and concubines. This royal environment echoes the palaces of great Middle Eastern kings, with their vast botanical gardens and complex irrigation systems. These were both pleasure gardens for private enjoyment, and a public statement of wealth and power (Brown 2000: 32).

Like Qohelet, powerful rulers in Renaissance Europe built lavish gardens and filled them with rare plants. The Medici dynasty in Florence amassed a large collection of citrus fruit trees, including hundreds of oranges, lemons, and citrons, learning to grow these exotic species through extensive horticultural experiments. Gardens like those at the Medici-owned Pitti Palace were both a display of wealth and taste, and a reflection of their scholarly, humanist interest in philosophy and science.

These expensive citrus plants required skilled care by trained gardeners, and extra precautions in colder months, when potted specimens were moved into special lemon houses. A basket of specimen fruit was sent annually as a gift to the pope, and particularly unusual forms of citrus fruit were prized as ‘bizzarrie’ (curiosities). The many varieties were recorded and celebrated in paintings like this one by Bartolomeo Bimbi, and in plaster and wax casts.

Gardens may be an attempt to recreate paradise on earth, they may represent scientific curiosity, or they may be—as Qohelet’s gardens were—part of an investigation into the value of pleasure and the nature of the good life (2:1–3). He concluded that there was pleasure to be found in creating such magnificence, but that, nevertheless, all these achievements were ultimately nothing but ‘vanity and a striving after wind’ (2:11).



Atlee, Helena. 2014. The Land Where Lemons Grow: the Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit (London: Particular Books), pp. 5–27

Brown, William P. 2000. Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Filardi, Domenico. 2007. Orto de' Pitti: The Architects, Gardeners and Botanical Design of the Boboli Gardens (Florence: Centro Di)

Paul Gauguin

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–98, Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 36.270, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Tompkins Collection / Bridgeman Images

A Personal Philosophy

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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Read by Ben Quash

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, Paul Gauguin was later severely critical of the Catholic Church (Silverman 2008: 156, 160) and his art increasingly reflected his eclectic philosophy of life. Like Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, Gauguin sought to understand the meaning of existence, and he used painting to explore his ideas. His 1897–98 work, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is a testament to this personal search for meaning.

Although Gauguin resisted attempts to read this work in allegorical terms, he nevertheless described it as expressing the cycle of birth, life, and death. In letters to friends, he explained the significance of some of its elements. The central standing figure picking a fruit indicates the human passage from the Edenic innocence of the sleeping baby on the far right, to adult knowledge. (This theme is echoed by a child eating fruit in the foreground). In the background, two figures stand next to the tree of knowledge (or ‘science’), confiding their thoughts to each other and expressing the sorrow which knowledge has caused them. A crouching figure with a raised arm stares in amazement at the audacity of this pair in daring to contemplate their destiny. As Qohelet says, ‘in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow’ (1:18).

The old woman on the left of the canvas has reached a state of acceptance and resignation as she approaches death, while the semi-nude young woman seated beside her is touching her elder’s shadow, as if to suggest that she too is heading in the same direction. The large grey-blue idol represents the unknowable ‘Beyond’ (l’au-delà), and the strange white bird at the far left, clutching a lizard, signifies the futility of words. (Segalen 1930: 201–2; Malingue 1956: 305)

In short, as Qohelet suggests, knowledge brings sorrow, death comes to everyone, and there is a mystery to existence which is beyond human understanding (1:18; 2:12–18).



Malingue, Maurice (ed.). 1946. Lettres de Gauguin à sa femme et à ses amis, recueillies et préfacées (Paris: B. Grasset), p. 305

Segalen, Victor (ed.). 1930. Lettres de Paul Gauguin a Georges-Daniel de Monfreid (Paris: Plon), pp. 201–2

Silverman, Debora. 2008. ‘Transcending the Word? Religion and Music in Gauguin’s Quest for Abstraction’, in French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870–1939, ed. by Barbara L. Kelly (Suffolk: University of Rochester Press)

Andy Warhol

Green Disaster #2 (Green Disaster Ten Times), 1963, Silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, 272.6 x 201 cm, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main; Former collection of Karl Ströher, Darmstadt, 1981/57, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Axel Schneider, Frankfurt am Main

For Tomorrow We Die

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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Read by Ben Quash

In post-war America, ‘the automobile became a symbol of … freedom, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.’ Its ‘flip-side’ was ‘the car crash … the existential full-stop on life’s highway’ (Brown 2007a: 43). The car represented liberty and prosperity for the ordinary consumer-citizen, but in Andy Warhol’s 1960s ‘Death and Disaster’ silkscreen prints, it took on a darker aspect.

