Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Marc Van De Mieroop's "Philosophy before the Greeks"

Marc Van De Mieroop is professor of history at Columbia University. His books include The Ancient Mesopotamian City, King Hammurabi of Babylon, A History of the Ancient Near East, The Eastern Mediterranean in the Age of Ramesses II, and A History of Ancient Egypt.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia, and reported the following:
Page 99 is part of the two chapters in the book that treat the science of divination in ancient Babylonia, ironically the discipline in that culture that illustrates most clearly what rules its intellectuals applied in order to determine what could and could not be true. What most of us today consider unknowable, that is, the future, the Babylonians investigated most rigorously, and the texts in which they did so vastly outnumbered their other scholarly writings. They believed that the gods communicated messages about what was about to happen in every aspect of the world that surrounded them: the movements of stars and planets in heaven, the behavior of animals on earth, the shape and condition of the liver of sacrificial lambs, and much more. From their earliest history onward they searched for these signs through observation, as people in many other cultures did. But in the 18th century BCE, and uniquely among ancient cultures, they started to explore the possibilities of interpretation much further through writing – they generated omens using the boilerplate structure, if X is observed, Y will happen, and created massive lists investigating various signs. These did not stick to the possible, however, but taking advantage of the list format, played around with every element in a statement. For example, if a certain mark observed on the right side of a planet was auspicious, it was inauspicious when observed on the left side – through the list format it was easy to develop the options further by considering other locations, different colors, the time of observation, the identity of the planet, and further variants. While impossible in reality, they were perfectly logical in the written context.

Page 99 in my book deals with the moment when these lists were first composed and points out that the scholars who developed them used the same format and language as their colleagues who had started to write down laws centuries earlier.

“If the apex of the heart is bright on the right—elation, my army will reach its destination” has the same structure as the law “If a man rents an ox for threshing, 20 liters of grain is its hire.”

Elsewhere, this allows me to argue that the formulation of laws, like the famous ones of Hammurabi, was bound by the same rules of elaboration, and I show how the scholarly manipulation of the written word is the starting point of Babylonian philosophy.
Learn more about Philosophy before the Greeks at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue