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A More Promising Approach
Mieroop’s work fails to define epistemology narrowly enough, and cultural relativism is to blame. Another problem is that, unless a philosophical treatise turns up in cuneiform, any evidence of Babylonian philosophy is indirect. But Mieroop’s quest for Mesopotamian philosophy is not hopeless. With superior method, we might yet uncover something of the Babylonians’ intellectual life. I propose three methods: (1) Using better-documented philosophical traditions as control variables, (2) comparing Babylonian religious and literary texts with the fragments of the Presocratics, and (3) analyzing the thematic development of Babylonian literature, insofar as it can be traced.
The first is the least ambitious method. It would use better-documented, philosophical traditions to evaluate claims about Babylonian intellectual history. The better-documented tradition would act as a control variable. Too bad Mieroop did not think of it, because this method destroys a core assumption of his thesis–that any complicated thinking presupposes epistemology. So then, is there civilization with complicated thinking, even systematic philosophy, but devoid of epistemology?
Let’s apply this method to the ancient Chinese. They had a grand tradition of complicated divination and sacrificial rites. In this respect they resemble the Babylonians. The Chinese even had notable political and ethical philosophical systems. But crucially, they had no logic or epistemology. The intellectual historian Fung Yu-lan acknowledged China’s poverty in the field of epistemology in his book A History of Chinese Philosophy, “There have been few men, aside from those of the School of Names, who have been interested in examining the process and methods of thinking; and this school, unfortunately, had but a fleeting existence. Hence logic, like epistemology, has failed to be developed in China” (Fung, 3). Civilizations can exhibit all sorts of complicated thinking, and never think seriously about the nature of knowledge itself.
The second method is a bit more ambitious, in that it could allow us to make hypotheses about what Babylonian philosophizing might have looked like. It is based on what little we know of Greek philosophy’s first building blocks–the Presocratic fragments. These are snippets of the Greeks’ first attempts at philosophy. It is likely that another civilization would follow a similar path of intellectual development on the way to mature philosophy. Thus its thinkers might have expressed ideas similar to the Presocratics’ ideas. We could mine the corpus of Babylonian literary and religious texts in search of proto-philosophical statements, and compare the Babylonian statements with the Presocratic fragments. It would be exciting indeed to discover any such similarities. They would suggest, but by no means prove, that the Babylonians had some building blocks of philosophy.
The third method would rely on tracing the development of Mesopotamian literature, looking for changes in theme. Mesopotamian literature underwent centuries of development, and fortunately, we have examples of compositions, such as Gilgamesh, that were reworked again and again. From these changes, perhaps we could argue about what sorts of thought underlay them. How would we classify its themes philosophically? What sorts of doctrines might have underlay the epic? Here at last Mieroop gives us something to work with: “In the [first versions of Gilgamesh], the heroism of the king was a major theme. The [later] versions dealt with such issues as friendship, death, and power, [and the latest versions focused] on the wisdom Gilgamesh gained on his travels.” (27) But then, as usual, he drops the ball. “Each moment in the tradition has equal validity.” Aw damnit! “Equal validity” again. Here too, I see a way forward, if only we dispense with cultural relativism.
The development of Mesopotamian literature can only be traced. Any conclusions would be tentative, only verifiable if more evidence is found. But take the Gilgamesh epic’s example. The theme shifts from heroism to friendship/death/power to wisdom. We can observe that these changes in emphasis have analogues in Greek literature. Heroism reminds us of early epic, like Homer. Emphasis on friendship, death and power sounds a lot like the themes of the Athenian tragedians. From these observations we might draw historical analogies in the spirit of Spengler, or do literary analysis à la Northrop Frye. Granted, this sort of work would be of limited value, for it could by no means prove the existence of philosophical inquiry, let alone epistemology. And yes, I realize that Spengler and Frye are out of fashion. But cultural relativism gets us nowhere.
It’s time academia stopped worrying about being trendy and started worrying about being right. The main problems are cultural relativism, as discussed above, and over-specialization. In the past, you could count on the fact that every scholar had a generalist background. He knew Greek and Latin, had read extensively in history, literature and philosophy. He was also generally knowledgeable about science and math, and was an expert in his field. Now the halls of Columbia are infested with narrow-minded assyriologists (among others), with no sense of perspective. Half a century ago, this was not the case. The assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim knew the limits of his field, because he was well grounded in general knowledge. He would never have claimed that the Babylonians out-philosophized the Greeks, in Oppenheim’s opinion, even a literary history would be too much, given the available information. “The literary history of Mesopotamia cannot be more than outlined, and it is open to serious doubt… whether enough material is available to embark on the venture” (Oppenheim, 255). But he was a mid-twentieth century scholar. No doubt a product of his time, disposed to scholarly caution. Older scholars’ sense of perspective was not, as Mieroop asserts, the result of bias. It was the result of knowing.
As an Iraqi government official declared in 2003, “I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad.” A false statement to be sure. But was he not trying to elucidate a higher truth–that Iraq was invincible? If Mieroop wants to write a sequel, he could use this as evidence of a millennia-long consistency in Mesopotamian epistemology. heh. All jokes aside, refuting Mieroop’s arguments has been trivial. Philosophy before the Greeks proves nothing more than the depths to which academia has sunk. Is it really that much to expect that a Doctor at Columbia should have an undergraduate’s facility with philosophy, especially Theory of Knowledge? It is going to take a lot more than Mieroop’s flimsy relativism to undo history’s assessment of the Greek achievement.
But I sympathize with him. Professor Mieroop has devoted his life to the ancient Near East. That is a worthy object of study. It is inexplicable why academia allots it so little attention. Mesopotamia produced one of the great cultures of history. They were pioneers in mathematics, science, agriculture, government, poetry and much else. They produced Gilgamesh, widely acknowledged as a literary classic. But in studying their culture, we must resign ourselves to a sense of tragedy, because we can only get so close to them. We can learn their languages, read their documents, their poetry. We can reconstruct their religious and social life, we can even imagine how they must have thought. But so far, we have no evidence of systematic inquiry. Perhaps the archaeologist’s spade will unearth it. But in the absence of such a discovery, we cannot know.
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Note: Numbers in citations in text refer to Mieroop, unless otherwise stated.
Fung, Yu, and Derk Bodde. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Second ed. Vol. One. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Mieroop, Marc van de. Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Revised by Erica Reiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.