The Author of Not Out of Africa Pens Her Memoir

Ms. Lefkowitz is Mellon Professor in the Humanities Emerita, Wellesley College. She is the author of History Lesson: A Race Odyssey (Yale University Press, April 2008). She is also the author of: Not Out Of Africa: How "Afrocentrism" Became An Excuse To Teach Myth As History (A New Republic Book).

A few days ago a colleague sent me a long e-mail about John Leo’s review of my new book History Lesson. This professor had been at Wellesley during the troubled years that I describe in the book. Now in retrospect he wishes that he’d had the courage to get up and say that he really didn’t care about whether or not Greek philosophy had been subject to significant Egyptian influence. What does such a question matter, in comparison to the terrible problems of our own times? In short, he surely had something better to do with his time (and mine) than worrying about the origins of Greek philosophy. Whoever invented it, it would still be great philosophy. And Socrates would be one of its founding fathers even if his ancestors had been immigrants from ancient Memphis rather than natives of Attica.

I hear what he is saying. What’s so terrible about supposing that Egyptian ideas could have played an important role in the formation of what we now call Western thought? Nothing whatever, except that they didn’t, at least so far as we now know. I don’t say that because I have anything against ancient Egypt, or because I’m not open to new ideas, or because I always seek to defend ancient Greece. It’s just that there isn’t any textual evidence to support the idea that Greek philosophy originated in the valley of the Nile. One could argue on the grounds of possibility that Egyptian philosophical texts might have existed that could have served as inspiration for the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle. But if so, it’s hard to understand how they managed to disappear without a trace, when the Egyptians had a system of writing and so many of their other writings still survive, on a variety of topics, religious, historical, and medical.

The ancient Egyptians had a deep and complex theology, much less transparent to us than that of the ancient Greeks. They also had a different view of history. As they saw it, the past cannot be separated from the present, but is embodied in it. The Greeks regarded the past as distinct from the present. They thought, or at least hoped, that it might be possible to learn from what had happened to people who were now dead, but in their view meaningful existence did not continue beyond the grave. If the Greeks had listened to the Egyptians on the subject of death, they would have had a much more positive attitude toward death, and with it, no doubt, a more uplifting view of the nature of human life. Homer would have written a strikingly different Iliad. Achilles would have greeted the news of his friend Patroclus’ death with equanimity, and looked forward to joining him soon in the Field of Reeds. In our Iliad, by contrast, Achilles is guilt-stricken. He covers his head in dust and lies on the ground weeping. For him, death was nothing to look forward to. In his view, even life as a slave to a poor man would be preferable to being king among the dead in the Elysian Fields.

But even though Egyptian texts don’t bear any noticeable resemblance to the dialogues of Plato or the treatises of Aristotle, suppose there was an oral tradition (now lost) on which Greek travelers to Egypt were somehow able to draw? Recently Carlin Romano sought to make that sort of “common sense” argument in an essay about History Lesson (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28). But why choose to specify Egyptian oral tradition, and not also Phoenician or Hittite, or those of the so-called Minoans or other people in the Ancient Mediterranean? Aside from lack of evidence, another problem with Romano’s hypothesis is that oral tradition usually takes the form of poetic narratives, the end product of which are epics about great heroes. No one, so far as I know, has ever tried to argue that the Iliad or the Odyssey could have inspired Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics.

It’s only because the issue of race is involved that anyone today would try to insist that fourth-century B.C. Greek philosophy had a close connection with some now lost body of Egyptian thought. But if you are eager to establish a connection between Greece and Egypt, why speculate about philosophy when you don’t need a microscope to detect Egyptian influence on Greek art and architecture, which were taken up and adapted by other Mediterranean peoples, especially the Romans? If you’re looking for an African connection -- and I, for one, see no reason not to suppose that the ancient Egyptians were an African people -- you can find it in stone, in museums throughout the world. And please don’t tell me that the power to transform the spaces in which we live is not a significant contribution to human culture.

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Elliott Aron Green - 5/19/2008

I hope that Mary Lefkowitz is getting a lot of good exercise beating her straw man. But in order to prove her point, she draws a narrow definition of "textual evidence." Herodotos describes Thales as a Phoenician, Isocrates reports Oriental influence on an early Greek philosopher [in his Busiris]. Aristotle credits the Egyptians with influencing early matehmatics. Hermippos and Antonios Diogenes --in the Hellenistic period-- report Jewish influence on Pythagoras. The later writers, Porphyry, Diogenes Laertios, and Iamblichos all give evidence of Jewish influence on Pythagoras when describing the latter's beliefs and practices. Iamblichos reports that Pythagoras's family origin was Sidon and further reports that Pythagoras spent time on Mount Carmel with "the prophets descended from Moschos" [The Israelite prophets Elijah and Elisha, as well as prophets of Baal spent time on the Carmel]. But ML doesn't want to accept Iamblichos, Diogenes Laertios, and Porphyry because they were too late for her taste. But Isocrates and Herodotos were not late. Be that as it may, there were Syrians/Phoenicians involved in the Cynic and Sophist philosophic movements. Then Herodotos reports on a Phoenician clan that was admitted to citizenship in Athens. Then there are the parallels between some Greek legends and Biblical stories [Jephtha's daughter and Iphigenia, for instance]. I could go on.

If ML wants more graphic evidence, the Louvre had an exhibit last year of relatively recently interpreted Egyptian texts. These included writings on math and medicine, as I recall. Maybe ML could go to Paris and take a look, and perhaps forgo her usual claim that any mention of Oriental influence is "late" [not true] or unreliable for whatever reason.

Nancy REYES - 5/14/2008

In Egypt, it was Copt/Nubian..(not IndoEuropean /Bantu)....and there were many links, including Nubian Pharohs.

As for Greece, etc. there was a lot of cross pollinization of ideas back and forth...

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