About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Three Ways of Living | The Introduction to Three Philosophies of Life | Peter Kreeft

Print-friendly version

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 of love.

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. [1] 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?"...

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.
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.

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 intellectual faith.

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 divorcée 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.


[1] 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.

Book Excerpts and Interviews | Peter Kreeft | Ignatius Insight

Three Questions Everyone Should Ask Themselves | The Introduction to Because God Is Real: Sixteen Questions, One Answer
Pascal For Today | From the Preface to Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées (Edited, Outlined, and Explained)
The Two Most Important Philosophers Who Ever Lived | The Introduction to Socrates Meets Descartes: The Father of Philosophy Analyzes the Father of Modern Philosophy's Discourse on Method
The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | From Socrates Meets Marx: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Founder of Communism
On Spiritual Warfare | From The Snakebite Letters
On Writing and Apologetics | Talking with Peter Kreeft
Seducing Minds With The Socratic Method | An Interview with Peter Kreeft
Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | From Socrates Meets Sartre
The Point of It All | From The God Who Loves You
The Divinity of Christ | From Fundamentals of the Faith
How To Read The Bible | From You Can Understand The Bible
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | From The Philosophy of Tolkien
Abortion: What Can Be Done? | Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion
The Question of Hope | From Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing

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 Christianity, Back 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 author page.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright © 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius