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General Outlook of Near Eastern Cultures

 

GENERAL OUTLOOK OF NEAR EASTERN CULTURES

FUNDAMENTAL
QUESTIONS
  What is the relationship of humans to nature? to the gods? to other humans?
HUMANS AND NATURE   No separation between humans and nature or even between animate creatures and inanimate objects.
Humanity was part of a natural continuum.
All things partook of life and spirit.

The universe was dominated by gods in the shape of humans.

The world they ruled was irregular and unpredictable, subject to divine whims.
The gods were capricious because nature seemed capricious.
Humanity's function was to serve the gods.

Human existence was precarious.

Natural disasters were the product of divine will.
Humans were helpless in the face of irrational divine powers.

Humans could not hope to understand nature, much less control it. At best they could try by magic to use some mysterious forces against others.
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HUMANS AND THE GODS, LAW, AND JUSTICE   Human relationships to the gods were equally humble.
The gods could destroy humankind and might do so at any time for no good reason.
The gods ere bound by no laws and no morality.
The best behavior and the greatest devotion to the cult of the gods were not defenses against the divine and cosmic irrationality.

The earliest civilizations were guided by laws, often set down in written codes.

Why, apart from the lawgiver's power to coerce, should anyone obey the law?

For the Egyptians, the answer was simple: The law came from the king and the king was god.
For the Mesopotamians, the answer was almost the same: The king was a representative of the gods, so the laws he set forth were equally divine.
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TOWARD THE GREEKS AND WESTERN THOUGHT   Greek ideas had much in common with the idea of earlier peoples:
The Greek gods had most of the characteristics of the Mesopotamian deities.
Magic and incantations played a part in the lives of most Greeks.
Greek law, like that of earlier peoples, was usually connected with divinity.
Many, if not most, Greeks in the ancient world lived their lives with notions similar to those held by other peoples.

BUT some Greeks developed ideas that were strikingly different and, in so doing, set a part of humankind on an entirely different path.

In their speculations, they made guesses that were completely naturalistic and made no reference to supernatural powers.
By putting the question of the world's origin in a naturalistic form, Thales (the first Greek philosopher) initiated the rational investigation of the universe and, in so doing, initiated both philosophy and science.
The rationalistic, skeptical way of thinking carried over into practical matters as well and gave rise to the study of medicine and history.
The same absence of divine and supernatural forces characterized the Greek view of law and justice.

This pattern of thought marked the beginning of Western Civilization and its most important concerns:

What is the nature of the universe and how can I control it?
Are there divine powers and, if so, what is humanity's relationship to them?
Are law and justice human, divine, or both?
What is the place in human society of freedom, obedience, and reverence?
 


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Last modified: July 12, 2000