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Although admitting that there was a long-running debate on the origins of Philosophy, Diogenes Laertius asserts that Philosophy began with the Greeks. This can mean only that the debate centred around whether other near-ancient civilisations should get at least (partial) credit.

Certainly there is an extensive pre-Socratic tradition of philosophy in the Hellenic diaspora, but notably none in mainland Greece. This is standardly seen as the (mythological) point where reason began to coalesce out of myth.

But Plato appears to attribute this to the priesthood of Ancient Egypt in his dialogue The Timaeus:

Critias: Then listen, Socrates, to a tale which, though strange, is certainly true, having been attested by Solon, who was the wisest of the seven sages.

In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is ...the great city...called Sais. To this city came Solon [a poet rivalling Homer or Hesiod], and was received there with great honour; he asked the priests who were most skilful in such matters, about antiquity, and made the discovery that neither he nor any other Hellene knew anything worth mentioning about the times of old.

This makes it sound as though they were there on an ethnological or archaeological investigation. He cunningly tries to assert the antiquity of his own people to draw them out:

he began to tell about the most ancient things in our part of the world -- about Phoroneus, who is called "the first man," and about Niobe; and after the Deluge, of the survival of Deucalion and Pyrrha; and he traced the genealogy of their descendants, and reckoning up the dates, tried to compute how many years ago the events of which he was speaking happened.

It works:

Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young;

and

there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age.

Interestingly he speaks of opinion, tradition and science. He goes on to relate a myth. This is the myth of Phaeton, which is usually seen to be a Greek myth, but he says acidly that it is not:

There is a story, which even you have preserved,

and the story goes:

that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.

He gives a rationalisation of this myth:

Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore.

He also contrasts this destruction by fire to a symmetric destruction by water:

When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors in your country are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who, like you, live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea.

and cunningly uses this to explain why the Egyptians are the most ancient race!

And from this calamity the Nile, who is our never-failing saviour, delivers and preserves us...for which reason the traditions preserved here are the most ancient.

I certainly find it interesting that despite the modern tradition of attributing the pre-socratics the great leap from myth to reason, Plato instead attributes it to the ancient priesthood of Egypt.

Have philosphers used this as evidence for the non-greek and near-east origins of Philosophy? Who and in what books?

(The only book I am aware of is McEvilleys Shape of Ancient Thought which he uses to establish links between greek & indian phisophy).

  • This raises an interesting series of questions about the origins of philosophy -- whether philosophy is a "Greek" discovery/invention/thing, etc. -- that I think could easily lead us astray here :) --Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to specify a little bit further what sort of explanation you might be after with respect to the "how seriously" question? – Joseph Weissman May 29 '13 at 2:33
  • ok, I'll tighten up the question. – Mozibur Ullah May 29 '13 at 3:47
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I'm personally sympathetic to the idea of Egyptian influence on Greek philosophy. But the problem with using Plato as evidence for anything is that he is officially on record as endorsing the creation and promotion of wholesale fictions in the service of higher truth --his (in)famous concept of the "Noble Lie" as introduced in the Republic. He also seems to have had an antipathy towards taking credit for his own ideas and therefore always places them in the mouths of other speakers (typically, but far from exclusively Socrates). While this could be accurate, the ideas tend to have an idiosyncratic unity that argues against them actually being the unaltered arguments of so many diverse persons. He's generally considered to have wholly invented myths such as the "Lost City of Atlantis," and must accordingly be treated as an unreliable narrator with regards to historical fact. It's worth comparing and contrasting him with his classmate Xenophon, who is considered to be a more trustworthy historical source, but a much inferior philosopher.

However, your question was not "should" he be taken as evidence, but has he been taken as evidence. The concept that Greek philosophy was borrowed from the Egyptians is a central tenet of Afrocentric scholarship, and is the core premise of British scholar Martin Bernal's influential but controversial three volume work, Black Athena. The concept draws heavily on the work of the ancient historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus who did in fact take Plato's statements (as well as other ancient sources) as evidence of actual Egyptian influence.

This belief is currently discredited in more mainstream historiography, but as is always the case with history, it can be difficult to say with certainty which interpretation is the biased one, and which one is objective. While the Afrocentric viewpoint does have a clear political/cultural agenda, it is difficult to claim that the mainstream viewpoint could conceivably be entirely free of ethnocentric political/cultural biases either. In my own opinion, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: It's impossible to believe that Plato was entirely free of Egyptian influences, but a distortion to minimize the impact of his own original contributions to the ideas he synthesized.

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No it hasn't. Because one uncorroborated account which could well be fiction is not admissible as evidence. That's not how scholarship works.

Besides, if you read the next paragraph starting “Solon marvelled at his words” you'll see that the priest says that of the cities Athens (Greece) and Sais (Egypt),

[…] 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. […]

And a bit further along in the paragraph

[…] 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; […]

So the account you lay your claim on refutes your hypothesis.

  • Athens is older by 1000 years
  • Destroyed by deluge(s) and wisdom lost
  • The wisdom was imparted by a deity

Proper scholarly histories of philosophy are probably the best place to look. What do they say?

  • Some of the more recent books admit that the wider cultural nexus out of which Greek philosophy arose had been quite comprehensively ignored in explaining the 'Greek miracle'; actually the priest makes the same point, showing what is common to both cultures: 'if you compare these very laws, you will see that many are the exact counterparts to yours, as they were in olden times'. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 22 '16 at 14:48
  • Which books out of what books? What evidence do they give? Ignored by who? It does not matter if the priest makes the same point; the answer to your question (which is actually a claim couched as a question) is "no" based on the account you cite to claim otherwise. – igravious Jun 23 '16 at 5:35
  • try doing a little research of your own ... it's a claim and a question; ... actually a little reflection shows that philosophy, when understood in its width, must have a history longer than is generally acknowledged - and that's one of the subtexts that Plato is making this narrative do; it's also, something that Hegel implicitly ought to acknowledge, if we are to take his theory about the unfolding of world-spirit seriously; even if he himself situates his history of philosophy beginning with Parmenides; after all, if thought has a history when does history begin? – Mozibur Ullah Jun 24 '16 at 16:25
  • If we are to take the history of philosophy seriously, we should take philosophy seriously too; not all philosophical claims are evidentially constructive in the way the you are supposing. This is why Hegel calls philosophical thought is properly speculative. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 24 '16 at 16:28
  • Since you are putatively answering the question has this been used, not should this be used, this answer is simply wrong. – Chris Sunami Aug 22 '16 at 16:18

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