Egyptian Influence on Plato

 

 

Greg MosesCopyright 1996Presented at SUNY-BinghamtonOct., 1996Back to

Prepub Dir for Dr. Greg Moses :

“By the Dog of Egypt”: Plato’s Engagement with Egyptian Form, and the Scholarship of Cheikh Anta Diop

 

Let me preface my remarks today by saying that I feel privileged to share some ideas about Plato in the company of specialists who make of Greek culture their life’s work. For I am not a specialist in this field. Yet Plato has kept me company for many years, and I want you to know that I have vivid recollections of a particular moment when the words of Plato, translated into English, and leaping from a page, burst into my mind with such force that I thereafter decided to make philosophy my own pursuit. So if you will excuse my many failings in the techniques of classical scholarship, I would today like to explore the question of what might be learned if we place Plato in the context of Egypt. Thus from the outset, I admit that I want to defy the tone of scholarship that is set by the title of Mary Lefkowitz’s recent book, Not Out of Africa. I understand that in her more careful formulations, Lefkowitz is willing to admit of Egyptian influence upon Greek culture; nevertheless, the title of her book, and the general mood of her rhetoric, sets a tone which I find most discouraging, and I am here to seek, in the presence of specialists, an avenue toward fruitful reflection which may entertain within one universe the things we might learn if we spoke of Plato and Egypt together.

 

It should also be obvious from the title of this presentation that I shall be speaking under the influence of the late Senegalese philosopher Cheikh Anta Diop. In other words, I will advance three of Diop’s propositions: 1) that Plato is an optimist after the fashion of the Heliopolitan theology, 2) that the heritage of Egyptian civilization deserves greater attention as a Western heritage, and 3) that there are elements in the heritage of Egyptian education which tend to suppress the advancement of science. In sum, I will argue that Plato’s increasing fascination with Egyptian form invites us to follow Diop’s suggestion that by acknowledging and investigating our Egyptian heritage, we shall be in a much better position to assess who we are today and where we should be heading.

For instance, it is commonplace to suggest that Western heritage draws upon the model of the Greek city-state. But Diop counters this common assumption by suggesting that today’s Western powers have less in common with the fragile and tumultuous city state than with the sturdy and obdurate empire that was prefigured in Egypt. I will argue in my paper today that the tendency which pulls us away from the city state toward empire is a tendency that inscribes the dialectic of Plato’s political philosophy. Although Plato was well acquainted with the intrigues of the city state, he was increasingly attracted to Egyptian imperial form. This tendency has implications for a philosophy of art and liberation. When Diop calls attention to the similarities between empires that are Egyptian and American, he is interested in the obstructions that are raised against social change. (Diop frames his analysis in terms of the Marxist analysis of an Asian Mode of Production or AMP state.)

 

To get on with the argument, I shall survey three of Plato’s dialogues: Republic, Timaeus, and Laws, in order to suggest that we find in these dialogues an increasing pre-occupation with Egypt. By undertaking this kind of investigation I want to raise questions with respect to two specific claims that have been posed by critics of the Afrocentric movement. First, I want to question Lefkowitz when she claims that it was from the Greeks and from no one else that we derive our interest in history. Secondly, I want to question the way that Richard Jenkyns dismisses Egyptian influence on Plato. Says Jenkyns, “we can see for ourselves how [Platonism] evolved from Presocratic thought, the Sophistic movement and the teaching of Socrates himself; to suppose that Platonism is in some way a development of Egyptian religion and thought is simply to misunderstand what Platonism is.” As a nonspecialist I would like to know why we cannot claim Egyptian heritage for our interest in history, or why we cannot view Plato in relation to the wider world in which he lived? According to my own reading of Nicolas Grimal’s History of Ancient Egypt, the age of the Seven Wise Men in Greece happens to coincide with a Saitic revival in Northern Egypt that drew the Greeks into vigorous contact. Another such revival was also underway during Plato’s lifetime as Northern Egyptians undertook to build a renaissance upon the models of their own ancient history. How closely these historical connections may tie the two cultures is surely a delicate question, but I find it difficult to suppose with Lefkowitz and Jenkyns that there is simply no story to tell. In the classroom, I think the most reasonable position to teach is that our cultural connections with Egyptian heritage should be further invstigated, not dismissed.

