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The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man

  • M. E. L. Mallowan

IT is a pity that Hume, who carried the Cartesian system of philosophy to its logical conclusion, lived too early to contemplate the discoveries of the past century in Egypt and Babylonia, for he would readily have understood and assimilated the ancient processes of thought which arose at the dawn of history in Western Asia--‘ And no truth appears to me more evident ’, he said, ‘ than that beasts are endowed with thought and reason as well as man ’. The arguments are developed in section XVI of ‘ The Understanding ’, where there are many delightful passages of special relevance to the ancient concepts about life. Again, he said that a bird, that ‘chooses with such care and nicety the place and materials of the nest, and sits upon her eggs for a due time, and in a suitable season, with all the precaution that a chymist is capable of in the most delicate projection, furnishes us with a lively instance of animal sagacity’. Locke, on the other hand, in his discussion of animal rationale, had refused to be drawn so far. ‘ And if Balaam’s ass had, all his life, discussed as rationally as he did once with his master, I doubt yet whether any one would have thought him worthy the name ‘man’, or allowed him to be of the same species with himself ’. Of these two statements Hume’s approximates more closely to the earliest Asiatic view of life, and it is on these lines that Messrs. Frankfort, Wilson, and Jacobsen have approached their problem, which, briefly put is-how did the early thinkers of the Near East come to say what they did about creation, the state, and man ? Professor and Mrs Frankfort define the earliest mode of thought as an ‘ I-thou ’ relation-ship, by which they mean that the primitive Asiatic conceived of all creation in a reciprocal nexus wherein the material world was percipient as well as perceived, and Professor Wilson elaborates the same theme by saying that for the Egyptians the world was consubstantial, and that their view of life might be defined as monophysite. Pro-fessor Jacobsen’s contribution illustrates to what extent the Mesopotamian view of life conformed with this outlook, for example how salt and grain were conceived of as animate beings in a close relationship with man, responsible and responsive to him. Other ideas peculiar to the Mesopotamian mind are no less clearly stressed, and herein lies the fascination of the book, that we have a comparative examination of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Israelite approach to life, for Hebrew theology was cast out of a similar matrix. In a concluding chapter by the Frankforts, we see the dawn of a new intellectual era. The Greek physical philosophers, regardless of the data of experience, carried the old basic concepts of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians from a concrete to an abstract frame and worked them to a reductio ad absurdurn, much as Hume did for the concepts of Cartesian philosophy. Their prescience gave birth to science. Nor should we forget that Thales of Miletus prophesied an eclipse, thereby following in the wake of the Babylonian astronomers, who had made similar observations and recorded them centuries earlier.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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