Monthly Archives: September 2015

Things I Like: The Dialogue of Pessimism

In an effort to liven up the blog a little, I’m starting what I hope will become a semi-regular series about things which I think deserve a wider audience. “Things” is a deliberately vague term — many of my recommendations will no doubt come from the world of literature and entertainment, but there’s no telling what else might crop up here on occasion. Posts will probably err on the side of brevity, as this won’t be sustainable if it takes too much time away from my novel writing, but we’ll see how we go.

And so, without further ado, here’s the first Thing I Like: the Dialogue of Pessimism.


Image in public domain

The Dialogue of Pessimism is an ancient text from Babylon and Assyria consisting of a series of short exchanges between a master and a slave. In each exchange, the master proposes some course of action, to which the slave enthusiastically agrees; then the master changes his mind, and the slave finds reasons to agree just as enthusiastically with the new proposal.

There are so many levels on which to enjoy the Dialogue. Is it a critique of the capriciousness of those who possess power? A satire of the obsequiousness of human reason, ever ready to rationalise whatever decision one has already made? A commentary on the absurdity of life, a mere 3,000 years before the advent of Kierkegaard and existentialism? More than likely, it’s all of the above — and with the kind of references to then-contemporary culture (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh) that would make an Akkadian Joss Whedon proud.

Wikipedia’s page for the Dialogue suggests that it may have been intended for public performance as much as private reading. Performing the Dialogue would have created an opportunity to add yet more layers, contextualising it for a particular city or ruler or circumstance. It’s fascinating to think of an ancient audience taking in the Dialogue on a dusty Babylonian street corner, or to picture some cuneiform-scribe tapping out the words on clay tablets, perhaps at the request of his own master.

Sadly, some fragments of the Dialogue have been lost to time. But there’s still plenty to enjoy. Come for the satire, stay for the Mesopotamian wisdom — and don’t miss the slave’s cheeky closing remark to his master.