Welcome To the Past (And Why It Matters)
If we know who came before us, we'll better understand ourselves.
Posted February 10, 2016
He also lived four thousand years ago, and spent most of his time attacking walled cities with a mace.
Zimri-Lim, who ruled the ancient Sumerian city Mari around 1770 BC, had a daily life that was—to put it mildly—unlike ours. But take the time to read a few of the letters he exchanged with his wife (on cuneiform tablets, unearthed millennia later on the banks of the Euphrates), and very recognizable personalities emerge. “Stay out of the sun!” his wife writes to him, in the height of a Middle Eastern summer. “I made you that robe—why aren’t you wearing it?” And, a little later, “Are you there safely?” “Don’t worry,” Zimri-Lim answers, by return tablet. “I got here just fine. Don’t fret about me.”
(Actually, what he wrote was, “The enemy has not threatened me with weapons. All is well. Let your heart no longer be afflicted.” But the sentiment is the same.)
Dig a little deeper into the correspondence, and you’ll see a man so absorbed by work (well, conquest) that he’s lost touch with the needs of his adult children.
His oldest daughter, Shimatum, was married to the king of another city. This gave Zimri-Lim an ally, and the prospect of seeing a grandson on another city’s throne. Unfortunately, babies didn’t arrive as soon as hoped. Three years after the wedding, Zimri-Lim—in a move that was both politically smart, and stunningly tone-deaf to his children’s personalities— decided to send his son-in-law another wife: Shimatum’s younger sister Kirum.
Kirum was sharp-tongued, ambitious, and jealous. She immediately set out to displace her older sister. She involved herself in politics, commandeered her sister’s servants for her personal use, sneered at her sister, and generally queened it about the palace—until Shimatum, unexpectedly, gave birth to twins.
Immediately, the childless Kirum plummeted in the palace hierarchy. “No one asks my opinion any more,” she complained, in letter after letter to her father. “My husband has taken away my very last servants. My sister says that she will do whatever she wants to me!”
Given Kirum’s previous behavior to her sister, it’s unlikely that “whatever she wants” involved anything good; and indeed, Kirum’s letters soon begged her father for rescue. The plea “Bring me home or I shall surely die!” progressed to “If you don’t bring me back home, I will jump off the palace roof!”
Zimri-Lim gave up. He made a shamefaced journey to his son-in-law’s city and, in the words of his own court records, “liberated the palace” by bringing Kirum home. (His wife’s reaction can be summed up, roughly, as “I told you that wouldn’t work out.”)
So now you’ve spend the last few minutes of your life reading about the family drama of a long-dead Sumerian king. Why?
Because there is much to be gained from reacquainting ourselves with the women and men who have gone before us. That gain could be as simple as George Santayana’s often-repeated observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Studying the past might, possibly, keep us from making the same mistakes again and again.
But history also suggests that most of the time, we won’t make use of what we already know. We’ll still invade Russia in winter.
And really, what kind of life lesson is it to us that Zimri-Lim’s parenting strategies put his two daughters at each other’s throats? After all, it’s unlikely that any of us were going to make a fraught sibling relationship worse by marrying two daughters to the same hedge fund manager.
No: for me, learning about the past is vital because it gives us a clearer view of ourselves.
Glimpsing such familiar problems and emotions, in people so far removed from us, corrects our vision. We all tend to look at ourselves as more advanced than those who’ve lived in the past: better parents than our parents, smarter managers than our grandparents, more reasonable and sophisticated than those simple people of the past. It’s a dangerous tendency, leading with almost irresistible force to exceptionalism: I am unlike others. Or: Our society has developed into a more enlightened state than any that came before.
On a personal level, exceptionalism leads to arrogance (at the very least; ultimately it leads towards sociopathy: I am unlike others, so their rules don’t apply to me).
But on a national level, exceptionalism is even more dangerous. It permits us, for example, to keep on setting up detention camps and holding untried prisoners in them indefinitely: because we have never been in this situation before, because we’re faced with bigger problems than ever, because this time is different.
History is a constant reminder that this isn’t true.
The past always punches holes in our exceptionalism. We’re still jealous of our siblings. We’re still far too oblivious to the personalities around us, and that lands us in personal messes. We still stay out in the sun too long.
We haven’t really changed.
Qoheleth wasn’t completely on target; there are new things under the sun. (Smart phones. Electricity. Airplanes.) But those are just things. Those of us who live under the sun are much the same now as we always were. The same fears; the same ambitions; the same problems. And the better we know our predecessors on this planet, the better we will know ourselves.
So join me in meeting those who came before.