Howard University (now University of Guelph)
APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy 95.1 (1995)
Last year, I taught a full semester course in Ancient Egyptian Philosophy for the first time. Previously, I had taught Egyptian philosophy as a seven-week segment of a fourteen-week course, the other half of which consisted of early Greek philosophy. While I am offering here a scheme for the entire course, there are of course many ways to approach the material, and one could well include a limited treatment (of as short as a week) of Egyptian philosophy as part of a survey course in Ancient Philosophy, or in any course from Philosophy of Religion, to Hermeneutics, to Aesthetics.
There is a growing interest in Egyptian thought from the perspective of its possible influence on Greek philosophy on the one hand and on African philosophy on the other. My own preference is to study Ancient Egyptian thought on its own terms rather than in terms of how it may have influenced successors.1
A great deal of translated material is now available. Translations in Miriam Lichtheim’s three volume Ancient Egyptian Literature (see Reading List below) constitute almost enough material for a course. Overlapping with the above, a number of cosmological (some more descriptive, some more speculative) texts are translated with commentary in Marshall Claggett’s Ancient Egyptian Science. R. O. Faulkner has translated three volumes of The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts and one volume of The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts as well as The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. For readers of German, see K. Sethe’s Urkunde des agyptische Altertums (since 1955, Berlin).
One can teach an introductory course in Ancient Egyptian philosophy without reading heiroglyphs, but since the nature of heiroglyphic writing is itself a philosophical issue, one might want to learn the language at some point. Alan Gardiner’s textbook Egyptian Grammar2 (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1927) is well designed pedagogically in the earlier chapters, and can make a good start along with Faulkner’s A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1962) and A. de Buck’s Egyptian Readingbook: Exercise and Middle Egyptian Texts (Leiden: Nederlands Institut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1963).
The Egyptian philosophical texts offer cosmologies and cosmogonies, treatments of time and history and eternity, ethical teachings and analyses of justice and power, accounts of the gods and of the structured relations between them, divisions of the soul and narratives of eternal life, descriptions of the power of language and other sign systems, and subtle manipulations of mythological systems that elaborate the widest possible range of philosophical issues, from the relation between the One and the Many, to the divine nature of wordplay, to the analysis of life-giving as well as hostile forces. The Egyptian texts are highly speculative, carefully developed under a scholarly tradition that rigorously followed set rhetorical and discursive patterns for the explication of ontological and ethical systems. Many were written as part of a project to bring about the eternal life of the dead. The early speculative texts were written directly onto the walls of the king’s tomb inside a pyramid. Later, versions were written onto the insides of the coffins of lesser nobles (hence the “Coffin texts”), and later still, in papyrus books (literally titled “The Book of Coming Forth by Day” but often translated as “The Book of the Dead”) that could be placed in the tombs of people of more modest means. Insofar as the discursive contexts of Egyptian writing are significantly different from contemporary academic writing, the reading of Egyptian texts not only offers ideas for a philosophy of soul, cosmos, ethics, and so on, but also raises the issue of what kinds of methodologies philosophy might follow, and what kinds of cultural functions it might have.
The texts themselves take a variety of forms. The Pyramid texts, the Coffin texts, and the “Book of the Dead” texts, sometimes referred to collectively as mortuary literature, are divided into short “chapters” of several genres. Some of these chapters are creation accounts; some are hymns (though in referring to “hymns,” I don’t intend to make assumptions about what it means for a text to praise attributes of a god); some are dialogues or exegeses discussing the nature of a god or the structured relation between gods; some are descriptions of the parts of the soul; some are descriptions of the trial that the deceased will face when he reawakens-a trial during which the deceased will have to prove that he lived a just life-along with a list of the specific forms of activity that constitute justice; some are descriptions of eternal life; some are instructions for how to proceed along the underworld geography in order to reach the other side, including words to say to defeat the intervening enemies, and ritual ceremonies for returning to life, etc.
