Hammurabi

What do you go see at the Louvre museum in Paris? Most people would probably put the Mona Lisa, the Nike of Samotrache, and the Venus of Milo on their todo list. At least, that’s what we – my wife and our two kids – noticed when we visited the Louvre ourselves in August 2016. 

I had another favorite: Hammurabi’s codex. I wanted to see – and make sure my children saw – one of the artifacts that define our species.


The importance of Hammurabi’s laws does not lie, in my opinion, in the fact that it offers a set of rules, thus defining “good” and “evil”. We know, from evolutionary studies of the human species (just one example, Google will offer you many more), that rules about social conduct belong to human nature.

What is so special about this set of laws, in my opinion, is that it tries to overcome earlier tribalism. As far as I know, this is the first example we have of an attempt to build a society on general norms, valid for everyone, rather than on kinship, membership of a certain clan, etc. Ideas about all people being part of a larger community, and about overcoming divisions between different smaller groups might not be traced back directly to Hammurabi – he was, after all, an empire builder and, as such, not overburdened with altruist tendencies – but they are there, as seedlings.

Of course we still have centuries, millennia even, to go before we get close to something like the Universal Declaration of Universal Human Rights. But this is one of the earliest material traces of that long journey through history, I believe. It’s a journey we’ve still  not completed. But in our complicated, conflict-laden times, it’s a journey we cannot afford to abandon. How to do justice to particular identities, without relapsing into tribalism, and while at the same time building a global, inclusive society, is a problem we did not solve yet. But we need to keep trying.

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