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Essay on Comparative History

Essay on Comparative History

by Greg Moses

As early as 1893, W. Windelband was able to report that the question of , "how much the Greeks learned from the Orient has passed through many stages" (Windelband 1893: 21). Thus, more than one century ago, the adversarial terms of this debate could already be characterized. "In opposition to the uncritical, often fantastic, and untenable statements of the later Greeks, who tried to derive everything important of their own teaching from the honorable antiquity of Oriental tradition, later philology, in its admiration for everything Greek, has persistently espoused the theory of autochthonic genesis" (Windelband 1893: 21). After reviewing some of the "brilliant fancy" and "forced construction" of scholars who, from 1841 until 1864 sought the origins of Greek achievement in Oriental precedents, Windelband concludes that Egyptian influence is undeniable, but capable of overstatement. Writes Windelband, "it would be denying the existence of the sun at noontide to refuse to acknowledge that the Greeks in great measure owe their information to contact with the barbarians. It is here even as in the history of art. The Greeks imported a large amount of information out of the Orient. This consisted in special facts of knowledge, particularly of a mathematical and astronomical kind, and consisted perhaps besides in certain mythological ideas " (Windelband 1893: 22). Nevertheless, concludes Windelband, the Greeks, "were the first to transmute this knowledge into a wisdom sought on account of itself. This spirit of science, like their original activity, resulted from emancipated and independent individual thought, to which Oriental civilizations had not attained" (Windelband 1893: 22).

Let us begin by elaborating upon the stipulations that Windelband grants to the barbarians, especially in the mathematics and astronomy.

Principally in mathematics and astronomy do the Greeks appear as the pupils of the Orientals. Since economic needs compelled the Phoenicians to make an arithmetic, and from early times led the Egyptians to construct a geometry, it is probable that in these things the Greeks were pupils rather than teachers of their neighbors. A proposition like that concerning proportionality and its application to perspective, Thales did not communicate to Egyptians, but derived from them. Although there are further ascribed to him propositions like that concerning the halving of the circle by the diameter, the isosceles triangle, the verticle angles, the equality of triangles having a side and two angle equal, yet it may be safely concluded in every instance that these elementary propositions were known to the Greeks of his time. It is likewise a matter of indifference whether Pythagoras himself discovered the theorem named after him or whether his school established it, whether the discovery was the result of pure geometrical reasoning or was an actual measurement with the square and by an arithmetical calculation . . . Here, again, the reality of such knowledge at the time is rendered certain, and its suggestion, at least, from the Oriental circle is probable. In any case, however, these studies in Greece soon flourished to a high degree. . . . On the other hand, the cosmographical ideas ascribed to the oldest philosphers point to an Egyptian origin, especially that view, authoritative for later time, of concentric spherical shells in which the planets were supposed to move around the earth as a centre. . . . The Pythagoreans seem to be the first independently to discover the spherical shape of the earth. . . ." (Windelband 1893: 22-23).

With this assessment, Windelband clears way to deal with the Greeks as Greeks and proceeds with his history of ancient philosophy with only rare and cursory mention of Egypt. Thus, although it is stipulated that trigonometry and astronomy were taught to the Greeks, we can see that the teachers quickly fade away into a barbarian background while the students engage our principle interest.

Thus, we must return to the supposition made by Windelband that Oriental thought never undertook these sciences on their own account, nor did independent thinking originate until the Greeks were properly instructed. One must pause to ask how trigonometry is developed without independent thought. And we must wonder what it means to treat science as a pursuit in itself without regard for practical concerns. These sweeping judgments serve to put the Egyptians quickly behind us, so that we may begin the saga of Greek civilization; however, we may wonder whether Windelband's appreciation of science has not been unscientifically prejudiced by his Greco-centric perspective. And we may see how Windelband's appreciation of the Greeks is just rigorous enough to dismiss the Greeks' own appreciation for their Egyptian debts.

By Windelband's reckoning, we may begin our interest in Greek achievement roughly with the year 600 B.C. At this date, "the intellectual circle of the Greeks was replete with this manifold and important knowledge [not only of arithmetic and astronomy, but geography, history, and medicine, too], and it is clear that there were men, otherwise favorably conditioned in life, who took a direct and immediate interest in knowledge which had hitherto been employed for the most varied practical ends" (Windelband 1893: 25). In other words, we are now entering the epoch known to the ancients as, "the Age of the Seven Wise Men," among whom we may count Solon and Thales. Curiously enough, these men are characterized by Windelband as, "not men of erudition, nor of science, but men of practical wisdom, and in the main remarkable political ability" (Windelband 1893: 19). Because they "pointed out the right thing to do in critical moments," they became authorities in their day.

