Monday, October 04, 2010

Man of Stele

By John Taylor; 2010 Oct 04, Mashiyyat 08, 167 BE


Hammurabi (d. 1750 BCE) was a king of Babylon best known today for a code of laws that he promulgated in Akkadian (the language of the common people) throughout his dominion on clay tablets. Because these tablets were accessible only to a literate elite, he also had steles, stone monuments or pillars about as tall as a person, placed in the center of public places in every town. On the surface of these pillars were written, in cuneiform script, some 281 concise laws, each laying out a specific transgression followed by its punishment, which was usually severe by today's standards. Hammurabi proclaimed that anyone complaining of an injustice need only go and consult the writing on the stele in order to find out what recourse there was in his law.

In 1901, a "diorite stele in the shape of a huge index finger, 2.25 m or 7.4 ft tall" with nearly the complete code written on it was uncovered near the ancient capital of Susa, and it is now on display in the Louvre Museum. (see <>, and, <>) The idea of using a stele to publicize the content of laws had been around for centuries when Hammurabi came along. Nonetheless, because of the perfect condition of this "finger stele," we now associate this technique with him. The "fingernail" of the stele's finger contains bas relief images as well as text. That means that the citizens of 1700 BCE had a more immediate multimedia experience in reading their laws than we do with our far more complex modern legal systems.

I think that it is highly significant that Hammurabi, or whatever leader it was that originally came up with this idea, chose his index finger as a symbolic display for his codex. Actually, I do not think that this is even a symbol or metaphor -- it is exactly, literally what we do with our index fingers. We use them to give instructions, to indicate direction, to assert authority, threaten punishment or even to express puzzlement, saying "Wait a second here." We wag our index finger when a right is violated, and we curl it when we want someone to come hither. This is our first and main pointer.

So natural does such use of the index finger seem that when I had small children I remember being surprised that I had to teach it to them. When they asked where something was, I sometimes had to literally take their face in my hand and turn it so that they would look at my finger. When performing a search they seemed to expect verbal directions as a matter of course while I, being lazy, prefer non-verbal indicators. Even now that they are 11 and 16 years old I sometimes have to say to them, "Look at my finger," before they will look in the right direction. So, evidently, did Hammurabi.


The index finger also seems to be tied into written language. It would be very clumsy to write with a pen without using the index finger, though perhaps less so to wield a hammer and chisel to inscribe the ancient cuneiform script into a clay tablet. It is interesting that in some of the pre-literate languages of the oldest culture in the world, the Aboriginals of Australia, the need for relative pointers like the index finger was largely eliminated. Instead of learning concepts like "left" or "right," it is expected that everyone will constantly maintain a mental compass in their head. For example, instead of warning someone that there is a bee approaching their left foot, they will say, "Look out, there is a bee approaching the northwest of your foot." Since the first thing most people do when they hear such urgent news is to spin around in panic, the Aboriginal way seems more practical in such situations. Only when agriculture helps a population grow large and the people trade with and mix with foreigners, as they did in Mesopotamia, is there a clear necessity to throw out implicit assumptions about what others know and lay down the law by combining written symbols with non-verbal indicators, as does the finger-shaped stile.

I think that we need to revive the stele, and not only in promulgating laws but for just about every serious, directed purpose. Now that computers and the Internet are ubiquitous, we can use stiles not only as displays but also as interfaces, as points of interaction with every center of power and authority.

Three Directions of the Stele

The electronic stele would be indispensible in a Comenian inspired cosmopolis. The finger can point in three dimensions, upwards towards Platonic, eternal forms and ideals (art and religion), sideways towards other people (politics and peace studies) and inwards or outwards, to the depth dimensions of enlightenment, science and education. Just as the stele indicated for the ancient Babylonians what the law was on any given issue, an electronic stile interface, with a computer monitor where the "fingernail" is placed, can indicate which modality of governance is involved, the consistory, the college or the Dicastery. Hence, to repeat,

The stele's finger pointed upwards is religion, the interfaith consistory of holiness, which deals with whatever extends beyond the time scale of this particular generation. The classic images are Michelangelo’s (1475-1574) portrait of Plato, pointing heavenwards, or of the creation, with God pointing an index finger directly at the drooping hand of Adam.


The stele pointing sideways is practical politics, the Dicastery of Peace, dealing with our worldly relations with other human beings. This dimension is concerned with practical end results, which conduce to wisdom, harmony, reciprocity and, in a word, peace. Michelangelo’s image is of Aristotle, extending an outstretched hand palm down, indicating the broadness and moderation that is the foundation of this entire dimension.


Finally, there is the stele pointing in the inward or outward dimension, towards enlightenment, philosophy, education and science, which are the jobs of the College of Light. The concern of this stele is to deepen our understanding and to express that in our service. An example in the same artist's work may be the recently discovered self-portrait of Michelangelo in "The Crucifixion of Saint Peter." (1550) Here he looks along the arm and pointed finger of another horseman, pointing in the direction of the feet of the saint being crucified upside-down.


Another image that springs to mind is the war recruitment poster of a stern man pointing his index finger directly at the viewer, captioned, "Uncle Sam needs you."

As our technology becomes more sophisticated it will become wholly interactive. One day I see children raised and educated in regular dialogue with robot stiles -- situated in their own room, in the family household, in the community and everywhere they go. These stiles will be designed to explicate rules and laws of world governance, pointing in the three directions and dimensions that were laid out by John Amos Comenius, and others.

No comments: