What is Babylonian Philosophy?


Babylonian Philosophy is traced back to early Mesopotamian region. Much like most philosophical reflection of the time, it is tied to religion that, for Babylonians, revolved around identifying their gods with stars, planets, and other celestial bodies. Babylonians understood philosophy as a way of life, tying wisdom and ethics into one.

History of Babylonian Philosophy

From the 11th century BC, we have Esagil-kin-apli’s Diagnosic Handbook (Sakikkū – Sumerian for symptoms). It is a medical treatise that looks at symptoms of the ill in order to comprehend the causes and the likely course of medical condition. Most curious is that it incorporates a rather modern view that in order to determine the patient’s disease and thereby also administer the right kind of health care, one should examine and inspect the symptoms the patient displays. For this reason, it soon became the main medical book. Unlike the modern view, Esagil-kin-apli frequently looked at supernatural causes, rather than the physiological. Philosophically speaking, the treatise is based on a logical set of axioms and assumptions.

The 8th and the 7th centuries BC are what the Babylonians are most known for: their astronomers. Babylonian astronomers treated philosophy as a way to understand the ‘ideal’ nature of the early universe. They started looking at the planetary systems as if internally coherent and following an at least internally logical pattern. This view later contributed to developments in philosophy of science.

Some scholars have claimed that Babylonians later influenced the Greek communities and particularly Hellenistic philosophy. For example, the Dialogue of Pessimism – a dialogue between a master and his servant on the usefulness of action, to some extent a proto-Hegelian Master/Slave dialectic – contains many similarities to sophism, Heraclitus‘ view of opposites, and perhaps even Plato’s / Socrates‘ dialectical method of inquiry.

Basic Concepts

There are four concepts that contemporary philosophy borrows from the Babylonians, even if not advocates it to the same extent:

  • Organic evolution – a doctrine that all that is, is a result of, and will continue to be part of, an evolutionary process. Whilst the Babylonians were religious and likely thought about evolution in terms of religion, the way is open to interpret this in fully atheistic terms – namely, that whatever one thinks of the origin of creation, man stands in the same evolutionary process, is part of that process, and is therefore not only created, but also a creator himself (or rather, themselves), precisely because there remains an evolutionary process without a god. This is to say, man has the power for further advances in himself (or themselves) because evolution is thought as being organic.
  • Superiority of human intellect – a doctrine that, rather unsurprisingly, is very much still the focal point in the majority of cultures. Babylonian education system was very strongly focused on superiority of the human species. Coupled with the doctrine of organic evolution, the last point on the total state should be rather obvious.
  • Healthy sexuality – rather interestingly, Babylonians were not only against sexual promiscuity, but also explicitly against sexual abandonment. Both were strongly discouraged, even if it led to dissolution of marriage. Babylonians in fact had a rather open view of sexuality, as Herodotus notes: “The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life”.
  • Total state – a doctrine that the state has total control over its population, over their thought and their actions. This strongly resembles the twentieth century totalitarian states. Babylonians briefed this to be the natural outcome. As pointed out above, this doctrine is coupled with ‘organic evolution’ and ‘human superiority’.

Further Reading

Leick, G. (2003). The Babylonians: An Introduction, London: Routledge.

Mieroop, M. van de (2017). Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Munitz, M. K. (ed). (1965). Theories of the Universe: From Babylonian Myth to Modern Science, New York: The Free Press.

Trachtenberg, E. A. (2018). Thought and the Perception of Time: Aristotle, Plato, the Hebrew Bible, and the Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing.

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