Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.

The Teller and Tale United


The Tale of Sinuhe: and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC, Anonymous, translated by R B Parkinson, published by Oxford University Press

The Tale of Sinuhe is a Middle Egyptian story written around 2000 BC.  Many copies, mostly fragmentary, survive which attest to its great popularity. Sinuhe is a high Egyptian official who flees his own country, and, in first person, relates the events of his travels and of his eventual return home where he awaits his own burial in a tomb built for him. The story is highly evocative to us because of the compelling, unselfconscious nature of the way Sinuhe tells his tale.  Despite the distance of 4000 years, Sinuhe addresses us in a manner so direct that he places himself amongst us. He speaks from a deceased civilization to the members of one that still exists. What else, besides his tale, might link us to Sinuhe?

Agriculture lies at the bedrock of what we view as civilization. In fact, it forms the basis for every civilization that ever existed. And many of those civilizations have gone and no longer exist. As will our own in time.

Agriculture is so important to a civilized society that it is surprising that it is not taught more widely. Actually, I should correct that. It is not taught at all as a general subject. Yes, agronomists and the like study it. But the likes of you and I have never been, and, as a consequence, something so fundamental to our well being and so foundational to society, we take completely for granted.

Consider for a moment, if you will, how important agriculture is. We need to do this since the mechanisation of agriculture has hidden it from us inside factory buildings and behind fences and hedges. We need to do this since we give hardly a thought to the vast history and development that allows us daily to put its products into our mouths. Agriculture comprises essentially two activities: plant cultivation and animal husbandry. With each, humankind has, over the millennia, engaged in a vast Darwinian process whereby we have domesticated plant and animal species to best adapt each species for our purposes. True, with the agricultural revolution we mechanized both.

The domestication of animals is fairly straightforward: herding, birthing, and pasturing being the main activities, along with warding off prey, providing shelter during inclement weather, and guarding against disease. Animal husbandry on its own does not necessarily make for a civilization. In fact, it simply moves a group from being hunter-gatherers to pastoralists. And pastoralism, as a way of life, does not necessarily mean settling in one place, the absolute central feature of a civilization. On the contrary, the herders can migrate with the animals to and fro from winter to summer pasture grounds.

Plant cultivation, on the other hand, is of a different order. Land has to be occupied that is suitable for a particular crop. The land has to be cleared and prepared. Tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting and storage all have to follow each other in a carefully controlled sequence. The seasons and weather are of prime interest. Thus time is a controlling and ruling factor. Natural disasters and disease are a constant menace. The zodiac became a carefully observed calendar for the agriculturists.

Animal husbandry is not labour intensive, plant cultivation is. Animal husbandry does not require a settled existence, though it may. Plant cultivation absolutely does.

Soil depletion, climate change, such as that arising from a river course change, or being forced off the land by invaders may, in turn, force a search for fresh arable land. But plant cultivation absolutely requires a settled existence.

The adoption of plant cultivation forces on the adopters a dramatic change of life style, from one of constant movement as hunter-gathers or animal husbanders, perpetually following the food, to a sedentary way of life tied to the vagaries of crop production.

A whole series of artifacts, changes and events are required to bring about successful plant cultivation for a community.

Crops have to be carefully hoarded to guard against future crop loss due to weather or disease. A surplus of crop is a basic requirement. Who says how much surplus and who safeguards that surplus?

Each member of the community growing his or her own crop is not an effective use of the land or of production. The idea of communal effort comes into play, as does labour specialization. Then, how is the crop distributed? Weights and measures are required.

To avoid the problems of monotony of diet and of mono-crop production, multiple crops will be cultivated or exchanged with adjacent communities. Trading by means of barter or money occurs. A value is attached to each crop which will vary based on supply and demand.

The crop counters and weighers in highly successful communities, that is ones with large or vast crop productions, will become specialists.

And here we come to why this essay has started by looking at agriculture. Because the demands of agriculture led to writing.

To be sure, writing at first restricted itself to the creation of crop lists and the careful recording of surpluses. But crop production itself led to an enhanced vocabulary.

The language and writing that Sinuhe uses (The Tale of Sinuhe: and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC, Anonymous, translated by R B Parkinson) grew out of just these developments.

Not all neighbouring communities were necessarily crop producers, and therefore did not need writing. But humans are great imitators. When London first introduced traffic lights in the 1920s, the idea spread quickly throughout the land and elsewhere. The ARPA-Net became the World Wide Web.

Neighbouring communities adopted the writing of another group, adapting it to meet the consonantal needs of their own language.

Writing began as signs and symbols but evolved into a cursive form to offer greater flexibility, and to reflect the language it was being used to express.

Archeology has dug up the past for the better part of two centuries, beginning in a systematic way with Napoleon in Egypt.

But archeology does not tell us from the remains how the people were. Bogman (Tollund, Denmark, 1950) and Iceman (Schalstal, Austria, 1991) cannot speak to us, however well preserved they are.

But Sinuhe is building himself a tomb, he tells us in The Tale of Sinuhe. And, since Sinuhe’s tale is autobiographical, why should we not believe him?

Imagine then, if we found his tomb. If we found the man. We can match man and voice. We can hear and see Sinuhe tell his tale. After 4000 years teller and tale are united.

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