A second kind of text involves writings on other sorts of monuments, stelae, temples, and palaces. In addition to historical and biographical inscriptions, some of which are interesting for the ethical presumptions, political machinations, and historiographic values they reveal (e.g. concerning the idea of the fulfilment of the past in the present and modelling of the present on the past, the role of divine intervention in history, and the role of the great individual), there are important cosmological treatises in this form. A third kind of text is known as “Instruction Texts.” Some of these take the form of advice from a father to his son on how to live a good life; others take the forms of prophesy, social critique, rhetorical persuasion, or speculation regarding the ontological origin of universal harmony. Fourth, there are scientific, mathematical and medical papyri that to some extent reveal a kind of philosophy of science (both in terms of an ontology of nature and in terms of standards of evidence and falsification).
Within each of the above genres, there are texts exhibiting a wide variety of approaches. Ranging over 2500 years (beginning about 3100 BCE) of intellectual pursuits and social changes, these texts express many perspectives on theology, many attitudes to civil and political society, many speculations on the first cause, etc. At the same time, Egyptian culture valued continuity, so there are many texts that one could teach as representative of Egyptian philosophy without having to present the whole history of Egyptian philosophies.
The typical Egyptian theoretical text is synthetic and follows what I call a logic of elaborative exegesis. Rather than argue for one position as opposed to alternatives, the typical text expresses its originality by reorganizing under a new system all the positions at hand. A theological text will syncretize the gods of newly incorporated cities into a unifying theological system. A narrative usually ascribed to one god will sometimes be written with another god in place of the first. Similarly, a deceased human may substitute for a god. In general, one could read Egyptian philosophy as a study of the processes by which beings are identified with one another when they take on each other’s forms and functions. Concepts are analyzed in terms of the systems of interconnection and interchange within which they function. In the same way, an ethical text will call upon the wisdom of the earliest sages even when it is promoting a largely novel theory of the good, a historical text will associate current events with past events, and so on. While there are important controversies among ancient Egyptian thinkers that become clear once one has read a few texts, working with these texts requires the reader to attend to subtle structures of synthesizing schematics.
Preparatory readings, commentaries, secondary literature.
I begin the course with a lecture or two sketching the history of ancient Egypt (or Kemet, the Egyptian name for Egypt), but there are many helpful texts. For a broad social history of Egyptian civilization, one might start with Kees’s Ancient Egypt: A Cultural Topography (London, 1961) or Wilson’s The Burden of Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture (Chicago, 1951), though of course any single account has its own agenda. For essays arguing for the African roots of Egyptian societies, see Karenga and Carruthers (eds.), Kemet and the African Worldview (University of Sankore Press, 1986).
More important are overviews of the conceptual schemes of ancient Egyptian thought. I have found Claggett and Lesko (in Shafer) to be good introductions. There are a number of Egyptologists who have written accounts of Egyptian thought; my own preferences are listed below. Turn-of-the-century works by Budge and others contain valuable ideas but are often limited by Victorian assumptions regarding the relative primitiveness of the ancient world, the alleged superiority of monotheism over other theologies, the role of animal worship and of magic in ancient thought, etc. Only a very few articles on Egyptian thought have appeared in philosophical journals. I have listed some below.
Suggested syllabus materials and discussion topics.
Segment 1. Introductory topics.
I begin with an overview of Egyptian cosmogonical systems. I concentrate on six cosmogonies, dealing, respectively, with the god Atum and the concept of form, Ra and rebirth, Aten and oneness, Ptah and intellect, Kheper and becoming, and kings and continuity.
In addition to discussing the concepts in these particular systems, I also begin a discussion of the kind of systems these are. Here I discuss such issues as (1) the relations among myth, science, religion, and philosophy, (2) whether hieroglyphic language, as a combination of pictographic, symbolic, and phonetic signs, inherently expresses a metaphysics different from that expressed by a purely phonetic language, (3) the nature of an ontology that proceeds under the names of gods: first, what is meant by a “god” (ntr-a deity, an emblem, a natural force); second, why ontology might be articulated in the form of personified narrative rather than definitions and arguments; third, whether the various cosmogonical systems are mutually consistent and synthesizable. We have to ask in a fresh way if we really know what it means to call something a god, if we really know the difference between monotheism and polytheism, if we really know what it means to say there was a beginning to the world, or that there is a soul, or that there is a life on the other side of death, and so on. If ancient philosophy is worth studying, it is ultimately because it aids in the analysis of the philosophical questions themselves.
