4. Idea For A Universal History


And The Cuneiform Tradition 


Section 4.4.1

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

Civilization, Darwinism, And Theories of Evolution
4th Edition
The Book
By  John Landon





4. Idea For A Universal History  
    4.1 A Short History of The World  
       4.1.1 The Modern Turn: Looking Backward          
    4.2 Big Histories, Universal Histories  
       4.2.1 In Search of The Big Bang 
       4.2.2 From Life's Origin to The Dawn of Human Culture  
    4.3 Neolithic Beginnings  
       4.3.1 Fields of Diffusion  
       4.3.2 Genesis of the Great Religions 
       4.3.3 The Tower of Babel           
   4.4 Egypt, Sumer and The 'Rise of Civilization'  
      4.4.1 Sumer and The Cuneiform Civilization
      4.4.2 Egypt: A Synchronous 'Axial' Effect
   4.5 From Akkad to The Assyrians...and Israel...  
      4.5.1 The Indo-European Migrations   
      4.5.2 The Curse of Mideonic Empire 

 5. Symphony of Emergence


    World History And The Eonic Effect: Fourth Edition

     4.4.1 Sumer and The Cuneiform Tradition 


The core area of transition to the new era of higher civilization is really Sumer, or we should say the Sumerian ‘field’, for this ‘zone of innovation’, meeting the complex challenge of hydraulic agriculture in a rainless terrain between the Tigris and the Euphrates, is set to generate the globalizing expansion of civilization both by diffusion and by the emergence of an endless succession of empires, from the first Akkadian unification of the northern and southern parts of the field to the Asssyrian succession of empires that will be the backdrop to the emergence of ‘Israel’, or ‘Israel/Judah’, at the end of the Mesopotamian era. The great era of Babylon, and the achievements of Hammurabi and his distillation of the elements of social law, represents the climax of the development of civilization to this point.

The great epoch created by the Sumerians and Egyptians follows our eonic outline exactly, and with this interval shows all the symptoms of late decline that we see in the next era so dominated, in the Occident, by the Roman Empire whose falling away precipitates a veritable Dark Age. We do not see exactly the same pattern in the later stages of this earlier age, but we do see the way in which ossification is overtaking the first great experiment in civilization by the last millennium before the Axial period. The field of diffusion has long since expanded almost globally, and we see the successors in Crete prepare the way for the Greeks, who will, at the fringes of the core Middle Eastern oikoumene, proceed to a frontier innovation of the next stage of civilization, next to the completely remarkable Israelites who will virtually recast civilization as a set of ideas that can pass beyond the dominations of empire.

Considerable debate has always attended the question of diffusion from Sumer to Egypt. The question remains unresolved, but we see that the solution lies in our eonic model with its independent emergent transitional areas. In general, the rule is that direct imitation by inspection of an artifact or cultural institution creates diffusion, but the effect of an entire transition over centuries is not visible to men and therefore not open to imitation, thence diffusion. But they do diffuse piecemeal. We see that while technological borrowings are possible and likely the synchronous appearance of two separated cultural streams is a function of our larger eonic sequence, and that diffusion could never occur fast enough or comprehensively enough to induce a parallel transition. These transitions are never visible to centuries later, if then.

