The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilised. Perhaps it reveals a civilisation already old.
Egypt and Babylon. Chesterton offers that these are the first human societies of which we have reliable and detailed records and information. These societies were civilized societies at the dawn of history; civilized society must have, therefore, existed before that dawn.
They bear witness against the two common and crude descriptions of pre-historical society:
If we want to get rid of half the nonsense about nomads and cave-men and the old man of the forest, we need only look steadily at the two solid and stupendous facts called Egypt and Babylon.
When modern man thinks of primitive man, he considers what he sees as today’s [this book dates from 1925] modern savages. But neither Egypt nor Babylon were anything like this. Perhaps today’s modern savages are descendants from a previous, unrecorded historical civilization that saw its decline.
What, in fact, do we know about the results of a declining civilization?
If we lost all our firearms we should make bows and arrows; but we should not necessarily resemble in every way the first men who made bows and arrows.
There is a difference between the idea of pre-historic man and decivilized man. Chesterton notes that the Russians in retreat were so short of arms that they fought with clubs. But some future historian would be mistaken to believe that the Russians were no different than an ancient Scythian tribe.
Further, on what basis is it believed that the earliest civilizations were despotic and tyrannical? We certainly know in our age (as in Chesterton’s) that despotism often comes at the later stages of a declining civilization (boy, do we really know that).
A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy.
Ten words to describe the last eighteen months. How did he know, almost one-hundred years ago?
As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.
He’s wrong about this. It wasn’t while we slept; we were hypnotized, voluntarily drugged into a suggestive state, willingly sacrificing our children to the gods. Turned into apologists and even defenders of those who tyrannize us.
But I digress…returning to the lack of evidence of despotism and tyranny in the earliest societies: we consider the strong man. But without machine guns (to say nothing of Google), how could one strong man rise above an entire civilization. A handful of men could overtake the strongman who was armed with little more than flint. Sure, they might admire him. But if his tyranny reigned over even a couple dozen people, couldn’t they have easily overthrown him?
Even more interesting: the high esteem for the Old Man. Was the Old Man also the strong man? How irrational is that, unless one considers that such a civilization valued things higher than having an abusive leader?
…I do know, in the human case, that if some ritual of seniority keeps savages reverencing somebody called the Old Man, then at least they have not our own servile sentimental weakness for worshipping the Strong Man.
Socialists will claim that communal property existed in the earliest civilizations; Jews are proud of their Jubilee; Teutonists will trace parliaments and juries; Celtophiles claim a more equal justice in their clan system.
In each case, there is something other than brute force, ferocity, and fear operating in these civilizations. Far from being so very different from us, they are quite similar to us.
The most ancient records we have not only mention but take for granted things like kings and priests and princes and assemblies of the people; they describe communities that are roughly recognisable as communities in our own sense.
Some were despotic, but we don’t see or know that all were despotic. Perhaps the despotic ones were those which were already old and decadent – not unlike what we witness in our time.
So, we return, to Egypt and Babylon, two working models that contradict much of the stereotype of early, and even pre-historic, civilization. In Egypt, we find the story that man need not begin with despotism, but often finds his way to despotism because he is civilized. In Babylon, man need not be a nomad or communist before he becomes a peasant or citizen.
Chesterton describes the art of the herald, a decorative art used for the ships sailing the Nile. This suggests an understanding between different groups, a recognition of different symbols, a cooperation between families and groups. The images stood for different, individual, communities – and this communication was pre-historic because it was already there at the dawn of history.
By the time we hear of Babylon, it is already civilized. As the Egyptians offered writing as hieroglyphic, the Babylonians offered it in cuneiform. Egyptian writing was art; Babylonian writing was geometric.
Perhaps this is reflective of the Babylonian capacity for technology: located between the Tigris and Euphrates, the Babylonians developed a sophisticated series of canals to harness the water – providing for vast agriculture. It offered a high intellectual life – more philosophic than artistic. It gave us Abraham’s teachers, the Chaldees.
Babylon also gave us applied geometry, 3.700 years ago:
Old Babylonian tablet likely used for surveying uses Pythagorean triples at least 1,000 years before Pythagoras.
This comes after the same researchers had discovered “another Babylonian tablet as containing the world’s oldest and most accurate trigonometric table.”
“You don’t just accidentally come up with trigonometry, you’re usually doing something practical,” Mansfield said.
The calculations regarded a piece of land being sold: a piece of land containing marshy areas, a threshing floor, and a nearby tower (it isn’t said if this is the notorious tower described in Genesis 11).
“Once you understand what Pythagorean triples are, your society has reached a particular level of mathematical sophistication,” Mansfield said.
There is sophistication in the tablets that even today’s modern researchers haven’t figured out.
Returning to Chesterton: there are other examples, in China, Mexico, and South America – civilizations that reached such heights that they eventually found refined forms of devil-worship (why do I keep feeling that I am reading a book on modern Western society?). However, none of these (unlike Egypt and Babylon) gave us continuity to what would become Western civilization.
That centre was the Mediterranean; which was not so much a piece of water as a world. But it was a world with something of the character of such a water; for it became more and more a place of unification in which the streams of strange and very diverse cultures met.
The Nile and the Tiber flowed into this sea; the Arabs and the Gauls shared it; Europe, Asia, and Africa all came together here. Gradually, a common culture would develop – sure, with both its good and its bad. It is a culture that matters the most today – more so than that of the Aztecs or the Mongols.
Finally, Chesterton comes to the Greeks:
It must be understood in the sense that there were Greeks before the Greeks, as in so many of their mythologies there were gods before the gods.
Crete was the center of Minoan civilization: harbors, drainage, domestic machinery. They fell before some invaders from the north, who made, inherited, or became the Hellas that we know.
And then there is Ilion, now remembered as Troy:
A poet who may have been a beggar and a balladmonger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world.
The most beautiful woman in the world lived in this town! A legend, certainly. But it is no legend to say that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by someone who knew nothing of any towns larger than this is a fact.
If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.
There were countless such towns along the coast of the northern Mediterranean, in a time before time, before recorded history. They were prehistorical, yet at the dawn of history, such a poem could be written. This says something about the pre-history that preceded it.
A later legend, an afterthought but not an accident, said that stragglers from Troy founded a republic on the Italian shore. It was true in spirit that republican virtue had such a root. A mystery of honour, that was not born of Babylon or the Egyptian pride, there shone like the shield of Hector, defying Asia and Africa; till the light of a new day was loosened, with the rushing of the eagles and the coming of the name; the name that came like a thunderclap, when the world woke to Rome.