59. Plato in Egypt – The Greatest Philosopher 3

Plato traveled to Egypt after the death of Socrates and there, he learned from the Egyptian philosopher-priests.
Egyptian Temple Ruins in Luxor

This is part three of a fictional dialogue discussing the life of Plato. In the previous post, Plato fled Athens after the execution of his friend and teacher Socrates (I suggest also reading the first part of the story, if you haven’t already). Plato traveled for almost two decades afterward, his most significant time being spent in Egypt. These years of travel, especially were very significant in forming Plato’s thoughts, which is why it is perplexing to me that not more is written about this when discussing his philosophy.

So, come and join Xenon and the other guests as they meet at the home of Damien for dinner and conversation about the life of Plato….

Xenon is a businessman from Southern Italy who is a guest at the home of businessman/philosopher Damien in Athens. They are discussing Plato’s life two days after his death.

Plato’s Extensive Travels

The guests all gathered again in Damien’s home for one last evening together. The topic of conversation began where it left off the night before with the discussion of Plato’s extensive travels after the death of Socrates.

“Welcome back, everyone,” said Damien with his characteristic hearty laugh. “I hope that you have found the food to your liking so far, and tonight, you won’t be disappointed. We have the best yellowfin tuna that you have ever eaten; I guarantee it.” And with a signal, the servants appeared, carrying plates full of food as if they had practiced this routine many times before.

“As I was saying, Xenon, Athens became too dangerous for Plato after the execution of his teacher, so he fled and did not return for almost twenty years. It was this time away from Athens, Plato told me personally, when he grew in wisdom and knowledge, building upon the foundation laid by Socrates.”

“Where did he go first?” asked Xenon

“They fled to Megara, which is about twenty miles west of here. It was close enough to get there quickly, but also far enough away that they would be safe. But also, there was another, more strategic, reason why Plato went there.”

“Knowing Plato, I would guess that it had something to do with philosophy,” said Xenon.

“That is exactly right, Xenon. You see, about a year before Socrates’s death, one of his students and a good friend of Plato’s, Euclides, left Athens and founded his own philosophical school in Megara.

“Euclides combined what he learned from Socrates with the teachings of Parmenides. It was here that Plato became steeped in the teachings of the Eleatics, already having become familiar with the Ionic school of thought by reading Heraclitus and others. This gave Plato a well-rounded education, to say the least. At this time, he also became a student of Cratylus the Heraclitean and Hermogenes, who was of the Eleatic school.1 It appears that the spark lit by Socrates was not fanned into full flame, for Plato traveled throughout Italy, Sicily, and Egypt absorbing as much knowledge as he possibly could from many great teachers. But he was also exposed to other cultures which broadened his perspective on life, eventually giving a richness and depth to his teachings.”

Suddenly, Xenon’s eyes brightened and he said, “I can now see Socrates’ influence on Plato. It is as clear as day.”

“What do you mean?” asked Damien.

“Well, Socrates said that the path to wisdom begins with realizing that we are ignorant. So rather than becoming a teacher soon after Socrates’ death, Plato continued to learn as much as he could from diverse schools of thought,” replied Xenon.

“You are correct, but be careful,” Damien replied. “If you’re not careful, you will become a philosopher, too!” With that comment, everyone laughed.

“So, let’s continue,” Damien said.

Plato in Cyrene

“Next he traveled to Cyrene.2 It was there in Cyrene that he was exposed to African culture and met with the mathematician Theodorus. Theodorus was the one who taught Plato mathematics, among other things. He must have left an impact on Plato because he includes him in three of his dialogues: Theatetus, Sophist, and the Statesman. In Theatetus, Plato tells us that Theodorus was not only good in mathematics but in astronomy, geometry, and music.3 Theodorus’ main contribution to mathematics was showing that irrational numbers do indeed exist.”

This piqued Xenon’s interest and he asked, “How did he do that?”

“His proofs are too complicated to go into tonight, especially after a couple cups of wine – but at least it is diluted, unlike the pure wine that the stinking Barbarians drink!” Damien said, laughing so hard that his face turned red. “He did construct a spiral to prove his theorem about irrational numbers.4 I say this to show you the quality of Plato’s teachers.”

The spiral of Theodorus, one of Plato's teachers.
The Spiral of Theodorus

Plato in Egypt

Damien went on, “From there, Plato traveled to Egypt with Euripides to meet with Egyptian philosopher-priests. During his stay, he became very ill but was cured by a priest using a concoction made of seawater. This caused Plato to concur with Homer that the Egyptians surpass all mankind as healers”:

Every man is a healer there.5

Homer, Odyssey, 4:229-232

“He also learned about the water clock and brought the idea back to Greece. As you know, the Egyptians were the first to invent a portable timekeeping device.”

People don't realize that Egypt had its own system of philosopher-priests who influenced the likes of Plato.
Egyptian Water Clock, c. 1400 B.C.

“The most important thing is that it was in Egypt that Plato was exposed to many new ideas from the philosopher-priests, which in turn formed the nucleus of what would become his philosophy and his theory of Forms.”

“I didn’t even know that Egyptians were philosophers,” Xenon said.

“This is a fact not many people know,” replied Damien. “Egypt is one of the oldest nations and it’s very advanced. It is difficult to imagine them being unable to get to the place they are without a sound philosophy, but of course this was rooted in their religion. This is why the philosophers were to be found in the priestly class.

“It seems that Egypt has always had sound laws and a political system.6 Even the esteemed Isocrates said something very remarkable about this”:

And the priests, because they enjoyed such conditions of life, discovered for the body the aid which the medical art affords, not that which uses dangerous drugs, but drugs of such a nature that they are as harmless as daily food, yet in their effects are so beneficial 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.

– Isocrates, Busiris, section 22

Damien went on. “And we know many Greek philosophers like Pythagoras himself have traveled to Egypt in order to learn from the philosopher-priests.”

“What about the fact that philosophy started in Ionia?” asked Xenon.

“That is very true,” replied Damien, “but it is also true that in Egypt, philosophy….” Just then, the servants appeared to clear some plates from the table and bring in more food. The guests talked amongst themselves for a while until the servants once again disappeared.

When the conversation resumed, Damien seemed to have forgotten where he left off so he said, “Plato himself attributed the origin of numbers and letters to the Egyptians”:

…(the Egyptian god) Theuth invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.8 

– Plato, Phaedrus, section 274d 

“And finally, Plato quotes Socrates quoting the great lawgiver Solon, who had traveled to Egypt to learn. According to the account,”

 …and by recounting the number of years occupied by the events mentioned he tried to calculate the periods of time. Whereupon one of the priests, a prodigiously old man, said, ‘O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children: there is not such a thing as an old Greek.’ And on hearing this he asked, ‘What mean you by this saying?’ And the priest replied, ‘You are young in soul, every one of you. For therein you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor yet one science that is gray with age.9

– Plato, Timaeus, section 22b

“So you see,” continued Damien, “that even we Greeks acknowledge the philosophical debt we owe to the Egyptians!”

“How exactly,” started Xenon, “or in what specific ways did the philosopher-priests of Egypt influence Plato?”

Damien paused, let out a deep sigh, and said, “This is one of the most important but least asked questions. I was going to go on to discuss Plato’s experiences in Italy and Sicily, but I think I will spend the rest of the evening on this very question since it is so important.”

“Well, it looks as though we will have to meet for a fourth night then,” replied Xenon.

“I think you are right!” exclaimed Damien. “Can you arrange your schedule to stay a few more days in Athens? After all, we still have business to conduct.”

“But if we keep having conversations like this,” said Xenon, “I may give up business altogether and become a philosopher!”

“Hopefully of Plato’s and not Isocrates’ Academy!” replied Damien with another hearty laugh. Damien ate a few more bites of fish and then said, “Not only is this question of Plato and his time in Egypt one of the most important questions, but also one of the most difficult to answer. You see, Plato was in Egypt for at least twelve years, learning the wisdom of the philosopher-priests. And while there are many things that he learned, I want to discuss some of the most important ideas, at least as Plato conveyed them to me.”

The Maxims of Ptahhotep

“You must remember,” Damien said, “that we Greeks have been doing philosophy for only a few hundred years. And like Solon’s quote earlier, the Greeks are really like children in comparison to the Egyptians.

“For example, there was an Egyptian vizier named Ptahhotep who lived about 2000 years ago.10 Remember that this was 1600 years before Homer. Ptahhotep wrote a book entitled The Maxims of Ptahhotep. As an old man who was retiring, he wrote this book, at the behest of Pharaoh for his younger son who was assuming his position.11 The ancient Egyptians stressed the importance of wisdom, especially for government officials, in making prudent decisions. The Egyptians believed that wisdom practiced by leaders would foster harmony and order, whereas a lack of wisdom would lead to disorder and chaos.

