This fall, I am teaching, as I do every other year, ancient and medieval political thought. For this generation’s presentist students, the course is a tough sell. I count myself lucky to have some 40 self-selecting students ready to turn their minds toward distant millennia. I believe they genuinely expected to find something dusty.
Instead, they are discovering that the ancient texts we read have a startling immediacy.
We start with the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” From ancient Mesopotamia, this poem, considered the oldest literary text on the planet, tells the tale of how an unjust, selfish, grasping king is reformed and learns to serve the interests of his people. The first recorded political problem in the world is sexual assault.
In David Ferry’s translation, we hear this when Gilgamesh is introduced:
Neither the father’s son
nor the wife of the noble; neither the mother’s daughter
nor the warrior’s bride was safe. The old men said:
“Is this the shepherd of the people? Is this
the wise shepherd, protector of the people?”
Gilgamesh’s transformation, his ability to put aside his habit of sexual predation, depends on his discovery of his own mortality. He, too, the king realizes during the course of a long journey, will die. Death is the great equalizer. The discovery of a bedrock human equality is what makes it possible for Gilgamesh to become a servant, a shepherd and a protector of his people.
Gilgamesh’s political success is characterized in the poem by his construction of a great wall:
The outer wall
shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner
wall is beyond the imagining of kings.
Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
Great walls appear all across the landscape of ancient political thought. The beginnings of China’s Great Wall date to the 7th century B.C., and the father of history, Herodotus, who journeyed across Greece, Egypt and the ancient Near East, records many a remarkable case of the enclosure of cities. The aspiration to build a wall speaks to some deep and long-felt human need for security.
Herodotus also records the brutality with which ancient tyrants treated their enemies. One such tyrant, Astyages, feared — on account of a dream — that his daughter’s newborn son would grow up to overthrow him. He ordered one of his soldiers to take the infant and expose him in the wilds, where the child would not survive. The soldier was unwilling to do this and secretly gave the child to a farmer to raise. When the child was grown and his noble nature evident to all who met him, Astyages discovered him and, fearing for his sovereignty, determined to punish the dissenting soldier. He killed the soldier’s son and dismembered him.
This tyrant’s cruelty did not end there; he then had the child cooked and fed the meal to the soldier.
We believe we live in a world that has left antiquity behind. This is because we believe that time moves forward in a steady upward march, an arc of history that bends toward justice. This view is a misapprehension. Human brutality lurks always just below the surface. Our ancient violence is always with us.
The project of justice is to achieve for a specific people, in a specific place, for this society, this polity, an oasis of peace and decency that can keep violence, domination and grasping tyranny at bay. Over millennia, humankind has been able to invent the tools that make it possible to cultivate such oases for all of us — the rule of law, constitutionalism, an expectation that free and equal citizens can rule and be ruled, in turn, in a polity that defines membership inclusively on principles of human equality. These inventions did not emerge all at once. Their pieces and parts have appeared, here and there, over the course of long spans of time on the world’s stage. I am sure there are still more inventions of this kind to be secured so as to increase the prospects of safety and happiness for future generations.
But these inventions do not put millennia between us and the alternative of disorder, domination, disunion and despair. They scarcely put more than one generation between us and those things. It is always only a question of whether we can keep alive for another generation the peace-bringing knowledge, the freedom-protecting expertise, and the equality-respecting wisdom.
This is why I have committed myself to the work of civic education, not only in my classroom, but also in my efforts to support the renewal of civic education in our K-12 system. I wish there were more of us pursuing this work.