The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer described this document in 1956 in his book History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, which was originally published under the title From the Tablets of Sumer. Pierre Goodrich, a successful Indiana businessman, read this book; and when he founded the Liberty Fund to promote the study of liberty, he decided that the cuneiform symbol for amagi should be the logo for Liberty Fund.
Goodrich's search for the first word for liberty might be considered part of the search for the origins of the word "liberalism," which has been the subject of a previous post.
Goodrich used amagi in his design for what became the Goodrich Seminar Room in the Lilly Library of Wabash College in Indiana. At the center of the room is a large circular table. Around the room at the bottom of the walls are library shelves full of books. Etched into the high limestone walls of the room are the names of the writings and authors that Goodrich identified as contributing the most to our understanding of liberty and responsibility. The names are arranged chronologically to show the history of the idea of liberty. It shows the influence of Kramer's book in beginning in ancient Mesopotamia--first the symbol amagi and then the Ur-Nammu Code, Urukagina, Gilgamesh, and Hammurabi's Code.
I visited this room some years ago as part of a Liberty Fund conference. It's a pilgrimage to Mecca for libertarians.
You can take an interactive virtual tour of the Goodrich Seminar Room at the Liberty Fund website.
Goodrich was implicitly claiming that liberty as understood by classical liberals like himself was not a modern cultural invention of Western culture, because it was actually a human universal, rooted in human nature, that could be seen in the written records of the earliest states that arose first in Mesopotamia. And, consequently, the walls of this seminar room present the evolutionary history of human liberty beginning around 2400 B.C. in Sumer on the east wall and then moving through history across the south, west, and north walls (including 88 people such as Moses, Zarathustra, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Aquinas, Locke, and Hume) and ending in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence on the right side of the north wall.
There are two symbols on the walls. On the left end of the east wall, there is a symbol of the Sun. It's not clear whether this Sun of liberty is rising at the beginning of the history or setting at the end. The other symbol is a large cross on the west wall. Oddly, this is not located next to the name of Jesus Christ. It is located on the timeline between 300 A.D. and 400 A.D. Is this location in time connected to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312, or to the proclamation in 393 by Emperor Theodosius I that all citizens should be Christians?
One has to wonder about Goodrich's principles of inclusion and exclusion. For example, he includes Socrates and Aristotle, but excludes Plato. He includes Origen, Ambrose, Boethius, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Aquinas, but excludes Augustine. He includes Savonarola, but excludes Machiavelli. He includes Locke, but excludes Hobbes and Rousseau. He includes two forms of religious singing--Roman chant (also called Gregorian chant) and Reformation chorale--but excludes all other forms of music, unless one considers Psalms to be a form of religious singing.
And why does he stop with the Declaration of Independence? Is he suggesting that the Declaration is the fullest expression of the theory and practice of liberty, and as such the consummation of the history of liberty that began in ancient Mesopotamia? Is this, in some way, the end of history?
When I was in this room, I thought about the fact that almost everything there depends on writing and written documents, beginning with amagi, a word in the first system of writing invented by human beings. (Later, there were three other independent inventions of writing--in Egypt, China, and Mayan Mesoamerica.) Was there a history of liberty before the invention of writing? Is writing necessary for the thoughtful exploration of the meaning of liberty, which had already arisen in an unreflective way in human experience before writing was invented? Does the invention of writing depend on the invention of the state? After all, for 500 years or more, the only purpose for cuneiform writing was bureaucratic bookkeeping for the state. But doesn't the state threaten the liberty enjoyed in stateless societies? Beginning in ancient Mesopotamia, only a tiny elite of scribes could read and write; and even up to the nineteenth century, most human beings were illiterate. If thinking about liberty depends on writing, does that mean that until recently most human beings could not think very deeply about liberty? Does human emancipation depend upon the emancipation of the mind through literacy and literate education? Is that what we mean by liberal education? Is that why Liberty Fund is organized around reading, discussing, and publishing written texts that illuminate the idea and practice of liberty? Are these the kind of questions Goodrich wanted his Seminar Room to evoke?
My question here is whether Goodrich was right in locating the starting point for liberty in ancient Mesopotamia. In doing this, Goodrich denied the traditional idea of "Oriental Despotism." Beginning in ancient Greece, with Aeschylus and Herodotus, it has been common to contrast Eastern despotism and Greek liberty, so that liberty was seen as an innovation of the ancient Greeks. Later, those like Hegel saw modern liberty as emerging only with the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution: in the ancient Orient, only one person--the ruling despot--was free; in ancient Greece and Rome, some people--the class of citizens--was free; only in the modern West were all people, in principle at least, declared to be free. Thus, all of human history is the history of the unfolding of the idea of liberty.