 

I.In the three dialogues under investigation, Plato seems to operate from a worldview pervaded by the presence of Egypt. In the Republic, Plato’s references to Egypt are sparse and offhanded. But in the Timaeus and Laws, we find Plato increasingly preoccupied with the relationship between Greece and Egypt and we find Egyptian forms taken more and more seriously. After brief exploration of these passages, I would like to revive the suggestion made by James McEvoy that the Platonic worldview may have been modeled after the Pharaonic (McEvoy 1984). Then I will turn to the larger framework offered by Diop, who finds in Greek culture two interesting features relevant to today’s discussion. First, that the Greeks are representatives of “Northern Cradle” culture. Second, that the Greek city-state, when compared to the Pharaonic empire, is a peculiarly unstable form of government. While Diop argues that Greek life is significantly influenced by Egyptian examples, it is clear that Diop also postulates differences which make these influences interesting and complex–certainly not the kind of “dependency” thesis that Lefkowitz alleges in her attacks upon afrocentric scholarship.

By continuing to discuss Greece in relation to Egypt, we open more interesting avenues of debate than if we cut the connections outright, as suggested by Lefkowitz, who says flatly, “virtually all claims made by Afrocentrists can be shown to be without substance” (Lefkowitz 1996, 8). If, as Lefkowitz admits, afrocentric scholarship is something that she has only recently encountered, then I find incredible her declaration, not only that she knows all the claims made by Afrocentrists, but that she is also in a position to refute nearly every one! In fact, I think Lefkowitz has only begun to read Diop and has yet to demonstrate serious engagement with the most salient features of the late scholar’s work. I will pursue afrocentric investigations, because I think they have something important to teach. Comparing Greece to Egypt opens up important questions about the relationship between state, education, and art in ancient times as well as modern. And it seems to me important to insist that American students have more to learn about themselves if they take their Egyptian heritage more seriously. Celebrations of the Greek city state, its individualism, and its humanism, are important. But we can also learn a great deal if we also recognize in our present civilization the lasting impressions that are also made by Egyptian forms of state, education, and art. We turn now to the Republic.

 

Republic

As far as I can tell, there are only three uses of the word Egypt or Egyptian in the Republic. Twice Socrates swears, “by the dog of Egypt.” Between these passages, Socrates refers to the Egyptians and Phoenicians as lovers of money. There is not much to say about these brief uses, except that they suggest a few layers of irony. By “the dog of Egypt,” Socrates is presumably referring to Anubis, the jackal-like god of judgment and discernment who makes the finest distinctions among things in the world–and who is a prominent figure in the Book of the Dead. To swear by the dog of Egypt is a dramatic way of affirming the truth of a proposition. Already we see how Plato’s view of Egypt assumes something about the Egyptian legacy of thought. The dog of Egypt is a symbol of precise, reasoned judgment.

In the first usage, the image of Anubis affirms the discernment with which Socrates has just purged his ideal republic of corrupting influences. “And so, by the dog of Egypt, we have been unconsciously purging the State, which not long ago we termed luxurious,” says Socrates. “And we have done wisely,” replies Glaucon. Although this usage seems to arise in an offhanded manner, I will want to return to the pattern of the purge in question; because, the more we linger with Plato’s construction of utopia, the more we shall want to affirm that the kind of purge undertaken by Socrates is increasingly identified with an Egyptian form of state.

 

The second reference to Egypt characterizes the Egyptians as lovers of money. This trait marks the Egyptians as individuals and as a group: Must we not acknowledge, I said, that in each of us there are the same principles and habits which there are in the State; and that from the individual they pass into the State?–how else can they come there? Take the quality of passion or spirit;–it would be ridiculous to imagine that this quality, when found in States, is not derived from the individuals who are supposed to possess it, e.g. the Thracians, Scythians, and in general the northern nations; and the same may be said of the love of knowledge, which is the special characteristic of our part of the world, or of the love of money, which may, with equal truth, be attributed to the Phoenicians and Egyptians.

This reference disparages the Egyptian character and elevates the Greek, but beware the ironies. We may recall that the Republic begins in conversation with a wealthy Greek who is addressed as a lover of money. And we have seen how the dog of Egypt represents the highest standard of discernment and reason. The general principle in this passage serves to warn that the attitudes of a nation proceed from the attitudes of its citizens. And we may want to ask–especially those of us who work in classrooms–to which heritage do Americans pay homage? To the love of truth, or to the love of money?

 

The last reference to Egypt in the Republic is a reprise of the first, as Socrates swears once again by the dog of Egypt. This time, Socrates exclaims that a perfect soul would make an excellent statesman in a perfect state–a proposition sadly contrary to the experience of actual states, where perfect souls arrive like unwanted guests. Here Socrates develops the general thesis that collective characteristics of a state arise out of the individual characteristics of its citizens. All that is needed for a perfect state, then, is a collection of perfect souls. In such a utopia, where the microcosm of individual perfection becomes a macrocosm of the perfect state, the perfect statesman learns first to govern from within:

He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.

Very true.

And, for the same reason, he will gladly accept and enjoy such honours as he deems likely to make him a better man; but those, whether private or public, which are likely to disorder his life, he will avoid?

Then, if that is his motive, he will not be a statesman.

By the dog of Egypt, he will! in the city which is his own he certainly will, though in the land of his birth perhaps not, unless he have a divine call.

I understand; you mean that he will be a ruler in the city of which we are the founders, and which exists in idea only; for I do not believe that there is such an one anywhere on earth?

In heaven, I replied, there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or ever will exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other.

I think so, he said.

This passage is a vintage example of what we might call Platonic idealism, and it contains characteristics of thought which become interesting from the point of view of Diop’s scholarship. Notice for instance how the good soul becomes the perfect model for the perfect world. This is what Diop calls optimism, and he wants to claim that such optimism also regulates The Book of the Dead. As we may anticipate, these themes receive their classic elaboration in the Timaeus, to which we now turn.

 

Timaeus

The Timaeus contains five passages with explicit reference to Egypt, although, as is well known to any reader, the entire dialogue is inscribed within the rich and problematic relationship that exists between Egypt and Greece. Here, for instance we find the famous quip, attributed to an Egyptian priest, that the Greeks are all children before ancient gaze of Egypt, implying that Egypt is a kind of parent figure to her northern neighbors.

The first mention of Egypt recalls the story of Solon’s fabled visit there. Critias regrets that Solon was not more diligent in preserving a story told by Egyptians about Greek deeds of the distant past:

Yes, Amynander, if Solon had only, like other poets, made poetry the business of his life, and had completed the tale which he brought with him from Egypt, and had not been compelled, by reason of the factions and troubles which he found stirring in his own country when he came home, to attend to other matters, in my opinion he would have been as famous as Homer or Hesiod, or any poet.

And what was the tale about, Critias? said Amynander.

About the greatest action which the Athenians ever did, and which ought to have been the most famous, but, through the lapse of time and the destruction of the actors, it has not come down to us.

Before the twice-lost story is retold; however, the reader is first introduced to the ancient connections which bind the people of Greece and Lower Egypt.

It is perhaps helpful to remember that this this dialogue takes place during the first Greek festival dedicated to Athena. The novelty of the Greek ritual is thus presented upon a background of ancient Egyptian origins. It is Plato, that most unlikely afrocentric scholar, who suggests that the momentous advent of Greek ritual has roots which grow out of Africa:

He replied:-In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came. The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them.

