“Philosophy Before the Greeks” by Marc Van De Mieroop

Marc Van De Mieroop. Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 297, $35. 

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Princeton Press for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Renowned philosopher Georg Hegel was notorious for his Eurocentric approach to philosophy, dismissing non-western approaches to truth. Although his ideas are no longer universal, certain aspects are still prevalent in academics and scholarship. In a course at the summer school for which I TA, an instructor commented on the Greeks: “The Greeks were the first people to approach the world scientifically and develop a full philosophy” (paraphrase). Due to misunderstanding of ancient Babylonia and the intellectual reception of Eurocentric philosophy, within both specialized and general educations, such a comment is reasonable. So in an attempt to curb this tendency and provide ancient Babylonia with conceptual autonomy, Van De Mieroop provides erudite and thoughtful consideration of the underlying approaches of Babylonian scholars in order to illuminate their approach to Truth, otherwise known as their philosophy.

Chapter One sets the stage for investigating Babylonian epistemology by highlighting the Eurocentric, marginalization of the intellectual history of the ancient Near East, albeit briefly. Beyond merely establishing a framework and methodology for his work, Van De Mieroop’s introduction is particularly valuable because it opens his work to non-specialists. Consequently, Philosophy Before the Greeks is not limited to the few academics who are able to understand the complex ideas and models. As a precursor to approachign the guiding principles in redaction of lexical lists, Van De Mieroop offers a brief intro to lexical word lists, again helpful for the non-specialist. Emphasizing the primacy of writing as independent of speech, Chapter Three illustrates how lexical lists exemplify a creative endeavor seeking to construct reality in an organized, scientific, and pragmatic manner via consideration of the sytagm and the paradigm therein. Contrary to some trends, he clearly demonstrates first through lexical lists that they were created according to certain syntagms and are not “primitive” examples of writing. In fact, because “writing created its own reality independent from speech” (79-80), scribes were enabled to express unlimited creativity within the textual environment, realities which were sometimes applied to physical reality. These realities only came into being through the demand for literary creativity.

Akin to his introduction to lexical lists, Chapter 4 briefly establishes the long-lived epistemology underlying lexical lists in order to explore how omen lists reflect the structure of the universe. Again, Van De Mieroop illustrates beautifully how divinatory practices reflect the epistemology of Babylonians as divinatory sciences, a scientific approach to truth involving divine speech of humans via hermeneutics created to understand the universe.  So, like lexical lists, omen lists construct reality through creative exploration of all linguistic, aural, and cuneiform sytagms. Moving forward to ancient codes, Van De Mieroop  introduces the codes and briefly engages with how they influenced later non-Babylonian codes. Examining these codes, Chapter 7 analyzes the sytagm and paradigm of Law Codes, emphasizing two basic principles: opposition and pointillism. Just as omen and lexical lists encourage literary creativity rooted in the Babylonian methodology, Law Codes reflect a similar pursuit for truth in which the text has primacy and are written with a Babylonian epistemology.

Through all three genres, Van De Mieroop cogently highlights that Babylonian philosophy particularly engages with the primacy of the text and polysemic nature of cuneiform, resulting in what we may call textual creativity. This approach, he argues, is not empirical but rational. For example, many concepts and ideas within Babylonian methodology result in astronomical impossibilities. Yet, when we consider the preceding two factors, the primacy of text and value of textual creativity, it becomes evident that Babylonian scholars did, in fact, approach knowledge systematically and scientifically, albeit different from known Greek and Roman methodology. So, after writing a brief historical survey in light of his argument, Van De Mieroop summarizes his argument and places it, once more, within the framework scholarly discourse. As he writes:

“… the Babylonian lists… required adherence to rules of logic. This they did with remarkable consistency… The study of the written word opened up exploration into realms otherwise unimaginable. Writing preceeded reality. The list was the perfect environment to study the written word by looking for similitudes. It is at first confusing that the resemblances considered pertain to all of its aspect – meaning, sound, and shape. But once we get used to this approach, it makes perfect sense” (223-224).

