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.)