Karl Marx suggested that when agrarian societies first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient China, agriculture in those arid parts of the world depended upon bureaucratically planned irrigation systems, which centralized power in the hands of despotic rulers, and he called this the Asiatic Mode of Production. Later, Karl Wittfogel elaborated this idea in Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) as the "hydraulic theory" of ancient despotism.
Recently, however, Sumerologists have pointed to evidence that agriculture arose in the rich alluvial areas of southern Mesopotamia where the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided the conditions for growing grain, without any need for complex irrigation systems, and this supported agrarian settlements for two thousand years before the appearance of the earliest states (see Jennifer Pournelle's Marshland of Cities: Deltaic Landscapes and the Evolution of Early Mesopotamian Civilization, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego; and her "Physical Geography," in Harriet Crawford, ed., The Sumerian World [Routledge, 2017], 13-32).
As these maps indicate, archaeologists now believe that in ancient Mesopotamia, the northern shoreline of the Persian Gulf was much farther north than it is today, so that what is today the city of Basra in southern Iraq would have been underwater, and the ancient cities of Lagash, Larsa, Uruk, and Ur would have been on or near the shoreline. Isolated agrarian settlements existed in the southern alluvium near the Persian Gulf around 5,200 B.C., at least two thousand years before the earliest states such as Uruk emerged around 3,200 B.C.
Moreover, some scholars now argue, even the early Mesopotamian states left a written record that shows both the idea and the reality of liberty, long before the Greek city-states. Daniel Snell has argued for this in his book Flight and Freedom in the Ancient Near East (Brill, 2001). Eva von Dassow has argued for this in her book chapter--"Freedom in Ancient Near Eastern Societies," in Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson, eds., Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (2011), 205-24. Von Dassow, a professor of ancient Near Eastern history at the University of Minnesota, is now working on a book elaborating her reasoning.
If we're persuaded by this position, then we would have to say that Goodrich was right to start his history of liberty with amagi in the ancient Mesopotamian documents. We could also conclude from this, as Snell does, that this shows the desire for liberty to be a human universal of evolved human nature, just as Goodrich claimed, and so the history of liberty has been the progressive expression of that natural desire.
Liberty understood as liberation from constraint and oppression was manifest in the rhetoric of Mesopotamian kings like Urukagina, who promised to release their people from excessive taxation, debt servitude, and oppressive power. This release from encumbrance and subordination was understood as a restoration to an original state of liberty, which was expressed in the Sumerian word amagi and the Akkadian word andurarum. Amagi literally meant "return to mother," and it acquired the connotation of "emancipation" or "freedom."
What did this mean in Urukagina's Lagash? I will follow Kramer's interpretation, since this so influenced Goodrich, but I know that there are other interpretations among the scholars of the ancient Near East. Kramer reports: "By and large, the inhabitants of Lagash were farmers and cattle breeders, boatmen and fishermen, merchants and craftsmen. Its economy was mixed--partly socialistic and state-controlled, and partly capitalistic and free" (46). While in principle, the soil belonged to the city god and his temple, much of the land was the private property of individuals. Much of the economic life was organized through free markets and free trade.
But then a ruling dynasty over Lagash was established by Ur-Nanshe around 2500 B.C. These rulers expanded their power over Sumer through bloody wars of conquest, which were successful for almost a century. But then Lagash was weakened by attacks from other city-states, and particularly from the city of Umma. To raise and support armies, the rulers of Lagash increased taxes and appropriated property belonging to the temple. Palace bureaucrats and tax collectors were everywhere. And those who could not pay their taxes could be put into debt slavery.
When Urukagina came to power, he made a special covenant with Ningirsu, the god of Lagash, that he would liberate the people of Lagash from the oppression of the Ur-Nanshe dynasty. He removed many of the bureaucratic controls over the economy, he restored to the temple the property that had been seized, he reduced the taxes, and he released those who had been put into debt slavery. This was a "return to mother" in the sense that he restored the people of Lagash to their original condition of liberty through what Kramer called "freedom under law."
And yet in less than ten years, Urukagina was overthrown and Lagash conquered by Lugalzaggisi, the ruler of Umma, who then became the king of Sumer for a brief time. So the final lesson here might be that achieving and preserving liberty depends on the contingencies of warfare.
Goodrich stressed the importance of law for Mesopotamian liberty by including two law collections--the Laws of Ur-Namma and Hammurabi's Code. (Good translations of these texts can be found in Martha T. Roth's Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor [Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997].)
King Ur-Namma of Ur liberated the city of Ur from being ruled by the city of Uruk. During his reign (2112-2095 B.C.), he founded the Third Dynasty of Ur, which united all the city-states of both southern and northern Mesopotamia. His collection of laws is the oldest such collection ever found. The tablets are fragmentary, however, and only the prologue and fewer than forty laws have been preserved.
