Philosophy 60 - 4.2.1 Egyptian Origins of Classical Philosophy

The understanding that the roots of classical thought lie, at least in part, in Egypt is as old as the ancient Greeks themselves. In TheHistories of Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) traces Greek beliefs about the gods, religious practices, and understanding of the natural world to Egypt. Herodotus claimed the ancient Greeks adopted practices and ideas as diverse as solemn processions to temples, the belief in an immortal soul, and the knowledge of geometry and astrology from the Egyptians. Herodotus notes that the people of Heliopolis, one of the largest cities in ancient Egypt, “are said to be the most learned in records of the Egyptians” (Herodotus 1890, 116). Plato spent 13 years in Heliopolis, and Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BCE) studied mathematics in Heliopolis for more than two decades (Boas 1948).

Very tall Egyptian obelisk in the middle of a public square. Behind it are several four-story stone buildings. People sit at the obelisk’s base.
Figure 4.2 This obelisk, erected in Heliopolis, Egypt, in approximately 1200 BCE, was transported to Rome in the 16th century and made part of that city’s public environment. Similarly, many of the ideas of what is now considered classical Greek philosophy can be traced back to Egyptian origins. (credit: “Egyptian Obelisk (Metres 25), Erected at Heliopolis” by Carlo Raso/Flickr, Public Domain)

Egyptian and Babylonian Mathematics

Could Pythagoras have learned, rather than discovered, the “Pythagorean” theorem—the law of relationships between the sides and hypotenuse of a right triangle—in Egypt? Almost assuredly. A Babylonian clay tablet dating to approximately 1800 BCE, known as Plimpton 322, demonstrates that the Babylonians had knowledge not only of the relationship of the sides and hypotenuses of a right triangle but also of trigonometric functions (Lamb 2017). Further, the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus provides evidence that the Egyptians had advanced knowledge of algebra and geometry as early as 1550 BCE, presenting problems that include calculating the volume of cylindrical granaries and the slope of pyramids. The Berlin Papyrus 6619, usually dated between 1800 BCE and 1649 BCE, contains a solution to a problem involving the Pythagorean theorem and evidence that the Egyptians could solve quadratic equations. Pythagoras studied with the priests of Heliopolis more than 1,000 years after these documents were created. It is possible that this Egyptian mathematical knowledge had been lost and that Pythagoras rediscovered the relationship during or after his studies in Heliopolis. However, given what we know now about Greek individuals visiting and residing in Egypt, it seems more likely that he was introduced to the knowledge there. As with mathematics, there are specific philosophical ideas that can be traced back to Egypt. This is particularly the case within metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that studies reality, being, causation, and related abstract concepts and principles.

Akhenaten’s Metaphysics

In the mid-14th century BCE, Akhenaten became pharaoh in Egypt. Partly in an attempt to undercut the growing power of the priests, Akhenaten abolished all other gods and established Aten, the sun god, as the one true god. Akhenaten held that solar energy was the element out of which all other elements evolved or emanated (Flegel 2018). In proposing this idea, Akhenaten established an unseen divinity responsible for causation. Aten became the one true substance that created the observable world. One hymn reads, “You create millions of forms from yourself, the one, / cities and towns / fields, paths and river” (Assmann [1995] 2009, 154). Although the Egyptian elite quickly reestablished the temples and the practices of the full pantheon of gods after Akhenaten’s death, theological thought incorporated this idea of an all-powerful invisible first cause. This idea evolved, with the phrase “one and the millions” coming to signify the sun god as the soul and the world as its body (Assmann 2004, 189). As you will see later in this chapter, this same concept—a single, invisible, unchanging substance expressing itself through forms to give rise to the material world—is the key principle in Plato’s metaphysics.

The Egyptian Origins Controversy

Scholars have long puzzled over to what extent the origins of classical thought can be said to lie in Egypt. In recent years, a heated debate has erupted over this question. In the three-volume text Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Martin Bernal, a contemporary American professor specializing in modern Chinese political history, argued that the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians played a foundational role in the formation of Greek civilization and philosophy. He further claimed that an “ancient model” recognizing the African and Middle Eastern origins of Greece was widely accepted until the 19th century, when it was replaced by a racist “Aryan model” proposing Indo-European origins instead. Mary Lefkowitz, a contemporary professor of classical studies, has famously critiqued Bernal’s work. Lefkowitz’s position is that though it is important to acknowledge the debt the Greeks owe to Egyptian thought, Greek philosophy was not wholly derived from Egypt, nor did Western civilization arise from Africa. A bitter academic war of words has ensued, with Lefkowitz and other prominent scholars noting significant errors in Bernal’s scholarship. Lefkowitz authored Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History in 1997. Bernal responded with Black Athena Writes Back in 2001. This exchange reflects a much broader phenomenon in which academics spar over the accuracy of historical narratives and the interpretation of philosophical ideas, often presenting the issues as ethical questions. By thinking critically about these disagreements, we gain deeper insight not only into the topic of study but also into philosophical and political discourse today.

Write Like a Philosopher

Read the summary of these two articles: (1) Mary Lefkowitz’s “Egyptian Philosophy: Influence on Ancient Greek Thought” and (2) Simphiwe Sesanti’s “Teaching Ancient Egyptian Philosophy (Ethics) and History: Fulfilling a Quest for a Decolonised and Afrocentric Education”. Identify two arguments from each article, and identify two to three sources that could provide evidence to substantiate or refute each argument.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax