By Marc Van De Mieroop
Princeton (2015) h/b 312pp £24.95 (ISBN 9780691157184)
The conventional view that the Greeks invented philosophy is challenged in this provocative study of the cuneiform tradition. The practice of creating cuneiform texts lasted for thousands of years from the late fourth millennium BC onwards and influenced many other cultures. M. examines a wide range of texts to show that the professional caste who produced them were engaged in a systematic project of constructing reality.
These texts are all lists of various sorts. Although lists may not seem very exciting to us, M. thinks that they offer huge scope for writerly creativity. He considers in turn word lists, lists of omens, and legal codes. The key to knowledge was to read cuneiform signs correctly and, because each one had multiple meanings and multiple pronunciations, the professional scribe was free to engage in creative interpretation. Furthermore, he did so in the manner of a pointillist painting, each entry only being fully understood when the other entries are taken into account. In this way word lists can be seen as providing a systematic description of reality. The rationality involved here is a method of finding truth by informed reading and has little in common with the emphasis given to argument in the Greek tradition. In that respect the Greeks’ claim to have invented philosophical argument remains uncontested.
The Babylonians thought that the gods themselves were engaged in a similar activity, using writing to make known to humanity the fate which they had fixed for each individual. Their writing tablet was the universe itself. Thus the omen lists were intended to give meaning to the full range of possible occurrences, interpreted as messages from divine judges, but also bizarrely covering events like a woman giving birth to nonuplets, which they must have known to be highly improbable.
Finally, M. considers the inscription of such legal codes as the stele of Hammurabi. These marked a seminal change in society, providing an independent source of certainty in a chaotic world with the reassurance that royal justice was founded on truth.
Many scholars who have studied Babylonian thought have dismissed it as crude and been dismayed by a lack of adherence to scientific standards. M. dismisses this as old-fashioned cultural prejudice. In the era of the search engine, knowledge that accumulates horizontally is challenging traditional hierarchical taxonomies. In that sense the Babylonians with their cuneiform lists were ahead of their time. It is a bold thesis, and not everyone will be convinced. Nevertheless, this erudite and attractively priced book will be of use to any general reader keen to study the ancient Near East.