Segment 2. The “Book of the Dead.”
I begin the textual portion of the course with this text partly because it is a long text, and partly because the issues of the afterlife are so central to Egyptian thought. Again, an introduction is necessary for students. I find helpful Budge’s account of the divisions of “soul” (in the “Introduction” to his translation), even though his accounts of the difference between ba (something like “power,” often translated into English as “soul”), ka (something like “image” or “double,” but sometimes also translated as “soul”), akh (something like “spirit” in the sense of having been made excellent or efficient by renewal), are controversial in their details. Students will also need a brief summary of the Osirian myth cycle. Plutarch presents a systematic version of the narrative, but the Egyptian texts seem never to have rendered the entire story, possibly because the death and dismemberment of Osiris was considered an inappropriate subject for representation. Each stage in the narrative symbolism can become the subject for a philosophical discussion-the god’s death and dismemberment (stimulating a discussion, for example, concerning the humanization of the divine-comparable to Christ and Dionysius-or concerning the division of a divine oneness into a bodily manyness); the conflict between Osiris (associated with rebirth and the founding of society) and Seth (associated with destruction); the familial relations of the narrative and in cosmogony generally; the lamentations of Isis (Osiris’s sister-wife) and her reassembling of Osiris; the victory of Horus (son of Osiris and Isis) against Seth at a subsequent trial before the gods; the apparent materiality of the afterlife, and so on.3
Also, it is worthwhile to discuss how we ought to interpret philosophical texts written on the inside walls of pyramids, where presumably the principal reader of the text was intended to be a dead man. This raises interesting problems for the nature of writing (not necessarily as communication or even as display), and for the nature of interpretation. One problem is whether to read the texts literally or metaphorically, or whether that very distinction is anachronistic.
There are two chapters of the text that I find especially suitable for philosophical discussion. One is Chapter 17 (chapter numbers have been standardized across variant texts). It takes the form of questions and answers which set forth the identifications between the deceased human and various gods and their attributes. For example: “Who then is this? It is Ra, the creator of the names of his limbs, which came into being in the form of the gods in the train of Ra. Who then is this? It is Tmu in his disk. I am yesterday; I know tomorrow. . . .” The text may be intended as a kind of dialogue between gods, and it may have been produced as scribes over time added glosses (or perhaps they should be read as critiques) to an originally simpler text. Among the many issues that this text raises is the problem of identification and syncretism. After death, humans are said to become gods, just as gods become other gods. In the overlapping narratives of gods and humans, the methodological presumption is that the way to analyze a concept is through more and more elaborations, more and more narrative interchanges, characterizations, and identifications. Readers interested in issues of synthesis and the ontology of becoming might be particularly interested in this text. A second passage of particular philosophical interest is Chapter 125, which contains the so-called “Negative Confessions.” This is a description of what will take place during the trial that the deceased will have to undergo in order to prove that he lived a just life. It contains the forty-two crimes that the defendant must prove he did not commit. This text begins to give a sense of the concept of maat (translatable as “justice,” “truth,” or “harmony”).
Segment 3: Cosmologies and cosmogonies.
Many interpreters get caught in the issue of whether cosmogony is low-level natural science, or pure imagination, or a metaphor of something else. There may be some truth to each of these, but in addition, my own sense is that to take a philosophy seriously includes trying to think of that philosophy as true. So I try to think about what it would mean if the sun really is a god, and likewise for other Egyptian doctrines.
Of the six cosmogonies I listed above, the first and second might be called the most traditional. In the first, Atum (“the complete one”-later texts give a similar role to Amun, “the Hidden One”) generates a series of increasingly unhidden successors (culminating in air, earth, water, and sun) and so presents a scheme of formlessness taking on form. The second is the solar cosmogony of the gods Ra, Osiris, Isis, Horus, and Seth, and focuses on eternal renewal. Osiris’s victory over death is the victory of being over non-being.
