3. Fertile Ground: Philosophy in Ancient Mesopotamia

Posted on 29 April 2018

Do the cuneiform writings of Babylonian culture show that it had its own philosophy?

Further Reading
• J. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zólyomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer (Oxford: 2004).
• G. Buccellati, "Wisdom and Not: The Case of Mesopotamia," Journal of the American Oriental Society 101 (1981): 35-47.
• W. Burkert, “Prehistory of Presocratic Philosophy in an Orientalizing Context,” in P. Curd and D.W. Graham (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy (Oxford: 2009), 55-85.
• Y. Cohen, Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age (Ann Arbor: 2013).
• S. Dalley (trans.), Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: 1989).
• S.J. Denning-Bolle, "Wisdom and Dialogue in the Ancient Near East," Numen 34 (1987): 214-234.
• C.S. Ehrlich (ed.), From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Lanham: 2009).
• B. Foster, Before the Muses: an Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 vols (Bethesda: 1996).
• V.A. Hurowitz, "The Wisdom of Supe-ameli – A Deathbed Debate Between a Father and Son," in R.J. Clifford (ed.), Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel (Atlanta: 2007), 37-51.
• W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: 1960).
• O. Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (New York: 1969).
• T. Oshima, Babylonian Poems of Pious Sufferers: Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy (Tübingen: 2014).
• K. Radner and E. Robson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (Oxford: 2011).
• F. Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge: 2004).
• D. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Near East (Oxford: 2005).
• M. Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton: 2016).


Emma 2 May 2018

I'm a bit surprised you didn't even mention any of the Sumerian "debates" in this episode. Were they too religious in nature, or was there just not a place for them given everything else you had to touch on?

Peter Adamson 2 May 2018

In reply to by Emma

Good point - I will make a note that we might want to add something about these texts for the book version. Thanks!

Chike Jeffers 2 May 2018

In reply to by Emma

One great point about why it might have made sense for us to mention these works is that they are dialogues of sorts and we emphasize dialogues as a place to look for philosophical thought in ancient Mesopotamian literature. Without speaking for Peter, I would say in explanation that my encounters with these texts prior to us writing the episode just happened to leave less of an impression on me as compared to the two dialogical texts we mentioned (Supe-Ameli, the Babylonian Theodicy). Before thinking of one of those, I might have been more likely to bring up the philosophical nature of the seemingly satirical Dialogue of Pessimism, which can be read as a critique of slavery, among other things. I think that sticks out to me as the text I'm most sad we didn't mention, but I grant that this may be a problem of needing to re-read the texts you're talking about.

I also wish that, given our mention of Saggil-kinam-ubbib and Sin-leqi-unninni, we had mentioned Enheduanna, arguably the first author we know by name in the history of writing: https://www.ancient.eu/Enheduanna/ (and Peter and I have already talked about mentioning her in the book version... given that she is known for her hymns to a goddess, this also shows how it's a not a matter of us wanting to avoid material that is "too religious").  

Dr. Gary S. Greig 12 May 2018

In reply to by Emma

Dr. Adamson,

My son, Dr. designatus Jonathan Greig, one of your graduate students, gave me the link to your "Philosophy in Ancient Mesopotamia" podcast. Your podcast is very helpful overview of philosophical reflection in Sumerian and Babylonian wisdom literature (and the other genres mentioned in Van De Mieroop and the others cited in your Further Reading bibliography). I did a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago 25 years ago, though I am not active in teaching, research, or current scholarship now. The Further Reading bibliography  on Mesopotamian wisdom literature and philosophy looks like a great place for further exploration, and I look forward to your podcast on philosophy in ancient Egyptian wisdom literature and literary texts.

As you say in the podcast, there were very similar attempts at philosophical reflections on life in Mesopotamian and Egyptian wisdom literature and poetic verse structured literary epics (e.g. the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Sinuhe, and other epic narratives in poetic verse structure).

I love the idea of short podcasts (20-30 minutes) but is there some way that the podcast could be transcribed so that listeners and readers could more easily skim forwards and backwards in the written form of the podcast message? I admit I am a reader, more than a listener, when it comes to evaluating scholarly content. (Maybe a computer programmer like Jonathan could program an automatic delivery of a transcription of a verbal podcast like that? Or maybe that technology is already out there by google as part of google's quest to take over the world [smile]?)

Thank you again. Best regards.

Hi, great that you found the podcast! The question about transcriptions is answered under "frequently asked questions" - see the link at the bottom of the page. Short version: the podcasts come out as books, though you'll have to wait a while until Africana is ready in book form of course.

Pat Daley 2 May 2018

Hi Peter!

First, one minor item in the further reading section.  I have Myths from Mesopotamia, OUP,  translated by Stephanie Dalley, whereas you list her as E. Dalley.

