by Dag Herbjørnsrud
“New research indicates that Plato and Aristotle were right: Philosophy and the term “love of wisdom” hail from Egypt.
“A remarkable example of classical Egyptian philosophy is found in a 3,200-year-old text named “The Immortality of Writers.” This skeptical, rationalistic, and revolutionary manuscript was discovered during excavations in the 1920s, in the ancient scribal village of Deir El-Medina, across the Nile from Luxor, some 400 miles up the river from Cairo. Fittingly, this intellectual village was originally known as Set Maat: “Place of Truth.”
The paper containing the twenty horizontal lines of “The Immortality of Writers” is divided into sections by rubrication. They seem composed to be read aloud, as the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson points out in his new Penguin Books translation.
The existential message of the “The Immortality of Writers,” written by Irsesh¹, echoes through the centuries and millennia, over sand dunes and oceans, before finally reaching us now in the 21st century. Thinking and writing is more important than religion, materialism, and – even more controversial – one own’s family:
Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives return to the earth. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader. A book is more effective than a well-built house or a tomb-chapel, better than an established villa or a stela in the temple!
This 12th BCE century Ramesside papyrus, from the 19–20th dynasty, is the oldest and most authoritative excuse philosophers and intellectuals of today have for prioritizing reading and writing over securing offspring or respecting priests. Because “the writer is chief.”
For the last decades, the only copy of Irsesh’s manuscript, formally known as “Chester Beatty IV” (EA 10684, verso) and also named “Be a Writer”, has been stored at the British Museum in London. In 1997, it was removed from public display. New translations from hieratic – Egypt’s ancient cursive writing system – have made the text accessible to the public. Yet “The Immortality of Writers” and other significant Egyptian philosophical manuscripts await detailed scrutiny by dedicated philosophers.
After all, Irsesh’s text is symptomatic of the era during and following the revolutionary pharaoh Akhenaten (died 1336 before the common era, BCE) and his wife Nefertiti (1370–1330 BCE). These two New Kingdom rulers abandoned Egypt’s traditional polytheistic religion and introduced a rather monotheistic worship of the Sun, Aten, instead. Shortly after Nefertiti’s death, their successors returned to polytheism.
The ideological upheavals in Egypt caused new ideas and philosophy to flourish. In the tomb of Neferhotep (ca. 1300 BCE) three different perspectives on death are presented in the “Harpist’s Song,” a text initially stating that the ancient tombs were “extolling life on earth and belittling the region of the dead.” A skeptical view on the after-life is also witnessed in the tomb-chapel of Paatenemheb at Saqqara, dating from the era of Akhenaten. This harpist text argues in a rather hedonistic way, a thousand years prior to Epicurus:
Follow your heart as long as you live! … Heap up your joys, Let your heart not sink! Follow your heart and your happiness. Do your things on earth as your heart commands!
One of the most vibrant eras in Egyptian history was this period spanning the two hundred years from Akhenaten and Nefertiti in the mid-14th century until the economic and political decline from the mid-12th century BCE; ancient Egypt’s last “Golden Era.” We can discover this in the love poetry of the middle-class village Deir El-Medina. Based on a reading of these poems from ordinary women and men, Renate Fellinger concludes that the “fairly equally distributed freedom of speech, action and movement as reflected in the poems may suggest that gender roles were perceived as equal.”
After all, women owned property, could buy land, and were equal to men in the ancient Egyptian court. One evidence of this, is the will – dated November 1147 BCE – of the woman Naunakht, who described herself as “a free woman of the land of Pharaoh.” She owned an impressive library of papyri; including the Dream Book, the world’s oldest interpretations of dreams. In Naunakht’s will, presented for a court of fourteen witnesses, she disinherits three of her adult children as they did not care enough for her. One of the disinherited was her workman son; she also rejected to give him any property from her first husband.
Furthermore, one of the most powerful pharaohs in Egyptian history was the woman Hatshepsut (1507–1458 BCE) of the 18th Dynasty. While the female pharaoh Twoseret (d. 1189 BCE) was the last ruler of the 19th Dynasty, as Kara Cooney attests in her new book When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt.
When it comes to writing, the Egyptian texts are “often consciously intellectual, making abundant use of wordplay through homophones and homonyms, in which the Egyptian language is particularly rich,” as Wilkinson underscores. Metaphors, idioms, and epigrammatic utterances are some of the other literary techniques applied.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that not only the oldest but also some of the most original ancient philosophical texts in writing stem from Egypt. A similar point was also made by the foremost of the Greek philosophers: Isocrates (b. 436 BCE) states, in Busiris, that “all men agree the Egyptians are the healthiest and most long of life among men; and then for the soul they introduced philosophy’s training…”
Isocrates was 16 years Plato’s senior, a founder of the rhetoric school in Athens, and he declared that Greeks writers traveled to Egypt to seek knowledge. One of them was Pythagoras of Samos who “was first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy.”
These Greek descriptions of Egypt have often been disregarded in the past couple of hundred years. But the scholarship of the 21st century has opened up a new possibility: the founding Greek word philosophos, lover of wisdom, is itself a borrowing from and translation of the Egyptian concept mer-rekh (mr-rḫ) which literally means “lover of wisdom,” or knowledge.
In 2005, The Book of Thoth was finally collected and translated into English. This text originates partly from the 12th century BCE, as Egyptologist Joachim Quack has pointed out. And in this book, “the-one-who-loves-knowledge” (mer-rekh) is a central figure. The philosopher (mer-rekh) is the scholar who desires to know the wisdom of Thoth, the author of books.
The translators of the Thoth book, Richard Jasnow and Karl-Theodor Zauzich, note the word mer-rekh and its “striking Egyptian parallel to Greek Philosophos.” As Ian Rutherford pointed out in 2016, Quack has demonstrated that the Pythagorean concept of akousmata is indebted to Demotic wisdom, arguing “even that the Greek term ‘philosophos’ is based on Egyptian.”
The Greek respect for the Egyptian love of wisdom, philosophy, is a context that can explain Plato’s statement in Phaedrus that the Egyptian Thoth “invented numbers and arithmetic… and, most important of all, letters.” This also makes it easier to understand Socrates, who in Plato’s Timaeus quotes the ancient Egyptian wise men when the law-giver Solon travels to Egypt to learn: “O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children.”
In addition, Aristotle attests to Egypt being the original land of wisdom, as when he states in Politics that “Egyptians are reputed to be the oldest of nations, but they have always had laws and a political system.”
In 2018, projects are under way to translate several ancient Egyptian texts for the first time. Yet we already have a wide variety of genres to choose from in order to study the manuscripts from a philosophical perspective:
The many maxims in “The Teaching of Ptahhotep”, the earliest preserved manuscript of this vizier of the fifth dynasty is from the 19th century BCE, in which he also argues that you should “follow your heart”; “The Teaching of Ani”, written by a humble middle-class scribe in the 13th century BCE, which gives advice to the ordinary man; “The Satire of the Trades” by Khety, who tries to convince his son Pepy to “love books more than your mother” as there is nothing “on earth” like being a scribe; the masterpiece “The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba” of the 19th century BCE – in which a man laments “the misery of life,” while his ba (personality/soul) replies that life is good, that he should rather “ponder life” as it is a burial that is miserable – recently discussed by Peter Adamson and Chike Jeffers in their “Africana Philosophy” podcast series.
Or we can read Amennakht (active in 1170–1140 BCE), the leading intellectual of the scribal town Deir El-Medina, whose teaching states that “it is good to finish school, better than the smell of lotus blossoms in summer.”