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Contemplation as an alternative to curiosity: St Bonaventure on Ecclesiastes 1:3–11

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2015

Tyler Atkinson*
Bethany College, Box 468, 335 East Swensson St, Lindsborg, KS 67456,


This article seeks to offer a christological interpretation of the opening poem in Ecclesiastes (1:3–11) through engagement with St Bonaventure's exegesis of the passage. It begins with a brief survey of contemporary treatments of the passage, which are characterised by an emphasis on cosmic monotony as an illustration of the futility of human labour. Then, it examines the Seraphic Doctor's version of the contemptus mundi interpretation of the book, relating it to his metaphysics of emanation, exemplarity and consummation. It will be suggested that Bonaventure's version of contemptus mundi informs an alternative interpretation to the critical status quo.

In his exegesis of the opening poem, Bonaventure begins by describing three kinds of existence: existence in the eternal and unchanging Word, material existence in the cosmos, and abstract existence in the mind. While Bonaventure does not consider existence in the Word in relation to Ecclesiastes 1:3–11, because such existence is not subject to the vanity of mutability, the conclusion of the article will propose that such existence is in view in the text. When Bonaventure considers material existence, his metaphysics will not allow him to read the cosmological motion in Ecclesiastes 1:5–7 as monotonous, but rather as creaturely movement which invites contemplation. When he considers abstract existence, he contrasts the movement of heavenly and elemental creatures with the dissatisfaction of human perception, constrained by curiosity, the vice which characterises the protagonist's pursuits in Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26. Thus, it will be suggested from Bonaventure's exegesis that the problem in Ecclesiastes 1:3–11 is not an oppressively monotonous universe which shows humans how pointless their own movement is, but rather humanity's failing to treat the cosmos as a book which speaks of God.

In the article's final section, a relationship between the contemplative reading of Ecclesiastes 1:3–11 and Bonaventure's Itinerarium will be outlined. The consideration of material existence in Ecclesiastes 1:4–7 will be related to contemplation through vestiges. Then a contrast between the perceptual rupture of Ecclesiastes 1:8–11 and contemplation through the divine image in humanity will be shown. Finally, a christological reading of Ecclesiastes 1:10a will be offered, suggesting that this verse gestures towards the incarnate Word, who reforms the divine image in humanity and thus places humanity back on course towards similitude. It will be suggested in closing that, in signalling this hope, Ecclesiastes 1:10a prepares one for the union with Christ which Song of Songs depicts.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2015 

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1 Bonaventure, , Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Works of St Bonaventure, vol. 7, ed. Karris, Robert J. and Murray, Campion (St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, Franciscan Institute, St Bonaventure University, 2005)Google Scholar. The critical Latin edn is in the Quaracchi edn of Bonaventure's works: Commentarius in librum Ecclesiastae, in S. Bonaventurae Commentarii in Sacram Scripturam, vol. 6 (Karachi: Collegium S. Bonaventurae, 1893), pp. 1–99. This article will designate references from volumes within the Quaracchi edn ‘QuarEd’.

2 Bonaventure, , ‘The Soul's Journey into God’, in Bonaventure: The Soul's Journey into God, The Tree of Life, the Life of St Francis, The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Cousins, Ewert (New York: Paulist Press, 1978); QuarEd, vol. 5, pp. 293316Google Scholar.

3 For a full description of the function of the frame-narrator in Ecclesiastes, see Fox, Michael V., ‘Frame-Narrative and Composition in the Book of Qohelet’, Hebrew Union College Annual 48 (1977), pp. 83106Google Scholar.

4 von Rad, Gerhard, Wisdom in Israel, trans. Martin, James D. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1972), p. 226Google Scholar, proposes that Ecclesiastes follows the genre of an ancient Near Eastern royal autobiography. However, given the presence of other genres and passages such as 9:13–18 which seem to offer a critique of the monarchy, it is preferable to understand the royal autobiography mainly to characterise 1:12–2:26.

5 See for instance, Crenshaw, James L., Ecclesiastes, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), p. 64Google Scholar; Murphy, Roland, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary, 23A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1992), p. 9Google Scholar; Seow, C. L., Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible, 18c (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 112Google Scholar; Brown, William P., Ecclesiastes, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2000), p. 24Google Scholar; Tamez, Elsa, When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes, trans. Wilde, Margaret (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), p. 41Google Scholar; and Treier, Daniel J., Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), p. 128Google Scholar, all of whom use the language of monotony.

6 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, pp. 7–10; but cf. Whybray, R. N., ‘Ecclesiastes 1.5–7 and the Wonders of Nature’, JSOT 13/41 (1988), pp. 105–12Google Scholar, for an alternative critical interpretation.

7 Brown, Ecclesiastes, p. 23. See also Alter, Robert, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 346Google Scholar, which calls the movement ‘pointless’.

8 Delio, Ilia, in Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to his Life, Thought, and Writings (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001), p. 12Google Scholar, suggests that this metaphysical vision forms the ‘essence of [Bonaventure's] thought’. She quotes his Collationes in Hexaëmeron, where he says that the whole of his metaphysics is about emanation (de emanatione), exemplarity (de exemplaritate) and consummation (de consummatione). See QuarEd, vol. 5, p. 332. For a brief but helpful summary of Bonaventure's metaphysics, see the introduction of Zachary Hayes to Bonaventure, , On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, Works of St Bonaventure, vol. 1, trans. Hayes, Zachary (St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, Franciscan Institute, St Bonaventure University, 1996), esp. pp. 68Google Scholar.

9 Christianson, Eric S., Ecclesiastes through the Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 101CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Alter, Wisdom Books, p. 346.

11 Though this article assumes with most modern commentators that Solomon is not the actual author of Ecclesiastes, it nonetheless assumes that Qoheleth clothes himself in a Solomonic guise (Brown, Ecclesiastes, p. 11). It will also take the figure of Solomon to be the protagonist of Ecclesiastes in order to be consistent with Bonaventure's assumption concerning authorship of the book.

12 Origen, , The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers, 26, trans. Lawson, R. P. (New York: Newman Press, 1957), p. 44Google Scholar.

13 Christianson, Ecclesiastes, p. 103.

14 Luther, Martin, ‘Notes on Ecclesiastes’, in Luther's Works, vol. 15, trans. Pelikan, Jaroslav (St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), pp. 45Google Scholar.

15 Christianson, Ecclesiastes, p. 103.

16 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, pp. 75–6.

17 These questions summarise the content of Quaestio 1. See Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, pp. 77–87.

18 Ibid., p. 13. Karris's introduction contains a helpful summary of the function and content of Bonaventure's quaestiones (pp. 11–23).

19 Ibid., p. 77.

20 In his introduction to Bonaventure's trinitarian theology, Hayes uses the phrase, ‘the objectification of the self-knowledge of God’, to describe the symbolic nature of the world in Bonaventure's theology. See Bonaventure, , Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, Works of St Bonaventure, vol. 3, trans. Hayes, Zachary (St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, Franciscan Institute, St Bonaventure University, 1979), p. 46Google Scholar.

21 Bonaventure, , Breviloquium, Works of St Bonaventure, vol. 9, trans. Monti, Dominic V. (St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, Franciscan Institute, St Bonaventure University, 2005), p. 96Google Scholar.

22 Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, p. 1 (this reference is in Hayes's introduction to the work).

23 Delio, Simply Bonaventure, pp. 59, 68.

24 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 77. In fn. 33 (pp. 77–8) the editors comment that whilst the Quaracchi editors offer substantial quotations from Hugh of St Victor's Soliloquium de Arrha animae and Augustine's Sermon 85, neither quotation actually mentions the image of the wedding ring, though both refer to adultery.

25 Ibid., pp. 77–8.

26 Griffiths, Paul J., ‘The Vice of Curiosity’, Pro Ecclesia, 15/1 (2006), p. 54Google Scholar.

27 St Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, pp. 78–9.

28 See St Bonaventure, Breviloquium, p. 98, where the Seraphic Doctor says, ‘But the eye of contemplation [part of the “triple eye,” the first two being “the eye of the flesh” and “the eye of reason”] does not function perfectly except through glory, which human beings have lost through sin, although they may recover this through grace and faith and the understanding of the Scriptures.’

