BMCR 2017.05.38

The Adventure of the Human Intellect: Self, Society, and the Divine in Ancient World Cultures. The ancient world: comparative histories

, The Adventure of the Human Intellect: Self, Society, and the Divine in Ancient World Cultures. The ancient world: comparative histories. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. xiii, 266. ISBN 9781119162551. $149.95.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

In 1946, Henri Frankfort, H. A. Groenewegen-Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin published The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay of Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East. 1 The book was a smash success and became, to quote Rochberg and Raaflaub’s introduction to the present volume, “a staple in Western Civilization and other introductory courses taken by generations of college students.” (p. 1) The book took a broad-brush cognitive-historical approach to Near-Eastern societies, and tried to reconstruct the—as they put it—“mythopoeic” worldview of those cultures in contrast to the abstract and rationalistic worldview supposedly pioneered in ancient Greece. Hugely influential, the book is also, seventy years later, highly problematic and quite outdated both in evidence and approach, as Rochberg shows so clearly (pp. 16-28). And so, we are told, (p. xiii) both she and Raaflaub independently hit on the idea to come up with a modern remake of the classic. Given the status and exceptionally long life of The Intellectual Adventure, this is an ambitious aim. Raaflaub has further raised the bar for the present volume, including chapters not just on ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel, but also on Greece, Rome, China, India, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and Native North Americans (for full list of chapters and authors, see the end of this review). This is a truly global work that will be a welcome addition to a range of intellectual history and World-Civ courses.

Like any and every edited collection, this book has its ups and its downs, although (especially given my general allergy to broad-brush intellectual history) it is notable that this book was significantly more up than down. To see the magnitude of the task set before the book’s authors, consider what they have to say of its scope. Olivier sums up the mission thus: to consider “fundamental questions such as the place of humankind in the cosmos, its ties with the gods, and the place of the individual in the framework of a specific vision of the world.” (p. 234) Each author then had twenty-or-so pages to try and say something on this for one or more cultures (“China” is hardly a monolith in antiquity for example, but it makes up a single chapter in this volume), and a time span of anywhere from half a millennium to two or more. Several authors in the volume thoughtfully reflect on what Nabokov in his chapter calls the ‘domain’ of the investigation: in looking at the intellectual adventure of a society, do we examine “economic subsistence, social organization, moral order, political activity, or scientific investigation?” (p. 242)—he does not mention myth, religion, cosmology, or cosmogony in his list, but one assumes that for him they would fall under some combination of his other categories.

Different chapters handle the challenge differently. Some limit their discussion to single topics, more or less. Kaster and Konstan’s excellent chapter on Rome, for instance, looks at Roman thinking on virtue and Rome’s moral and legal values as a window into at least one part of that culture’s worldview. Nabokov and Jamison likewise offer topic-limited (and coincidentally enthralling) investigations of Native North America and India, respectively. Other chapters take broader approaches, but do so thoughtfully and skillfully. If I had to summarize, I would say that the book is in general an excellent resource, well put together and comprehensive in all the right ways.

But three of the chapters brought out the critic in me for one reason or another, two for more trivial reasons, the third because an important part of it struck me as wrong-footed. To begin at the trivial end, I note that, of the chapters that actually discuss the different ancient cultures—which is the real substance of the book and the part that will be assigned course reading—these only begin on page 73 of the volume. The previous 72 pages consist of an introduction to the volume as a whole (including a brief discussion of Frankfort et al.), a chapter by Rochberg that critiques Frankfort et al., and then a long chapter by Machinist that is a discussion of, tribute to, and contextualizing of Frankfort et al. Coming in at fully twice the page count of the next-longest chapter in the volume and following as it does the thorough discussion in Rochberg’s chapter, Machinist’s chapter comes across as both too long and too repetitive of much of the earlier material. I can see the point of the tribute and context aspects of it, but it would have been profitable to have shortened it considerably.

My second criticism concerns Houston’s chapter on the Maya. Most authors of the volume, conscious that many readers will be coming to their material for the first time, take some pains to outline what the sources are for their culture, what its limitations may be, and discuss what their approach will be. Houston never sufficiently does this (the fact that we only have four surviving codices in the language would seem to me to be a significant point to have remarked on, for example). Moreover, Houston alludes to, but never quite states, the fact that the Mayan writing system was only very recently deciphered and that this decipherment, while substantial, remains in progress to some extent. The biggest problem, though, was that it was frequently difficult to follow what he was talking about, which makes this chapter an outlier from the rest of the book. Although I have no degrees on the Maya, I do write as someone who has done more than his fair share of amateur reading about their culture and language, who has spent thoughtful time at a dozen or more of their archaeological sites, and who (now in a professional context) has done a fair bit of work on calendars and naked-eye astronomy. If I had trouble following a chapter on calendars and (partly) on stars, I can’t think that it’s suitably written for the book’s target audience.

I hinted above that I had initially approached the book with some scepticism just because of my worry about the kinds of essentializing overgeneralizations one still too often finds in books that attempt to do too much. I was pleasantly surprised by this volume, but one chapter, I thought, did fall into the trap to some extent. This is Allen’s chapter on the Egyptians, which argues that the Egyptians had a fundamentally different way of thinking, of actually reasoning, than we do now. To be sure, this is not the entire substance of Allen’s chapter, and there is in fact much of interest in it, but let me try and explain my objection to this particular conclusion.

