September 19, 2018

A lesson From Cyrus

Kids, young adults and ideologues of different stripes often see the world as a straight-line progression — the world gradually, but inevitably, becomes more enlightened. Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the view, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Many of us, as we get older and witness the recycling of issues and debates, are less sanguine about the course of history.

I am by nature an optimist and generally subscribe to the notion that as times change, as the benefits of tolerance and equality and liberty become obvious, more and more folks will become advocates and adherents of policies that promote those virtues.

That was what made reading a Wall Street Journal review last week so fascinating. In a museum review, Richard Holledge describes a bit of antiquity that went on display at the Smithsonian last month — the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old football-sized barrel of clay with cuneiform writing on it. The writing proclaimed the intention of Cyrus, the king of Persia, to allow freedom to the diverse peoples he ruled over after conquering Babylon. His realm stretched from Turkey to India.

The cylinder proclaims:

I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus — to the fury of the lord of the gods — had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk the great lord. … I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries … every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds. … I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.

Given the vastness of Cyrus’ empire, it is instructive that he decided that allowing each group to worship their own gods and to return to the lands from which they came were the best policies.

His actions inspired Jews, whom he allowed to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, to describe him in the Book of Isaiah as “the Lord’s anointed.” Thomas Jefferson, by virtue of an ancient history of King Cyrus (Xenophon’s Cyropedia), viewed him an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.

The Cylinder was only rediscovered in 1879, yet for over two millennia its author inspired those who sought to follow in his path.

Clearly the “arc of history” is exceptionally long — especially for the very region ruled by Cyrus, which today rejects most of the notions that prevailed over two millennia ago. When it will bend toward justice again is anyone’s guess.

The Cylinder is a reminder that history and its course are fickle, unpredictable and don’t inevitably follow a straight line upward. Progress isn’t assured, but rather is the result of leadership, determination and the willingness to protect and defend its fruits.

The Cyrus Cylinder will be coming to Los Angeles, to the Getty Villa, later this year (Oct. 2- Dec. 2). This op-ed was adapted from the blog The Wide Angle,