The Egyptians

The Egyptians developed their civilization at roughly the same time as the Mesopotamian civilization, although they achieved a larger political entity than the Mesopotamians and were in a number of aspects always half a step ahead of the Mesopotamians. Scholars believe, however, that writing was first developed in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians copied the idea from them. As a result, Egyptian writing was morphemic just like the Mesopotamian writing. The Egyptians took an idea that the Mesopotamians had invented and really ran with it: they used certain syllables using their phonetic values, expecting the reader to figure out the meaning of the sentence from phonetic reasoning. Here’s an example using a fake hieroglyphic system based on English:


At first glance, this is nonsense. But if you say it out loud, it becomes "I eight peace pi" -- I ate a piece of pie. This is called a rebus and the Egyptians used this sort of thing heavily; it allowed them to greatly extend their hieroglyphic system without adding thousands of new morphemes.

Writing played a larger role in Egyptian society than in Mesopotamian society, because Egypt was politically united earlier than Mesopotamia, and was strung out over a greater distance. Political organization was more difficult, and so writing was needed in Egyptian life earlier than in Mesopotamia. Moreover, the Nile farmland was particularly fertile, and so there was a large agricultural surplus that could support a larger society of specialists. Writing was therefore not confined to a specialist class of pure scribes; most of the important functionaries could read basic hieroglyphic (although the scribes were still necessary for the more complex documents). Moreover, writing was used for more than bills of lading. All government business was carried out in writing, with boats going up and down the Nile carrying the reports, requests, and instructions necessary to keep Egypt running smoothly.

Now, the Egyptians had a particular interest in geometry, because the Nile River, source of their bounty, inundated the lowlands every year, depositing a lovely fertile layer of sediment upon the fields. Unfortunately, these floods also destroyed all boundary line markers. Before the floods, every peasant’s field was neatly marked off from everybody else’s; after the floods, there was just a flat expanse of dried mud, devoid of any indications of who went where. They therefore developed geometric techniques to permit re-drawing the field boundaries precisely every year. Later, they applied and expanded their knowledge of geometry to further their massive architectural projects. Many of these projects required extensive calculations. The organizers needed to determine how many workers would be required, how much food and water would have to be provided every day, how much transport capacity would be required to handle this, and all manner of other logistic factors. In response to this, they developed something like algebra -- the first formal sequential logic in human history. They didn’t take it very far -- just far enough to handle the simple computations they needed done. Their computational system didn’t use variables in the way we use them. Imagine all those story problems that bedeviled you in first year algebra. “If Johnny has 16 rounds of ammunition and needs four rounds to kill each schoolmate or teacher, how many people can Johnny kill?” Nowadays we use our x’s and y’s and plug numbers into the equations, but the Egyptians weren’t that abstract. Their arithmetic books simply declared that, in such a situation, you divided 16 by 4 to get 4 -- and that was that. It wasn’t quite symbolic algebra, but it was a big step forward. The Egyptians of four thousand years ago deserve credit for one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of human thought.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians never went any further. They did not develop a code of laws until quite late in their history; prior to that, crime and civil disputes were dealt with at a local level according to local custom. Government officials apparently did everything by fiat, rather than by a standardized system of laws. Apparently there was only one law: be good or you’ll punished. The definition of “good” and “punishment” were left up to local officials. All disputes, civil and criminal, were resolved on the basis of prima facie examination of documents and the testimony of witnesses. The extent of reliance on testimony is revealed by the heavy use of torture to force the “truth” out of miscreants. If the magistrates didn’t have ironclad testimony from another witness, they needed a confession, and they certainly did not scruple to resort to as much torture as was necessary to get that confession. Nowadays we look on such practices as barbaric, but that is only because we have resources available to us that permit the resolution of disputes without reliance on the confession of the accused. If we were forced to rely solely on confessions without coercion, we simply wouldn’t be able to convict anybody, and crimes would be unpunishable. The Egyptians did what they had to do to keep society running.

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