Greek Philosophy 1: Sumer, Egypt, Babylon & Greece

City States & Ancient Cosmology

The early city states were gathering sites for many tribes and peoples who interacted and traded with each other, so city life was quite multicultural from the beginning.  While relations between different ethnic and cultural groups has been problematic, it was in the interests of the earliest cities to serve as a meeting site for many groups and cultures to foster trade and development.  This contributed to the expansion of systems of thought transmitted through teaching and texts.  While the shaman of a tribe could know the great deal of a tribe’s oral tradition, in the early city states knowledge grew to the point that specialists were required.  Often, centers of knowledge were temples and the texts and study maintained by priestesses and priests ordained in the traditions.

Anu Temple Babylon

Cosmology, the word we use for the study of the universe and everything in it, was philosophy, religion, physics, medicine and psychology together in ancient times, even as it specialized.  In the earliest of Sumerian texts used by student scribes, we can see divisions between the historical epic poems, the recorded history and mythology as literature, and the lists of minerals, plants and examples of math problems, a division similar to that between the humanities and sciences that remains today.  We sit at the result of this process that has continued for thousands of years.  The cosmology of the ancient world, including the astronomy and astrology of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians spread along trade lines across the interconnected ancient world, forming a background for the thought of not only ancient Greece and Rome but also of India and China.

babylon gates

By observing the stars and recording regular patterns of the skies and earth, it was thought that the cosmos worked according to regular principles and that knowing these principles and patterns gave power and control.  Aristotle speaks of the Babylonians, who devoted much time and energy to the study of the stars, as the major source of this cosmological science.  The sun was identified with either a central father god or son of the father god, planets were identified with major gods, and stars with minor gods and spirits.  We still use the major Roman gods to name the planets today.  In addition, we still use the 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes to an hour and 360 degrees in a circle from the base 6 Babylonian numerical system used along with Babylonian sundials.

Tigris_River_At_DiyarbakirMuch mythology of the ancient world, including the earliest traditions of the Greeks and Israelites, are allegorical metaphors for the processes of the cosmos.  As the city states of ancient Greece rose and became more powerful centers of culture and trade, earlier Greek polytheistic mythology was brought into line with the increasingly monotheistic cosmologies of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys.  This paved the way for Greek and Roman Christianity, which then became the dominant culture of Europe.  The golden age of Greek philosophy, which we study in this class, is central to this transformation.  Most Greek philosophers were moving away from the earlier traditions of Homer and Hesiod while remaining polytheistic, and then Plato and Aristotle, who were also polytheists of an increasingly abstract solar monotheistic bent, became central philosophers of Christianity and thus the European tradition.

Babylonian Chaos and Sun GodIn ancient world cosmology, the cosmos was seen as a stack of elements from lightest above to heaviest downward, an order still carried today in the periodic table.  If one looks out into nature, one sees water, on top of which is earth, on top of which is air, on top of which float fiery lights such as the sun, moon and stars.  Just as the lights move in circles above, so too do the complex situations of plants, animals and people move in cycles below, often corresponding to the seasons which correspond to the positions of the lights above.  The Babylonians and Assyrians of the Tigris-Euphrates valley believed that the sky god Anu, earth god Enlil and water god Ea were a primary trinity of deities presiding over the order of the cosmos.  When the elements of the cosmos are in order, harmony prevails.  When they fall out of order, chaos prevails.

cosmologyIn addition, the cosmos was understood to be shaped like a great person, and the elements/levels of the cosmos corresponded to the levels/faculties of a human individual.  Fire was identified with mind and sight, air with speech/breath/emotion, earth with stomach/desire, and water with lower regions and functions associated with desires and chaos.  In Plato’s Republic, possibly the most famous work of ancient Greek philosophy, we are told that the levels of a human individual (desire, emotion and mind) correspond to the levels of society (workers, guardians and philosophers) and the levels of the cosmos (earth, air and fire).  Plato argues that just as the mind rules over emotion which rules over desire in the best individual, philosophers rule over guardians who rule over workers in the best society.

