Babylonian Philosophy – Dialogue of Pessimism

Sargon_of_AkkadThe Dialog of Pessimism is a humorous and cynical back and forth between a master and servant written in Babylon around 2200 BCE that has interesting philosophical undertones.  Several times, the master says he will do something, and the servant gives him reasons doing it would be good.  Then the master says he will not do the same thing, and the servant gives him reasons doing it would be bad.  The master says he will support the king, and then that he won’t, that he will abandon society and live in the wilderness, and then that he won’t, that he will argue when his enemy speaks, and then that he will remain silent, that he will start a rebellion and then that he should not be violent, that he will love a woman for awhile and then that he won’t, that he will offer a sacrifice to his god and then that he won’t, that he will feed and help his country and then that he won’t.

The servant offers him good reasons for doing and not doing each thing, showing that humanity can rationalize any passing desire and then it’s opposite.  When the master says he will not offer a sacrifice, the servant says, “You may teach a god to trot after you like a dog”.  When the master says he will not help his country, the servant says, “Climb the mounds of ancient ruins and walk about.  Look at the skulls of those who died long ago and those who died recently.  Which are evildoers, and which are public benefactors?”  Finally, the master wonders whether he should kill them both, similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet asking, “To be, or not to be?” while considering skulls.  A later Babylonian wisdom proverb written around 1600 BCE reads:

Humanity is deaf and knows nothing.

What knowledge has anyone at all?

No one knows whether they have done good or bad themselves.

Where are the wise who have not gone too far?

Where are those who check themselves and don’t backslide?

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