Egypt? What Egypt? And for what “philosophy”?


The first difficulty we encounter if one wants to rule on the possible existence of an Egyptian philosophy, consists in determining of which Egypt it is question. Inasmuch as what we call the civilization of ancient Egypt spans more than three millennia, to speak ofa Egyptian thought as if it were unified seems imprudent to say the least, as there can be variations from one era to another. It should not be lost sight of that Cleopatra is chronologically closer to us than to the Cheops pyramid

Second difficulty: there are few texts that have come down to us, and if some do contain the principles of a certain wisdom and an often religious vision of the world, none explicitly claims philosophy as such, whose concept is unquestionably of Greek origin. Also the various researchers who have asked themselves the question have above all set out in search of the possible Egyptian origins of Greek philosophy: it is always compared to the emergence of philosophy in Greece, and as far as possible origin of it, that Egyptian philosophy is questioned. In fact, it seems that at the time when philosophy claimed itself as such on the side of Athens, that is to say in the VIe century, Egyptian culture was one of the rare foreign civilizations to be held in esteem by Greek scholars, who themselves questioned the possibility of a “barbarian” origin of their philosophy.

Plato, Aristotle and the Pre-Socratics under Egyptian influence? Between truths and controversies

But more specifically, on which philosophers could this Egyptian influence have been exercised, and by what means? This is where the most arbitrary assumptions and interpretations begin.

  • Firstly, an ancient tradition claims that – as is attested for other authors such as Pythagoras Where Democritus Plato personally went to Egypt, to Heliopolis in particular, in order to frequent the Egyptian priests, who would have “initiated” him into their “wisdom”. Some even go so far as to say that his stay would have lasted ten years! Unfortunately, the few late testimonies evoking this trip seem too vague for us to be able to give them real credit: the thing is possible but remains, in the current state of knowledge, too uncertain for us to consider it as something other than ‘a legend. Moreover, the benefit that Plato could have derived from this hypothetical Egyptian teaching is absolutely not established, and the twenty or so allusions to Egypt that we find in his work prove to be relatively anecdotal – like the swear word Socrates “By the dog! » which probably refers to Anubis, at least in the Gorgias. And when they are more precise, such as this passage from Phaedo mentioning the “Mummies of Egypt” (80c), they tend rather to make fun of the attachment of the Egyptians to corporeal things and to corpses in particular.
  • Otherwise, some authors have given rise to a controversy concerning not only a transmission but even a pure and simple appropriation of Egyptian philosophy by the Greeks. This is the thesis defended by the Guyanese-American historian and essayist george G. Mr. james (1893-1956) in a work with an unequivocal title : Stolen Legacy. The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy (1954, trans. fr. A stolen legacy. The so-called Greek philosophy is actually an Egyptian philosophy). It advances thatAlexander The Great would have looted the library of alexandriaand that’Aristotle – who was the tutor of Alexander the Great – would have appropriated the ideas developed in the stolen works to develop his own thought. But despite the success that James’s book has had, particularly with certain Afrocentrists and other opponents of European ethnocentrism, its conclusions are generally not taken seriously by the scientific community, because the argument of the author is poorly supported and relies on “sources” themselves unreliable, which sometimes relate more to Freemasonry ideology than to historical science.
  • More seriouslywe must not underestimate the intermediary role played by the schools of Asia Minor. In Greece, those who are considered the first philosophers, namely the pre-Socratics, are indeed almost all immigrants. ioniansmainly from Miletus orEphesus (in present-day Turkey), who were fleeing the conquest of their country by the Persians. It is quite possible that the Ionian philosophy ensured the continuity between a certain earlier Egyptian philosophy and that which was born in Athens, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

“Sebayt”, wisdom and morality

Whatever possible routes of transmission that would have taken her to Greece, however, what do we know of the philosophical content of the thought of ancient Egypt, that is to say pharaonic? Among the texts that have come down to us, some deserve special attention. This is particularly the case of The Teaching of Ptahhotep (Where Book of Ptah-hotep), which can be found on the Prisse papyrusa document dated Middle Kingdom and preserved at the BNF, in Paris. This contains precepts and maxims of wisdom that an experienced old man delivers to his son. “If you’re in a leadership position, be kind when hearing a plaintiff’s statement” ; “Do not let your heart become conceited because of your knowledge”, he recommends, for example, inviting him to always show humility. Other later texts such as Ani’s teaching Where The Teaching of Amenemopet (Where Amenemope) also belong to the genus of the sebaytthat is to say works of ethics intended to instruct disciples, collections of practical advice which conceal a certain moral wisdom centered around the mastery of the will and self-control.

“Noun”, order and creation of the world

That’s not all, and that’s not even the main thing. The Egyptians seem above all to have given a large place in their reflections to the question of death, as well as to that of the survival of the soul and metempsychosis. [réincarnation de l’âme]. This is manifest in the multiple versions of what we are accustomed to calling the book of the dead Where Book for going out. These are funerary formulas placed alongside the remains of the deceased and which correspond to prayers intended to accompany them in the afterlife. But these are essentially the Texts from the Pyramids and those of the so-called stele Stone of Chabaka (Where Shabaka inscription) which contain interesting cosmogonies, sometimes quite similar to what one can read in Greek pre-Socratics like Thales Where Anaximander. Nevertheless, the Egyptians also formulate the idea of ​​a time which would precede the sky, the earth, the men and the gods, in other words an absolute beginning prior to the universe itself, an initial uncreated which is called Noun – which means the amorphous, the formless. This conception is deeply original, as explained by the Congolese Egyptologist and historian Theophile Obenga in his study The African Philosophy of the Pharaonic Period (The Harmattan, 2013) : “More than 2500 years before our era, the Pharaonic Egyptians had encountered the question of questions and reflected on it: the question of origins, the question of knowledge of the world, of the cosmos, of its advent. Their thought is exceptionally radical: before the birth of Pharaoh himself and of the whole Universe (gods, heaven, earth, death and its meaning), there was neither God-Creator nor nothingness, nor Chaos, but the Noun (“Nnw”), that is to say That which does not resemble anything known, edified. An abysmal, absolute water, already containing all the raw material. »

As a conclusion

This overview allowed us to draw three conclusions:

  • We can first defend the principle of a certain similarity – even a kinship, and perhaps a continuity – between what could be roughly called Pharaonic Egyptian thought on the one hand, and the thought of certain pre-Socratic Greek authors on the other. Both in the style of expression (sententious) and in the content (very oriented towards the mystery of the origin of the world), it is quite possible that a transmission has taken place, in philosophy, equivalent to that which is already attested. in mathematics notably.
  • Despite this continuity, there remains difficult to conclude that there is a real Egyptian “philosophy” as such and in the sense in which we understand it, namely as a discussion based on reasoned and contradictory argument, that is to say… precisely in the sense in which Socrates invents it. We are certainly entitled to wonder if this last way of philosophizing is the only legitimate one or if it is only the Western version, but the fact remains that pharaonic thought, whatever its flashes and intuitions , does not meet the criteria.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must stop opposing “Egyptian thought” to “Greek thought”since we see that the real fault line between thinking in the broad sense and the philosophy strictly speaking was situated less between Egypt and Greece than within Greece itself, in this case between the pre-Socratics and the post-Socratics. Like each of us, philosophy would then have known a double beginning: obscurely conceived from the Pharaonic period, philosophy would have been in gestation for several centuries until it was truly born to itself with this obstetrician who was Socrates.

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Egypt? What Egypt? And for what “philosophy”?

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