Once we grasp the factors of synchronous emergence and relative transforms the emergence of Egypt/Sumer falls into place with an abstract structure exactly like the later Axial Age (minus the parallels in India and China, in our still almost inchoate eonic sequence). We have thus two types of ‘civilizations’ in our account, the first not really civilizations but intervals: the independently emerging transition zones, to wit, the transitions in Egypt and Sumer, and mideonic startups in the diffusion fields thus created. The diffusion field of Egypt and Sumer is immense, from Shang China to India, to Crete and the Mycenaeans, and the whole field of successor cultures in the wake of Sumer, beginning with the Akkadians. These two types differ since the first expresses macroevolution in our sense, and the second microevolution, System Action and Free Action: the difference in quality or seminal innovation is important to consider. This will become devastatingly obvious in the Axial period where the transitional areas and their mideonic diffusion fields differ markedly in their qualitative effects and creativity. This factor is undoubtedly present in the starting transitions in Egypt and Sumer, but it can be very confusing because a higher degree of consciousness expressing System Action in a people who are more primitive than their successors expressing post-transitional ‘Free Action’. This is very hard to sort out in these first two cases where our data is just on the borderline, but even so we can see this effect immediately in a long-range view. The effect is clearly visible in Archaic Greece where relatively less advanced people produce the Iliad. Let us beware of speculation, however, and accept a minimum version of our model by simply noting that the timing of our eonic sequence fits the data very well, but our resolving power is still inadequate for the statistical event regions we call the transitions, in Sumer and Egypt. The usual debate over continuity and discontinuity arises at this point. But both views are correct in our analysis. This kind of analysis might seem at first strange, but with a little reflection it becomes very simple, and evidence-oriented, and accounts for all the facts in dramatic fashion.

We are left with the strange way in which our eonic sequence shows directionality, and yet also stages parallel experiments, as if to explore diversity and balance a set of opposites. Nature is ingenious! The theocratic authoritarian form of this first royal experiment in a unified Egypt contrasts with the purported early semi-republican city states of Sumer, so reminiscent of Axial Greece. These city-states all too rapidly turn into kingships. These in turn within a millennium will become the units in the coming of empire. Egypt and Sumer stand in contrast in the way that the one shows a high degree of geographical integration from the beginning, while the second is a more diffuse field of city states often in conflict with themselves and generating the tensions leading to the phenomenon of empire. The Sumerian field with its unique agricultural challenge in the floodplain ‘between the two rivers’ can’t even provide its own wood, stone or copper, and is perfectly set to generate the network of an expanding diffusion field via trade. Civilization is thus born as a set of ideas in motion.

We should note that our eonic series never generates empires, and yet the dynamic of empire arises from the void left by the set of transitions that are always limited in their localizations. The next phase in our sequence will show the way that development will jump to a fringe region, Greece, which is free of empire, just long enough to produce its contributions. We also see the way in which the tiny Israel, almost marginalized from the start, manages to induce finally a new form of religion despite its inability to withstand empire.

In the Sumerian field we can see the obvious way in which the creative era at the beginning comes to be dominated by the sluggish repetitiveness of empire. The period of Egypt and Sumer, at their ‘beginnings’ near -3000, constitutes the point at which the most basic fundamentals of man’s ‘civil condition’ came into existence over a substrate of previously achieved agricultural life. There is more than a family resemblance to the phase of ‘modernism ’ we claim exclusively for the achievements of our own time, if we look at the same five hundred years of the Sumerian emergence, three hundred of rapid advance, and two of stabilizing crystallization after -3000, from its ‘medieval’ sources in the religiously preoccupied world that came before of the Ubaid, and the Uruk.

Mideonic trend toward empire Another clue to our eonic structure is the drift into mideonic dramas of empire, the curse of civilization, and yet adminttedly the workhorse of globalization. The initial Sumerian innovative network of city-states so reminiscent of later Greece breaks down as the inexorable forces of integration precipitate the drift of the system into imperial histories. Our model highlights at once the gross trend, the curse of civilization, the mideonic drift into empire. The whole period resembles the next, a century of democracy, then nothing. And yet our system is unstable as the empire phases moves rapidly to generate greater integration in a globalizing system.

The great Sumerian tradition is born, and the forgotten Sumerian buried in Akkadian is directly analogous to Latin buried in later languages in the next cycle. The Cuneiform tradition dominates throughout, with the same effect in the case of Egypt and its hieroglyphic literature.

