Developing a coherent system of symbols allowed a writer to convey ideas to a reader across space and time.
Humans only came to the revolutionary invention of writing some 5,000 years ago almost simultaneously in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Later, early Chinese and Mesoamericans would independently evolve writing systems of their own.
Curators of the Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond exhibit (http://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/special/writing) on display at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago recently, suggest all other writing systems likely emerged from these first four.
Archeological samples of all four systems from tomb tags and labels of the first kings of Egypt dating from 3320 BC, a Mayan hieroglyphic cylinder stone from Bonampak, Mexico, to one of the earliest cuneiform tablets dated at 3200 BC from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk on the Euphrates River in present day Iraq were on display.
Early pictographic forms, where a sign looked like the word it represented, or more abstract logographic writing in which a stylized series of impressions on a clay tablet might similarly convey a syllable or a whole word had evolved by 1800 BC into the earliest currently known alphabetic system.
Exhibit scholars now believe the Canaanites, then living on the Sinai peninsula, invented their pioneering West Semitic alphabet from hieratic script, a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Over the next several hundred years their innovation rapidly spread through Palestine influencing emerging peoples, like the Israelites, and on into Phoenicia then to Greece. Each new people touched by the idea put their own individual stamp on it.
“The invention of writing and of a convenient system of records has had a greater influence in uplifting the human race than any other intellectual achievement in the career of man,” said J. H. Breasted, a founder of the Oriental Institute, in his classic 1926 book The Conquest of Civilization.
However this came with a caveat.
In a mythological dialogue recorded by Plato in his work Phaedrus, the Egyptian god Amun confronts Thoth, the deity seen as the father of letters.
Amun chides Thoth, “You have invented an elixir, not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are, for the most part, ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
Plato’s recounting, around 370 BC, of this ancient tale lays bare a very simple truth as relevant today as it was for our ancestors. Knowledge alone does not guarantee its holder wisdom. Similarly, information by itself may not constitute real knowledge.
As Amun implies instruction is key.
How do we interpret the overwhelming daily bombardment of information we are exposed to?
How can we develop the critical thinking skills necessary to understand the complex world around us today?
The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed put the challenge out clearly.
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Which path are we on?
Writing opened a key door for humanity. Now with near global literacy we have the chance, based on it, to develop a critically needed planet-saving consciousness.
Can we collectively take the steps that move us to from knowledge to wisdom?
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.