Green Disaster #2 bathes the black and white imagery of a newspaper photograph in green, creating haunting, almost surrealist scenes. The mundane world of suburban affluence is repeatedly shattered by tragedies striking ordinary people. Warhol’s acute awareness of the fragility of life is reflected in the ‘shallow photographic realism’ of his silkscreen work (Brown 2007b: 30).

In the repetition of these images Warhol both abstracts the reality of death to the point of desensitizing the viewer, and relentlessly hammers the image into the viewer’s mind. Nightmarish and yet banal, they take on a quality of inevitability. The limp body in a crumpled car might be anybody; horrific accidents are commonplace; everyone will die. The hedonistic American dream is no more proof against death than the ‘great possessions’ (2:7) of the author of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet). As Qohelet discovered, all is still ‘vanity’ and the wise and the foolish share the same fate (2:11–17).

It’s an observation which, in the absence of any deeper meaning in life, both supports the pursuit of pleasure and undermines it. ‘There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil’ but there is also ‘nothing to be gained under the sun’ and ‘one fate’ comes to everyone (2:11,15, 24). Neither in Qohelet’s philosophising nor in Warhol’s bleak view of 1960s America can pleasure and possessions answer the great existential questions. As St Paul sums it up: ‘If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”’ (1 Corinthians 15:32; cf. Isaiah 22:13).



Brown, Robert. 2007a. ‘Death and Disaster: Andy Warhol’s Car Crashes’, in Andy Warhol’s green car crash (green burning car 1): post-war and contemporary art evening sale Wednesday 16 May 2007 (New York: Christie, Manson & Woods International Inc.)

———. 2007b. ‘'Green Car Crash: June–July 1963’, in Andy Warhol’s green car crash (green burning car 1): post-war and contemporary art evening sale Wednesday 16 May 2007 (New York: Christie, Manson & Woods International Inc.)

Bartolomeo Bimbi :

Lemons and Limes, 1715 , Oil on canvas

Paul Gauguin :

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–98 , Oil on canvas

Andy Warhol :

Green Disaster #2 (Green Disaster Ten Times), 1963 , Silkscreen and acrylic on canvas

Striving after Wind

Comparative commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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Read by Ben Quash

In his search for insight into the meaning of life, and in the absence of any direct divine revelation, Qohelet tests the potential of wisdom, folly, and pleasure (1:17; 2:1). Through his experimental philosophy, he seeks to discover meaning by understanding the world around him (1:13), and identifying what constitutes a good life (2:3).

When Qohelet creates an Edenic royal garden, filled with fruit trees, he is both declaring his kingly power, and making a philosophical test of pleasure.

From the rulers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to Louis XIV of France, a ‘king’s green thumb’ demonstrated mastery of nature, symbolized territorial expansion, and expressed virility (Brown 2000: 32). Bartolomeo Bimbi’s painting of citrus fruit from the Medici gardens demonstrates the ongoing passion among ruling elites for creating gardens and cultivating rare species. These exotic havens proclaimed their owners’ power. But they also provided a place in which to explore—imaginatively and scientifically—the world and their influence within it (Bundvad 2015: 225–70). Qohelet’s epistemological experiments (including gardening) resonated with the Renaissance pursuit of knowledge through science and philosophy; Ecclesiastes aligned well with humanist thinking, which increasingly privileged scepticism and empirical evidence (Christianson 2007: 35, 41).

Qohelet, though, came to hate his earthly paradise because it would be inherited by someone else, who, whether ‘a wise man or a fool’ would be ‘master of all’ Qohelet had achieved (2:18–19). Even dynasties as powerful as the Medici fall, and the great wealth, knowledge, and skill represented by the cultivation of bizarrely-shaped citrons become merely another form of ‘vanity’.

If gardens are one field of exploration, painting can be another. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is a testament to a search for meaning, as personal as Qohelet’s. For Paul Gauguin, the great question of life was, ‘What is our ideal, natural, rational destiny?’, and his enquiries into religion began with the questions inscribed on this painting (Shackelford 2014: 7). Believing that painting was capable of ‘resolving the paradox between … feeling and … intellect’, he thought that in this work he had ‘transcended the obsolete boundaries of conventional representation’, bringing together the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘ineffable’ (Shackelford 2014: 27; Gauguin 1897: 134–5, 147).

Although Gauguin believed that he had thereby surpassed other painters (2:9) he remained, like Qohelet, acutely aware of mortality. If his testamentary masterpiece brought satisfaction, it was also intended as his last work, and Gauguin planned to commit suicide thereafter. Despite the apparently comprehensive view of human life which it attempts, Gauguin’s search for understanding through painting and religious belief, did not provide the answers he craved, but returned him to the riddle of human life, (Shackelford 2014: 7), full of ‘pain’, ‘vexation’ and ‘vanity’ (2:23).

His search for a unified system of belief notwithstanding, Gauguin strenuously asserted his own individuality. In contrast, Andy Warhol famously (and perhaps ironically) claimed that he wanted ‘everybody to think alike’. His remark referred in part to the confrontation between the capitalist-consumerist society epitomized by America and the Communism epitomized by Russia. In Russia, Warhol noted, people were forced into being the same; in America, it was happening ‘all by itself’ (Swensen 1963: 26).

While his comments perpetuated a self-image steeped in the banal and commercial, his point is arguably both political and theological. His observation of increasing uniformity—whether by political repression or personal choice—subverts the equation of affluence with freedom which was ‘the ideological weapon’ of the USA. It might also be seen as rejecting the contemporary political adoption of the symbolism of ‘radiance and darkness that was no longer … primarily theological, but had become consumerist in character’ (Crow 2016: 137). In Warhol’s hands, the righteous glow of consumerist freedom is overturned by the image of the mangled car.

Warhol’s fascination with ubiquitous commodities—including cars—can likewise be read as a deconstruction of consumerism in which ‘the mass-produced image as the bearer of desires was exposed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering and death’ (Crow 2016: 137). In Green Disaster #2, the affluence of the individualistic, automobile generation of Americans crashes headlong into the meaninglessness of wealth, and the inescapability of death. The corpse could be anyone. Two political systems, with divergent value claims, are shown to be equally impotent in the face of mortality.

Whether driving cars, cultivating citruses, building palaces, or jockeying for political supremacy, searching for meaning through hedonism or territory-marking leads to a dead end: ‘This also is vanity and a striving after wind’ (2:26).



Brown, William P. 2000. Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Bundvad, Mette. 2015. ‘At Play in Potential Space: Reading King Qohelet’s Building Experiment with Psychoanalytic Spatial Theory’, in Perspectives on Israelite Wisdom: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, ed. by John Jarick (Bloomsbury: London)

Christianson, Eric S. 2007. Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell)

Crow, Thomas. 2016. ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, in On & By Andy Warhol, ed. by Gilda Williams (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA), pp. 135–44

Gauguin, Paul. [1897] 1996. ‘Miscellaneous Things’, in Writings of a Savage, ed. by Daniel Guérin and Wayne Anderson, trans. by Eleanor Levieux (Da Capo: New York)

Shackelford, T.M. 2014. Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (MFA Publications: Boston)

Swenson, G.R. 1963. ‘What is Pop Art? Answers from Eight Painters’, Art News 62.7: 26


Next exhibition: Ecclesiastes 3

Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26

Revised Standard Version

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13And I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. 14I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

15What is crooked cannot be made straight,

and what is lacking cannot be numbered.

16 I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

18For in much wisdom is much vexation,

and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

2 I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man’s delight.

9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what he has already done. 13Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them. 15Then I said to myself, “What befalls the fool will befall me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 16For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise man dies just like the fool! 17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me; 19and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? 23For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.