- Series: Pelican
- Publisher: Penguin Books (1946)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 014020198X
- ISBN-13: 978-0140201987
- Product Dimensions: 7 x 1 x 5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #211,167 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man Paperback – June 1, 1960
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However, it was for almost three decades better known as "BEFORE PHILOSOPHY: THE INTELLECTUAL ADVENTURE OF ANCIENT MAN," a slightly-abbreviated mass-market paperback edition released in 1949 by Penguin Books, under their Pelican imprint, and kept in print into the 1970s. This was the version I encountered in High School, and re-read in its entirety several times over the decades. Many readers will probably find it quite satisfactory, if a used copy can be found at a reasonable price.
The main difference between the two editions was the omission by Penguin of William A. Irwin's forty-page treatment of "The Hebrews," a competent piece of work, but containing few if any surprises for readers acquainted with the Hebrew Bible ("Old Testament"). This left a few comments in the Introduction (by Henri and H.A. Frankfort) without support from the rest of the volume, but otherwise probably wasn't missed. I, at least, feel comfortable in reviewing both variations in much the same terms.
Under either title, the bulk of the book consists of attempts to explicate the main ideas behind two contrasting ancient civilizations, that of Egypt, and that of Mesopotamia; Irwin's contribution added a third point of comparison, one with a direct presence in the modern world.
The introductory material, by Henri Frankfort (1897-1954)) and H.A. Frankfort, is a brief presentation of the idea of a "mythopoeic" period of creativity in human culture, with direct reference to the then-recent work of Ernst Cassirer, in "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" (three volumes; only later available in English translation, and definitely worth reading, although his short "Language and Myth" is more approachable). In an early review, Samuel Noah Kramer, the distinguished Sumerologist, took exception both to the theory and to some of the reconstructions of Sumerian imagery with which the Frankforts expounded it. Their examples were defended decades later by their apparent source, Thorkild Jacobsen. (See "God or Worshipper?" in "Essays in Ancient Civilization Presented to Helene J. Kantor," [Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization No. 47] 1989.)
Without going into the fascinating, and sometimes problematic, details, Cassirer (among others) described a branch of human thought as turning observations and theories about the world into images and narratives, producing gods, demons, and events, rather than reducing them to abstract principles, producing propositions, theorems, hypotheses, and Natural Laws. At one time, the mythopoeic mode was the preferred form of intellectual activity, so that the texts and images representing them have to be "decoded," but not as conscious allegories. Although the theory treats it as a characteristic way of thinking, dominant in a culture under certain circumstances, both proponents and opponents have treated it as a "primitive" mode of thought, superseded by "rationality," which misses much of the point.
A presentation of Egyptian thought, by John A. Wilson (1899-1976), along with his 1951 book, "The Burden of Egypt" (better known as "The Culture of Ancient Egypt," needs some updating, but, so far as I can tell, is by-and-large considered sound by his fellow Egyptologists. Wilson concentrated on the "eternal verities" as seen by the Egyptians, although pointing out that Egyptian culture did change, sometimes drastically, over the course of millennia. Many of the Egyptians texts he quotes in his own translations are among those which appear in full in his contributions to "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament" (edited by James B. Pritchard, 1954; third, revised edition, 1969).
The treatment of Mesopotamian civilization (or civilizations, given the various languages and regional variations) by Thorkild Jacobsen (1904-1993) is a superb exposition of his views at the time; views which changed over the years, subtly but importantly. His contribution is well worth reading, but should be supplemented by his later works, most notably "The Treasures of Darkness" (1976), which revisits his treatment of the Babylonian "Epic of Creation" (Enuma Elish), among other myths. And even some of the reconsiderations have themselves been emended, at least partly due to additional textual discoveries. His brief quotations from Sumerian texts should be supplemented by his massive collection from 1987, "The Harps that Once... Sumerian Poetry in Translation."
Unlike some approaches to mythopoeic theory, Jacobsen did not assume that it is a timeless, ahistorical, form of thought, but attempted to show that it responded to social (and other environmental) changes, and that new conceptions were superimposed on older ones. I think that this is implicit in "Intellectual Adventure," but it is a structuring principle in "Treasures of Darkness."
"Intellectual Adventure..." is, at this writing, available directly from Amazon, as well as through Amazon dealers. This may change, since, as of December 20, 2012, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has listed it as out of print. Fortunately, the Oriental Institute now offers it as a free pdf, available from their website (under "Miscellaneous Publications"). The format has its disadvantages -- there is nothing interactive about it, and the legibility depends on your screen -- but it is supposed to be permanently available, and it is hard to argue with the price.
It loses one star because the book is in two sections, written by two sets of authors. The first part about Egypt is OK, but writing style leaves a lot to be desired. The second part on Mesopotamia is excellent.
Focusing on Sumer and Egypt we find the ancients didn't separate man from nature. Man was part of society embedded in nature, dependent on cosmic forces. Long before scriptural declarations of conquest over nature, man was not in opposition. They obviously struggled "against" a "hostile" environment, but this account is our language describing their situation, not their state of mind. Reminiscent of Campbell's clarification between modern and ancient perspectives as "it" vs. "thou," our authors describe this difference as "subject" vs. "object." The ancients had one mode of expression, thought, and speech - the personal. Everything had a will and personality revealing itself. The ancients could reason logically, but such intellectual detachment was hardly compatible with their experience of reality. Impersonal laws (physics) did not satisfy their understanding. When the river doesn't rise, it's not due to lack of rain - the river refused to rise. You'd not hurt yourself in a fall - the ground chose to hurt you, or not. The ancient view was qualitative and concrete, not quantitative and abstract.
In science we apply a procedure, progressively reducing phenomena until subjected to universal laws. We "de-complicate" systems to understand them. There's a hierarchy of complexity making planetary motions simpler systems than say, living cells, thus more or less complete theories of each, but we've proven since Galileo initiated modern science that we're so close to the truth of nature (the judge of our understanding) that our theories earn acceptance through success of their predictions. We really did build Voyager to that understanding and it really did what we thought it would when released to nature's command - eight billion miles from earth, still obeying our grasp of nature. Furthermore, accurate theories are able to predict things never dreamed possible when created. Relativity still yields such surprises. We see phenomena as manifestations of general laws, not by what makes them peculiar.
The authors term the ancient mind as "mythopoetic." That perspective is why scriptures were written when they were and not anymore - writings imbibed with mystery and inflation of life, assumed lost to critical reason and economic forces. But the mythopoetic mind is still here, the natural mind we are born with. It's why we have palm readers, cults, astrologers, ghosts, UFOs, Creationists, pet psychics, TV conversations with the dead, best selling books on how to "know" God, and beliefs that flying jets into buildings will send their pilots to heaven. All expanding lives otherwise sterilized by 9-to-5, traffic jams, poverty. In Mexico, women are advised to remain inside during a solar eclipse, least they become spontaneously pregnant. As my Aunt said of the Space Shuttle Columbia, "If God wanted us to be in space he'd given us wings." If God wanted us to drive cars he'd given us wheels, or to live under roofs, he'd have put shingles on our head. What some battle as absurd is also quite natural, dangerous and capable of elevating life, avoiding deconstruction and reductionism applied to humans made of more than carbon and water. A dilemma revealed by this book. And if evolutionary biologists are correct, this behavior may have a lot to do with our messy brain structure, a condition we're stuck with.
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It's amazing to read about the fundamental views on ancient man's perspective of the world, gods, and himself, and how man came about with...Read more