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The Author of Not Out of Africa Pens Her Memoir

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PostPosted: Tue May 13, 2008 5:42 pm    Post subject: The Author of Not Out of Africa Pens Her Memoir Reply with quote

The Author of Not Out of Africa Pens Her Memoir
By Mary Lefkowitz

May 12, 2008

John Leo’s review of my new book History Lesson: A Race Odyssey. This professor had been at Wellesley during the troubled years that I describe in the book. Now in retrospect he wishes that he’d had the courage to get up and say that he really didn’t care about whether or not Greek philosophy had been subject to significant Egyptian influence. What does such a question matter, in comparison to the terrible problems of our own times? In short, he surely had something better to do with his time (and mine) than worrying about the origins of Greek philosophy. Whoever invented it, it would still be great philosophy. And Socrates would be one of its founding fathers even if his ancestors had been immigrants from ancient Memphis rather than natives of Attica.

I hear what he is saying. What’s so terrible about supposing that Egyptian ideas could have played an important role in the formation of what we now call Western thought? Nothing whatever, except that they didn’t, at least so far as we now know. I don’t say that because I have anything against ancient Egypt, or because I’m not open to new ideas, or because I always seek to defend ancient Greece. It’s just that there isn’t any textual evidence to support the idea that Greek philosophy originated in the valley of the Nile. One could argue on the grounds of possibility that Egyptian philosophical texts might have existed that could have served as inspiration for the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle. But if so, it’s hard to understand how they managed to disappear without a trace, when the Egyptians had a system of writing and so many of their other writings still survive, on a variety of topics, religious, historical, and medical.

The ancient Egyptians had a deep and complex theology, much less transparent to us than that of the ancient Greeks. They also had a different view of history. As they saw it, the past cannot be separated from the present, but is embodied in it. The Greeks regarded the past as distinct from the present. They thought, or at least hoped, that it might be possible to learn from what had happened to people who were now dead, but in their view meaningful existence did not continue beyond the grave. If the Greeks had listened to the Egyptians on the subject of death, they would have had a much more positive attitude toward death, and with it, no doubt, a more uplifting view of the nature of human life. Homer would have written a strikingly different Iliad. Achilles would have greeted the news of his friend Patroclus’ death with equanimity, and looked forward to joining him soon in the Field of Reeds. In our Iliad, by contrast, Achilles is guilt-stricken. He covers his head in dust and lies on the ground weeping. For him, death was nothing to look forward to. In his view, even life as a slave to a poor man would be preferable to being king among the dead in the Elysian Fields.

But even though Egyptian texts don’t bear any noticeable resemblance to the dialogues of Plato or the treatises of Aristotle, suppose there was an oral tradition (now lost) on which Greek travelers to Egypt were somehow able to draw? Recently Carlin Romano sought to make that sort of “common sense” argument in an essay about History Lesson [Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28]. But why choose to specify Egyptian oral tradition, and not also Phoenician or Hittite, or those of the so-called Minoans or other people in the Ancient Mediterranean? Aside from lack of evidence, another problem with Romano’s hypothesis is that oral tradition usually takes the form of poetic narratives, the end product of which are epics about great heroes. No one, so far as I know, has ever tried to argue that the Iliad or the Odyssey could have inspired Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics.

It’s only because the issue of race is involved that anyone today would try to insist that fourth-century B.C. Greek philosophy had a close connection with some now lost body of Egyptian thought. But if you are eager to establish a connection between Greece and Egypt, why speculate about philosophy when you don’t need a microscope to detect Egyptian influence on Greek art and architecture, which were taken up and adapted by other Mediterranean peoples, especially the Romans? If you’re looking for an African connection -- and I, for one, see no reason not to suppose that the ancient Egyptians were an African people -- you can find it in stone, in museums throughout the world. And please don’t tell me that the power to transform the spaces in which we live is not a significant contribution to human culture. - Source

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Joined: 20 Apr 2008
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PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 11:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for this post, wysingm. It’s deeply interesting.

Lefkowitz has chosen to attack the rhetoric of Afrocentrism, but this is not the only type of rhetoric heard today, so her attack is partial, though laudable if she is simply concerned with the truth value of historical assertions. Nevertheless, there are various ways to handle historical assertions. I will take for my paradigm the statement that Akhenaten suffered from Marfan’s syndrome, and I will suppose that intense social pressure prevents me from contradicting it. How should I proceed?

1) I can ‘damn the statement with faint praise’:

“The Mona Lisa is a beautiful picture, and so is my sketch of Hatshepsut and Senenmut.”

“Akhenaten suffered from Marfan’s syndrome, and all my peasant friends agree.”

(Lefkowitz can show successfully that my sketch of Hatshepsut and Senenmut is of poor quality. She can also prove that my peasant friends are inadequate to judge.)

2) I can add an ironic appendix:

“Akhenaten had Marfan’s syndrome, and I’m the king of Siam.”

“Akhenaten had Marfan’s syndrome, and I’m a monkey’s uncle.”

(Lefkowitz can show successfully if pedantically that an Egyptian peasant could not become king of Siam, and that I am a member of Homo sapiens sapiens.)

3) I can juxtapose it with a patently false statement, and then ascertain the truth value of the whole:

“Akhenaten had Marfan’s syndrome, and the moon is made of green cheese.”

(Lefkowitz, and my computer, can return a truth-value of zero for this.)

Now as I understand it, if Wellesley College professor Anthony Martin asserted that Socrates was black, then this must surely be seen as a socio-political Boolean AND statement like my three examples above, made in the context of a whole world of rhetoric (e.g. “Aten-Suds Wash Whiter!”) which we are not able to challenge because much of it is repeated endlessly with the power of the mass media.

Lefkowitz has concentrated on disproving Martin, but if the pressure to admit that Akhenaten had Marfan’s syndrome remains, it does seem unfair, and only ‘truthful’ in a technical sense.
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