We may recall that King Amasis is known for the interest he took in Greek friends and Greek commerce. Plato carefully reports that among the people of Lower Egypt, there is a great love for the Greeks and a feeling of kinship. Furthermore, according to Budge, “Net, or Neith, was one of the oldest of all the Egyptian goddesses, and it is tolerably certain that her worship was widespread even in predynastic times” (Budge 1904, Vol. 1: 450).

According to Plato’s dialogue, the common bond between Egypt and Greece is said to have ancient roots which take us back to the time of Atlantis. As soon as the Egyptian priests open the topic, Solon is eager to hear more:

Solon marvelled at his words, and earnestly requested the priests to inform him exactly and in order about these former citizens. You are welcome to hear about them, Solon, said the priest, both for your own sake and for that of your city, and above all, for the sake of the goddess who is the common patron and parent and educator of both our cities. She founded your city a thousand years before ours, receiving from the Earth and Hephaestus the seed of your race, and afterwards she founded ours, of which the constitution is recorded in our sacred registers to be eight thousand years old. As touching your citizens of nine thousand years ago, I will briefly inform you of their laws and of their most famous action; the exact particulars of the whole we will hereafter go through at our leisure in the sacred registers themselves. If you compare these very laws with ours you will find that many of ours are the counterpart of yours as they were in the olden time. In the first place, there is the caste of priests, which is separated from all the others; next, there are the artificers, who ply their several crafts by themselves and do not intermix; and also there is the class of shepherds and of hunters, as well as that of husbandmen; and you will observe, too, that the warriors in Egypt are distinct from all the other classes, and are commanded by the law to devote themselves solely to military pursuits; moreover, the weapons which they carry are shields and spears, a style of equipment which the goddess taught of Asiatics first to us, as in your part of the world first to you. Then as to wisdom, do you observe how our law from the very first made a study of the whole order of things, extending even to prophecy and medicine which gives health, out of these divine elements deriving what was needful for human life, and adding every sort of knowledge which was akin to them. All this order and arrangement the goddess first imparted to you when establishing your city; and she chose the spot of earth in which you were born, because she saw that the happy temperament of the seasons in that land would produce the wisest of men. Wherefore the goddess, who was a lover both of war and of wisdom, selected and first of all settled that spot which was the most likely to produce men likest herself. And there you dwelt, having such laws as these and still better ones, and excelled all mankind in all virtue, as became the children and disciples of the gods.

This lengthy passage takes us through Egypt in order to establish a common heritage, but Plato’s version (“an excuse to teach myth as history”?) claims that human history actually begins with the Greeks. As a result, the Greek student, Solon, is encouraged to see how his own heritage was the original model for the Egyptian state, and thus how the Egyptian state is a kind of living reminder of what the Greeks first established. The force of this passage leaves the reader with a clear impression that Greek and Egyptian people have a shared heritage that is intertwined in complex ways.

Perhaps there is nothing so binding as a common enemy, and when the threat came from Atlantis, it was said that the Greeks were the ones who saved the Mediterranean world from conquest:

This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars. But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.

With this passage, the mystery of Atlantis emerges into history, and the most ancient Greeks are heralded as saviors of the Mediterranean world. But a great disaster has erased Atlantis and the Greek liberators. The only evidence left is the Greek memory of lessons taught by Egyptian priests.

 

Our final passage records the promise of Critias that Socrates shall be entertained by a complete narration, beginning with the creation of the universe and ending with the formation of a perfect society like the one recorded by “the sacred Egyptian record”:

Let me proceed to explain to you, Socrates, the order in which we have arranged our entertainment. Our intention is, that Timaeus, who is the most of an astronomer amongst us, and has made the nature of the universe his special study, should speak first, beginning with the generation of the world and going down to the creation of man; next, I am to receive the men whom he has created of whom some will have profited by the excellent education which you have given them; and then, in accordance with the tale of Solon, and equally with his law, we will bring them into court and make them citizens, as if they were those very Athenians whom the sacred Egyptian record has recovered from oblivion, and thenceforward we will speak of them as Athenians and fellow-citizens.