In Mesopotamia , we see a more characteristic reflection of our unit of analysis concept in the way the ‘civilization’ arising from the transition very soon changes its center of gravity, as the Sumerians bestow ‘cuneiform’ culture on a long series of expanding empires, beginning with the Akkadians. The center of gravity begins to shift, but that is grist for the mill in the eonic model. A common tradition is shared by all the descendants of the first phase, from the Akkadians to the Hittites to the Assyrians. Only with Greece and ‘Israel’ do we see the true eonic transform in action and this simply lifts the next phase out of its late sluggish Mesopotamian-Egyptian deep freeze. This culture diffuses widely and, of course, the early world of Canaan, which will spawn the ‘ Israel effect’ (Israel/Judah) of the next phase is inside this field of diffusion, a point accurately reflected in the myths of an ‘Abraham’ from Ur.

Cities, state formation, and the world of literate culture suddenly come together in the last centuries before -3000. The key invention of writing changes the dynamics of world history and is taken as the standard for the ‘beginning of history’, save that we have defined that differently in terms of early human evolution. The State, in its ambiguity, is perhaps the foundational invention in the rise of civilization. It is hard to assess to what degree this emergence of the State is an absolute historical first here, but the crystallization and advance are for all intents and purposes the real beginning, as are the first intimations of civil society. This is no sentimental issue of royal panoplies, as we see from the consequences in the degenerations of states into empires and the dominations of elites.

The moment the state comes into existence, a problem arises, a permanent crisis of the individual. Existence in a State is the first prerequisite to advance, but its effects prove also counterproductive, and its effects on the individual will generate the great dialectic of freedom in the state and freedom from the state that will surge forward in the next Axial interval. Israel, let us note, is, not a religion factory, but a response, as a state, at first, in the next step of the eonic sequence, to the perceived histories of states and empires. Challenges to the State arise in the next Axial phase of our eonic sequence. The ‘revolutionary idea’ is born in the Axial interval. This point is another indication of the connectedness of the eonic sequence. It is a partial paradox of this first phase of higher civilization that it coexists with outstanding legacies of religion that far predate the rise of the State. It seems clear that religion in the temple complexes of the Ubaid and before are the first forms of social integration and that the state as the entry to the politics of mass societies comes in its wake.  

The value of our model is that it gives us a rationale for the demarcation of the so-called ‘rise of civilization’ as instead, in the case of Sumer especially, a phase of relative transition in a greater history that precedes it. Armed with the examples of the subsequent Axial Age and modern transitions this insight begins to make sense of the data. This helps to resolve the continuity/discontinuity paradox that arises at each stage of our eonic series. We come thus to the spectacular rise of ‘civilization’ visible in the rise of Sumer and Dynastic Egypt. We begin at the halfway mark, as close to the modern world, as to the onset of the Neolithic. The point is worth considering since this ‘axial’ period generates the basic tone of future civilization, as a form of State existence. If Hegel, at the modern divide, is musing oddly about the divine sanctity of the state, to the frowns of Marx, and the horror of libertarians, it is because the State shows eonic correlatiosn, whatever its beginnings in Paleolithic chieftaincy, and is cast in eonic granite, starting here, and subsequent stages of the eonic sequence respond to the first, Sumerian/Egyptian, experiments.

We have already noted the similarity of the case of Sumer to the rise of modernity in the sense that it echoes the Axial Age, its real starting point, after a long intermediate or medieval period. In the same way we must consider that the relatively advanced stage of the Sumerians is indicative of considerable prior development, and in fact we suspect than an entire era has lead up to what can only be called an advanced stage of civilization. The resemblance to the later case is striking:

Later double sequence:                                      Earlier double sequence:

Axial Age, Greece , Rome ,…                          Hassuna, after ca. 5800

medieval interval                                                   medieval interval, Ubaid, etc,…

modern take-off, after ca. 1500                             take-off, end of third millennium