The third cosmogony, the “Amarna heresy,” had a brief prominence around 1350 BCE. The doctrine concerning Aten, the sun-disk, is in some interpretations the world’s first thoroughgoing monism. Some interpreters argue that it was indeed monism and therefore the greatest philosophical discovery of the ancient world; others argue that it was monism but therefore constituted a decay of the sounder metaphysics of multiplicity found in traditional Egyptian thought; still others argue that it was not in fact a radical departure from the dialectic of One and Many in traditional Egyptian polytheism.
The fourth, the “Memphite cosmology” centers on Ptah, the craftsman, who creates the world through intellect and language. This offers an account of the centrality of mind in the cosmos and the sense that particulars are expressions of the One. The fifth centers on Kheper, the beetle who gives birth to itself, and involves a metaphysics of self-development, which finds parallels from Plotinus to Hegel (see Lampert).
The sixth cosmology involves the Egyptian royalty as signifiers of divine creation and guarantors of the continuity of the created world. In the Pyramid of Unas, there is a description of the transformation of the King Unas into a god, in which Unas is said to “eat the gods.” This introduces the issue of the divinity of kings and nations as well as the issue of the role of the body in Egyptian thought.
In addition to these positive cosmologies, I deal also with a number of Egyptian texts that challenge the conception of the afterlife. In addition to harpers’ songs that advocate living a full life instead of worrying about an unknown afterlife, there are ethical texts that question whether anyone actually knows about the future, and there is a very interesting text known as “The Conversation Between a Man and His Ba” (in Lichtheim) in which the two voices debate whether suicide is a possible way of improving one’s existence. The man says yes, but his ba says no. It is interesting to think of one’s soul not as an inner voice but as a self that hovers above one, who reasons better than the man himself and does not especially approve of him.
Segment 4: Texts concerning ethics, politics, historiography, and discourse.
The tradition of texts known as “Instruction Texts” runs from Old Kingdom to Ptolemaic times. The early texts emphasize self-control, fair use of wealth and power, confidence in the will of the gods and in the ultimate justice of social institutions, and in general decorous behavior that quietly shows the world that one is deserving of respect. Later texts (particularly during and after periods of social upheaval) gradually show less confidence in gods and societies, sometimes lamenting the inverted world where beggars are kings, and gradually shift in emphasis from an ethics of magnanimity to an ethics of internal conscience. This is over-simplifying, but the issues of behavior vs. conscience, public success vs. ideal justice, social stability and propriety vs. social reform and outspokenness, royal prerogative vs. egalitarianism, and divine law vs. personal struggle, are primary themes within the overall conception of maat, or harmony.
The histories written on monuments to glorify kings reveal interesting and difficult issues in the philosophy of history. For example, King Pepi II (c. 2150 BCE) listed the kings of Lybia whom he had supposedly defeated by actually copying the list of kings who had been defeated by King Sahure two hundred years earlier. Some interpreters argue that this implies a lack of concern for actual history in favor of eternal and essentialist concerns. Others think it implies a cyclical conception of history. My own view is that the key point of such texts is the bunching up of events around nodal points and the attribution of transcendental significance to individual events by means of retracing present events into glorious events of the past (not to mention structuring the possibility of events in the future).
In terms of a theory of discourse, in addition to issues of hieroglyphs and symbolism, there are texts written (by scribes) arguing for the value of scribes and the life of the intellect. Some argue that the only sort of immortality that a human can achieve is in the writing of a book. Some commentators (including Hegel) have argued that Egyptian buildings are hieroglyphs writ large, and that architecture is the language of Egyptian thought.
What stands out in Egyptian texts is of course the mythological framework of much of the metaphysics, and the elaborative rather than argumentative development of ideas. This means that much of the student’s work involves developing a way of reading the texts philosophically. Students gain from doing a lot of exegetical work early in the semester, and I ask students to build up to writing a four-page exegesis of a ten-line extract of text. One way or another, it is important for students to achieve a degree of facility in Egyptian mythology without the class time itself being filled with storytelling. By the end of the term, students should be able to write the same kind of term paper they would write in any other course. I have received term papers that compared theories of justice across different Egyptian texts, papers that analyzed ontologies from specific texts, papers that argued against the Egyptian concept of “god,” papers that compared Egyptian systems of thought to Platonic texts, a paper that criticized, and then tried to improve, the assumptions of free will made in the “Negative Confessions,” a paper that compared the Egyptian concept of symbolism to that of traditional African philosophies, among others.
