Origins: The Ancient near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions

Origins: The Ancient near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions

Origins: The Ancient near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions

Origins: The Ancient near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions

Excerpt

In 1975 and again in 1979, an ambitious book appeared under the title The Timetables of History. It was written by Bernard Grun and was, by its own acknowledgement, "based on Werner Stein's Kulturfahrplan." It bravely attempted to highlight outstanding events in all parts of the world under the headings, respectively, of history and politics, literature and theater, religion philosophy and learning, visual arts, music, science technology and growth, and daily life. For the more recent past it ventured to do this decade by decade or even year by year, thus providing a useful synchronic and synoptic view of human accomplishments and setbacks across the face of the globe. But for earlier eras, it was necessarily and desperately abbreviated. It covered the last two thousand years of prehistory and the first two thousand years of history (5000–1000 B.C.) in four facing pages. It thus could hardly hope to live up to the promise of its preface: "The historian in his library … has the opportunity to sort out origins and consequences." That preface and its optimistic programmatic statement came from the pen of Daniel J. Boorstin.

Daniel J. Boorstin took a B.A. summa cum laude at Harvard, received his Ph.D. from Yale University, and taught for twenty-five years at the University of Chicago before becoming Librarian of Congress in 1975. In 1983 he published The Discoverers, subtitled "A history of man's search to know his world and himself." I bought his book as soon as it appeared, took it with me to Cape Cod, and read it with fascination, not only because I have ties to Harvard, Yale and Chicago in my own right, but also because of the ground he covered. In four books within the one thick volume, he dealt successively with "Time," "The Earth and the Seas," "Nature," and "Society." Each time he traced the history of humanity's dawning awareness of the world around it, and its ceaseless efforts to organize its observations into an intelligible system. What impressed me most was his detailed chronicling of the painfully slow yet doggedly persistent way in which human beings have pursued these objectives. What I missed most was an adequate place for the ancient Near Eastern contribution to many of the insights and inventions that have given us the world as we know it today. (Much the same characterization applies to the companion volume, The Creators, published in 1992, though with no-

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