National Geographic : 1951 Jan
Ancient Mesopotamia: A Light That Did Not Fail Yale University News Bureau Lettered Clay Sheaths Ensured the Safety of Important Clay Documents Mesopotamia sometimes inscribed legal matters on so-called case tablets (page 66). The inside tablet carried the text. The outer envelope, protecting and identifying the enclosure, usually was limited to an excerpt. The fact that a rudimentary form of democ racy was the keynote of the Mesopotamian way of life is abundantly clear from count less details involving government, religion, law, literature, and art. Since the king was just as fallible as the next mortal, he must maintain constant vigilance to avoid upsetting the precarious balance between Nature and society. A person in authority could best guard against a fatal misstep in a major undertaking by seeking the advice and approval of other heads than his own. The necessary powers came to be lodged in a constituted assembly. They formed an effective check against au thoritarianism. Assembly approval came to be regarded as an integral part of the Mesopotamian way of life, so much so that even the gods were sub ject to it in their celestial setup (page 74). And government by assembly means parlia mentary democracy. Equality of individuals before the laws of gods and men implies, furthermore, a measure of personal dignity and security. This encour ages in turn a sense of personal property. In Egypt, where the Pharoah was god and abso lute master of all he surveyed, the individual technically could call nothing his own. In Mesopotamia it was the natural thing for a ruler to pay the current price for anything he wished to acquire. All things considered, the Egyptian way led to a sense of resignation; in Mesopotamia, anxiety pointed a way to hope. How well the Mesopotamian system worked can best be judged by its broad appeal to vari ous ages and to widely differing peoples. It was viewed as the essence of civilized life. Be cause it was effective, it was an influence for general progress in fields of human endeavor not directly connected with government and society; particularly so in literature and the natural sciences. The Key Position of Writing The common denominator in all these inci dental advances was writing. The local phi losophy of life had led to the discovery of writ ing in the first place. Writing promoted progress on a broad front, making life fuller and richer and causing the whole system to be widely copied by others. The borrowers, for their part, were often able to make further con tributions of their own. The earliest inhabitants of Mesopotamia in times approaching the historical period are known as the Sumerians.