What Critias means by “astronomy” becomes clear in the monologue of Timaeus as the universe is spun from the inner soul of an original, perfect, and good model–what we today call the Platonic doctrine of forms. And here is where Diop draws connections between Greek philosophy and Egyptian cosmogony.

In defending philosophy’s right to speculate about its African origins, Diop begins with evidence provided by Plato himself in the Timaeus. In this dialogue, famous for its presentation of the Platonic doctrine of forms, Plato gives ample reason to take seriously the sophistication of the Egyptian civilization and its influence upon Greek culture. We are told that Athena has an Egyptian double, that Egyptian priests taught the Greeks their own history, and that the very form of Timaeus’s narrative is modeled after the fashion of Egyptian education. Given these connections, why may we not speculate that the doctrine of forms itself is an Egyptian loaner, kept alive by Alexandrian scholars for centuries before and after Plato?

If indeed we may speculate along these lines–looking for vibrant connections between Egypt and Greece, rather than denying any such thing–then it seems that a refreshing conversation may take place about the heritage of philosophy and what she promises to offer in dialogue between aspiring scholars as they grapple with global questions of heritage and cultural identity. In short, philosophy would be well served.

 

In order to leave ample time for discussion, let me quickly share with you the five points that we have on authority of Plato’s Timaeus:

 

1. That Athena is the Greek name for a goddess who is also worshipped in Egypt under another name (21, p. 34).

2. That the Egyptians were friendly with the Greeks (21, p. 34).

3. That the Egyptian priests knew the meaning behind Greek myth better than the Greeks knew it (22, p. 35).

4. That Egyptian traditions are the oldest preserved (23, p. 35) and that therefore Egypt was the source of historical knowledge for Greece (23, p. 36).

5. That the very form of the narrative delivered by Timaeus is modeled after the traditional Egyptian education, deriving from cosmology the other sciences and principles of health, etc. (24, p. 37).

The cumulative effect of these observations leads me to the general conclusion that Egypt nourished Greek culture for centuries before Plato was born and that Egyptian education provided the model for Timaeus’s lengthy explication of the cosmological order.

 

I do not want to suggest that Plato’s claims are without irony. For instance, I read the speech of Timaeus as a filibuster against the time when his contemporaries will have to deal with pressing issues of social justice. We recall that the dialogue is taking place because Socrates wants to see the ideal principles of society put into fleshy motion, and this is what Timaeus’s doctrine of forms refuses to do. Thus, we may find in Plato a criticism of what metaphysical preoccupations come to. We may even speculate that Plato illustrates the decadence of Egyptian-style education–a criticism echoed by Diop today. What use are Timaeus’s elite skills at metaphysics when challenged by Socrates to imagine a great society? With Socrates, we can perhaps share an attitude of utter bemusement as we lean back for a day of idle diversion that we know will not get to the point. The philosophy of Timaeus may be irretrievably wedded to the Egyptian form of empire, yesterday and today.

 

Critical scholars of Egypt such as Diop may affirm the heritage of ancient Africa as they question the contradictory value of that legacy. I just want to know what prevents philosophy teachers from doing the same?

We who teach philosophy do the best we can to illustrate the history of philosophy on a global mural which animates the human love of wisdom through time and space. But time and space did not begin in Europe, nor did the human quest for wisdom. It takes some work to reconstruct the Egyptian academy from available evidence, but one cannot deny that a great academy there was. Rather than evade a dialogue which might enliven our sense of classical culture and indicate springs of black heritage, I would encourage a more embracing attitude. It would be a service to the life of philosophy in more ways than one.

 

Laws

With the use of five passages in the Laws, Plato develops his engagement with Egyptian form as a model of excellence in matters of music, education, art, and arithmetic; although, one of the passages does reinforce a kind of stereotype, first mentioned in the Republic, that Egyptians are “mean” or “practitioners of mere craft.” While our standard impressions of Egypt affirm the “meanness” and “craft” of Egyptian art, especially in comparison with the Greeks, we do not often enough dwell on the excellencies of Egypt, especially in the arena of math.

