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Judging Personality: How Far Back Do Judgments Go?

When did we begin to judge one another so much?

Last week, Sean Avery, the center for the Dallas Stars, was suspended by the National Hockey League after he made disparaging remarks about his former girlfriend, who had been linked romantically with another NHL player.  President-elect Obama was questioned about his campaign characterizations of Hillary Clinton's foreign diplomatic skills and experience.

Passing judgment is hardly new, but for how many weeks has this been going on?  To find out, I turned back the calendar 148,616 weeks (or roughly 2,858 years) to about 850 BCE, to see what archeologists might have dug up.

It didn't take long to find a judgmental letter from ancient Egypt, composed on papyrus by an official named Pepy. His superior was returning from a voyage and Pepy wrote:

How evil it is that you've come safe and sound! May your speaking be with all evil...Pepy has acted against you -- enduringly, lastingly, for all time and eternity.

Pepy's message is probably clearer in the ancient Egyptian, but his basic ideas come across.  Egyptian business letters of the time sometimes closed with a wish that the recipient would keep their good hearing. Pepy continued,

Bad be your hearing -- may you be smitten! Come to me and I'll see you -- we'll have an evil time.

Red ink accentuated the more venomous parts of Pepy's message, but perhaps there was a happy ending (at least for his superior): there was no address on the papyrus and no indication it had been folded for sending.  Pepy may have possessed considerable self-control.

The angry letter above doesn't specify what precisely troubled Pepy, but other writings make complaints of that era clearer.

The Greek poet Homer (c. 850 BCE) found irritating: "The man who acts the least [and] upbraids the most," and the sort who is "the first in banquets but last in fight." Homer created the following rhyme for the person:

Who dares think one thing and another tell, my heart detest him as the Gates of Hell.

Azitawadda of Adana, the king of a Phonecian city, inscribed a brief autobiography on the gates of the city he ruled sometime before 800 BCE. The King's account is notable for his judgments of his own character: After inheriting his father's throne, he said, he had expanded his country, fed his people well, and filled their storehouses. He claimed:

...every king considered me his father because of my righteousness and my wisdom and the kindness of my heart.

Azitawadda closes his inscription with another sort of judgment -- a curse against anyone who would replace his name on the city gate:

...whether he removes this gate with good intentions or out of hatred and evil, let...El-the-Creator-of-the-Earth and the Eternal-Sun... wipe out that ruler and that king...!

The ancients of the Middle East, it seems, made judgments c. 850 BCE quite a bit like those of today: They wrote poison-pen letters, judged who was brave versus who just liked a party after the fight, valued straight talkers, and threatened others with god's judgment to keep their behavior in line.

In a future post I will broaden this survey and go back still further in time. By doing so, I hope to develop further a picture of the judgments people made of one another in antiquity, and their similarities and differences (if any) from today.

Notes: The letter from Pepy is described on p. 93 of R. B. Parkinson (1991). Voices from ancient Egypt. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. The quotes from Homer are cited on p. 7 of Dedopulos, T. (2002). The best book of insults and putdowns ever. London: Carlton Books. The autobiographical gate-inscription by Azitawadda is recorded in Pritchard, J. B. The Ancient Near East (pp. 215-216). F. Rosenthal (trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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(c) Copyright 2008 John D. Mayer