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So, What Have We Learned about Ancient Cultures? You could probably tally up a list of facts -- the names of the families represented in The Bhagavad Gita, e.g., Mohammed's birth and death dates, the relationship of crime and punishment in The Inferno -- though such a list would tell you little about how real people lived and how these "facts" influenced their lives. You might want to recall key concepts from this brief essay -- the association of Hinduism with the illusory nature of the material world, the Greek belief in rationality, the Roman ability to organize and delegate. But these generalizations do not allow for minority opinions within the cultures, nor, most likely, do the generalizations say much about the people who were not gifted writers, powerful politicians, influential artists, successful interpreters of their social circumstances. On just about any given day in the midst of choking sand and blazing heat, what might some of those Egyptian stone-haulers have said in passing about their omnipotent pharaoh?

Oddly enough, culture includes all these people. Mikhail Bakhtin looks at cultures as heterogeneous groups of people whose conversations -- the record of their poetry, their discord, and their babble -- become an on-going dialog in a constantly changing, adaptive language. To his way of thinking, there is little of fixed or permanent status to any culture. A culture is always so much more than any given language can express, certainly more than what any icon could represent.

Recent ethnographers have expressed a number of concerns about cultural investigation -- that is, studying and interpreting other cultures. The ethnographers warn that there is no neutral, objective investigation of another culture. One problem is that we are so formed by our own culture that we tend automatically to judge what we see in another culture by what we "know" from our own. So much for disinterested investigation. Another problem arises from the fact that the categories of our understanding -- our criteria for organization -- are, themselves, culture-bound. Westerners think like Westerners because their experience is in and of the West. As colonial authorities in India, the British tried to outlaw suttee, the ritual immolation of a wife who remained after the death of her husband. To the British the ritual was perverse, anti-woman; yet it was an accepted ritual, with a long history and a logic appertaining to a world-system different from that of the British (busy, it must be said, with colonizing and imposing their world-system on others). The British could not accept in others what their culture forbade for them.

But, happily, Americans can learn to listen to and love the music of the sitar (just as they may learn to listen to and love Mozart). And it doesn't take too long a trip through the concrete reality of strip shopping malls and pandering fast-food joints to convince many Americans that maybe we have erred on the side of the material.

At the same time, there's comfort in knowing that we were not the first culture to look upon the sobering wreckage of our wars or the changing forms of violence around us and wonder if there was not a better way to live -- with greater tolerance for others, greater humility for ourselves, greater love for our shared world. This may be what studying ancient cultures teaches us.

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