SUGGESTED READING MATERIALS
The readings offered here are not intended as an exhaustive bibliography, but as a starting point for philosophers interested in teaching or studying Egyptian philosophy.
Egyptian texts in English translation
Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967. (Some suspicious translations.)
—–. The Gods of the Egyptians. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969. (Various texts with commentary.)
Claggett, Marshall. Ancient Egyptian Science: A Sourcebook (volume 1, tome 2). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1989.
Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
—–. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (3 volumes). Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1973-1978.
—–. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature (3 volumes). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973-1980.
Sethe, K. Urkunde des agyptische Altertums, Leipzig and Berlin, 1906- .
Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Allen, J. P. Creation in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts. New Haven: Yale Egyptological Series 2, 1988.
Asante, Molefi Kete. Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc., 1990.
Claggett, Marshall. Ancient Egyptian Science (volume 1, tome 1). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1989.
Frankfort, Henry. Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.
Frankfort, H., H. A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, and Thorkild Jacobson. Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1951.
Groenewegen-Frankfort, H. A. Arrest and Movement: Space and Time in the Art of the Ancient Near East. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987.
Hornung, Erik. The One and the Many: Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (tr. John Baines). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.
—–. Idea into Image: Essays on Ancient Egyptian Thought (tr. Elizabeth Bredeck). New York: Timken Publishers, 1992.
Karenga, Maulana. The Book of Coming Forth by Day: The Ethics of the Declarations of Innocence. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1990.
Morenz, Siegfried. Egyptian Religion (tr. Ann E. Keep). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.
Obenga, Theophile. Ancient Egypt and Black Africa (tr. Sylvianne Martinon and Ahmed Sheik, ed. Amon Saba Saakana). London: Karnak House, 1992.
Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Shafer, Byron E. (ed.). Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Zabkar, L. V. A Study of the Ba Concept in Ancient Egyptian Texts. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 34, Chicago 1968.
Articles and chapters on Egyptian thought written
by professional philosophers
Bernasconi, Robert. “The Anglican Bishop and the Pagan Priests: Warburton and the Hermeneutics of Egyptian Hieroglyphs.” Archivo di Filosofia, Anno LX-1992 N. 1-3, pp. 131-144.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Pit and the Pyramid: Introduction to Hegel’s Semiology.” In Margins of Philosophy (tr. Alan Bass), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 69-108.
—–. Dissemination (tr. Barbara Johnson), Part 2, Chapter 1, Section 3: “The Filial Inscription: Theuth, Hermes, Thoth, Nabu, Nebo.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, pp. 84-94.
Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One Volume Edition: The Lectures of 1827 (tr. R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson, and J. M. Stewart, ed. Peter C. Hodgson). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 313-327.
—–. The Philosophy of History (tr. J. Sibree). London: The Colonial Press, 1900, pp. 198-219. (See also various sections of Hegel’s Aesthetics.)
Kadish, Gerald E. “Observations on Time in Ancient Egyptian Culture.” Papers on Ancient Greek and Islamic Philosophy Series published by The Institute of Global Cultural Studies of Binghamtom University, 1993.
Lampert, Jay. “Hegel and Ancient Egypt: History and Becoming.” International Philosophical Quarterly, 1995, 35, pp. 43-58.
McEvoy, James. “Plato and the Wisdom of Egypt.” Irish Philosophical Journal, 1, Autumn 1984, pp. 1-24.
Voegelin, Erik. Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, Part 1, Chapter 3: “Egypt.” Louisiana State University Press, 1956, pp. 52-110.
Westphal, Merold. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion, Chapter 10c: “Mimesis in ancient Egypt.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 208-218.
Whitson, Robley Edward. “Immortality and Transcendence in Egyptian Thought.” International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 2, 1962, pp. 515-537.
