Babylon gathered the earlier city-state of Sumer into its early empire. Sumer had some of the first schools, textbooks (in science and the humanities), medical texts, tax reduction, wisdom proverbs, and laments. One excellent proverb is, “You go and carry off the enemy’s land, the enemy comes and carries off your land”. My favorite Sumerian lament is recorded about 3000 BCE, over five thousand years ago, in which an elderly Sumerian complains that in his time, unlike in the glorified past, politicians are corrupt, teenagers are running around and breaking tradition and having sex, and concludes that the world will certainly end soon at the hands of the gods. The prophet laments of the Bible’s Old Testament (the Jewish Torah) are based on this and other laments from the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations.
While many equate the word ‘democracy’ with freedom, it is important to remember that democracies have never included everyone, and that traditionally participation has been reserved for the small number of men who own property. This was true in the first records of human history we have, as Samuel Kramer shows in his book History Begins at Sumer. We can read in the first human writings that the Sumerian king Gilgamesh wanted to go to war, and so asked the elders of the senate to support him. When they refused, he asked the lower assembly of property-owning but less prominent men for their support, and they enthusiastically agreed, allowing Gilgamesh to bypass the senate. Such a bicameral congress should sound familiar. Sadly, Gilgamesh did not put the war to a popular vote among the common people, which shows us just how undemocratic ancient Sumer was.
While our world today has new, modern ways, many of the problems we struggle with ethically and socially are ages old. Consider the Assyrians. “Assyrian” did not name one ethnicity but rather a citizen of Assyria. Many people of different ethnicities called themselves Assyrians just as many people call themselves Americans. Jesus spoke Aramaic because it was one of the dominant languages of Assyria and the lands they had conquered. Assyria invented all of the siege weapons that were used in feudal Europe (including the battering ram and the siege tower), but the Assyrians conquered others mostly by trade and diplomacy. Princes would be sent to be educated in Assyria, the center of knowledge in its day, and then the Assyrians would make contracts with the prince’s people to put them on the throne to maintain political control. Just like today the primary method of conquest is economic and military solutions are called for only when the economic methods have failed. John Perkin’s book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (he came to speak at BCC a few years ago) gives an excellent account of the same strategy of dominance through economics in modern times as it is used by America and other wealthy countries today.
There are two Babylonian philosophical texts that follow the wisdom of Sumer and Assyria. The first text was written about 2200 BCE known as the Dialog of Pessimism is a humorous and cynical back and forth between a master and servant 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 transgressed and committed abominations?
Where are those who have checked themselves and did not backslide?
The Babylonian Theodicy, written around 1000 BCE, is a poem and philosophical dialog between two friends and equals, one who was abandoned as a child by parents who then died, and the other who says suffering and death is common to all.
The first asks how we can get out of suffering, and the second says that a good and just life is rewarded.
The first says that animals and humanity commit crimes that go unpunished, and the second says that no crime truly goes unpunished.
The first says that religion and cultivating his relationships with the gods seems to do nothing, and the second warns the first that it is unwise to question the greater wisdom of the gods and cosmos.
The first says that the wealthy commit injustice against the poor and prosper, with the courts and public opinion siding with the wealthy against the poor, and the second says that this is true, but part of how the gods made humanity imperfect, with greater strength to those who must fight for justice.
In the end, both agree that we should be just to please the gods, but also that the gods created injustice as part of the plan.