Our schema suggests that this era, roughly the Calcholithic, stretches from the sixth to the third millennium, and sources after the first phase of the Neolithic. And we see the characteristic sluggish but gestating ‘medievalism’ of the Ubaid period, which finally explodes toward the end of the Uruk period and produces something with a strong resemblance to the later Greek Axial Age in its network of incipient city states, which will cede as did the Axial Age to a scheme of integrating empires at a lower level of creative action. Just as modernity seems like the dawn of an entirely new era, it nonetheless contains the relative transformations of much that is really outstanding Axial cultural descendants. This analogy might help to understand what is going on with the onset of higher civilization in Sumer, and to a lesser degree in Egypt , where there is no earlier stage quite like this and where the new beginning is far more dramatic. Let us note again the rough sequence leading up to Sumer, noting how the flow of civilization is from the north to the south in a characteristic frontier effect

The Hassuna period         ca. 5800-5500 BC

The Halaf period              ca. 5500-4500 BC

The Ubaid period             ca. 5000-3750 BC

The Uruk period              ca. 3750-3150 BC

The Jemdet Nasr period  ca. 3150-2900 BC

The era of Sumer is the great moment in the onset of higher civilization and shows a hidden resemblance to the rise of modernity. Almost all of the forms of later civilization find their incipient phases in this period. The Sumerians themselves are a somewhat mysterious people of unknown origin, and their civilization was already in part an integrated cultural oikoumene including notably Semitic peoples who will come to the fore in the later unification with Akkad . The result of our first transition is thus already more than a culture or a civilization, but instead a cultural matrix that will endure in many guises until the next phase of our eonic sequence, in the era of the Asssyrians and the Persians.

3300 to 3000 BCE    statistical region of ‘transitional interval’, in the eonic model

3150 to 2900             The Jemdet Nasr period   

2900 to 2350             The Early Dynastic 

2350 to 2193             Sargon, The Akkadian empire

2112 to 2004             Third Dynasty Of Ur

2000 to 1600              Isin-Larsa period, Old Babylonian, Old Assyrian period

1792 to 1750              Hammurabi

1600 to 1000              Middle Babylonian, Assyrian period

1250 to 1150              Dark Ages, etc,…

1000 to 612                Neo-Assyrian period

900   to 600                statistical region of next transition, Israel , Archaic Greece

The Sumerian beginning sets a stage that will witness an immense drama of civilizations inside the cuneiform diffusion field with their ominous long term drift toward empire. The visible chronology of Mesopotamia is misleading because it hides a system of early and vigorous city-states that show in their outstanding myths the basic proto-republicanism of cities where assemblies of citizens govern affairs. The suspicious similarity to what occurs in the Greek transition is remarkable, and there are even some claims for primitive democracy in this period. The trend toward kingship in the period after the indicated transition, then, is one of the indications of mideonic drift. The point is clear from next phase of our eonic sequence.[i]

Triple birth of democracy? We have already seen that the double emergence of democracy along our eonic mainline sequence is not a coincidence, in its timing and placement. It would be astounding if this were really a triple sequence. But so far our data for the early period of our first transitions is merely suggestive of ‘generalized republican city states’, near candidates for democracy.[ii]

In any case, we should always be wary of confusing the mideonic period with the transitional era. As the later example of the Axial Age shows, the brief appearance of democracy is soon over, and the remainder of the mideonic interval shows nothing further in that regard. All we see is empire and monarchic declines. Most of the history that we see is thus in a state of deviation from initial conditions!

