Assyrian Books and Quote Chasing

While reading bits of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles yesterday, I ran across this quote, attributed to “an Assyrian clay tablet from 2800 BC”:

Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.

This made me scratch my head for a couple of reasons. I’ve seen this quote before, but always attributed to Cicero, which sorta-kinda makes sense. Seeing it moved back in time by a few millennia was odd. Also, I wondered what “book” would even mean to people who were primarily writing on clay tablets.

That, plus the fact that another quote earlier in the book was definitely misattributed (I guarantee you that Jon Stewart was not the originator of “If con is the opposite of pro, does that mean Congress is the opposite of progress?”) got me to do a little Googling. Which, in turn, led me to this Open Thread at Making Light, which kicks off with that same quote, and the same two questions I had. And then, weaving in and out of a bunch of other stuff, there’s a fascinating subthread in which several people try and fail to find a definitive source for it (it runs up through comment #509, as far as I can tell). There are lots of different versions, attributing it to sources on a variety of materials, from a number of cultures, with dates spanning several thousand years. The earliest mention of it is from the early 1900′s, and it seems like it’s almost certainly not an accurate description of a real object.

Watching the research process go through that monster comment thread is pretty fascinating, though. I’m not sure if the vast amounts of unrelated material make it more or less interesting than it would be if you picked out just that one thread.

(As for Tyson’s book, I had to put it aside, because I couldn’t tell whether my annoyance at it was the product of real issues with the book, or just a side effect of my generalized annoyance at things I can’t blog about. Since part of my annoyance is mirrored in Doug Natelson’s open letter, I suspect that it’s not just background anger, but I want to be as fair as possible, so I’ll read something else until I calm down, then have another go.)

Comments

  1. #1 Chad Orzel
    April 4, 2012

    In the interest of full disclosure, by the way, I cut-and-pasted that quote from Making Light, and did not double-check that it’s the same formulation Tyson used (there are several small variations in different sources).

  2. #2 Stephen
    April 4, 2012

    The first place I ever heard the progress/congress pun was Gallagher special from the 80′s. *shudder*

  3. #3 Jim Horn
    April 4, 2012

    The first time I remember hearing the supposed quotation was during the ’60s when it was used in defense of the counterculture (i.e. see how long people have been complaining about the young.) At the time I believe it was attributed to one of the Platonic dialogues or possibley Aristotle. I never followed it up, partly because I also note that, whether we talk about Cicero, the Athens of Plato and Socrates, or the Assyrians, in fact their world did change dramstically, in part due to the failures of society that they complained about.
    Today, I feel that the challenge is the total lack of respect for reasoned, evidence based thinking that is displayed by the far right. The world will continue, but if they prevail in the next election, the U.S will quickly become a minor player in the world.

  4. #4 Andy Perrin
    April 4, 2012

    Wait, why can’t you blog about the book? (I’m sure I’m missing the obvious, but help me here.)

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    April 4, 2012

    I could perfectly well blog about the book, but I worry that I’m not able to give it a fair reading because of something entirely unrelated that is pissing me off. The resulting background aggravation level means that I’m sort of cranky about everything at the moment, so things that might not actually be a big deal seem much more annoying than they would were I not grouchy for unrelated reasons.

    The things that are producing this elevated background aggravation, though, are things I can’t blog about.

  6. #6 Elliot
    April 5, 2012

    This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes of all time:

    “The difficult thing with quotes on the internet is verifying them” – Abraham Lincoln

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