Allen presents to us four distinct Egyptian cosmogonies, telling us that “early Egyptologists understood [these] as competing theological systems . . . but the four systems should be seen less as rival theologies than as complementary views of a remarkably coherent understanding of the creation.” If his point were simply that there is a way of reading the four competing cosmogonies such that they can be understood as complementary or synergistic rather than as mutually exclusive, that would have been one thing. But instead—and here is what I see as the contentious part—he makes sweeping generalizations about how whole cultures (theirs and ours) use reason. To my mind, this kind of methodology is a large part of what makes the original Frankfort volume feel so dated, and it seems wrong to resurrect it here. Indeed, Allen even finds an ally in Frankfort himself, citing his 1948 Kingship and the Gods as having anticipated Allen’s conclusion. That conclusion? Allen claims that the Egyptians use a “multivalent logic of inclusion” that stands in stark contrast to “the modern . . . univalent [by which Allen surely means bivalent] logic of exclusion.” (p. 73)

The simple objection here is twofold: the first is to point out that we know that the Egyptians were in fact perfectly capable of using bivalent logic in all kinds of contexts (law and mathematics spring to mind, but there are many others), and these are many of the same contexts where we today use bivalent logic. Similarly—and this is particularly true when it comes to matters of religion and cosmogony —many of us today are patently multivalent. It is not just that some people in my town believe in science and some different people in my town believe in religion; it is that the vast majority of them believe in science and religion simultaneously. According to a Gallup poll from June 2016, 89% of Americans believe in “God or a universal spirit.”2 Let me acknowledge here that the bivalent logic of science does not argue for a belief in God. Scientists, however—as people—often do. And that is precisely the point where these people become multivalent logicians: one cosmogony says big bang; one cosmogony says God. Similarly, every modern hospital that I have ever been in has, somewhere in its halls, an interfaith chapel. Amidst all the machines and medicines and other scientific wonders of the modern age, there is prayer. Multivalent logic flourishes and is a basic characteristic of human—ancient and modern—nature. As with the bivalent legal logic of the Egyptians, context is everything. By making Egyptians then one kind of logician and we moderns now another, Allen risks essentializing something that is more interesting and more accurate when left more nuanced, more complicated. Instead of “the Egyptian view” (79, emphasis mine), I prefer the more nuanced “to some thinkers…” (Foster in the present volume, 96) coupled with explicit reflection on context.

Finally, a note on periodization. Until we reach the section on the new world, the book stays firmly rooted in ancient cultures and sources as traditionally understood. But when we come to the new world, where sixteenth-century Spanish raiders and missionaries came into contact with the actual peoples who had (in some cases recently) composed the primary sources, we have to be more flexible with our notion of what counts as ‘ancient,’ for better or for worse. Thus Olivier in the chapter on Aztecs includes myths recounted to informants as late as the sixteenth and, indeed, even the twentieth century. Nabokov, in his chapter on Native North Americans comes to tackle the question of intellectual adventure by looking at the shamanic experiences of a handful of Native individuals from various places. Again, in this instance we are not going very far back in time at all. Nabokov’s sources are none earlier than the 19th century and some are even contemporary—which is to say fully modern—Native Americans. Nabokov is conscious of the dangers of projecting backwards from such sources, to be sure, but part of his argument is that shamanism as a practice is very old indeed and that how it stands in a society, how it produces knowledge and guidance for that society, as well as the kinds of knowledge and guidance it produces, are in some ways time- and culture-independent. Maybe. But something here bothers me, something I find difficult to articulate, about talking to a modern person about a modern-day practice in order to reconstruct something ancient about that person’s culture. Nabokov knows this—he says so explicitly—so perhaps I should let it go and simply leave it for what it is. His chapter is, in any case, an absolutely engrossing read and tells its story in the most delightfully—I want to say lateral —way. It’s a most impressive piece of writing.

So: a few nits to pick here and there, but all in all a very good volume that will serve its intended audience well. I cannot judge the scholarship across the board—no single reader could—but where I was qualified to do so it was certainly solid, and where I was not I can at least say that the reading was often good, and occasionally fantastic.

Authors and titles

Francesca Rochberg and Kurt A. Raaflaub, Introduction
1. Francesca Rochberg, A Critique of the Cognitive-historical Thesis of The Intellectual Adventure
2. Peter Machinist, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: Revisiting a Classic
3. James P. Allen, The World of Ancient Egyptian Thought
4. Benjamin R. Foster, On Speculative Thought in Ancient Mesopotamia
5. Ryan Byrne, Self, Substance, and Social Metaphysics: The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Israel and Judah
6. Kurt A. Raaflaub, Ancient Greece: Man the Measure of All Things
7. Robert A. Kaster and David Konstan, The Thought-World of Ancient Rome: A Delicate Balancing Act
8. Lisa Raphals, Self, Cosmos, and Agency in Early China
9. Stephanie W. Jamison, Vedic India: Thinking and Doing
10. Stephen Houston, “Chronosophy” in Classic Maya Thought
11. Guilhelm Olivier, The Word, Sacrifice, and Divination: Aztec Man in the Realm of the Gods
12. Peter Nabokov, Night Thoughts and Spiritual Adventures: Native North America


1. Frankfort, Henry, H. A. Groenewegen-Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin published The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay in Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago, 1946).

2. Accessed May 2, 2017.