Related to this is the question of slavery. Although class division is a phenomenon of the rise of the State, it is also true that efforts to establish social justice are also present from the beginning. But the arising of slavery, we must suspect, is an anomaly. We should be wary here since the trend toward social stratification visible from the Neolithic is clearly in evidence in Egypt . But it is worth considering a slightly different view: we are so conditioned to the standard linear view of history that we tend to see slavery as present from the beginning and overcome only in the modern phase of abolition. And we focus on the classical example of Rome . But in fact our eonic sequence, to a close look, always does things right from the beginning, and the deviations from the mainline are quite different. Slavery is a late outcome, and we can see that our eonic sequence never, as far as we can tell, amplifies or programs the institution of slavery, as macro-action, although the case of the later Axial Age Greeks seems, at first, to contradict this. The arising of slavery is a phenomenon of micro-action. And it arises over time as a pathology of civilization. The exact history of slavery is difficult to sort out, and instances of slavery may have occurred almost primordially in the history of man from the earliest stages, but the evidence suggests that slavery as a formal social institution did not exist at the onset of higher civilization, in either Mesopotamia or Egypt . Yet it becomes a civilizational curse in their wake.

Slavery was an internal development within ancient societies and not an essential element in their origin. None of the pre-classical societies were economically dependent upon slave labour, although most increasingly came to use slaves, as military conquests brought in more and more prisoners of war. [iii]

And yet over time, beginning with anomalous contexts, such as that of captives in war, or debt slavery, the phenomenon amplifies to become a condition of civilization as a whole. By the time of the Roman era the endemic nature of slavery is established, taken for granted, and yet a limit of development is reached. If we examine the Greek era in the Axial interval we can see that it is just one the borderline, and the way that slavery, still inchoate, slips through the cracks, and that all of the innovations of that transitional era are going in the opposite direction, so to speak: the emergence of the idea of freedom is nearly stillborn in the context of a crystallizing slave society, but begins the counter-movement that will reach fulfillment only in modern times.

As we examine the later eonic sequence we notice, in the Axial period, the way in which the writing down of epic literatures emerges in concert with the transitional phase: the Greek example being especially notable. In the case of Sumer we see the obvious fact that writing must come first, and that its invention is directly correlated with the transitional interval, which completes with a still relatively primitive state of writing, too early for epic. But it is not long before a new literature in writing arises. The first great written literature emerges from the cuneiform tradition. The epic of Gilgamesh, or Bilgames in Sumerian,  is the first masterpiece in this great stream. Although appearing relatively late in the early mideonic period, we can follow its earlier traces to the ‘revolution in writing’ sourcing in the Uruk world of the transition, the ‘first city in human history’. All of the classic signs of a relative transform are visible in the typical ‘continuity’ debate over its origins.

Gilgamesh and Writing Writing developed through a long process, beginning with simple notations of images and numbers, needed by traders to account for goods exchanged and received. According to one theory, full-scale writing gradually emerged over the course of several centuries, as symbols accumulated and people began to use them for their phonetic value. Yet widely scattered experimentation would have produced a proliferation of mutually incomprehensible systems, each useless to anyone beyond a given scribe and his circle. An increasing number of historians of writing have come to regard this process as marked by punctuated equilibrium, to use a term from evolutionary biology. In this theory, the transition from established methods of accounting via symbols to true writing entailed an intellectual revolution, carried out by a group of scribes working together between 3300 and 3200 BCE to formulate the basic norms of a workable system.[iv]

This phenomenon speaks for itself in terms of our eonic analysis. The influence of this and other works on the later Old Testament is both a striking case of diffusion and an indication of the way our eonic system acts recursively as it selects strains from its previous steps and remorphs them again in its next transition, albeit cast in the new mode of monotheism.    



   Web:  chap4_4.1.htm


[i] T. Jacobsen, “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia ’, pp. 157-70 in W. L. Moran (ed.), Towards The Image of Tammuz (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1970).

[ii] The existence of assemblies throughout the period succeeding Sumer is explored in John Keane, The Life And Death Of Democracy ( New York : Norton, 2009).

[iii] H. W. F. Saggs, Civilization Before Greece And Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 42.

[iv] David Damrosch, The Buried Book ( New York : Henry Holt, 2006), p. 241, A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, Vol. I & II ( Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003).





Last modified: 09/23/2010