Image of the oldest manuscript known, the Maxims of Ptahhotep.
The Papyrus Prisse containing the Maxims of Ptahhotep, c. 1800 B.C., possibly the oldest literary manuscript in the world

“Ptahhotep attained much of his wisdom in experience, but ultimately derived it from the goddess Maat – her very name means ‘truth and justice.’ She symbolized harmony and order in the universe. If a society was structured accordingly, then it would reflect the harmony and order of the universe. Maat stressed the importance of practicing virtue based in wisdom.”

“This seems just the type of teaching that Plato needed to hear after fleeing from the disordered city of Athens,” said Xenon.

“Of course, being exposed to teachings 1600 years older than Homer,” continued Damien, “was just what the young Plato needed to gain perspective. For example, Ptahhotep states, concerning corruption,”

Injustice exists in abundance, but evil can never succeed in the long run. Punish with principle, teach meaningfully. The act of stopping evil leads to the lasting establishment of Virtue.12

“So now,” continued Damien, “if the people of Egypt, who were ancient compared to the Greeks, believed that evil could never succeed in the long run and could be stopped, then surely Plato could have hope in attempting to derive a political system for Athens. And instrumental to this must be virtue.”

“Not to mention the reinforcement of the concepts of harmony and order in the cosmos that should be imitated by human society in order to make happiness possible,” replied Xenon. “You Greeks already stress order and harmony; this must have confirmed for Plato the importance of these things.”

“Yes,” said Damien, “so all of this provided a foundation not only for Plato’s political theory, but also his metaphysics…but lest we linger too long on this point, we need to move on.”

The Immortality of Writers

Damien continued, “Also, Plato may have been motivated by the wisdom of the Egyptian philosopher-priests to eventually put his philosophy into written form. Remember that his teacher Socrates did not write anything down. It is possible that Plato would have taken the same path were it not for the esteemed view of writers held by those in Egypt.

“About 800 years ago, 400 years before Homer, an Egyptian sage wrote a poem entitled The Immortality of Writers“:

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!

The Immortality of Writers by an Egyptian poet, c. 1200 B.C.13

“Imagine the young Plato encountering a culture such as Egypt that placed a supreme value on writing. It is no coincidence that he started writing his dialogues at this time.”14

The One and the Many in Egypt

“Now let’s discuss some mysterious ideas in Egypt that formed the foundation for Plato’s metaphysics,” Damien said, causing Xenon to perk up since metaphysics was one of his favorite subjects. “As far as metaphysics goes, remember that the Egyptians worked these ideas out over a period of several millennia. Compared to that, we Greeks are the latecomers.15 In other words, these ideas have deep roots in one of the oldest civilizations. The story that I am about to tell you will give you great insight into where Plato got the idea for his theory of Forms.”

“Forms?” asked Xenon.

“Yes,” replied Damien. “Since the Ionians, the Greeks have been looking for the unifying principle of the universe or arché. The Ionians like Thales and Anaximenes posited things like water and air, respectively, saying that all of the cosmos was made out of these substances. The problem was that they did not show how these unifying substances related to the multiplicity of objects from which they arose. The tended to dilute the One at the expense of the Many.

“In Southern Italy, the Eleatics like Parmenides posited Being as the universal principle. But in Parmenides’ view, Being is so preeminent that the Many disappeared and became an illusion. This is really the fundamental problem of the One and the Many.16

“The solution that Plato came up with is called the Theory of Forms where he posited universals called Forms which where ideal and perfect. All similar objects on earth are imperfect representations of the particular Form from which they get their identity. Does that make sense?”

“Uh…really no. I am more confused on the matter. Can you give me an example?” replied Xenon.

“Of course!” Damien chuckled. “The example we all use is that of the chair. There are many chairs on earth, but they are all imperfect. What binds them all together is the Form of chair that exists in the realm of Forms somewhere in the spiritual dimension of the cosmos.”

“I think that I understand. The question is what does all of this have to do with Plato in Egypt?”

“This is where it gets interesting,” replied Damien as he lowered his voice to almost a whisper. He realized at this point, as he saw all of his guests leaning in slightly, that he had a captive audience.

He continued, “Hold those thoughts for now. I want to first tell you the story of an interesting Egyptian pharaoh named Akhenaten who lived about 1000 years ago.”

Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and the Sun God Aten

“When Amenhotep came to power, he made radical changes in Egypt the likes of which have never been seen before or since.17 At the time, Egypt worshipped about 2000 gods. Shortly after coming to power, he eliminated the entire pantheon of gods except one – the sun god Aten. He designated Aten worship as the only lawful worship.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing anywhere!” exclaimed Xenon

“Well, really no one has,” replied Damien. “Many say that it was for political purposes, that Amenhotep sought to consolidate power by dismantling the powerful religious orders.18 Regardless of the motive, it did happen and it had profound implications. Can you imagine all the various orders of priests who suddenly found themselves in an illegal vocation?

“Well, anyway,” continued Damien, “Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, which means ‘the effective spirit of Aten’ or ‘he who is in service to Aten.’19 Aten was sun itself and the energy that emanated from it. As such, it was the origin of all things in the cosmos.”

“Oh…like the arché of the Ionian philosophers!” exclaimed Xenon.

“Exactly! Now you are starting to see the connection,” replied Damien. “Every element of the visible cosmos was characterized as simply an emanation of energy from Aten, who was the creator and sustainer of all things. And it gets more interesting from here.”

The philosopher-priests of Egypt had a great influence on Plato and his subsequent theories, like that of his Forms.
Aten, the sun god

“Once Akhenaten’s short-lived reign was over, Egypt quickly reverted back to the pantheon of gods they had previously known – temples were reopened, statues were constructed, and the priestly orders were back in business. Everything returned to normal with one major exception.”

“What was that?” asked Xenon.

Damien replied, “The Egyptian philosopher-priests would never look at the cosmos the same again for Akhenaten’s radical reforms introduced the idea of oneness.20 For a brief time, the Egyptians experienced oneness, the unification of all that exists – and that was a very powerful shift in thinking.”

“In what way?”

“Well, they could not dismiss oneness, because they had experienced it and sensed the trueness of it,” Damien continued. “Now they had a new problem on their hands. It became paramount to reconcile the plurality of reality signified by the old order of the pantheon with the monotheism of Akhenaten.”21

“Oh…the One and the Many, the same problem facing the Greeks!” replied Xenon excitedly, for he was tracking intently with everything that Damien was saying.

“Right again!” responded Damien.

Plato and His Theory of Forms

Damien continued, “Remember, Plato went to Egypt with the Greek dilemma of the One and the Many unsolved. There was the Eleatic school on one hand and the Ionic on the other. Well, in Egypt, Plato may have discovered the idea of Forms that he used to attempt to solve this problem.22

“Once the old order of gods was reestablished, to the old ideas the philosopher-priests added a new element: a single hidden divine entity represented by the sun from which all things originated and were animated.23 This god was unified, unknowable, transcendent, indescribable, immaterial, and undesirable. This being was not the sun itself, but was symbolized by it. Because they could not adequately describe it, they simply called it ‘One,’ ‘Hidden,’ or ‘Soul-like.’ For them, this divine entity inhabited a separate ontological space beyond the power of intellect and words to describe.

“Somehow, though, this separated, transcendent being was responsible for animating all of the physical cosmos including the pantheon of gods. Even though he was invisible, his effects could be seen everywhere. The way that the priests reconciled the One and Many was to say that the infinite Many of the universe were simply parts of the ineffable One being.24

“As a side note, before I discuss Plato and the theory of Forms, I want to mention that Parmenides was also influenced by these ideas though Pythagoras. Remember that Pythagoras spent twelve years in Egypt. He most likely brought these ideas back to Italy, which later influenced Parmenides’ ideas that emphasized Being and the Oneness of all things. For according to Parmenides, the illusory world of sense perception with its infinite components concealed the underlying unity of all things represented by Being. Parmenides believed that the “one” had no parts, was indistinguishable from anything, was whole, complete, unregenerated, indestructible, uniform, unchangeable, and unintelligible. This idea is obviously Egyptian. Regardless, the story of Akhenaten planted seeds in the fertile soil of Plato’s mind.”

“How so?” asked Xenon.

“Because of this teaching of the Egyptian philosopher-priests, Plato now had a category by which he could posit a unifying principle of the universe, Forms, responsible for the multiplicity that we experience through our senses.26 But Plato did not make the mistake that Parmenides did when he eliminated the Many in order to preserve the integrity of the One. It is interesting to think about whether or not Plato would have developed his theory of Forms without the influence of the philosophers of Egypt.”

“I still don’t quite see the connection,” Xenon said, looking puzzled.

“Well, that’s because this idea of a single being responsible for the cosmos was just the beginning. Egyptian theologians worked out the implications of this idea, which eventually led to the concept of the Divine Mind. It took them 600 years to fully develop this idea that eventually reached its zenith under the reign of Pharaoh Shabaka just 300 years ago.”

The Divine Mind

“It’s amazing,” replied Xenon, “that these ideas were worked out by the Egyptians over a period of 600 years, three times longer than the Greeks have been practicing philosophy.”

“Yes, soon after the death of Akhenaten, priests started developing this idea of divine intelligence and creation. At first, they said attributed the creation of the gods only to divine intelligence, but eventually attributed the creation of all of the cosmos to the divine mind. Under Shabaka, this reached its fullest expression with the designation of Ptah as the supreme god responsible for the creation of all other gods, humans, and the entire cosmos.27 Ptah was intelligence itself.

The philosopher-priests of Egypt had their own system of thinking worked out by the time Plato arrived.
The Shabaka Stone (see footnote 28 below)

“The Egyptian theologians then made a clear distinction between things and divine words so that when Ptah made the cosmos, transforming pre-existing matter into the cosmos, he followed the pattern of a finite set of forms.28 They saw the multitude of diverse things in the cosmos as simply copies of the original forms or ideas. You see, for the Egyptians, words denote concepts of things and not the things themselves.”29

Damien went on, “Eventually these ideas became associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom to whom the invention of writing was attributed.30 Thoth was also known as the ‘Lord of Divine Words.’ He eventually became the creator god and was known as the Son, Word, and eventually Mind of the sun-god Re. Thoth then became the one that appeared as the divine word, commanding the universe into existence according to the pattern of pre-existing forms. He was the divine craftsman.”

“Now I am starting to see the connection to Plato’s Forms,” exclaimed Xenon.

“In what way?” asked Damien.

“Well, I think it is obvious now that the Egyptians came up with the idea of forms and it was Plato who incorporated this idea into his philosophy,” replied Xenon. “And like any great philosopher, he borrowed the idea from the Egyptians, built upon it, and developed his own unique viewpoint on the matter.”

“You are correct. I think Plato spent twelve or thirteen years studying in Egypt with the sages of Heliopolis. His sleeping quarters was actually in the great temple of Heliopolis.31 I think he studied under the Horite priest Sechnuphis if I am not mistaken.”32

“If you look at it the other way,” Xenon said, “it is difficult to imagine Plato studying Egyptian theology for all of that time without being influenced by their thinking.”

“Right again, my astute friend,” replied Damion. “Besides, the god Thoth shows up in two of Plato’s dialogues. In Phaedrus, he chastises Thoth for inventing words since words impose a barrier into beholding the Forms as they truly are, but in Philebus, Plato praises Thoth as being responsible for bringing order, differentiation, and unity to the infinite plurality of the human soul.33 The point is, featuring Thoth in such a way in his dialogues, he is attributing at least some of his ideas to the Egyptians.”

“Even though Plato received some of his important ideas from his teachers in Egypt, that should not detract from Plato as a philosopher in his own right,” Xenon said with some consternation.

“Of course not,” retorted Damien. “Plato did not merely borrow his ideas from Egypt, but he used them as a foundation upon which he built his own philosophical house. But we would be remiss as Greeks if we did not acknowledge the debt we owe to the Egyptians!”

(To be continued….)

The Moses-Plato Connection

Is there a Moses-Plato connection? At first this seems far-fetched, but the more I look at the facts, the more this seems likely. If we view this like a puzzle, then there is only one way to make the pieces fit.

Let’s start with the monotheism of Akhenaton. This is the only instance in ancient history where a nation converted to monotheism. The ancient Hebrews are an exception, but they had direct revelation from God.

What could have prompted such a conversion among the Egyptians? The standard answer has been that when Amenhotep assumed the throne, he became monotheistic in order to consolidate his political power by shutting down the powerful religious establishment. I find several problems with this. First of all, there are other ways of consolidating power without completely upending the entire religious establishment. It seems that a move like this would have created more – not less – instability and vulnerability of his throne by creating many enemies.

Secondly, there is no precedent in ancient history for such a revolutionary move for political purposes or any purpose for that matter. Part of the reason is the fact that the concept of monotheism was not in the psyche of the ancient peoples. They could not conceive of such a thing. Even cultures in the East like the Chinese, who emphasized oneness more than in the West, still had a multiplicity of gods. It would be similar to our modern culture suddenly reverting back to believing and worshipping the Greek pantheon of gods. We just don’t think that way.

In my opinion, this radical conversion to monotheism was prompted by the devastation wrought on Egypt a century earlier through the Hebrew prophet Moses. It would have taken Egypt decades to recover from such devastation. Also, this trauma would have been seared into the collective conscious of the Egyptians, and they would have linked this national trauma to the monotheistic God of the Hebrews. So, the Egyptians were introduced to monotheism through their encounter with Moses. Monotheism was injected into their DNA at this time.

Converting to monotheism then was a way to come to terms with what happened. It was sort of a catharsis for them to deal with the past so that they could move on. And in their mindset, it behooved them to placate the monotheistic god lest something worse should happen to them. The contest between Pharaoh and Moses was not a political one but a spiritual one. It was meant to settle the question – who’s god was supreme? The Ten Plagues represented the destruction of the Egyptian pantheon of gods: Moses’ God was supreme.

The interesting part philosophically is that even though the monotheism was short lived, it introduced for the first time in ancient culture the concept of Oneness. This new idea was something that the Egyptian philosopher-priests had to come to grips with as stated above in the dialogue. This then led to the tension between the One and the Many. In previous posts, I stated that this fundamental philosophical problem was first posited by the Greeks. But actually, I have changed my mind on this and believe that Plato and the Greeks learned this from the philosopher-priests of Egypt.

So it was through the Egyptians that the concept of Oneness was introduced into Western culture. The Egyptians passed this baton to Geeks through Plato and others who then incorporated and further developed this idea into their philosophies. Plato used the pattern of the creator god Ptah fashioning the cosmos after a fixed pattern of forms to develop his own theory of Forms. In summary, the lineage of the concept of Forms posited by Plato and the tension between the One and the Many that the Greek philosophers dealt with can be traced through the Egyptians right back to the Hebrews, who stated:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

– Deuteronomy 6:4

This is why Plato’s ideal world of Forms resonated with the Christians who came after him. For in dealing with Plato’s Forms, they were encountering the one God of the Hebrews who left His mark on the Egyptian culture. This prompted the 2nd century A.D. Middle Platonist philosopher to say:

‘Of what things are there Forms ?’, that ‘the Forms are the eternal and perfect thoughts of God.’

– Alcinous

Postscript

The following quote illustrates the extent to which many of Plato’s teachings had their origin in Egyptian cosmology:

 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.34

– Peter Flegel

The Egyptian philosopher-priests had significant influence upon Greek philosophers. It seems that Egypt functioned as sort of a graduate school for aspiring philosophers and most likely physicians as well. Greek students would spend sometimes years in Egypt, only eventually to return with their new ideas that they would incorporate into their teachings. It appears that the Greeks admired the Egyptians during the time of Plato in the same way that the Romans came to admire the intellectual accomplishments of the Greeks years later.

Also, in researching this topic, I came across sentiments to the effect that Plato “stole” his ideas from the Egyptians, and even that Greek philosophers stole from the black Africans. If you are interested, there is a book in the bibliography to that effect.35 This is nothing more than an example of judging the past with modern standards. I don’t think that the ancients viewed intellectual thought with the vigor of our modern legal system – through the lens of “intellectual property rights.” I think that they freely borrowed from each other as they modified and adapted others’ ideas to their own philosophies.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below in the comment section! And don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Deo Gratias