The Laws of Hammurabi were compiled toward the end of the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), who was the sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon. This collection of laws is the longest and best preserved of the law collections from Mesopotamia. It consists of a prologue, as many as 300 laws, and an epilogue. This collection was copied and recopied over centuries in various parts of Mesopotamia. It was made world famous by the excavation in 1901-1902 of the black stone stela that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The prologues of both the Laws of Ur-Namma and the Laws of Hammurabi invoke the gods An and Enlil as the divine source of the king's authority. These gods are preeminent in the Sumerian creation myth that we know from the prologue to the Gilgamesh Epic. In the beginning, there was only Nammu, the primeval sea. Then Nammu gave birth to An, the sky, and Ki, the earth. An and Ki mated and gave birth to Enlil, who separated An from Ki and carried off the earth as his domain, while An carried off the sky. Thus, the laws of Ur-Namma and Hammurabi have the moral authority of cosmic divinity.
Here in ancient Mesopotamia is the first cosmic teleology of human law rooted in divine law, which is restated in Plato's Timaeus and in the Bible, and which becomes the theme of the Divine Cosmic Model of the universe that runs through human civilization for four thousand years. Goodrich points to this in his many references to the texts and authors of theological cosmology as part of the history of liberty, culminating in the Declaration of Independence, which appeals to God as the cosmic Creator, Legislator, and Judge.
Whether the natural law of liberty must depend on such a divine law of the cosmos has been a question raised in many posts here, here, and here. I have also written about the evolutionary science of moralistic "big gods" here.
In claiming theocratic sovereignty over their states, Ur-Namma and Hammurabi might seem to exemplify the tradition of Oriental Despotism and thus deny individual liberty. There are, however, at least two kinds of evidence in these law collections to justify Goodrich's including them in the history of liberty.
The first kind of evidence for liberty in these documents is that the principal class of persons identified in these law collections is the free person called "man" (the Sumerian lu in Ur-Namma's laws and the Akkadian awilu in Hammurabi's laws), which includes men, women, and children. Citizens have the rights to freedom and security in one's person, family, and property. For example, the laws declare that free people are to be protected from physical assault, theft, and breach of contract. They are also protected in their engagement in marriage, family life, and free trade.
Some classes of people are not fully free, however. The commoner (the Akkadian muskenu) is inferior to the free person in some rights and privileges. And the male and female slaves (wardu and antu) belong to free persons, commoners, or the palace. People could be enslaved by being captured in war, by incurring debt that they could not pay back, or by being born into slavery. And yet there were ways that slaves could be emancipated. Slaves could emancipate themselves by simply running away. That fugitive slaves were a problem is indicated by the laws in Hammurabi's Code for punishing runaway slaves and the people who help them run away (see paras. 15-20, 226-227).
Thus, in these law collections, we see that the Mesopotamians recognized the idea and reality of freedom. Many people were free, and they expected the government to secure their freedom. Those people who were enslaved could claim their freedom by running away. But while we see slaves resisting their enslavement, we don't see slaves seeking to abolish the institution of slavery. We don't see any Mesopotamians affirming that all human beings are by nature born free and equal. That affirmation comes much later in Goodrich's history of liberty in the writing of Locke and the Declaration of Independence.
In a previous post, I have noted that while humans claiming freedom and resisting enslavement can be seen throughout history, the idea of completely abolishing slavery is a new idea that arose with Lockean liberalism.
The second kind of evidence for freedom in these law collections is what one scholar has called "the curious absence of the state in the text" (Seth Richardson, "Before Things Worked: A 'Low-Power' Model of Early Mesopotamia," in Clifford Ando and Seth Richardson, eds., Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017], 37). In his prologue and epilogue, Hammurabi claims absolute divinely granted authority over Babylonia. But in the hundreds of laws in his code, there is almost no reference to himself or to the central state as providing judgment or enforcement of the law. Most of the laws seem to assume private enforcement: when something goes wrong, the wronged party must act on his own with the help of local people to investigate, try, convict, and punish the guilty parties.
This is what today we would call "private governance," the subject of a previous post. We could also say that what we see here is what Seth Richardson has called the "presumptive state": the early states in Mesopotamia were presumptive in claiming a sovereignty that they did not in fact possess ("Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State," Past and Present, no. 215 [May 2012]: 3-49). Their rhetorical claims for absolute sovereignty have been mistakenly interpreted as evidence for the reality of Oriental Despotism.
Once we see how in actuality the powers of the Mesopotamian state were severely limited, we can see how they left plenty of room for liberty.