jupiter with thunder bolt

Both Plato and Aristotle argue against other Greek thinkers who do not believe in the divinity of the stars and elements, accusing them of atheism.  Both of them viewed the cosmos as an intelligent, purposeful organism composed of other intelligences.  This placed them between the early Greek polytheists and later Greek monotheists, as previously mentioned.  It is interesting to consider that the ancient Greeks considered ideas and theories to be god-like visions or views (hence the ‘theo’ in ‘theory’).  To have a theory or view of fire was to share fires own view of itself, to rise into a higher view of fires just as an individual rises into a higher view of reality by climbing a mountain or rising into a higher level of authority and ability in an institution.  The ideas and views that human beings have were understood to be alive and independent and waiting to share themselves.  The cosmos is ordered because the cosmos is itself reasonable.

Assur Assyria depiction

Sumer, Knowledge & Politics

History Begins At Sumer KramerAn excellent book for appreciating the earliest city state civilizations is History Begins at Sumer by Kramer.  Sumer was not necessarily the first walled city that ruled the land surrounding it as an empire, but because writing was first developed there it is the first civilization on the written record.  Sumer was a city state at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates which was then taken over and incorporated into Babylon, which then was taken over by Assyria, which was then taken over by Persia.  At each stage, a city upriver on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers took over a city downriver that had become prosperous through trade with various peoples across the land and sea.  It appears that powerful empires are conquered by neighbors who are far less powerful and developed.  We will consider this again when we get to Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic in the second half of the course.  As the Egyptians noted thousands of years ago, those who have power fall, and the powerless become the powerful, only to have this cycle repeat itself again and again.  This is certainly what happened in Western Europe, as the Celtic/Germanic tribes came to power after being conquered by the Romans.

Babylonian ZigguratThe city states of the Tigris Euphrates and Egypt were multicultural societies in which citizenship did not belong exclusively to one ethnicity.  This allowed for diverse marketplaces where goods, cultures and ideas could be exchanged.  Cities were centers of trade, such that not only was the city a site for many groups to converge and form a new culture but this culture also traded with other convergent cultures. Many are surprised to learn that ancient Sumer and Egypt traded with India hundreds of years before the Greeks and Israel arose, but archeologists have found a small community of Indian merchants living in Alexandria Egypt as early as 300 BCE.  From the earliest times, culture, trade and thought have been trans-cultural.

assyrian seige weaponConsider 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 Perkins Confessions of an Economic HitmanIn modern times, John Perkin’s famous 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 today.  Perkins says that he was a businessman who traveled the world helping other countries get into debt with America such that American corporations could come in and take over.  If this fails, Perkins says that the second level is the “CIA Jackals” (his words, not mine) who make a move here and there to smooth things over for the business interests if a politician or people’s movement threatens this.  If they fail, Perkins says the third level is “Here come the marines”, and that Iraq is a result of a failure of the first and second stage of this process.  The poverty of the third world is, in part, due to this and similar economic strategies by other wealthy countries.

cuniform tabletSumer 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, 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.

Babylonian King ReliefWhile many equate the word ‘democracy’ with freedom incarnate, 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 a society ancient Sumer was.

Babylonian Wisdom

Sargon_of_AkkadOne Babylonian text of the Akkadian Empire (ca. 2334–2154 BC) is a humorous and cynical dialogue 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 ride to the palace to see the king, and then that he won’t, that he will ride to 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 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.

Babylonian Boundary StoneWhen 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 says that he will kill both of them, and then that he will kill the servant first.  The servant asks if the master can live three days without him.  Much as the Scottish philosopher Hume argued that reason is and should be the slave of the passions, desire wants one thing and then its opposite, and reason rationalizes whatever desire wants.  In the end, desire wants to kill reason for being a useless guide, but reason asks if desire could live without reasons.  The final proposals of the master are similar to Shakespeare asking, “To be, or not to be?” as Hamlet.