29 Here a connection is being drawn between Bonaventure's version of contemptus mundi and Augustine's use of usus and fruitio. See Augustine, , De Doctrina Christiana, trans. Green, R. P. H. (Oxford: OUP, 1995), pp. 1417Google Scholar. Bonaventure has already displayed an Augustinian influence in his general introduction to the commentary, where he distinguishes between eternal and temporal goods, charity and inordinate desire, Jerusalem and Babylon, true and false blessedness, and finally love and contempt (Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, pp. 65–7).

30 Bonaventure, Breviloquium, p. 98.

31 Bartholomew, Craig, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), p. 29Google Scholar.

32 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 96.

33 Ibid., pp. 97–8.

34 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, p. 112.

35 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 98.

36 Ibid., p. 97.

37 Delio, Simply Bonaventure, pp. 46–8.

38 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 97.

39 Ibid., p. 98.

40 For a brief summary of the influence of hylomorphism on Bonaventure, see Delio, Simply Bonaventure pp. 57–8.

41 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 99.

42 Ibid., p. 74, quoting Hugh of St Victor.

43 Ibid., pp. 99, 411.

44 Ibid., p. 106.

45 Ibid., pp. 106–7.

46 Bonaventure makes a connection between the vanity of mutability and that which Paul ascribes to creation in Rom 8:20 (Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 94). This sentence alludes to the hope of creation in Rom 8.

47 Ibid., p. 99.

48 Ibid., 107–9.

49 Ibid., pp. 99–100.

50 Ibid., p. 100.

51 Ibid., pp. 100–1.

52 Ibid., pp. 101–2; QuarEd, vol. 6, p. 13.

53 Ibid., p. 102.

54 Ibid., pp. 103–4.

55 Ibid., pp. 104–5.

56 Griffiths, ‘Vice of Curiosity’, pp. 52–6.

57 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 111.

58 Ibid., p. 112.

59 Griffiths, ‘Vice of Curiosity’, p. 53.

60 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 112.

62 Ibid., p. 117.

64 Ibid., p. 425.

69 Griffiths, ‘Vice of Curiosity’, p. 51.

70 Bonaventure, Ecclesiastes, p. 426.

71 One could render Eccl 1:8a in English literally as, ‘All the words (הדברים) are wearisome’. The explicit use of verbal language in 1:8a is significant for discussing the presence of loquacity in the opening poem.

72 Griffiths, ‘Vice of Curiosity’, pp. 50–1.

73 Ibid., p. 53.

74 Bonaventure, ‘The Soul's Journey into God’, p. 55.

75 Ibid., p. 58.

76 St Bonaventure, Breviloquium, p. 97.

78 Delio, Simply Bonaventure p. 48.

79 Bonaventure, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 115.

80 Whilst the Commentary on Ecclesiastes belongs to Bonaventure's scholastic period, the Itinerarium (and his other mystical works) belongs to the next phase of Bonaventure's life, when he served as Minister General of the Franciscan Order. For a chronology of Bonaventure's life and work, see Bougerol, J. G., Introduction to the Works of Bonaventure, trans. de Vinck, José (Paterson, NJ: St Anthony Guild Press, 1964), pp. 171–7Google Scholar.

81 Carpenter, Charles, Theology as the Road to Holiness in St Bonaventure (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), p. 145Google Scholar.

82 Bonaventure, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 287.

83 Bonaventure, Breviloquium, p. 98.

84 Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, pp. 45, 47.

85 It should be added that neither does the LXX use λόγος, opting instead for the relative pronoun ʿός, thus interpreting the Hebrew as referring to a ‘thing’. However, it does translate םירבדה in 1:8 with οʿι λόγοι.

86 There are interesting linguistic connections between LXX Eccl 1:10 and the Greek of Rev 21:5. Unfortunately, there is not space in this article to explore these connections fully.

87 Bonaventure, ‘The Soul's Journey into God’, p. 54.