Heading East

One of the great delights of reacquainting with Heraclitus has been rediscovering the East, the cradle of Western Civilization. The Ancient world centered on Babylon of the Sumerians, pre-semitic peoples who sprung up, it seems, from the mud flats of Mesopotamia, creating a civilization that endured for a gazillion years, a civilization that bears no small resemblance to the one we inhabit in Europe and North America today, at least socially speaking. Technologically, of course, that’s another story.

They wrote stuff down, the Sumerians did, and we’ve only recently re-deciphered some of what they wrote. One of the more fascinating artifacts of their writing is the Sumerian King List, which lists historically verifiable personages and dynasties, but then, randomly, veers into the fantastic, listing mythical personages who endured on the throne for tens of thousands of years. University nerds work themselves into a tizzy with respect to overall reliability and verifiability of the list, both of the unimaginably long lifespans of these antediluvian rulers, but also the historically verifiable personages and dynasties. After all, if they were prone to believing the nonsense of myth (being more primitive than us progressed Anglo-Saxons), then how can we put confidence in their historiography? Their methods are surely suspect!

Other thinkers, non-nerds, thankfully, have pondered the more important subject of the artifact, namely its effect. What is the effect of the Sumerian King List? What is it trying to do? Preserve history? No, that is no reason to create a fantastic archive coupled with a “real” one.

Here the opinions diverge, which is fun. Some would argue that the Sumerian King List was created in order to legitimize the culture, to root it in a culture that was antediluvian, and, therefore, pristine. Or something like that (I’m not being entirely fair in my generalizations, but that’s not the point I’m driving toward; have patience, gentle reader). In other words, the Sumerians had doubts about their own identity, even after several hundred years of uninterrupted prosperity. Fun, right? I hereby argue that the Sumerian King List may be doing that, but also, if not entirely intentionally, the Sumerian King List is teaching insignificance.

The Ancient Near East, in general, preserves for us a sensibility of vastness, that the cosmos works in great big sweeps, rocking back and forth in swaths of ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand-year patterns. One reads Sumerian literature, and Akkadian literature (the first Semites), and Hittite literature, and Egyptian literature, and Assyrian literature (that’s Babylon again, come round full circle), and last, but not least, Hebrew literature, observing a cosmos that is enormous in size and scope, stretching backward into time primordial and messy, boundary-free, but moving, oscillating, renewing. There is a detente, see, and it’s hard to ascertain, but it’s there, and if you work at it, you can acquire some sort of harmony with the universe, coming into resonance with its patterns. You are thereby absorbed into it and given significance in spite of your insignificance. If you resist the patterns of the cosmos, grasping for immortality, you will be swept aside. Thus, the ancients observed that the virtuous endured humility, were brought low by pain and suffering; at the same time the powerful (assuming that the powerful came into power by the usual non-virtuous means) enjoyed prosperity for a little while (generations, even), but the broom of the cosmos was already making its corrective sweep. What is man, therefore?

Markets opened and closed, trade routes flourished and were disrupted, order was susceptible to entropy. Nothing endures because virtue does not endure, but virtue re-emerges, and the thing begins anew, renewed. The Bronze Age, for example, wasn’t nothing; it was progress, representing a human triumph over the cosmos, which is merciless in its movements. Nevertheless, the Iron Age brought the Bronze Agers to naught. Where was progress? Over the horizon, threatening the 6-row barley harvest–and the wine (the Disney treatment Fantasia captures this very well, I think, in its exposition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). You can see why the Sumerians were suffering an identity crisis. When is it our turn to be returned to detente?


Moving west, however, one finds a smaller cosmos, beginning with the Unmoved Mover, from which (whom?) emanates the material of the known world, which creates a cosmos of the mind, for the sake of taxonomy–and control. Moving further west and north and closer in time, the cosmos is no longer a cosmos at all, but a town about the size of Königsberg, with no real history, only a future into which history inexorably marches, easily ascertainable, observable, and obvious. Can you not see the Emperor’s new clothes?

Is it fair to evaluate, saying that as we have made the world smaller and more malleable, the individual has been swallowed up by history, insignificant?

The Ebola, poor governance, impending revolutions, terrorist threats, and even asteroid strikes are threatening to those who believe that history is driven along by those who understand its progress and its direction. Somehow, and irrationally, this progress is entirely dependent upon collectively-minded people who acquire power. If the collectively-minded people are not in power, then the oceans will surely rise to punish us for our redirecting of history; progress will go off the rails.

But to those of us who sigh humbled under the yoke of the cosmos, we know that our virtue is valuable in the grand scheme of things, whatever that may be. The asteroid strikes from outer space, ebola strikes within, and damnable taxes steal yet more of my labor, but this, too, shall be swept away so that virtue may resurrect, this time a little more pure, a little wiser, and less proud. What is progress?

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