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Comparing Phaedo and Ecclesiastes

Separated by language, history and several hundred miles of the Mediterranean Sea, two of the world’s greatest cultures simultaneously matured and advanced in the centuries before the birth of Christianity. In the Aegean north, Hellenic Greeks blossomed around their crown jewel of Athens, while the eastern Holy City of Jerusalem witnessed the continued development of Hebrew tradition. Though they shared adjacent portions of the globe and of chronology, these two civilizations grew up around wholly different ideologies. The monotheistic devotion of Judaism that evolved in the Hebrew lands stood in stark contrast to the Greek worship of polytheistic Olympians, a religion that often tended more towards the rational and philosophic than the longstanding Jewish piety.

In the spirit of such a division appear the two works in consideration, the rather secular Phaedo from the Greek luminary Plato and its counterpart among the sacred pages of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. Though the ages of each cannot definitely determined, most scholarly assumptions place their birth within a century and a half of one another. The Greek probably was authored just after Socrates’ death in 399BC and the Hebrew text was likely composed sometime around 250 BC, leaving an insignificant difference relative the overall scale of antiquity. This reasonably close proximity of authorship can clearly be seen in the way these two works consider the fundamental and eternal questions of life, yet for every tie between the two a difference also abounds.

Plato, author of the Phaedo, was the second member of the brilliant philosophical flourish of ancient Athens that began with Socrates, continued through him and then culminated with Aristotle. Thou…

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…and bemoans Socrates’ foolish waste of his life in preparation for an empty and eternal death. Can we really decide which to side with, the abstention of Socrates or the indulgence of Koheleth? As usually seems to be the case, most would likely avoid such extremes to opt towards moderation, but the question is really invalid since for these works are not presented as a guidebook of “how to live.” Such precious pieces of classical literature are examples of the answers two men have found to the eternal questions, questions that every individual must confront and investigate for himself.

Works Cited

Plato, Phaedo, In: The Collected Dialogues Of Plato Including The Letters, Editors: E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1961.

The Hebrew Bible. “Ecclesiastes”. Ed. Gottwald, Norman K. Fortress Press, 1985

The Christian Explanation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

The Christian Explanation of Waiting for Godot

“The human predicament described in Beckett’s first play is that of man living on the Saturday after the Friday of the crucifixion, and not really knowing if all hope is dead or if the next day will bring the life which has been promised.” –William R. Mueller

In the five decades since Waiting for Godot’s publication, many of the countless attempts to explain the play have relied on some variation of this religious motif proposed by William Mueller. Though Beckett’s open text invites the reader to hunt for an interpretation, statements as decisive as this one overstep the search and leave little room for any other possibility. His idea has a compelling textual basis, but its finality violates the spirit of the play. Kenneth Tynan suggests that “Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum…It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle, and no end.” Such an idea forces any analyst of this enigmatic masterpiece to tread lightly and makes definite criticism nearly impossible. Before examining an explanation as conclusive as Mueller’s we must acknowledge that we cannot hope to determine “the meaning” of this play. Neither the text nor its author makes a claim to any intrinsic meaning, yet a new meaning is born each time a reader or viewer partakes of the play.

With such cautions in mind, we can now approach Mueller’s religious hypothesis with a safe detachment. The first utterance of Godot phonetically brings God to mind, and evidence throughout the play assures the reader that this path is a valid one to follow. On the most mundane level, Vladimir supports Mueller’s premise with his guess at the timeframe of the play: “He said it was Saturday. I think”(10). We discover, however, that even this statement hides beneath the uncertainty as Estragon challenges, “But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday?” (11). His questioning reasserts that this work defies explanation and reminds us that we are following only one possible solution to an unsolvable problem.

If we read this drama with the intention of fitting Mueller’s theory to the play (or perhaps the play to his theory), a vast number of previously unnoticed interpretive opportunities arise. Though the nondescript tree can be universally symbolic, when viewed from a religious standpoint it conjures an image of Christ’s cross.

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