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Mary Lefkowitz´s problem with the Classical History

Mary Lefkowitz´s problem with the Classical History

by Prof. Dr. Greg Moses

I would like to make it clear from the outset that I speak today not as a specialist in the classical world, but as a philosophy teacher who takes an interest in questions that are raised when we speak about the origins of philosophy, science, and civilization. Thus, I take special interest in the claim of classics scholar Mary Lefkowitz, when she says in a recent book, Not Out of Africa, that, "it is from the Greeks and not from any other Ancient society that we derive our interest in history and our belief that events in the past have relevance for the present" (Lefkowitz 1996, 6). Furthermore, Lefkowitz suggests that we should give credit to the Greeks alone for inventing a "conceptual vocabulary" (Lefkowitz 1996, 6). What Lefkowitz gives to the Greeks, she means to take away from the Egyptians, but I find the arguments unconvincing. So I present the following remarks to specialists in an effort to test and clarify opinions that I am likely to share with students in a classroom situation. Most importantly, I want to explore the thesis that Greek philosophy depends upon African precedents.

Two concepts define the terms of the Afrocentric debate. First is the concept of the standard narrative; second is the concept of historical dependency. Generally speaking, Afrocentric scholarship asserts that our standard narratives of history do not adequately represent the ways in which history depends upon the achievements of African people. Lefkowitz, on the other hand, insists that our standard representations are already fair and accurate. As a classroom teacher, I agree with the Afrocentric scholars, and I make it my business to reconstruct the standard narrative so that appreciation of African achievements is enhanced. In short, I argue that Greek philosophy depends upon Egyptian foundations.

Obviously, we are dealing with complex generalities. How do we determine just what the standard narrative is? And what do we mean by dependency? I would like to briefly characterize my own position by way of analogy. Take the relationship between Hegel and Marx. In philosophy, we have a standard narrative that says that Marx depended upon Hegel. How much and in what way Marx depended upon Hegel is a question of endless subtlety, but it would be surprising to hear anyone claim that Marx did not depend upon Hegel. Now in philosophy we also have a standard narrative about Greek philosophy which treats the Greeks as if they did not depend on Africa. But Afrocentric scholarship says that the Greeks did depend upon Africa. In the just the way that we would not have the Marx we know without Hegel, Afrocentric scholars declare that we would not have the Europe we know without Africa. It would be surprising to hear anyone claim that Europe did not depend upon Africa, but this is just the claim that Lefkowitz declares in the title of her recent book.

Today I would like to do three things. First, briefly explain why I think the strong conclusions of Lefkowitz are undermined by her own evidence. Secondly, suggest why I think that the scholarship of Cheikh Anta Diop deserves sustained attention. And thirdly, survey Plato's references to Egypt in three dialogues: Republic, Timaeus and Laws. The survey suggests that the idea of Egypt is important to Plato, especially in matters pertaining to art. Thus, following the lead of Diop and others, I still think it is appropriate as a classroom teacher to argue that any study of European cultural heritage peoperly begins in Africa. Certainly, any historical survey of human civilization would treat Egypt before Greece. Thus, as a classroom teacher who is not a specialist in Ancient civilization, it still seems to me that a critical appreciation of Egypt should serve as a prelude to Greek achievement, because it seems to me that Greek achievement depends upon Egyptian precedents with all the subtleties implied by the analogous claim that Marx's achievement depended upon Hegel.

Let me begin with some internal difficulties that I find in Lefkowitz's argument that we owe the Greeks and no one else for our appreciation of history and for the development of a conceptual vocabulary. And I shall keep these observations brief. First, let me observe that if Greek historians were reliable, the case for African heritage would be easy to decide. Greek historians tell us that Egypt is the mother of Greek invention. But Lefkowitz spends many pages of her book showing why the Greek historians cannot be trusted. Although Herodotus gets credit for "good faith", Lefkowitz argues that he has bungled the facts when he claims, for instance, that Greek Athena and Egyptian Neith are really the same goddess (Lefkowitz 1996, 58 & 65). The Greeks thought of Egypt as "utopia," admits Lefkowitz, but "despite their enthusiasm, they failed to understand Egypt" (Lefkowitz 1996, 65 & 55). "They were eager to establish direct links between their civilization and that of Egypt," but, "they failed to understand Egyptian religion and the purposes of many Egyptian cultures" (Lefkowitz 1996, 55). But, given the evidence that Lefkowitz presents as to the unreliability of Greek historians, it is not easy to see how she can claim that historical appreciation must be uniquely a Greek heritage. Of Oenopides, for instance, she says that his, "reliance on analogy (rather than on empirical evidence) seems characteristically Greek" (Lefkowitz 1996, 78). But if this is true, Lefkowitz must reconcile her conclusions with her evidence, making it difficult to sustain the strong conclusion that the Greeks provide a unique genius for history.

As for the matter of a conceptual vocabulary, Lefkowitz raises an issue central to our contemporary debates about African philosophy. Are African societies thoughtful, or are they just full of feeling and expression? To what extent is the vocabulary of such people conceptual? What do we deny a human community when we say that it is pre-conceptual or non-conceptual? What attitude do we purvey? Lefkowitz states that Egyptians were more interested in astronomy than in astrology, and she concedes that Egyptians developed theorems of geometry, but again, this report is not reconciled with the conclusion (Lefkowitz 1996 77). How does one undertake astronomy, geometry, or mathematics and yet not have a conceptual vocabulary? Indeed, how does one engage in writings about the soul, if not by means of certain abstractions. But Lefkowitz has zero tolerance for inquiry that would entertain the "so-called Book of the Dead" as repository of metaphysical investigation (Lefkowitz 1996 80).

For the above reasons, I find the sweeping judgment of Lefkowitz to be presumptive and unconvincing. Human appreciation of history is at least as old as Egypt's Palermo stone of 2400 BCE (Hoffman 1991, 13). And it may be argued that a conceptual vocabulary itself is something as universal as human judgment--no culture survives very long without one. But even if one wants to reserve theoretical space for a primitive, pre-conceptual mind, Lefkowitz's own evidence seems sufficient to establish the existence of a conceptual vocabulary in Egypt.

Whereas Lefkowitz is quite charitable with respect to the flaws of Greek historians, she measures afrocentric scholarship by quite another standard. The Greeks can make numerous errors in "good faith"--and they are exonerated of any base intentions--but afrocentric scholars must be suspected of the worst motives. Thus, those who take their lessons from Greek historians will have inherited a proper--if flawed--legacy, but followers of afrocentric scholarship will, "have no respect for evidence, no concern with chronology, no understanding of the differences between languages and cultures" (Lefkowitz 1996, 9).

Fortunately for the long run, Lefkowitz has turned her critical lights toward the work of Cheikh Anta Diop. This is a welcome development, because it rescues Diop from scholarly obscurity. He pleaded during his lifetime for critical students who would equip themselves with technical skills and set out to refute his theories. He well understood how science advances, and he encouraged the day when his own science would be superceded by fresh investigations. During the course of his work, Diop encouraged the highest respect for evidence, a rigorous concern with chronology, and adroit attention to the differences between languages and cultures. Diop was a gifted mathematician and physicist who, after all, took the time to translate Einstein's theory of relativity into Wolof, the better to instruct students in the value of modern science. Diop managed a radiocarbon laboratory, because he wanted the best methods at his fingertips. Lefkowitz damages her own case when she maligns the intention and scholarly acumen of the late Senegalese scholar. The following remarks owe much to my reading of Diop.

Lefkowitz assumes that she can dismiss Diop's metaphysical speculations with a mere gesture. In his lengthy and provocative essay, "Does an African Philosophy Exist?", Diop draws connections between Greek metaphysics and Egyptian cosmogony, pointing toward similarities of conception that are intriguing and suggestive. Lefkowitz's response is abruptly dismissive: "there is litte appropriate subject matter for a Greek philosophical dialogue in the so-called Book of the Dead, an Egyptian collection of spells for the journey of the soul" (Lefkowitz 1996, 80). Lefkowitz dismisses Diop as a fallacious thinker. "The 'proof' that Plato is transmitting Egyptian ideas is that in the Timaeus Plato says the world was created by a demiurge, and that Ra, the god of Heliopolis, was also said to have created the world. Like James, Diop assumes that the existence of common themes is a proof of dependency" (Lefkowitz 1996, 151-52).

As Lefkowitz accurately reports, Diop presents evidence that Plato's outlook has a precedent that is at least two thousand years older than Plato. This intiguing news is dismissed by Lefkowitz, but not refuted. She is content to cast aspersions at the "spells" which comprise the Book of the Dead, implying by her tone that such documents deserve no serious philosophical attention. This attitude again reminds me of contemporary debates about the value of indigenous African religions. Afrocentric scholarship challenges our received assumptions about such things, and implores us to take African forms seriously.

While there is more to say about Lefkowitz, I would like to get to the main task of this paper, and examine how the concept of Egypt is employed by Plato in three dialogues, Republic, Timaeus, and Laws. Such an inquiry helps us to place Egypt squarely within the syllabus of classical heritage, which is one of the broad and worthy goals of the Afrocentric movement. Although this exercise is still too much bound up with European perceptions, it may serve as the beginnings of a bridge that would extend our discussion of cultural heritage back to Africa and the remarkable precedents of Egyptian civilization.


* Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Gods of the Egyptians. New York: Dover, 1969. 1904.
* Lefkowitz, Mary R. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history. NY: BasicBooks, 1995

the african memory