Ancient Egyptian philosophy
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One Egyptian figure often considered an early philosopher is Ptahhotep. He served as vizier to the pharaoh in the late 25th, early 24th century BC. Ptahhotep is known for his comprehensive work on ethical behavior and moral philosophy, called The Maxims of Ptahhotep. The work, which is believed to have been compiled by his grandson Ptahhotep Tjefi, is a series of 37 letters or maxims addressed to his son, Akhethotep, speaking on such topics as daily behavior and ethical practices.
Dag Herbjørnsrud, writing for the American Philosophical Association, describes the 3200-year-old manuscript "The Immortality of Writers", or "Be a Writer" (c. 1200 BC), as a "remarkable example of classical Egyptian philosophy." The manuscript, attributed to the writer Irsesh, states:
Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives return to the earth. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader. A book is more effective than a well-built house or a tomb-chapel, better than an established villa or a stela in the temple! [...] They gave themselves a book as their lector-priest, a writing-board as their dutiful son. Teachings are their mausolea, the reed-pen their child, the burnishing-stone their wife. Both great and small are given them as their children, for the writer is chief.
- "In 2018, projects are under way to translate several ancient Egyptian texts for the first time. Yet we already have a wide variety of genres to choose from in order to study the manuscripts from a philosophical perspective: The many maxims in “The Teaching of Ptahhotep”, the earliest preserved manuscript of this vizier of the fifth dynasty is from the 19th century BC, in which he also argues that you should “follow your heart”; “The Teaching of Ani”, written by a humble middle-class scribe in the 13th century BC, which gives advice to the ordinary man; “The Satire of the Trades” by Khety, who tries to convince his son Pepy to “love books more than your mother” as there is nothing “on earth” like being a scribe; the masterpiece “The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba” of the 19th century BC – in which a man laments “the misery of life,” while his ba (personality/soul) replies that life is good, that he should rather “ponder life” as it is a burial that is miserable – recently discussed by Peter Adamson and Chike Jeffers in their “Africana Philosophy” podcast series. Or we can read Amennakht (active in 1170–1140 BC), the leading intellectual of the scribal town Deir El-Medina, whose teaching states that “it is good to finish school, better than the smell of lotus blossoms in summer.”
Influence on Ancient Greek philosophy
Several of the ancient Greek philosophers regarded Egypt as a place of wisdom and philosophy. Isocrates (b. 436 BC) states in Busiris that "all men agree the Egyptians are the healthiest and most long of life among men; and then for the soul they introduced philosophy's training, a pursuit which has the power, not only to establish laws, but also to investigate the nature of the universe. " He declares that Greek writers traveled to Egypt to seek knowledge. One of them was Pythagoras of Samos who "was first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy," according to Isocrates.
Plato states in Phaedrus that the Egyptian Thoth "invented numbers and arithmetic… and, most important of all, letters.” In Plato’s Timaeus, Socrates quotes the ancient Egyptian wise men when the law-giver Solon travels to Egypt to learn: "O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children." Aristotle attests to Egypt being the original land of wisdom, as when he states in Politics that "Egyptians are reputed to be the oldest of nations, but they have always had laws and a political system."
Notes and references
- Juan José Castillos, Ancient Egyptian Philosophy, RSUE 31, 2014, 29-37.
- Fontaine, Carole R. "A Modern Look at Ancient Wisdom: The Instruction of Ptahhotep Revisited." The Biblical Archaeologist 44, no. 3 (1981): 155-60. doi:10.2307/3209606.
- Browder, Anthony (1988). Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization. Karmaic Institute.
- Simpson, W. K., ed. The Maxims of Ptahhotep. Las Vegas, Nevada: Evan Blythin, 1986.
- Herbjørnsrud, Dag (2018-12-17). "The Radical Philosophy of Egypt: Forget God and Family, Write!". Blog of the APA. Retrieved 2019-06-19.
- "Writings from Ancient Egypt: Be a Writer". www.penguin.co.uk. Retrieved 2019-06-19.
- "Isocrates, Busiris, section 22". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2019-06-19.
- "Plato, Phaedrus, section 274d". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2019-06-19.
- "Plato, Timaeus, section 21e". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2019-06-19.
- "Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, section 1329b". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2019-06-19.