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Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?

Peter Flegel highlights possible connections between early Greek philosophy and the ideas of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

Just over a year ago an eager team of archaeologists scoured through the mud and groundwater of a slum in Cairo erected on the ruins of the pharaonic city of Heliopolis. There they uncovered a gigantic statue, which they believed represented the pharaoh Ramses the Great. Euphoria soon gave way to slight disappointment when it was discovered that the statue was not of Ramses but a lesser-known seventh century BCE ruler of Egypt, Psamtik I.

While almost forgotten by the modern world, Psamtik was once revered as a decisive ruler who boosted trade and diplomatic relations with Greece. His policies allowed the Hellenes to establish colonies on Egyptian soil for the first time, opening the door to a trading and cultural relationship that would endure for more than three hundred years.

Later Greek and non-Greek Hellenistic historians, such as Herodotus in his Histories, were convinced that this was the spark that ignited an axial shift in Greek culture, which saw philosophy spring forth majestically from Greek soil. To many of them, it was in Heliopolis that the most profound Greek thinkers, such as Pythagoras and Plato, learned the basis of their metaphysics, astronomy, or geometry.

For the next two thousand years, the historiographical pendulum swung between scholars revering Egypt as a fount of Western wisdom, and those dismissing that idea as a mirage. By the mid-nineteenth century, most Western historians had firmly rejected the ‘Egyptian thesis’. In the 1820s Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics by studying the multilingual Rosetta Stone. This opened the vast body of surviving Egyptian texts to nineteenth century scholars who rapidly realized that the Ancient Egyptian mode of expression differed considerably from that found in such texts as Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Plotinus’ Ennead. That discovery rang the death knell of the Heliopolitan theory, or so many thought. They saw philosophy as a ‘Greek miracle’ born solely from the Greek culture, which had shone a beacon of rationalism through the misty backwaters of Middle-Eastern and African pre-philosophical thought.

Yet a century later the Egyptian thesis made a rather raucous comeback, when a number of African American, Caribbean, and continental African writers caught the attention of the media with claims that Greek philosophy was stolen from Africa, and more specifically, from Egypt. Academics such as Temple University’s Dr. Molefi Kete Asante cited a variety of primary and secondary Greek, Roman and Egyptian sources, to claim that African civilizations were at the root of Western thought, science and medicine. Though not a member of the ‘Afrocentric camp’, Martin Bernal also wrote about what he believed were the Egyptian roots of Greek philosophy in the first volume of his controversial oeuvre Black Athena (1987).

Once other experts of ancient civilization took a close look at the arguments, however, they discovered inconsistent interpretations of texts as well as spurious assertions, such as the claim that Aristotle pillaged Egyptian philosophy from the Library of Alexandria (the Library was built after the philosopher’s death!). Egyptologists and Classicists alike seized upon the more farfetched claims to gleefully dismiss the thesis that Egypt had a substantial influence on Greek thought. With the full weight of the academic establishment behind them, scholars such as the Wellesley College professor Mary Lefkowitz boiled the issue down to a simple axiom: the Egyptians peddled in myth, while the Greeks proffered reason and logic. Africa had taught nothing to the Greeks when it came to philosophy, and to claim otherwise was fantasy or politically-motivated wishful thinking (Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, 1997).

Surprisingly, most of those arguing in the period, both for and against Egyptian influence, overlooked some fascinating scholarship which had unearthed rare conceptual gemstones in the midst of thousands of years’ worth of Ancient Egyptian texts. Once dusted off, these texts revealed themes similar to some aspects of classical Greek philosophy, such as the theory of forms, the four elements theory, and the rational organization of the cosmos. When one considers such conceptual similarities against the backdrop of warming Egyptian-Hellenic relations throughout the Pre-Socratic period from the seventh century BCE onwards, the possibility that Western philosophy received some of its first impulses from the Northeast African civilization appears less far-fetched. So let’s now have a quick look at some of them.

The One & The Many In Ancient Egypt

Unlike in Classical Greece, Egyptian cosmological, metaphysical and ethical concepts did not crystallize over the course of a few centuries. Instead they were the outcome of millennia of intellectual labour, during which hundreds of priests developed and grappled with challenging, often contradictory, ways of making sense of the universe. As part of that process, several schools of religious thought emerged, occasionally competing to establish their respective deities as the supreme creator. This jostling inadvertently ignited several intellectual breakthroughs at the end of the second millennium BCE, which resulted in Egyptians advancing ideas remarkably similar to some of the mainstays of later Hellenic and Hellenistic thought.

In ‘Theological Responses to Amarna’ (2004), German Egyptological heavyweight Jan Assmann showed how the process began in the fourteenth century BCE when Akhenaten ascended to the throne. He sought to dismantle the powerful religious establishment that stood in the way of his quest for absolute power by using a proto-scientific worldview to eradicate Egypt’s polytheism. That is, he banned the entire Egyptian pantheon and replaced it with a single figure: Aten, the personification of the disc of the sun, or of solar energy. Anticipating the earliest pre-Socratic thinkers, who in various ways traced the source of the cosmos to a single element, Akhenaten promulgated that solar energy was not only divine, it was the sole element out of which the entire universe evolved. Each component of visible reality was described as an ‘evolution’ or emanation of that energy. In turn, the realm of invisible deities, the underworld, and spirits, were dismissed as fairy tales from a bygone era. Temples were closed, inscriptions referencing other gods were erased, and even representations of other deities were destroyed. This was the first time in history that a form of monotheism had been adopted as the official creed of a kingdom.

This swift suspension of an immense constellation of deities brought great trauma to the Egyptian intellectual elite. They had been accustomed to seeing multiple religious beliefs coexisting across Egypt. So abrupt was the rupture that once the heretic Pharaoh passed away, the deposed priesthood re-established the old theological order with unparalleled fervour. But now it was driven by a novel imperative: reconciling the manifold plurality of reality celebrated in the older pantheon with Akhenaten’s monotheism.

The priesthood answered Akhenaten’s monist challenge in a way that prefigured Hermetic, and perhaps even ancient Greek efforts, such as those of Parmenides and his followers, to uncover the oneness concealed behind the plurality of the visible world. The Egyptian priesthood revamped older ideas to posit a hidden divine entity, symbolized by the sun, as constituting and animating the universe. Struggling with the limited vocabulary of their time, priests tried alluding to this unknowable Supreme Being’s immaterial qualities by loosely naming it ‘One’, ‘hidden’, and ‘soul-like’. They claimed that it was inaccessible to language or intellect and inhabited a separate ontological space. Paradoxically, the same priests also averred that the millions of gods and other constituents of the universe were constantly evolving parts of this ineffable being, which remained present yet invisible in and as the cosmos. Egyptians occasionally used the word ‘Amun’ (‘the hidden’) as a pseudonym to refer to the nameless Supreme Being who was simultaneously a boundless unified hidden One and the infinite Many of the cosmos. This emphasis on the invisible and underlying ‘oneness’ of the visible universe may well have been a precursor to the Eleatic Greek idea that the manifold world of sense perception conceals or misrepresents true reality, which is singular, all-encompassing, omnipresent Being.

Dust in the Wind
Dust in the Wind © Ken Laidlaw 2018. Please visit kenlaidlaw.com to see more of his art.

The Four Elements In Egypt & Greece

In City of the Ram-Man: The Story of Ancient Mendes (2010), the Canadian archaeologist Donald B. Redford explained that in the Egyptian city of Mendes, priests developed the notion that in manifesting itself in and animating the universe, the Supreme Being could be designated by four elements.

This idea centred on an older belief that the number four represents cosmic totality and completeness. It must be said that there were quite a few precursors to this theory, which occasionally presented the highest divinity as possessing up to ten heads. In Mendes, however, the priesthood limited the number to four, in accordance with canonical notions of cosmic totality.

The sages of Mendes used a rather enigmatic four-headed ram named Banebedjet to articulate this idea. Each head corresponded to a deity, which represented a life-giving element. Hence, Osiris represented water; Re stood for sun or fire; Shu was air; while Geb represented earth. When united, they formed the Supreme Being, symbolically represented as the four-headed ram, which contained the four elements that constitute and sustain the universe.

Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophy would notice strong parallels here with a theory developed by the fifth century BCE Greek philosopher Empedocles. Influenced by Pythagoreanism, Empedocles is largely credited with introducing the theory of the four elements into Western thought. He also associated each element (or ‘root’ as he called them) with a separate deity: Zeus was air; Hera was earth; Hades was fire or sun; and Nestis was water. Empedocles also asserted that when the four divine elements united, they formed a Supreme Being, whom he called ‘Sphairos’. The philosopher used two allegorical figures – Love and Strife – to explain how the elements are brought together and then torn apart.

Could Empedocles have been influenced by Mendes?

It would not be too much of a stretch to picture the four-headed ram-god reaching Greek shores during Empedocles' lifetime. After all, Pharaoh Ahmose II erected a temple to Banebedjet in Mendes just one century before Empedocles’ birth. And following in the footsteps of Psamtik, Ahmose extended trade and diplomatic relations with several Hellenic city-states. Alliances with Greek rulers were essential to maintaining his rule, as the pharaoh relied on Greek mercenaries to keep his enemies in check. He is said to have helped rebuild temples in Greece, and to have sent precious gifts to rulers of Sparta, Lindos, and Samos, where Pythagoras was busy building close relations with its ruler, the tyrant Polycrates.

Whether or not Empedocles drew his ideas directly from Egypt or from Pythagorean intermediaries, as some ancient sources suggest, it is clear that the similarities between his beliefs and those of his Egyptian counterparts are quite striking.

The Agency of Mind & The Theory of Forms

Another feature of Ancient Egyptian thought which approximated early Greek thought is the idea that the universe is rational, and ordered according to intellectual principles.

In the wake of Akhenaten’s death, the priesthood began toying with the idea of divine intelligence and utterance. At first, only gods were conceived as the fruit of careful thought. Soon, however, creation in its entirety was explained as the product of a divine mind (which the Egyptians called ‘heart’) and a commanding word (which they called ‘tongue’).

It was under the reign of a Sudanese-born pharaoh named Shabaka that this new perspective reached its high point, with the most sophisticated articulation of creationism ever known to the pre-Hellenic world. Dubbed the Memphite Theology, it was first translated by an American Egyptologist, James Breasted. Initially dismissive of Egyptian influence in Greek philosophy, Breasted’s opinion took a radical turn when he discovered the Theology housed in a dark storeroom in the British Museum. Careful analysis of the text allowed him to see that its authors posited an intellectual principle as the very cause of creation. Not only did the text’s authors position the patron deity of craftsmen, Ptah, as the Supreme God, they also referred to him as ‘heart’, conveying that he was both the intelligence and commanding utterance in all gods and humans.

The Memphite ingenuity does not stop there. American Egyptologist J. P. Allen, along with Jan Assmann, has shown in ‘Creation through Hieroglyphs: The Cosmic Grammatology of Ancient Egypt’ (2007) and Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (1998) how the theologians distinguished between things and ‘divine words’ to intimate that when Ptah transformed a pre-existing substance into the universe, he dutifully followed a finite set of forms. They saw the diverse components of the cosmos as copies of original concepts (forms), in the same way that Egyptian scribes generally believed that hieroglyphics visually represented concepts.

This assessment echoes the work of the scholar Patrick Boylan and the Egyptian art specialist Whitney M. Davies. In the 1920s Boylan showed how Egyptians used the expression ‘divine words’ to refer to the concepts of things rather than to the things themselves (Thoth the Hermes of Egypt: Some Aspects of Theological Thought in Ancient Egypt, 1922). In the 1970s, Davies marvelled at the inherent Platonism of what he considered Egyptian metaphysics. He painstakingly argued in ‘Plato on Egyptian Art’ how this metaphysics ­– in which the world consists of copies of divine words – was reflected in the civilization’s art, as the artists followed mathematical proportions and an inventory of ‘standard types’ to depict reality. Davies went as far as suggesting that there are ‘far-reaching’ and ‘profound’ connections between Egyptian thought and Plato’s Theory of Forms. According to Assmann, a ‘pre-theoretical Platonism’ epitomized the tendency of Egyptian scribes to see names or concepts as hierarchically ordered in an inventory of the universe. For the Egyptians, those concepts were intimately associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom, known as the ‘Lord of Divine Words’, who was also said to have invented writing. Over time, Thoth donned the mantle of a creator god, increasingly described as the Son, Word, and eventually Mind of the sun-god Re. It is therefore not surprising that, in the Theology, Thoth appears as the divine Word, commanding the universe into existence according to pre-existing forms.