Egyptian relief painting music girls

Egyptian Wisdom

Egypt Horace leads to wisdom

The Egyptians had many types of scribes and genres of texts, including comedies and tragedies, lists of minerals and plants, essays on medicine, ethics and politics, and important to this class, wisdom literature. The Egyptian wisdom proverbs we read come from this last class of Egyptian texts.  As many tribes converged to live in city states, people began to see more of people than they had before. Suddenly, obvious truths became questionable. Gathering wealth and power looks good at first, but if one has seen many grab for power over the years, one gets wiser.  Rather than never questioning authority, the Egyptians had more variety of authorities and questioning of authority than most cultures before them. They did obey the Pharaoh most of the time, but there were rebellions and civil wars as well.  We can see in the wisdom proverbs the questioning of authority, nobility, knowledge, teachers, prediction, wealth, luxury, punishment, and other fundamental aspects of civilization. The Egyptians were not just great builders and rulers, but also wisdom seekers and questioners.

egyptian heart vesselOne concept that appears in the texts is the “heart guided individual”. The heart was thought to be the physical and mental center of the human individual. As Egyptian society developed, increasingly being “guided by the king” was replaced with being “guided by the heart”. The heart is the essence of the human and the intention within the action. Repeatedly in the text, individuals are called to listen to their heart rather than build luxury and maintain authority. These are issues that we all struggle with to this day, and so we can learn much about early human experience by reading these proverbs.  Let us turn now to the proverbs themselves, considering the wisdom of specific passages.

egyptian pharaohDo not let your heart be puffed up because of what you know, nor boast that you are wise.  Consult with the ignorant as well as with the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found. Good speech lies hidden like a precious stone, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone.

This passage of Phah-hotep (Vizier to the Pharaoh, 2500 BCE) is similar to some we will read in Confucius of ancient China and it is also similar to Socrates of ancient Greece.  We should learn from everyone, and remember that no one is perfect and no one knows everything when we are tempted to put ourselves above others.  This questions not only human knowledge, but social inequality.  It does not call for getting rid of social divisions (indeed, the last verse is somewhat sexist) but it does ask us to look beyond inequality and identify with others.

Egyptian Ox SacrificeMore acceptable to (the Father/Highest) God is the virtue of a just man than the ox of one who works iniquity.

In this verse, we see Marikare (a local king offering advice to the crown prince, 1500 BCE) questioning the value of traditional sacrifice.  In India, Greece and China, we will see similar thoughts questioning the value of traditional practice over being virtuous.  If the wealthy make sacrifices, but rule with cruelty, those who dare to question will ask if performing sacrifices truly gains one merit.  Jesus chasing the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the temple is a similar move.  Christianity and Buddhism, likely the largest human cultures that have existed so far, both got in trouble for storing up wealth charging people for services, inspiring revolutions and reformations.

Egyptian harvestRage destroys itself.  It damages its own affairs.

Ani (a scribe of the 18th dynasty, 1550-1300 BCE)

Because we refuse to imitate the wicked, we help them, we offer them a hand…That they may know shame, we fill their bellies with bread.

Amen-em-opet (local king, 1800 BCE) is suggesting that we do the opposite of what we typically think to do to those we consider evil.  Rather than punish bad with bad, like fighting fire with fire, we can show them the compassion and consideration they lack even if they do not deserve it.  This is similar to Jesus saying, “Turn the other cheek”.

The gods desire respect for the poor more than the honoring of the exalted.

If the poor owe you a large debt, divide it into three parts, forgive two and let one stand.  You will find that this is like everything in life.  You will sleep soundly, and in the morning greet it like good news.  Better is praise as one who loves others than riches in the storehouse.  Better is bread when the heart is happy than riches with sorrow.

egyptian servant girlsNever permit yourself to rob the poor.  Do not oppress the down-trodden, nor thrust aside the elderly, denying them speech.

Amen-em-opet shows not only concern with social justice, but giving freedom of speech to the disempowered.

Whoever plunders the goods of the poor takes the very breath of life away from themselves.  Such cheating chokes off justice, but a full measure increases its flow.

Egyptian PriestsThe Eloquent Peasant or The Complaint of the Peasant is a story about a peasant who has been robbed by a local official and who gives a series of nine arguments to the local magistrate appealing for justice which shows again that the ancient Egyptians were concerned about the poor and social justice, while also having problems with each as we still do today.  It also shows ancient Egyptian cosmology holds that the world works like a giant person, and breath and air carry order downward from the fire of the stars, sun and moon.  If we do injustice, we not only choke the universe but ourselves as well.  The Egyptians were the foremost doctors of the ancient world and were revered by the Romans in the beginning ages of Roman empire, and only in the empire’s later years did the Romans begin turning to Greek doctors, who had learned much from the Egyptians and added to it.

