Down with the Scribes!

Mesopotamian scribes knew a story about the invention of writing. According to this story, the momentous event occurred in the city of Uruk, where King Enmerkar coveted treasures from the neighboring ...

Mesopotamian scribes knew a story about the invention of writing. According to this story, the momentous event occurred in the city of Uruk, where King Enmerkar coveted treasures from the neighboring mountain realm of Aratta—silver, copper, tin, and precious stones. He sent a messenger to the mountains, demanding submission and ransom, but the messenger returned empty-handed. More threats followed from Uruk, and more defiance by Aratta, until the King uttered a threat too long for his messenger to remember. In his rage, the king devised a solution. He took a lump of clay, flattened it into a tablet, came up with a way of pressing the words onto the moist clay, and sent the messenger back to the mountains. The ruler of Aratta stared at the tablet: where was the message? Puzzled, he submitted to Uruk.1

James C. Scott might have used this story as an introduction to his new book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, which originated as the 2011 Tanner Lectures at Harvard University. The book describes the rise of the first urban settlements, in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (Mesopotamia, in Greek, means “land between the rivers”), and focuses on the city of Uruk. The concentration of thousands, even tens of thousands of people in small enclosed spaces was made possible by a new form of intensive agriculture based on cultivated grains. High yields, supplemented by fishing, foraging, and hunting, sustained a division of labor that allowed Mesopotamians to create stunning cities and other cultural monuments that would survive for thousands of years.

For Scott, none of this is cause for celebration. The story of early urbanization that emerges from his book is one of untold miseries. Because agricultural diets were less varied than those of pastoralists or hunters, early urbanites were malnourished. Because city dwellers lived in close proximity to domesticated animals, urban centers became breeding grounds for new diseases. Because urban life demanded an increasing division of labor, over time urbanites became less skilled, even dumber, than hunter-gatherers who survived daily by their wits, and more like the sheep that these meek urban dwellers selected for their “herd behavior.” And because urban settlements sought to extract more and more resources from the agricultural hinterland, cities were hierarchical and exploitative.

It’s a bleak picture, and it makes one wonder why people would want to live in such pest-ridden places of oppression. Scott has an answer: actually, they didn’t. Many urbanites drifted back into non-sedentary life as soon as they could. Many of those who stayed behind did so against their will. The mighty city walls surrounding urban settlements? They were constructed not so much to keep barbarians out as to keep the urbanites in.

In Scott’s view, scribes were the worst. They used their technique of putting words onto clay to keep records of economic transactions. Why? To extract taxes from workers. Scott quotes an ancient Egyptian source: “Be a scribe. It saves you from toil and protects you from all manner of work.”

Scott is so intent on proving the scribal story wrong that he fails to acknowledge that urbanization also had its advantages.

In this view, scribes were not only exploitative and lazy; they also hid the true nature of urbanization. Instead of documenting the misery and exploitation taking place inside the city walls, scribes reproduced tales that celebrated cities as great human achievements. The story about Enmerkar and the invention of writing is a good example, bragging as it does about the sheer power of the written word. Look, scribes were saying, we can subdue illiterate mountain dwellers simply by sending them a clever message they cannot read.

James Scott dislikes such self-serving tales, and for good reasons. The history of urbanization, so closely associated with scribal culture, was undoubtedly written with a pro-urban bias and should be read against the grain, as his anti-agricultural title puns, looking for counterevidence in the distortions and omissions of the written record.

Scott is not the first to undertake this exposé of ancient inequality brought about by technology. The evidence for the ills of sedentary life that he marshals has been around for decades, and not only in the specialized literature. Popular world histories such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) and J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill’s The Human Web (2003) have changed the story of early urbanization by acknowledging its considerable drawbacks and have shown that for protracted periods, many people moved between sedentary and nomadic modes of life.

But Scott does more than correct the record: he argues against the early city-states and contrasts their miseries with images of quick-witted hunter-gatherers who lived healthy lives thanks to their Paleo diets and flatter social structures. Scott is so intent on proving the scribal story wrong that he fails to acknowledge that urbanization also had its advantages. Some people may have been kept in cities involuntarily, as Scott suggests, but urban life could not have attracted newcomers, nor could it have spread across the face of the earth, if it did not have significant advantages, at least in the long run.


Changing Climates of History

By J. R. McNeill

Cities—even city walls—appealed because they provided shelter from the elements and from intruders; they made possible the impressive work of artisans, architects, and artists; and by bringing unheard-of numbers of humans into daily contact, they facilitated not only the spreading of diseases, but also of information. There are good reasons why cities and city-states have instilled pride in their inhabitants, from Uruk through to today. Just because urbanism won—and lived to tell the tale—doesn’t mean we have to dismiss the stories of its instigators as self-serving lies. It’s not enough to distrust the triumphalism of the victors; you must have a sense of why they won.

Take scribes. True, they started as the tax collectors and quartermasters Scott makes them out to be, but they quickly evolved and diversified. Writing set in motion a new phase in cultural evolution because it greatly increased human capacities for storing and transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next and across great distances. It ultimately made possible such things as literature, historiography, and science, the very tools on which Scott, of course, relies as well. He might argue that he is using these tools against their built-in bias; but in the process, he forgets why he is wielding them in the first place.

