Back To Where It All Began

We’re looking for “Covid Cues”, wisdom for living in a world gone crazy drawn from an ancient book called Proverbs. To get started we need to go back to the beginning, I mean the very beginning.

By “the beginning” I’m talking about what is generally thought to be the first book ever written, a collection of sayings put together by a man named Ptahhotep, Vizer (we would say Prime Minister) of Egypt around 2375 B.C.E. more than 4000 years ago. I need to insert a brief excursus here. To truly grasp long spans of time I find the following exercise helpful. When you  think about 4000 years imagine 4000 years into the future. Star Trek has assured us that in the year 2320 (a full 200 years from now) we will be warping all over the galaxy. Presuming that’s accurate, 4000 years in the future will not be the Star Trek year 2320 but 6020. 6020!! Can you imagine what life will be like then? Is the earth still inhabited? Do people still exist? Is Shatner still around? Here’s the point, when you press dates forward you get a clearer idea how long a span of 4000 years really is. You’ll see why I think that’s important in a minute.

In his book, Ptahhotep published proverbs that were already ancient in his time. Here is one of those maxims: “The human race never accomplishes anything. It’s what God commands that gets done.” Consider now this verse from my beloved Book of Proverbs: “The human mind devises many plans but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” I could have taken scores (yes scores!) of Ptahhotep’s sayings and cited a nearly identical saying from the Book of Proverbs.

So what’s the point? Proverbs begins with this self description: “These are the sayings of Solomon, David’s Son, Israel’s king — written down so we’ll know how to live well and right, to understand what life means and where it’s going; a manual for living for learning what’s right and just and fair; to teach the inexperienced the ropes and give our young people a grasp on reality.” Solomon, who apparently was the collector (not author)of the book of Proverbs, lived 1,300 years after the time of Ptahhotep but still 3000 years in our past (or imaging that in future tense that would be the year 5030, still 2700 years after Star Trek.)

Let’s come back now to the year 2020. I’m looking at the age of Covid. I see businesses failing, evictions looming, unrest on the streets, hyper-partisanship everywhere and pervasive dread of plague. If there really is a “manual for living” out there I want it right now. But I’m suspicious. There are lots of “experts” around and they haven’t proven all that reliable. Is Proverbs the real deal? Can it really “show me how to live well and right” like it says? Frankly it sounds like an internet sales pitch. 

That’s why I have spent so much space writing about the spans of time involved here. Please, one more time, use your imagination. Imagine you are sitting in your living room enduring the partisan wranglings on cable news when suddenly your screen starts scrolling a set of strategies for living through this time emanating from the year 6020. That describes the Book of Proverbs in a nutshell. It presents a survival plan for 2020 crafted out of wisdom 4000 years distant. Coming to us from such a vast temporal distance I’m inclined to sit up and pay attention.