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. The Eleatics from Southern Italy stressed the unity of all things, whereas the Ionians, even though they looked for a unifying principle, tended to stress multiplicity. Please see my posts on Parmenides where I discuss this more in depth.
  2. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 100; Cyrene was an ancient Greek city near present day Shahhat, Libya. Sometime in the late fourth century, one of the Ptolemaic kings forced 100,000 Jews to settle there. Out of this population eventually came Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus.
  3. Plato, Theatetus, 144c-145a; these four subjects, later termed the Quadrivium, were necessary in order to obtain a master’s degree in ancient Greece. This is juxtaposed against the Trivium, which consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which comprised the curriculum of the lower sectors of ancient Greek education.
  4. Do you know why this spiral proves the existence of irrational numbers?
  5. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 100
  6. Actually, it was Aristotle who said this, cf. “Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, section 1329b”, Tufts.edu
  7.  Isocrates, Busiris, section 22, Tufts.edu; Isocrates (436-338) was a contemporary and rival of Plato. Plato founded his Academy in response to Isocrates founding his.
  8. Plato, Phaedrus, section 274d, Tufts.edu
  9. Plato, Timaeus, section 22b, Tufts.edu
  10. A vizier was the highest ranking court official to serve the Pharaoh. The modern term would be prime minister. This was the position eventually held by the Patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis, cf. chapters 39-50.
  11. The Maxims of Ptahhotep, c. 2400 B.C. is the oldest extant book. It was discovered in Thebes in 1847 by Egyptologist M. Prisse d’Avennes, cf. Simpson, W. K., ed. The Maxims of Ptahhotep. Las Vegas, Nevada: Evan Blythin, 1986
  12.  Christian Jacq, The Living Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, Simon & Schuster, 1999
  13. The Immortality of Writers “was discovered during excavations in the 1920s, in the ancient scribal village of Deir El-Medina, across the Nile from Luxor, some 400 miles up the river from Cairo,” quoted from Herbjornsrud, Dag, “The Radical Philosophy of Egypt: Forget God and Family, Write!”, Blog of the Apa, December 17, 2018
  14. Plato wrote his early dialogues in the period from 399 B.C. to the founding of his Academy in 387. His dialogues are divided up into early, middle, and late periods.
  15. Flegel, Peter, “Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?”, Philosophy Now magazine, 2017
  16. As I have stated in earlier articles of this blog, the problem of the One and the Many is the fundamental philosophical metaphysical problem to be solved. If you are interested in knowing more, please read my posts on the Presocratic philosophers which you will find listed in the Table of Contents.
  17. Amenhotep IV came to power in the 18th Dynasty and ruled from 1351 to 1334 B.C.
  18. One interesting hypothesis is that if we go with the traditional early date of Moses and the Exodus of 1446 B.C., then it could very well be that the devastation wrought on Egypt by Moses’ God YHWH was so traumatizing that it prompted a brief period of monotheism as a way to try to appease the God of the Hebrews, cf. “The Shiloh Investigations” at Biblical Archaeological Associates. Of course, it is almost impossible to find honest discussion about this among modern academics because of their Christophobic presuppositions.
  19. “Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)”, Ancient Egypt Online
  20. Flegel, Peter, “Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?”
  21. Ibid.
  22. Plato never really solved the problem, either. In fact, his dialogue Parmenides is Plato critiquing – through Parmenides – his own theory of Forms.
  23. Flegel, Peter, “Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?”
  24. Ibid.
  25. Plato, Parmenides, translation and introduction by Mary Louise Gill, also translated by Paul Ryan, pp. 9-10, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1996
  26. There seems to be a correspondence between Plato’s Demiurge that emanates from the One and the solar rays emanating from the sun-god Aten. If so, then this is just another example of the Egyptian inluence of Plato ideas.
  27. According to Flegel, under Shabaka, “the most sophisticated articulation of creationism ever known to the pre-Hellenic world” was discovered in what is known as the Memphite Theology, as found on the Shabaka stone. The stone posited that an intellectual principle was the very cause of creation.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid referring to Thoth the Hermes of Egypt: Some Aspects of Theological Thought in Ancient Egypt, 1922
  30. Plato makes the connection between the god Thoth and writing in Phaedrus, see 274b – 279b
  31. This according to Strabo in Geography
  32. This according to Clement of Alexandria
  33. As quoted from Flegel, Peter, “Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?”
  34. Ibid.
  35. There is an interesting critique of James’s book by Mary Lefkowitz entitled Stolen Legacy (or mythical history?) Did the Greeks steal philosophy from the Egyptians? at Skeptic Magazine.

Bibliography:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, hardcover, Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (May 14, 2018)

James, George G.M., Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy, Echo Point Books & Media; Reprint ed. edition (November 4, 2016)

Plato, Parmenides, translation and introduction by Mary Louise Gill, also translated by Paul Ryan, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1996

Mohr, Richard D., God and Forms in Plato, Parmenides Publishing; Revised edition (December 1, 2005)

Hon. De Sansui, author, The Teachings of Ptahhotep: The Oldest Book In The World, African Tree Press, October 11, 2013

Wilkinson, Toby, translator and introduction, Writings from Ancient Egypt, Illustrated, January 3, 2017, Penguin Classics

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