Ath. Then in a city which has good laws, or in future ages is to have them, bearing in mind the instruction and amusement which are given by music, can we suppose that the poets are to be allowed to teach in the dance anything which they themselves like, in the way of rhythm, or melody, or words, to the young children of any well-conditioned parents? Is the poet to train his choruses as he pleases, without reference to virtue or vice?

Cle. That is surely quite unreasonable, and is not to be thought of.

Ath. And yet he may do this in almost any state with the exception of Egypt.

Cle. And what are the laws about music and dancing in Egypt?

Ath. You will wonder when I tell you: Long ago they appear to have recognized the very principle of which we are now speaking-that their young citizens must be habituated to forms and strains of virtue. These they fixed, and exhibited the patterns of them in their temples; and no painter or artist is allowed to innovate upon them, or to leave the traditional forms and invent new ones. To this day, no alteration is allowed either in these arts, or in music at all. And you will find that their works of art are painted or moulded in the same forms which they had ten thousand years ago;-this is literally true and no exaggeration-their ancient paintings and sculptures are not a whit better or worse than the work of to-day, but are made with just the same skill.

Cle. How extraordinary!

Ath. I should rather say, How statesmanlike, how worthy of a legislator! I know that other things in Egypt are not so well. But what I am telling you about music is true and deserving of consideration, because showing that a lawgiver may institute melodies which have a natural truth and correctness without any fear of failure. To do this, however, must be the work of God, or of a divine person; in Egypt they have a tradition that their ancient chants which have been preserved for so many ages are the composition of the Goddess Isis. And therefore, as I was saying, if a person can only find in any way the natural melodies, he may confidently embody them in a fixed and legal form. For the love of novelty which arises out of pleasure in the new and weariness of the old, has not strength enough to corrupt the consecrated song and dance, under the plea that they have become antiquated. At any rate, they are far from being corrupted in Egypt.

Cle. Your arguments seem to prove your point.

2) Ath. The inference at which we arrive for the third or fourth time is, that education is the constraining and directing of youth towards that right reason, which the law affirms, and which the experience of the eldest and best has agreed to be truly right. In order, then, that the soul of the child may not be habituated to feel joy and sorrow in a manner at variance with the law, and those who obey the law, but may rather follow the law and rejoice and sorrow at the same things as the aged-in order, I say, to produce this effect, chants appear to have been invented, which really enchant, and are designed to implant that harmony of which we speak. And, because the mind of the child is incapable of enduring serious training, they are called plays and songs, and are performed in play; just as when men are sick and ailing in their bodies, their attendants give them wholesome diet in pleasant meats and drinks, but unwholesome diet in disagreeable things, in order that they may learn, as they ought, to like the one, and to dislike the other. And similarly the true legislator will persuade, and, if he cannot persuade, will compel the poet to express, as he ought, by fair and noble words, in his rhythms, the figures, and in his melodies, the music of temperate and brave and in every way good men.

Cle. But do you really imagine, Stranger, that this is the way in which poets generally compose in States at the present day? As far as I can observe, except among us and among the Lacedaemonians, there are no regulations like those of which you speak; in other places novelties are always being introduced in dancing and in music, generally not under the authority of any law, but at the instigation of lawless pleasures; and these pleasures are so far from being the same, as you describe the Egyptian to be, or having the same principles, that they are never the same.

Ath. Most true, Cleinias; and I daresay that I may have expressed myself obscurely, and so led you to imagine that I was speaking of some really existing state of things, whereas I was only saying what regulations I would like to have about music; and hence there occurred a misapprehension on your part. For when evils are far gone and irremediable, the task of censuring them is never pleasant, although at times necessary. But as we do not really differ, will you let me ask you whether you consider such institutions to be more prevalent among the Cretans and Lacedaemonians than among the other Hellenes?

Cle. Certainly they are.

Ath. And if they were extended to the other Hellenes, would it be an improvement on the present state of things?

Cle. A very great improvement, if the customs which prevail among them were such as prevail among us and the Lacedaemonians, and such as you were just now saying ought to prevail.

3) Having determined that there is to be a distribution into twelve parts, let us now see in what way this may be accomplished. There is no difficulty in perceiving that the twelve parts admit of the greatest number of divisions of that which they include, or in seeing the other numbers which are consequent upon them, and are produced out of them up to 5040; wherefore the law ought to order phratries and demes and villages, and also military ranks and movements, as well as coins and measures, dry and liquid, and weights, so as to be commensurable and agreeable to one another. Nor should we fear the appearance of minuteness, if the law commands that all the vessels which a man possesses should have a common measure, when we consider generally that the divisions and variations of numbers have a use in respect of all the variations of which they are susceptible, both in themselves and as measures of height and depth, and in all sounds, and in motions, as well those which proceed in a straight direction, upwards or downwards, as in those which go round and round. The legislator is to consider all these things and to bid the citizens, as far as possible, not to lose sight of numerical order; for no single instrument of youthful education has such mighty power, both as regards domestic economy and politics, and in the arts, as the study of arithmetic. Above all, arithmetic stirs up him who is by nature sleepy and dull, and makes him quick to learn, retentive, shrewd, and aided by art divine he makes progress quite beyond his natural powers. All such things, if only the legislator, by other laws and institutions, can banish meanness and covetousness from the souls of men, so that they can use them properly and to their own good, will be excellent and suitable instruments of education. But if he cannot, he will unintentionally create in them, instead of wisdom, the habit of craft, which evil tendency may be observed in the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and many other races, through the general vulgarity of their pursuits and acquisitions, whether some unworthy legislator theirs has been the cause, or some impediment of chance or nature. For we must not fail to observe, O Megillus and Cleinias, that there is a difference in places, and that some beget better men and others worse; and we must legislate accordingly. Some places are subject to strange and fatal influences by reason of diverse winds and violent heats, some by reason of waters; or, again, from the character of the food given by the earth, which not only affects the bodies of men for good or evil, but produces similar results in their souls. And in all such qualities those spots excel in which there is a divine inspiration, and in which the demi-gods have their appointed lots, and are propitious, not adverse, to the settlers in them. To all these matters the legislator, if he have any sense in him, will attend as far as man can, and frame his laws accordingly. And this is what you, Cleinias, must do, and to matters of this kind you must turn your mind since you are going to colonize a new country. Cleinias. Your words, Athenian Stranger, are excellent, and I will do as you say.

4) Cle. That is the only doctrine which we can admit.

Ath. Must we not, then, try in every possible way to prevent our youth from even desiring to imitate new modes either in dance or song? nor must any one be allowed to offer them varieties of pleasures. Cle. Most true.

Ath. Can any of us imagine a better mode of effecting this object than that of the Egyptians?

Cle. What is their method?

Ath. To consecrate every sort of dance or melody. First we should ordain festivals-calculating for the year what they ought to be, and at what time, and in honour of what Gods, sons of Gods, and heroes they ought to be celebrated; and, in the next place, what hymns ought to be sung at the several sacrifices, and with what dances the particular festival is to be honoured. This has to be arranged at first by certain persons, and, when arranged, the whole assembly of the citizens are to offer sacrifices and libations to the Fates and all the other Gods, and to consecrate the several odes to gods and heroes: and if any one offers any other hymns or dances to any one of the Gods, the priests and priestesses, acting in concert with the guardians of the law, shall, with the sanction of religion and the law, exclude him, and he who is excluded, if he do not submit, shall be liable all his life long to have a suit of impiety brought against him by any one who likes.

Cle. Very good.

