The greatest and most productive age of humanity does not date back to the Greeks, but to ancient civilizations
Aware that we are living in the midst of a technological revolution, we are becoming increasingly concerned with its meaning for the individual and its impact on freedom, on society, and on our political institutions. Side by side with messianic promises of utopia to be ushered in by technology, there are the most dire warnings of man's enslavement by technology, his alienation from himself and from society, and the 250 destruction of all human and political values.
Tremendous though today's technological explosion is, it is hardly greater than the first great revolution technology wrought in human life seven thousand years ago when the first great civilization of man, the irrigation civilization, established itself. First in Mesopotamia, and then in Egypt and in the Indus Valley, and finally in China there appeared a new society and a new polity: the irrigation city, which then rapidly became the irrigation empire. No other change in man's way of life and in his making a living, not even the changes under way today, so completely revolutionized human society and community. In fact, the irrigation civilizations were the beginning of history, if only because they brought writing.
The age of the irrigation civilization was pre-eminently an age of technological innovation. Not until a historical yesterday, the eight eenth century, did technological innovations emerge which were com parable in their scope and impact to those early changes in technology, tools, and processes. Indeed, the technology of man remained essentially unchanged until the eighteenth century insofar as its impact on human life and human society is concerned.
But the irrigation civilizations were not only one of the great ageS of technology. They represent also mankind's greatest and most productive age of social and political innovation. The historian of ideas is prone to go back to ancient Greece, to the Old Testament prophets, or to the China of the early dynasties for the sources of the beliefs that still move men to action. But our fundamental social and political institutions antedate political philosophy by several thousand years. They all were conceived and established in the early dawn of the irrigation civilizations. Any one interested in social and governmental institutions and in social and political processes will increasingly have to go back to those early irrigation cities. And, thanks to the work of archeologists and linguists during the last fifty years, we increasingly have the informa tion, we increasingly know what the irrigation civilizations looked like, we increasingly can go back to them for our understanding both of antiquity and of modern society. For essentially our present-day social and political institutions, practically without exception, were then created and established. Here are a few examples.
1. The irrigation city first established government as a distinct and permanent institution. It established an impersonal government with a clear hierarchical structure in which very soon there arose a genuine bureaucracy—which is of course what enabled the irrigation cities to become irrigation empires.
Even more basic: the irrigation city first conceived of man as a citizen. It had to go beyond the narrow bounds of tribe and clan and had to weld people of very different origins and blood into one community. This required the first super-tribal deity, the god of the city. It also required the first clear distinction between custom and law and the development of an impersonal, abstract, codified legal system. Indeed, practically all legal concepts, whether of criminal or of civil law, go back to the irrigation city. The first great code of law, that of Hammurabi, almost four thousand years ago, would still be applicable to a good deal of legal business in today's highly developed, industrial society.
The irrigation city also first developed a standing army—it had to. For the farmer was defenseless and vulnerable and, above all, immobile The irrigation city which, thanks to its technology, produced a surplus, for the first time in human affairs, was a most attractive target for the barbarian outside the gates, the tribal nomads of steppe and desert. And with the army came specific fighting technology and fighting equipment meet: the war horse and the chariot, the lance and the shield, armor and the catapult.
2. It was in the irrigation city that social classes first developed. It needed people permanently engaged in producing the farm products on which all the city lived; it needed farmers. It needed soldiers to defend them. And it needed a governing class with knowledge, that is, originally a priestly class. Down to the end of the nineteenth century these three "estates" were still considered basic in society.
But at the same time the irrigation city went in for specialization of labor resulting in the emergence of artisans and craftsmen: potters, weavers, metal workers, and so on; and of professional people: scribes, lawyers, judges, physicians.
And because it produced a surplus it first engaged in organized trade which brought with it not only the merchant but money, credit, and a law that extended beyond the city to give protection, predictability, and justice to the stranger, the trader from far away. This, by the way, also made necessary international relations and international law. In fact, there is not very much difference between a nineteenth-century trade treaty and the trade treaties of the irrigation empires of antiquity.
3. The irrigation city first had knowledge, organized it, and institutionalized it. Both because it required considerable knowledge to construct and maintain the complex engineering works that regulated the vital water supply and because it had to manage complex economic transactions stretching over many years and over hundreds of miles, the irrigation city needed records, and this of course meant writing. It needed astronomical data, as it depended on a calendar. It needed means of navigating across sea or desert. It therefore had to organize both the supply of the needed information and its processing into learnable and teachable knowledge. As a result, the irrigation city developed the first schools and the first teachers. It developed the first systematic observation of natural phenomena, indeed, the first approach to nature as something outside of and different from man and governed by its own rational and independent laws.
4. Finally, the irrigation city created the individual. Outside the city, as we can still see from those tribal communities that have survived to our days, only the tribe had existence. The individual as such was neither seen nor paid attention to. In the irrigation city of antiquity, however, the individual became, of necessity, the focal point. And with this emerged not only compassion and the concept of justice; with it emerged the arts as we know them, the poets, and eventually the world relígions and the philosophers.
Thís is, of course, not even the barest sketch. All I wanted to suggest is the scope and magnitude of social and political innovation that underlay the rise of the irrigation civilizations. All I wanted to stress is that the irrigation city was essentially "modern," as we have understood the term, and that, until today, history largely consisted in building on the foundations laid five thousand or more years ago. In fact, one can argue that human history, in the last five thousand years, has largely been an extension of the social and political institutions of the irrigation city to larger and larger areas, that is, to all areas on the globe where water supply is adequate for the systematic tilling of the soil In its beginnings, the irrigation city was the oasis in a tribal, nomadic world By 1900 it was the tribal, nomadic world that had become the exception.
The irrigation civilization was based squarely upon a technological revolution. It can with justice be called a "technological polity." All its institutions were responses to opportunities and challenges that new technology offered. All its institutions were essentially aimed at making the new technology most productive. This demonstrated the profound impact of technology on political, social, economic and cultural history. But while technological change has always had impact on the way men live and work, surely at no other time has technology so literally influenced civilization and culture as during the first technological revolution, that is, during the rise of the irrigation civilizations of antiquity.
Only now, however, is it possible to tell the story. No longer can its neglect be justified. For the facts are available, as I stated before. And we now, because we live in a technological revolution ourselves, are capable of understanding what happened then—at the very dawn of history. There is a big job to be done: to show that the traditional approach to our history—the approach taught in our schools—in which "relevant" history really begins with the Greeks (or with the Chinese dynasties), is short-sighted and distorts the real "ancient civilization."
Source : The First Technological Revolution and Its Lessons (1965)