The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
Julian Jaynes was an obscure, non-tenure academic when he published this book in the late 1970s. His outlandish thesis was that consciousness was a relatively recent invention, dating basically to the 1000 BCs. Before then humans were directed by the voices of gods that they heard in their heads.
His argument is well constructed and spectacular in its scope. Starting in Sumerian Mesopotamia circa 3000 BC he discusses how Kings from that time were always depicted talking directly to their gods. People of that time had little idols that they kept in their homes (to tell them what to do) and people actually kept their gods in little god houses. Jaynes theorizes that this voice is something that comes the inactive right side of the brain (language is concentrated in the left part of the brain.)
In the second part of the argument, Jaynes contrasts the Sumerian/Akkadian Mesopotamians to the Assyrians, who showed up circa 2000 BC. Unlike the Sumerian/Akkadian leaders, who were always shown literally getting their orders from their God, the Assyrian kings were shown talking to empty thrones. They were also terribly cruel and their letters are full of behavior that prefigures consciousness (plotting, scheming, anxiety.)
During the end of the 2000 BCs there was a several hundred year period of chaos that manifested in the West as the destruction of Mycenean civilization, but had impacts all over the Middle East. Jaynes theorizes that this chaos resulted in the abandonment of people by their gods. I.e. they could no longer hear the gods talking to them. Jaynes is at his weakest when he tries to explain what exactly happened inside the brain during this period.
He speculates that it was the remnans of these bicameral ("god talks to me") people who became "the Hebrews"- based on the fact that the word Hebrew derives from the Akkadian term for "crazy people who wander in the desert." Thus, in Jaynes thesis, the Bible is the ultimate example of humans evolving consciousness- from "God speaks to us" to "Where has god gone" in one book. He also talks about the Odyssey vs. the Iliad, and even talks about how modern schizophrenia is a remnant of the bicameral mind.
Can Jaynes "prove" any of it? Not really, not enough evidence. But I found it pretty convincing.
Dedicated to classics and hits.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
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