Ancient Egyptian Philosophy
Today, there is some debate regarding ancient Egyptian philosophy and its true scope and nature.
Several of the ancient Greek philosophers regarded Egypt as a place of wisdom and philosophy. 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…” He declares that Greek writers traveled to Egypt to seek knowledge. One of them was Pythagoras of Samos who “was first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy,” according to Isocrates.
Plato states in Phaedrus that the Egyptian Thoth “invented numbers and arithmetic… and, most important of all, letters.” In Plato’s Timaeus, Socrates quotes the ancient Egyptian wise men when the law-giver Solon travels to Egypt to learn: “O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children.” 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.”
One of the Egyptian figures who often is being considered an early philosopher was Ptahhotep. He served as vizier to the pharaoh in the late 25th, early 24th century BC. Ptahhotep is known for his comprehensive work on ethical behavior and moral philosophy, called The Maxims of Ptahhotep. The work, which is believed to have been compiled by his grandson Ptahhotep Tshefi, is a series of 37 letters or maxims addressed to his son, Akhethotep, speaking on such topics as daily behavior and ethical practices.
A text for the American Philosophical Association describes the 3200-year-old text “The Immortality of Writers”, or “Be a Writer” (c. 1200 BCE), as a “remarkable example of classical Egyptian philosophy.” The text, which Dag Herbjørnsrud attributes to the writer Irsesh, states:
“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! […] They gave themselves a book as their lector-priest, a writing-board as their dutiful son. Teachings are their mausolea, the reed-pen their child, the burnishing-stone their wife. Both great and small are given them as their children, for the writer is chief.”
“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.”