I realize that getting philosophy out of myths is controversial, but there do seem to be opposed myths.  One of the best known Mesopotamian myths is the Enuma Elish, the epic of creation. It seems the much shorter first ceation story in Genesis was a counterstatement.  They seem to have quite different conceptions of the divine. The Enuma Elish represents what old Hermann Gunkel called Chaoskampf, the battle against chaos, which results in the creation of the world we know. There is no Chaoskampf in the first creation story in Genesis, though there is in some other texts in the Bible such as Pss. 74 and 89 and Isaiah 51:9-11, which are about creation of a people, as B. W. Anderson suggests.

Myths can be philosophically interpreted in various ways, but then, so can many undoubted philoosphers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza. So why neglect the Enuma Elish? I know you have to justify what to include in the podcasts, a problem I don't have.

But as you can see above, while writing my reply to Emma, I started to reflect on how much I would have liked us to discuss the Dialogue of Pessimism. That feeling has gotten stronger and stronger! So I must admit, at this point, the Enuma Elish - while I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Mesopotamian thought generally - for this episode on philosophy, it's not my first choice for what we shouldn't have left out!

I have long had an interest in the history of the notion of divine creation, and so the Enuma Elish and other creation myths are quite relevant to me as is the ME wisdom literature. I have also read some of the East Indian and Chinese religious classics but I never felt I was at home in those cultures, so I have never attempted a thematic study of what they said relevant to creation, or for that matter, anti-creation. But then, I am not really at home in ancient the cultures of the ancient ME, but I suppose they are more familiar. So Peter's podcasts on Indian Philosophy have been quite interesting for me.

I first looked at some of the ancient Middle Eastern literature as a background to what sort of creation texts there are in the Bible. Actually, I found making some overall sense to the creation texts in the Bible to be quite an intractable problem until I read the Introductory essay to Bernhard W. Anderson's useful anthology of scholarly writings called, Creation in the Old Testament, which I thought put some order into the subject.  Briefly, he set five divisions and some traditions. Creation of a People.  Creation and Order, Creation and Creaturely Dependence, Creation as Origination, and Creation and New Creation.  He noted the contributions of the Mosaic Covenant tradition, the Royal Covenant tradition, the Wisdom traditions, and the Prophetic traditions.  There is a lot of cross-fertilization. I don't consider Anderson's essay particulary well-written and organized but I found it learned and helpful. The NT adds mainly a Christological interpretation of creation.

I then moved on the the ideas of the relationship of the divine to to cosmos in the Presocratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicureans, and recently I have been trying to make sense of Plotinus.  I have no idea how at my age I could plow through the Church Fathers and all the Medieval Philosophers. I know somewhat more about Descartes and modern and recent philosophy. I used to work as a public servant, and got married shortly after retiring, which has kept me busy, so I have been at this rather fitfully for decades.

It has long seemed to me that creation is a rather arcane subject, by itself, as many seem concerned about "creation and . . ." something else, such as science, ecology, or whatever, so I quite understand you may not want to spend time on the main creation myths of the ancient ME.

You do you, as Ana Kasparian says, and I will try to learn as much as I can assimilate.

Alexander Johnson 5 September 2018

It sounds like there was a lot of Mesopotamian works that were skipped that would be quite interesting to have covered.  It is too bad you couldn't have done two episodes on Mesopotamian philosophy.  I wonder if you can recommend some primary and secondary material that covers all of the parts you didn't touch on.  Specifically the Sumerian Debates, Supe-Ameli, the Babylonian Theodicy, Enheduanna, Dialogue of Pessimism, and Enuma Elish (and anything else mentioned).  I feel like Sumerian records are almost always just touched on and then dismissed in favour of "sexier" civilisations such as Egypt, which feels like an enormous gap (not just in history of philosophy but pretty much all history teachings), so i'm always in favour of giving the near east more of the time it probably deserves.

Yes, for sure. What I should have done is started here and not with the Presocratics when the whole series launched, and done several episodes each on Mesopotamia and Egypt. In this context, it already seemed to be pushing it a bit to do one episode on Babylonian material in an Africana series. (And I guess I am glad in a way not to have done Egypt way back when, since doing it now gave us a good platform for the Africana series - a lot of other episodes in the series will refer back to the material we covered from Egypt.) Still if it gave people the desire to go find out more that is not a bad result!

Alexander W. Johnson 6 September 2018

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ohh, i know i meandered with my question, did you know of any primary or secondary sources on the stuff we talked about in the comments that didnt' come up in the episode?

Peter Adamson 6 September 2018

In reply to by Alexander W. Johnson

Oh sorry, I overlooked that part! If you have a look at the further reading above some of them are anthologies that should have at least some of the texts you are looking for; a lot of these are books I have now returned to the library but I have some stuff electronically I can check through if you're looking for something specific.

Ro Smith 8 March 2020

The recording cuts out just as you were about to define what it is for a work to be a work of epitemolgy. As an epistemologist I was excited to hear the definition and what you thought with regard to these Ancient Sumarian texts!

I'm going to try downloading the podcast, but it's happened twice with playing directly from the page and you might want to look into that as a technical issue.

Hi, thanks for listening! I just tried it and it seems to play to the end ok, so maybe you just need to re-load it? Let me know if you still have trouble.

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