Wedding ringConsider that we still practice the Egyptian custom of wearing the wedding ring (originally just worn by women) on the ring finger (which is how it got its name) through the Roman Catholic tradition.  There is a large artery running through this finger, which the Egyptians found by doing anatomy, and because it was thought to be associated with lust a man puts a wedding ring on his wife’s finger to serve as a sort of lust collar.  We do not practice the Israelite tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the index finger, which a man would put on his wife’s finger to prevent her from casting curses on him.

TutankhamunHonor those who achieve and the people will prosper, but keep your eyes open.  Too much trust brings trouble…Exalt no one because of birth.  Judge people by their actions.  People should do that which profits their soul/self/mind.  Let them perform the services of their temple.  Let them share in the mysteries of their religion.

Merikare shows great skepticism of authority, not only of political position and noble birth but of a central singular religious tradition.  Notice both ritual and mystery being included as religion.

Love the wife who is in your house.  Feed her belly, clothe her back.  Provide oil and cosmetics for her limbs.  Gladden her heart all the days of your life, for she is like a field that will prosper its owner, but do not go into court with her, and never let her get control of your house.

Ptah-hotep is being somewhat sexist from a modern standpoint, but shows us that women had the power to speak in court and ruled the home as they often do in Islamic traditional culture and our own today in spite of the sexism.  Ptah-hotep is giving this advice to his son.

egyptian mother and childProvide generously for your mother with double rations, and carry her even as she once carried you.  It was a heavy load that she bore, but she did not cast it off, and even after you were born, did she not feed you at the breast for three years?  Your dirt was unpleasant, but she did not say, “Why should I bother with him?”  It was she who placed you in school.  It was she who came daily with food and drink for you.

Ani seems to be giving us the old, “You never call, you never write” routine of ancient Egyptian mother syndrome.  It is hilarious how he is not only reminding us to take care of the elderly, but of our own mothers as well.

Egyptian Pharaoh StatueIf you have grown to some account in greatness, do not forget the time when you were small.  If you have now become a rich man in your city, do not forget how it was when you were in need.

Ptah-hotep shows us that there was social mobility in ancient Egypt, and one could become wealthy or poor depending upon circumstances.  Like the passage that tells us the maidens at the grindstone have wisdom yet no one can obtain it entirely, it suggests we always keep the view of the poor and unfortunate in mind to not only appreciate what we have but prevent ourselves from being unjust.

Egyptian beer makingBoast not how many jars of beer you can drink!  Soon your speech turns to babbling nonsense, and you tumble down into the gutter…and when people seek to question you, they find only a helpless child.

Ani shows us that as people gathered into ancient city states, they became critical of human behavior, such as drinking.  Above is an image of ancient Egyptian beer brewing.

egyptian couple senejem and wifeEat no bread while another waits in want, but stretch out your hand to the hungry.  One person is rich, another is poor.  Yesterday’s master is today’s servant.  Don’t be greedy about filling your belly.  Where only last year the river ran, this year the course is dry.  Great seas have turned to desert wastes, and the sandy shore is now an abyss.

Ani again shows us that one could become rich or poor in society, and it is wise to remember it.  The Egyptians considered the desert to be the source of evil and the home of the god Set.  This is why seekers and sages, including Jesus, would venture into the desert, to show that they could live surrounded by death.

pyramid shadowDo not lie down at night being afraid of tomorrow.  When day breaks, who knows what it will be like?  Surely, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

Amen-em-opet, like Aztec poets and the Indian Vedas, reminds us that no one can predict the future, either through prophecy or science.


