The Dialogue is a loosely poetic composition in Akkadian, written soon after 1000 BC in Mesopotamia. It was discovered in five different clay tablet manuscripts written in the cuneiform script. The text is well-preserved, with only 15 of its 86 lines being fragmentary. Two textual versions seem to survive, as a Babylonian tablet is substantially different from Assyrian versions. Its likely Akkadian title was arad mitanguranni, the repeated phrase at the beginning of every stanza.
The Dialogue of Pessimism takes the form of a dialogue between a master and his slave valet. In each of the first ten stanzas the master proposes a course of action, for which the slave provides good reasons. Each time, however, the master changes his mind and the slave provides equally good reasons for not pursuing that course of action. The courses of action are:
I. Driving to the palace
IV. Marriage (“building a house” in Speiser)
V. Litigation (this is the most fragmentary stanza)
VI. Leading a revolution (“commit a crime” in Speiser)
VII. Sexual intercourse
IX. Making investments (“plant crops” in Speiser)
X. Public service
A sample of the Dialogue is (Master Slave):
Slave, listen to me! Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to make love to a woman! Make love, master, make love!
The man who makes love forgets sorrow and fear!
O well, slave, I do not want to make love to a woman.
Do not make love, master, do not make love.
Woman is a real pitfall, a hole, a ditch,
Woman is a sharp iron dagger that cuts a man’s throat.
(Stanza VII, lines 46–52)
Stanza XI is substantially different:
Slave, listen to me! Here I am, master, here I am!
What then is good?
To have my neck and yours broken,
or to be thrown into the river, is that good?
Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven?
Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?
O well, slave! I will kill you and send you first!
Yes, but my master would certainly not survive me for three days.
The dialogue is limited to two people (unlike, for instance, Plato’s dialogues), as is common in ancient Middle-Eastern wisdom literature. In the scribal tradition of Mesopotamian literature, one learns by verbal instruction and reflective reading, not by debate. It has been suggested that it may have been a dramatic text, performed publicly. Rather than a set of abstract or universal principles to be applied to every situation, the slave employs concrete images and instances.
The dialogue stands consciously in the continuum of Mesopotamian literature. Line 76 quotes a line at the beginning and the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Lines 86–87 quote an ancient Sumerian saying. Lines 62–69 may allude to a part of the Great Hymn to Shamash (lines 118–127).
The Dialogue falls into the philosophical area of theodicy. Interpretation of the Dialogue is divided. Some see it as a statement of life's absurdity, because there are no definitive right and wrong choices or reasons for action. The final stanza is therefore a logical outcome of this quandary, the choice of non-existence over existential futility. An opposing interpretation takes its cue from the slave's final cheeky retort, seeing the Dialogue as social satire, where the servile yet cheeky slave exposes the vacillation and unproductiveness of his aristocratic master through conflicting and clichéd answers. Religious satire is also present in comments about the behaviour of the gods.
Parallels with the second-millennium Mesopotamian text Monologue of the Righteous Sufferer (also known as "I will praise the Lord of Wisdom") and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes suggest a third interpretation. The universe is indeed enigmatic and human actions seemingly meaningless, yet the gods hold the secrets of the universe (revealed in the slave's comment about heaven and earth in Stanza XI). Rather than suggesting death out of despair, the master wants the slave to enter before him into death so that he can ask the gods. The slave’s final satirical rejoinder parries his master's suggestion. The Dialogue's purpose is partly satirical and partly serious, and its end is to remind readers that the gods control the destinies, which are unknown to us. The wise man, like the slave, reserves judgement and assesses possibilities in the face of life’s ambiguities, albeit while retaining his sense of humour.
There is a thematic parallel between the Dialogue of Pessimism and the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The affirmations and their negations given by the Dialogue's slave are similar to the list of actions and their opposites given in Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 ("a time to be born and a time to die..."). Ecclesiastes, like the Dialogue, has been the subject of pessimistic and optimistic interpretations, and is also amenable to the interpretation that the incomprehensibility of the universe and human life point to our limitations and the transcendent knowledge of God.
There are also some parallels and contrasts with the Book of Job. Like the Dialogue, Job also considers death as an option in the face of life's contradictions (Job 3:2–13), although he never contemplates suicide. Moreover, Job does not conclude on a note of death: rather, that theme was more present at the outset. The use of irony and satire to probe life's mysteries also feature in both the Dialogue and Job (e.g. Job 9:39–31).
A proverb appearing at the end of the dialogue, "who is so tall as to ascend to the heavens? who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?" has several biblical parallels, among which are the opening verse of the proverbs of Agur (Proverbs 30:1); Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Job 11:7-9; and Job 28:12-18.