Were this a book live performance, I would stand and applaud with vigor. Van De Mieroop gently uncovers and excavates Babylonian epistemology. Consequently, Van De Mieroop is able to provide a path that may free ancient Babylonia from the grip of Eurocentric outlook and philosophy, thereby providing ancient Babylonia conceptual autonomy and respect. In response to his thesis, though, I have two primary questions.

First, to what extent is his idea of textual creativity, and the approaches therein, applicable to other categories of Near Eastern literature? Clearly, lexical lists, omen lists, and law codes have this underlying epistemology. What will be intriguing though, and perhaps nuance his thoughts in the future, is how other literary genres reflect his conclusion for the philosophy of Babylonia.

Second, how might this illuminate our understandings of intertextuality within Biblical Literature? Within the first few chapter, I noted that Van De Mieroop’s descriptions and interpretation of texts were quite similar to Midrash and intertextuality in the Hebrew Bible. That said, is it possible that Babylonian epistemology is, in fact, fundamental to understanding ancient Israelite epistemology? To what extent should we see ancient Israelite epistemology as autonomous from its Babylonian counterpart?

Especially for the former question, I hope that future publications will consider it. For if we are to assume that Van De Mieroop’s proposal is the valid and true Babylonian epistemology, it must be observable within the breadth of literature from ancient Babylonia..

One of my favorite features of his work is the audience. Rather than assuming the reader is fully aware of the information, he intentionally spends at least three chapters introducing what an omen list, lexical list, or ancient law code is. Van De Mieroop says his intention best: “Few people today understand Babylonian writing, and I will need to explain some of its basic principles, which may put off the uninitiated at the same time it may sound banal to those who know it” (vii). In other words, he is not assuming a vast sea of knowledge regarding ancient Babylonia. Thus, his work is accessible to non-specialists and a general audience. Although it may be a challenging work to read for general audiences, and perhaps at moments dull, it is accessible to them.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in ancient history and philosophy. The clarity with which Van De Mieroop establishes his ideas result in a detailed, well-explained, and absolutely intriguing pioneer study on Babylonian epistemology and philosophy. Likewise, because it is accessible to the public, albeit a challenging read, anybody is able to engage with and consider the arguments he puts forth. Furthermore, the book is available at an excellent price, $35 (via Princeton Press). For such a inexpensive (at least in academic publishing), well-written, critical examination of what constitutes Babylonian philosophy, one would be foolish not to purchase and read it.

Philosophy before the Greeks

I am hope to eventually read Van de Mieroop’s forthcoming book titled Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. It looks extraordinary. Here is little summary from the Princeton University Press website:

There is a growing recognition that philosophy isn’t unique to the West, that it didn’t begin only with the classical Greeks, and that Greek philosophy was influenced by Near Eastern traditions. Yet even today there is a widespread assumption that what came before the Greeks was “before philosophy.” In Philosophy before the Greeks, Marc Van De Mieroop, an acclaimed historian of the ancient Near East, presents a groundbreaking argument that, for three millennia before the Greeks, one Near Eastern people had a rich and sophisticated tradition of philosophy fully worthy of the name.

In the first century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily praised the Babylonians for their devotion to philosophy. Showing the justice of Diodorus’s comment, this is the first book to argue that there were Babylonian philosophers and that they studied knowledge systematically using a coherent system of logic rooted in the practices of cuneiform script. Van De Mieroop uncovers Babylonian approaches to knowledge in three areas: the study of language, which in its analysis of the written word formed the basis of all logic; the art of divination, which interpreted communications between gods and humans; and the rules of law, which confirmed that royal justice was founded on truth.

The result is an innovative intellectual history of the ancient Near Eastern world during the many centuries in which Babylonian philosophers inspired scholars throughout the region—until the first millennium BC, when the breakdown of this cosmopolitan system enabled others, including the Greeks, to develop alternative methods of philosophical reasoning. (Source)