Plato, a big fan of Egyptian education and hierarchy, says in his Republic (as Socrates) that his ideal state, which is designed for producing intellectual philosophers and placing them on top of society, is the same as the Egyptians.  Thus, Plato believed that Egypt was the most rational and beneficial society, that the Egyptian priests were comparable to Greek philosophers in their pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and that Athens should copy Egypt.   Critics of Plato and his Republic at the time mocked Plato for ripping off Egypt.  In his Phaedrus, Plato (again, as Socrates) says that Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, invented math, language and science.  Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, believed that Egypt was the most ancient of societies, was the birthplace of math and science, and that this was because the Egyptians had set the priests as a caste above everyone allowing them the leisure to study and discover.  While Aristotle was critical of parts of Plato’s theoretical republic, on this, the central defining and ruling structure of society, they are in complete agreement, as we will see when studying Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s politics.

The Influence of Ancient Persia

Persian EmptirePersia conquered Egypt in 525 BCE.  Before that, in the centuries just before the flourishing of ancient Greece and the compiling of the Old Testament, Egypt and Persia were fighting over alliances with and conquests of Greece and Israel.  The Persian Empire stretched from Greece to India, encompassing the crossroads of most of the world’s culture and trade.  Persian culture had a massive effect on everyday Greek life.  Persian dress and adornments were copied, as well as styles of plates and cups.  Greek warriors would even curl their hair like the Assyrians and Persians before battle to inspire awe.  Athenian nobles often had ties to Persia that including intermarriage and business ventures.

Phoenicia, a civilization in what is today Lebanon that was a powerful trade center before the rise of Persia, became a vital part of the Persian empire after their conquest.  The Phoenician navy was the most feared part of the Persian military.  We not only get the legend of the Phoenix, the bird that is reborn by fire, from Phoenicia, but also the Phoenician alphabet, the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and the Roman-European alphabet we use here today.  The finest togas worn in Athens were made of Asian silks, brought over the silk road to Phoenicia, where it was there patterned and died.  Far from wearing white bed-sheets, Athenian nobles would show off by wearing the finest Phoenician cloth in the latest styles.

cyrusCyrus, the first Persian great emperor, was venerated by many Greeks as a model king who benefited his subjects and helped them to flourish unlike a greedy tyrant.  Cyrus is also presented as the first messiah in the Old Testament, the liberator of the Jews from Babylon.  The New Testament, originally written in Greek, clearly presenting Jesus as the second, confirmed by the three Persian maji following the stars, and then later predicts an apocalyptic third messiah.  This puts the Bible in line with Persian Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great solar monotheism, spread by Cyrus’ empire, which predicted three Saoshyants (Messiah in Hebrew), who would lead the forces of good to triumph over the forces of darkness.  Regardless of one’s beliefs, the Jews and Christians presented themselves as in agreement with Zoroastrianism (for Christians, as its fulfillment) during periods of Persian influence.  Christianity first spread in Syria and Greece, and from there to Rome, Egypt and elsewhere.  Unlike Cyrus, the Greeks were not known as benevolent conquerors.  In the brief period of Athenian empire,  several states including Cyprus rebelled and appealed to Persia as they had been treated better by the Persian empire.

Aristotle German Print

Sadly, Europeans believed that the Egyptians and Persians were the great teachers of wisdom and philosophy to the Greeks for two thousand years after the golden age of Greek philosophy.  In the Renaissance, the two greatest philosophers, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, both Neo-Platonists, believed that there was one true philosophy which was passed from the Egyptian priests and Persian maji to the Greek philosophers and Indian sages, and then that this wisdom was incarnated on earth as Jesus.  The Neo-Platonic academy of Florence, center of Renaissance art and philosophy, was modeled on Plato’s Republic under the assumption that this was a recreation of ancient Egyptian institutions.  It was only when Europe rose in power and wealth in the late 1600s and spoke of itself as unique and like no other culture on earth in terms of reason and freedom that the ancient Greeks were similarly said to be unique in reason and freedom and separate from the rest of the ancient world.

4 thoughts on “Greek Philosophy 1: Sumer, Egypt, Babylon & Greece

  1. Great overview and discussion. 🙂

    It would be useful if you provided a brief ‘Further Reading’ section. But thanks. (Incidentally, is there a core book you would recommend, specifically concerning the indebtedness of the Ancient Greeks to the Ancient Egyptians, Persians / Babylonians? Cheers.)

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