Short sample of philosophically interesting
articles in Egyptology journals
Egyptology journals in which one frequently finds philosophically interesting articles include Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Journal of the American Research Council in Egypt, and Zeitschrift fur Agyptische Sprache. The Lexikon der Agyptologie (ed. Wolfgang Kelck, Eberhard Otto, and Wolfhart Westendorf), 7 volumes, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1972-, is a kind of encyclopedia of Egyptian studies, written by dozens of scholars, with articles in English, German, and French.
Baines, John. “Ancient Egyptian concepts and uses of the past: 3rd to 2nd millenium BC evidence.” In Layton, Robert (ed.), Who Needs the Past: Indigenous Values and Archaeology. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 131-149.
Bleeker, C. J. “Isis and Nephthys as Wailing Women.” Numen, V, 1958, pp. 1-17.
Brandon, S. G. F. “The Ritual Perpetuation of the Past.” Numen, VI, 1959, pp. 112-129.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn. “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt.” ZAS, 100, 1973, pp. 28-32.
Hankoff, L. D. “Body-Mind Concepts in the Ancient Near East: A Comparison of Egypt and Israel in the Second Millenium BC.” In Rieber, R. W. (ed.), Body and Mind: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1980, pp. 3-33.
Lesko, Barbara. “True Art in Ancient Egypt.” In Lesko, Leonard H. (ed.), Egyptological Studies in Honor of Richard A. Parker. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986, pp. 85-97.
Oden, Robert A. Jr. “‘The Contendings of Horus and Seth’ (Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1): A Structural Interpretation.” History of Religions, Vol. 18, 1978, pp. 352-369.
Roth, Ann Macy. “The pss-kf and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ Ceremony: A Ritual of Birth and Rebirth.” JEA 78, 1992, pp. 113-147.
te Velde, H. “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads.” JEA, 57, 1971, pp. 80-86.
Tobin, Vincent Arieh. “Ma at and ike: Some Comparative Considerations of Egyptian and Greek Thought.” JARCE, XXIV, 1987, pp. 113-121.
1. Martin Bernal’s two volumes of Black Athena (Rutgers University Press, Vol. 1, 1987, Vol. 2, 1991) has reminded us of the historical issues of cultural, linguistic, and other influences, but they do not focus on specifically philosophical influences. Within the discipline of Classics, Bernal’s works continue to be controversial. For a variety of critical evaluations, along with a response from Bernal, see the Classics journal Arethusa: Special Issue: The Challenge of “Black Athena,” Fall 1989, particularly the introductory article by Molly Myerowitz Levine (and see her other literature reviews elsewhere) and the article by Frank M. Snowden, Jr., concerning what the concept of race did and did not mean in the ancient world (and see also his important work, Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).
Familiar commentaries on pre-Socratic philosophy typically refer to the issue of Egyptian influence only in passing, and many discussions of Plato’s references to Egypt assume that Plato invented “Egyptian” sources for his own purposes. This may be largely true, but one cannot test this without a thorough background in both Egyptian and Greek philosophy. Unfortunately, very few scholars have expertise in both. Some classicists, linguists, and historians of religion read both languages, but few of these are trained in philosophy. As a result, many treatments of the possible influence of Egyptian philosophy on Greek philosophy are either thin on detail or polemical. On one extreme, one frequently finds the assumption that whatever the Egyptians were doing it was not philosophy. On the other extreme of the polemic, there is George C. M. James’ Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1954).
A continuity of Egyptian philosophy in contemporary African philosophies is argued for in a number of texts. There is interesting and controversial material in works by Obenga, Karenga, and Asante. Much of the foundational work was done by Cheik Anta Diop.
2. Gardiner’s division of Egyptian verb forms into imperfective and perfective (i.e. continuing and complete) instead of past, present and future, has been challenged. H. J. Polotsky has argued that some verb forms are originally and essentially noun forms (see for example “Egyptian Tenses” in Collected Papers, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1971).
3. There are a number of ancient texts concentrating on specific features of the cycle, which the instructor can read in preparation, such as the “Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,” and the “Contendings of Horus and Seth” (in Lichtheim).