Reading about the intricate interplay of ‘mind’, ‘craftsman’, and ‘forms’ in Egypt should have anyone familiar with Platonism fidgeting in their seat. The middle and later dialogues of Plato are riddled with accounts of the cosmos as being an imperfect replica of an original series of forms. In his dialogue Timaeus, for example, Plato has Timaeus recount, in the shape of a myth, how a cosmic craftsman used the forms as a model to fashion the cosmos out of chaos. Throughout this and preceding dialogues, the Demiurge, as the craftsman is called, is described as ‘Mind’ and ‘Reason’, which orders the cosmos according to mathematical principles and proportions. What is perhaps even more astonishing than these striking echoes of Memphite cosmogony is that Plato grants the Egyptian god Thoth a cameo in two of his dialogues, in order to expound the deity’s role in mediating between divine forms and written script, as well as in bringing order to the multitude of human sounds. Through the mouthpiece of Amun (called Thamus in the Phaedrus), Plato chides Thoth for having introduced the written word as a substitute for the original forms. The Supreme Being warns that writing has the capacity to poison the mind with amnesia, rather than heal it with memory of the forms. In the Philebus dialogue, however, Plato rehabilitates Thoth by recounting how he is responsible for bringing order, differentiation, and unity to the infinite plurality of human sound.

That Plato displayed an unusual grasp of some ideas associated with Thoth is notable. That he gave them an exposé is quite significant. It harkens back to claims by the Greeks themselves that Plato’s philosophy was fundamentally Egyptian. Strabo claimed in Geography that the Athenian may have spent thirteen years studying with the sages of Heliopolis, even claiming to have visited the sleeping quarters in the solar city’s great temple, where Plato lived; while Clement of Alexandria was even able to name the priest Plato was said to have consulted.

Could Plato have spent time in Heliopolis? Could he have incorporated and embellished Egyptian ideas throughout his oeuvre?

Some do not consider either idea a stretch, since Plato was writing at a time of intense military and diplomatic cooperation between Egypt and Athens in the face of Persian military aggression. Furthermore, the Athenian deeply admired Egypt, as hinted in the Laws. He saw in the ancient civilization a stable and venerable antidote to the then chaotic political system of democratic Athens.


In the 1960s the French Egyptologist Jean Yoyotte perhaps best summed up the broader issue when he tried to resolve its most basic paradox: even though Ancient Greece and Egypt differed in their manner of articulating concepts, some of their most noteworthy ideas were quite similar (see ‘La pensé préphilosophique en Egypte’, 1969). Yoyotte insisted on distinguishing a philosophic Greece from a pre-philosophic Egypt. Yet he solved the puzzle by conceding that this distinction had little bearing on inter-civilizational exchanges. After all, the sages of Egypt had affirmed the four elements, the underlying unity of the One and the Many, as well as the role of divine intelligence in the cosmos, long before the birth of the first Greek philosopher. Thus, differing modes of expression aside, it is perfectly conceivable that Hellenic thinkers imported and then adapted Egyptian ideas for their own purposes. Yoyotte’s thesis remains alive today as a new cohort of specialists, such as American classicist Susan Stephens and philosopher Robert Hahn uncover underestimated connections between early Greek philosophy and Ancient Egypt (see Susan Stephens’ ‘Plato’s Egyptian Republic’, 2016).

As the debate rages on, the recent discovery in Heliopolis has put the spotlight back on Psamtik I, offering a new opportunity to explore his role in linking an ancient northeast African civilization with a fledgling southern European one. Historians of the ancient world tend to agree that the linkages did see Egyptian motifs and techniques flourish in Archaic Greek art, architecture, and even medicine. What remains to be settled is whether the Pharaoh’s economic and diplomatic policies also helped to stimulate Western thought. If Yoyotte’s assessment is anything to stand by, then the balance of evidence suggests that Psamtik I’s most enduring legacy was helping to create the conditions for Western philosophy to begin. In a world haunted by the spectre of insular populism and xenophobia, this legacy stands as an eloquent reminder of the great potential inherent within inter-civilizational exchanges.

© Peter Flegel 2018

Peter Flegel is a former speechwriter to the 27th Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada.

A special mention goes to Mary and Ken Flegel as well as Alison Redmond for their invaluable feedback.

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