5) Ath. All freemen, I conceive, should learn as much of these branches of knowledge as every child in Egypt is taught when he learns the alphabet. In that country arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as a pleasure and amusement. They have to distribute apples and garlands, using the same number sometimes for a larger and sometimes for a lesser number of persons; and they arrange pugilists, and wrestlers as they pair together by lot or remain over, and show how their turns come in natural order. Another mode of amusing them is to distribute vessels, sometimes of gold, brass, silver, and the like, intermixed with one another, sometimes of one metal only; as I was saying they adapt to their amusement the numbers in common use, and in this way make more intelligible to their pupils the arrangements and movements of armies and expeditions, in the management of a household they make people more useful to themselves, and more wide awake; and again in measurements of things which have length, and breadth, and depth, they free us from that natural ignorance of all these things which is so ludicrous and disgraceful.

Cle. What kind of ignorance do you mean?

 

IV.

In Windelband’s History of Ancient Philosophy ( 1893; trans. H. E. Cushman, 1899; Dover, 1956) we find that judgment: “Measured by its first motive, Plato’s theory of Ideas is an outspoken ethical metaphysic”(204). A negative ethic which “pictures the whole life of the philosopher as already dying, a purification of the soul from the dross of sense experience. The soul in the body is, as it were, in prison, and it can free itself only by knowledge and virtue”(204). “This view, which is particularly like that of the Pythagoreans among the ancient moral theories, took in the metaphysical theory of Ideas a special form, by virtue of which the psychological basis was created also for the positive ethics of Plato. In the theory of the two worlds the soul must take an intermediary position,–a theory that could be developed not without difficulties and contradictions”(205).

We are also told that Plato’s intellectual development seems to bend toward Pythagorean influence, esp. in the importance of math for true knowledge. It is the “Italian” Timaeus who spins the world from a demiurge.

And yet in Plato’s political writings, the notion of Egypt grows into importance as Plato formalizes his state. On the one hand we have a move toward Pythagorean and Egyptian, but Pythagorean is historically most connected with Egyptian. Can’t we have a general thesis that Plato’s thought inclined toward Egypt?

Three parts of the soul in Plato also become more technically distinguished in the Timaeus, with two parts mortal, one part immortal. But the dialogue is set.

Why can’t we see continuity between Egypt, Pythagoras, and Plato?

 

Notes

Diop, Cheikh Anta. Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology. Ed. Harold J. Salemson and Marjolijn de Jager. Trans. Yaa-Lengi Meema Ngemi. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill, 1991.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin, 1971. Appendix on Diop

For those not familiar with the larger canvas that is painted by Diop’s theory of African origins, let me briefly outline the main points:

1. That black Africans were the first humans 120,000 years ago (p. 11).

2. That all other races evolved from black Africans as a result of migration and changing environmental conditions (p. 11), whites emerging about 30,000 years ago in the Basque region of Europe (p. 13), and the Asian type resulting from further migration and interbreeding about 6,000 years ago (p. 53).

3. That black Africa developed a “Southern Cradle” culture typified in the Nile valley by Goddess worship, matrilineal filiations, agriculture, and generally peaceful relations (p. 19).

4. That white Kurgans developed a distinctly different “Northern Cradle” culture in the vicinity of the Russian steppes, with male, warlike gods, patrilineal filiations, nomadic hunting, and a taste for conquest that eventually imposed its domination on Europe during three invasions from 3400 B.C. – 2900 B.C. (pp. 19-20).

As for Diop’s general claims with respect to the Nile valley culture, here they are:

1. That black Africans were the elite rulers of the Nile valley civilizations (p. 17), but suffered progressive loss of national sovereignty after conquests by Persians, Greeks, and Romans, beginning in the 6th Century B.C. (p. 213).

2. That Black Africa was the inventor of writing, math, science, geometry, astronomy, and other prized achievements of classical antiquity (p. 231 ff.).

3. But furthermore–and here we come to the point–that Platonic cosmology (or cosmogony) exemplified in The Timaeus has its roots in the pyramid texts of 2600 B.C. (pp. 310, 337 ff.).

 

To the nonspecialist, as I say, Diop’s larger canvas looks compelling, and I think philosophy should stop evading the vast speculative field that is opened up by Afrocentric scholarship.Appendix on LefkowitzAppendix on Comparative HistoryBack to Prepub Dir for Dr. Greg Moses

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