I suspect that Scott’s animus against scribes is motivated by his opposition to their modern inheritors: overbearing state planners. In his earlier book, Seeing Like a State, Scott attacked utopian schemes, from brutalist housing projects and the gulag to China’s Great Leap Forward, for wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary people.

Scott’s distrust of state power, both ancient and modern, strikes a strange chord in today’s political moment, at least here in the US, where we are witnessing the dismantling of the modern state through relentless anti-government (and anti-tax) campaigns. The success of this campaign makes me much less worried about the self-congratulatory overreach of state bureaucracies than about their fragility—and about the declining authority of modern scribes, from historians to scientists. Haven’t we arrived at a point where it would be a good idea to defend them?

William Marx might have included James Scott among the sworn enemies of literature he considers in his new book, The Hatred of Literature, translated by Nicholas Elliott. A literary scholar based in Paris, Marx tells the story of literature by focusing on those who are against it. “Literature is what is attacked,” writes Marx, happily ceding the definition of literature to its enemies. He begins not in Mesopotamia but in Athens, where the notorious public speaker Socrates (soon to be executed by the state) inaugurated what would become an unbroken tradition of attacking literature.

Marx assembles a heterogeneous group of literature haters, including philosophers, scientists, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He arranges his book, which moves back and forth in (anti)literary history, around four trials: a trial over authority (unfortunately, literary authors don’t have any); truth (hogged by science); morality (lamentably lacking in French novels in particular); society (has no use for literature). “Literature is always the weakest,” Marx writes, almost unnecessarily, because with all these trials and prosecutors, one’s heart goes out to literature, a helpless victim deserving of our pity and assistance.

Defining literature by its enemies is a neat strategy—and thanks to Marx’s light touch, the book is fun to read. I suspect that Marx secretly likes the attacks he describes with so much relish because they dovetail with his own view of literature as standing in opposition to powerful discourses such as philosophy, science, morality, religion, and social utility. “Literary texts cannot be assimilated to any others. They come from another world, and that is exactly why we read them: because they avoid every known interpretative framework.”

Even enemies of literature, including James Scott, can’t help but wield the tools of literature.

This view of literature as the eternal outsider and “punching bag” of powerful forces goes back to the early 19th century and the idea of the poète maudit (accursed poet), the renegade writer living on the margins of society. Perhaps this is why Marx is able to keep up his amused tone even as he details one attack after another. It’s almost like he is cheering his doomed authors on. The harder the self-declared detractors of literature strike, the more wretched and maudit the poets become, the better for Marx’s definition of literature.

The idea of literature as underdog is widespread in literary circles, but it is quite recent, arising only in the era of mass literacy, when those living on the margins of society gained access to the literary world. This idea does not hold true for the ancient world. What Socrates attacked was not literature in the modern sense. Homer’s epics were not politically ineffective, nor were they distant from religion, philosophy, or education: they were seen as authoritative in all of these fields, Socrates’s critique notwithstanding.

Indeed, for much of the roughly four thousand years of literature to date, Scott’s view of scribal taskmasters is closer to the mark. Perhaps Marx should have begun his study in Mesopotamia, where the proximity of scribes and power would have been much harder to miss. I suspect that among all possible attacks on literature, Scott’s would be most painful to Marx: it would undermine the strength he sees in literature’s supposed weakness.


The Road to the Holy Mountain

By Martin Puchner

Literature does not come “from another world”; it comes from ours. In fact, it helped create our world to a considerable extent, beginning in Mesopotamia, where some of Scott’s tax collectors used writing for a completely new purpose: to write down a story. As I detail in my recent book The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization, this intersection of storytelling and writing technologies created literature—written stories—introducing a new force into world history.

Over the next four thousand years, different kinds of texts emerged from that intersection, including what we now, retrospectively, call sacred scripture, epic histories, and political narratives. Aided by new technologies such as the phonetic alphabet, paper, parchment, and print, written stories helped humans orient themselves in the world; they provided answers to fundamental questions; they transmitted knowledge and experience; they led to cognitive insights into human motivation; they conjured lost worlds for future readers; and they allowed us access to ancient wisdom. It was the power, not the weakness, of literature that attracted enemies. But even those enemies of literature, including James Scott, couldn’t help but wield the tools of literature. In doing so, they not only paid homage to literature but also, unwittingly, made it stronger.

Today, we’re living through another revolution in writing technologies, which, like earlier ones, is accompanied by worries about the declining power of literature. We need not worry: more texts are now being produced by more people than ever before. The written world is bound to expand, and change, yet again.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus icon

  1. Based on “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” in Epics of Sumerian Kings: The Matter of Aratta, edited by J. L. J. Vanstiphout and Jerrold Cooper (University of Michigan Library, 2003), pp. 49–96.
Featured image: Nebamun Supervising Estate Activities, Tomb of Nebamun (detail). This facsimile copies a wall painting from the tomb of a man named Nebamun who lived in the middle of Egypt’s Dynasty 18 (about 1475 BCE). In this detail, Nebamun, seated at the right, watches while a scribe named Djenutynefer (kneeling in front of him) records the branding of cattle. Metropolitan Museum of Art