If we note the flexibility of Windelband's appraisals, we may discern the double standard by which practical authority establishes the beginning of Greek genius, just as the same criteria were used to dismiss the intellect of the Oriental barbarian. But if we insist that inquiries into Egypt not be on such a basis abandoned in our quest for a history of ancient philosophy, then we may turn to the recent work of Nicolas Grimal's History of Ancient Egypt (1992). Here we find mention of "Psammetichus I and the 'Saite Renaissance' which spanned the second half of the seventh century B.C. Briefly speaking, northern Egypt was witnessing a great revival of 'nationalistic' art that found its inspiration in Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom sources. Not only was art 'purified' along these lines, but religion too. "The specific influence of the Saite rulers is indicated by the fact that Thebes no longer set the tone of theology and art, whereas the Memphite tradition had been revived" (Grimal 1992: 357). Demotic script began to overtake hieratic, and "Egypt entered a period of unquestionable artistic brilliance and prosperity" (Grimal 1992: 357). Into the midst of this "barbarian" renaissance entered the Greeks:

Egypt opened up increasingly to the outside world during the fifty-four years of Psammetichus' eign. Foreign merchants arrived on the heels of foreign soldiers, and diplomatic relations between Egypt and Greece evolved on a distinctly economic basis: Egypt exported such commodities as grain and papyrus and in return allowed the first Milesian trading posts at the mouth of the Bolbitinic (Rosetta) branch of the Nile. This period also saw the appearance of a professional body of Egyptian interpreters who guided Greek intellectuals around the great shrines, particularly those in the Delta, foremost among which was the sanctuary of the goddess Neith at Sais. The Greeks were thus presented with variously distorted facts, allowing them to trace their own origins back to the ancient semi-mythical power by which they had become so fascinated" (Grimal 1992: 355).

According to Plato's Timaeus, the Gnomic poet and lawgiver Solon was among the Greeks who were taken in hand by Egyptian priests and told fantastic stories such as the myth of Atlantis. As Plato tells the handed-down tale, the Egyptian priest declared to Solon that Greeks were all children before the accumulated wisdom and age of Egypt. And the Greeks, apparently, did not dispute such assertions, but listened intently to whatever the Egyptian priests had to say.

[ Amenhotep Son of Hapu, Ancient Egyptian Philosopher ]

If we do not drop Egypt out of our history of ancient philosophy, we find that the Greek Age of Seven Wise Men falls into the same period of time that Greek intellectuals we so numerous in Egypt as to sustain a band of professional interpreters. Plato's account of Solon's visit accords nicely with these historical facts. Furthermore, Grimal tells us that Egypt had undergone a broad social transformation in the preceeding centuries that saw the rise of popular religion and private power along with a new style of Pharaoh that seemed less removed (Grimal 1992: 332-33). In other words, Egypt was alive with feudal competition and ambition to such an extent that no future Pharoah was quite insulated as before from internal rivalries. The Saitic renaissance of the reign of Psammetichus I (664-610) thus begins to look more and more as if its underlying fabric of private power was not so very much removed from the coalitions of independent power that were so noticeable in Greece. How the Greeks viewed their milieu of comparative independence may be gleaned from Windelband's analysis of the causes that produced in Greece an apparently sudden interest in moralizing poetry during the Age of the Seven Wise Men: Now, any extended reflection upon maxims of moral judgment shows immediately that the validity of morality has been questioned in some way, that social consciousness has become unsettled, and that the individual in his growing independence has transcended the bounds authoritatively drawn by the universal consciousness. Therefore it was entirely characteristic of the Gnomic poetry to recommend moderation; to show how universal standards of life had been endangered by the unbridled careeers of single persons, and how in the presence of threatening or present anarchy the individual must try to re-establish these rules through independent reflection. (Windelband 1893: 18-19)

Thus, it is natural to pose a question about the history of ancient philosophy: did not the Greeks have good reason to admire the 'Saite Renaissance' for its ability to establish continuity and commonality amid a world of chaos? This was certainly Plato's increasing inclination the older he got to be.

The son of Psammetichus I, Pharaoh Necho II (610-595), "pursued a policy of opening up the Greek world, actively encouraging the establishment of Greek colonies" (Grimal 1992: 360). This policy netted Necho "the first genuine Egyptian navy," and spurred him to begin construction of a kind of early Suez canal, connecting the Nile to the Red Sea, opening new trade routes and establishing a new Egyptian city, Per-Temu Tjeku, "the residence of Amun of Tjeku (Grimal 1992: 360).

Necho's son, Pharaoh Psammetichus II, ruled only briefly, but managed to perpetuate Saitic control over Thebes by having his daughter, Ankhnesneferibre, placed in the line of succession for the position of chief priestess at Thebes, known as the Divine Adoratrice (Grimal 1992: 361). Psammetichus II marched his army as far north as Byblos and as far south as Napata, establishing a historical record of the reach of Egyptian power. It is even said that the northern march gave heart to the Israelites who were thus inspired to embark upon their disastrous rebellion against Babylon (Grimal 1992: 362).

Another short-lived Pharaoh, Apries, was killed in a civil war by his rival Amasis in 570. King Amasis was fondly remembered by the Greeks, if we believe Plato. And we have reasons to trust Plato's account. According to Grimal, the Greeks prospered under Amasis. The Pharaoh assigned the Greek immigrants a home at the city of Naukratis, southeast of the future Alexandria, and "awarded important economic and commercial privileges to the foreigners settled at Naukratis. He afforded the city the status of an independent trading post, providing it with its own cult places. This economy based on 'trading posts', which underwent a gradual process of development from then until modern times, formed the foundation for the prosperity of the Delta and contributed greatly to the economic success of Egypt as a whole, which reached something of a peak during the reign of Amasis" (Grimal 1992: 363-64). Furthermore, under the false hope that the Greeks would be his strongest allies against the Persians, Amasis cultivated the friendship of Greek cities, "through a series of measures that made him the most philhellenic of the pharaohs, even financing the rebuilding of the temple of Apollo at Delphi after it was destroyed by fire in 548 B.C." (Grimal 1992: 364).

Just as the reign of Pharaoh Psammetichus I provided a background for Solon, so the reign of Pharaoh Amasis (570-526 B.C.) provides now a background for the life of Pythagoras, who was born between 570 and 580 B.C., and who was said to have undertaken "a kind of educative journey to investigate the sanctuaries and cults of Greece," and Egypt. As Windelband observes, "The circumstances of the second half of the sixth century make it appear as in no wise an exceptional case that the son of a patrician of Samos should journey to Egypt" (Windelband 1893: 30). At about the time that Amasis died, Pythagoras settled in the "austere and aristocratic Crotona" of Magna Graecia--what we today call southern Italy. "It appears that his sect co-operated in the decisive battle (510 B.C.) in which Crotona destroyed its democratic rival, the voluptuous Sybaris. But very soon after that event democracy became predominant in Crotona iteself and in other cities, and the Pythagoreans were cruelly persecuted," and the death of Pythagoras is placed at about 500 B.C. (Windelband 1893: 30):

On the one hand, Pythagoras found his purpose in the moral clarification and purification of the world of religious ideas. He stood in this respect entirely in line with the progress and innovation of the time, and he antagonized, as a point of view antiquated or coming to be so, the religion of the poets, in which he missed a moral earnestness. On the other hand, he was inspired by the same ethical impulse against the weakening of the moral bond to which the new methods of Greek social life threatened to lead, and in fact had already led. He called, therefore, for a return to the old institutions and convictions. Especially in politics, he represented a reaction in favor of of the aristocracy as opposed to the growing democratic movement. (Windelband 1893: 31)

The characterization of Pythagoras sets a tone similar to that of Solon, and Windelband explicitly makes the connection:

The emphasis upon the unity of the divine Being and a purely moral conception of the same was carried no farther by Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans than by the Gnomic poets. Neither was the conception of the purely spiritual here attained, nor a scientific foundation and presentation given to ethical concepts, nor, finally, a sharp contradiction made to the polytheistic popular religion. (Of course we do not include in this statementthe doctrines of the Neo-Pythagorean and neo-Platonic schools.) On the contrary, Pythagoras had the pedagogic acumen to develop these higher conceptions from those existing in the myths and religious ceremonies. He used in this way the Mysteries, especially the Orphic, and he himself appears to have been connected with the cult of Apollo in particular. He laid particular emphasis upon the doctrine of immortality and its application to a theory of moral religious retribution, and this also took the mythic form of the doctrine of metempsychosis [which to the early Greeks] was and remained a foreign conception, which in early times they had mocked at, and they were most inclined to lay it at the door of foreign influence.

Whatever of the Pythagorean ethical teaching is certainly proved, may be found in the Gnomic teachings. But at all events we see there, in the consciousness of duty, in introspection, and in subordination to authority, a greater earnestness and rigor, with at the same time a decided abandonment of sense-pleasure and a powerful tendency to spiritualize life. (Windelband 1893: 31-32) Of the religious society founded by Pythagoras that spread over a greater part of Magna Graecia, Windelband asserts that is was much like a Mystery cult, except that it "expressly determined also the political and in part even the private life of its members by its regulations. It sought to evolve also a general education and an all-round method of life out of its moral-religious principle. Its most commendable feature was, that within the society the external goods of life were relatively little prized, and the common activities were directed toward fostering science and art" (Windelband 1893: 32). Windelband cautiosly attributes to Pythagoras himself a thorough study of music and some mathematical investigations.

Now what prevents us from concluding that the Pythagorean school looks very much like the model Egyptian temple, where high principles of unified Being are developed out of the material of polytheistic myths; where the doctrine of immortality is certainly developed; where daily routines are devoted to pursuits of art and science; or where the study of music and math forms the basis of a complete educational curriculum? What, in other words, prevents us from postulating that this society, which was, "in truth, one of the most important factors in the religious and intellectual advance of the Greek spirit" was itself deeply indebted to models of Egyptian culture? (Windelband 1893: 31)

Copyright 1996
Dr. Greg Moses