The antecedents of western philosophy

Peter Flegel has an interesting article in Philosophy Now looking at possible connections between ancient Greek philosophy and conceptions explored in the Egyptian New Kingdom period.  Ideas like the four elements and the theory of forms seem to have pretty clear antecedents in Egyptian thought.

(There’s also a brief suggestion that Akhenaten, known for a brief experiment with monotheism in the early New Kingdom, may actually have held a proto-scientific worldview, albeit one hobbled by the limited vocabulary of the time.  I think we have to be very careful about projecting later worldviews on such early figures, but whether or not it’s true, it does seem possible that Akhenaten monotheism, although quickly reversed after his death, set off shock waves in Egyptian intellectual thought that led to many intellectual breakthroughs, ideas that later made it into Greek philosophy.)

The article focuses on Egypt, but the idea that Greek thought arose miraculously from nothing has always struck me as simply western chauvinism.  In general, I think ancient peoples interacted with each other far more than many historians and archaeologists often give them credit for.

We know the Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician one.  Phoenicians traded widely throughout the ancient world across the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Africa, and many other locales.  It seems likely ideas would have propagated throughout their trading networks.  The idea that all the Greeks imported from them was the alphabet seems shaky.  (Not to mention that Herodotus considered Thales, widely recognized as the first philosopher in the western tradition, to be Phoenician.)

Greek philosophy began in western Turkey, nestled among trading networks and on the boundary of the Persian Empire, an empire that included civilizations that had already existed for thousands of years, and itself bordering Indian cultures to the east.  It seems hard to imagine that the early Greek philosophers didn’t have contact with these cultures, or more likely, contact with intermediaries, people bringing in stories and ideas, many of which were already ancient wisdom.

Recognizing this, it seems to me, doesn’t detract from what the Greeks were able to accomplish.  The Egyptians didn’t express ideas in the same way that the Greeks would, who seem to have legitimately added a new way of working with concepts.  Robert Bellah, in his book on religion, described the earlier form of expression as mytho-speculation, and does credit the Greeks with developing the philosophical argument.  But the Greeks do seem to owe many concepts to the cultures that came before them.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

20 thoughts on “The antecedents of western philosophy

  1. The Phoenician alphabet was an adaptation of the Canaanite alphabet (as was ancient Hebrew). There is a Rosetta Stone at the Louvre recording a trade transaction in 3 languages: Greek, Phoenician, and Canaanite. The similarities among the 3 alphabets are unmistakable, although Greek reads left-to-right and Phoenician and Canaanite read right-to-left. Canaan might very well provide the missing link between Phoenician and Egyptian cultures (through trade and the exchange of ideas and stories).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points. I actually see the distinction between Phoenicia and Canaan as artificial. In truth, the coastal trading cities we call “Phoenicia”, because the Greeks called them that, were actually Canaanite cities, with similar languages and culture to the interior Canaan. This extended to worshiping the same pantheon of gods. Even in Carthage, a Phoenician colony in north Africa that later engaged in the Punic wars with Rome, Baal Hammon, a Canaanite deity, was the chief god.

      I don’t know about Canaan providing the missing link, but it’s worth noting that Biblical documents like Samuel and Kings are thought to predate Herodotus in composition. It’s unlikely Israel was a pioneer in this kind of thing, indicating that there were a lot of surrounding cultures producing similar narratives, unfortunately all lost to history.

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  2. I look at this slightly differently. Philosophy is based upon one thing and one thing only: leisure. Civilization was created for but one reason: to supply leisure for elites. Now I define leisure as time one needn’t spend providing sustenance, shelter, etc. for oneself and one’s family/dependents. Since having an elite class, the other people had to pick up the slack in providing the necessities, so they had to work harder. (Who do you think was in favor of this new system, when it was created? If you said “the elites” then you got it in one.)

    In any case, leisure time allowed the elites to create art, science, politics, architechture, music, and philosophy … oh, and more and more complicated religions. The more leisure time was created, the more of these things could be “afforded” by a “society.” The Egyptians provided very little leisure time as the secular and religious elites were few in number. The Greeks provided more leisure time because of advances in trade, geopolitical position, etc. So, they got more philosophy.

    Also at about this time, merchants were accumulating wealth and becoming “elites” (because they created their own leisure time) which expanded the amount of leisure time which could and did get spread around. (Did Socrates have wealthy benefactors? I expect so.) In an interesting side note, the religious and secular elites (royals, et. al.) always resented wealthy merchants and decried them as upstarts, Johnnie Come Latelies, uncultured, uncouth, etc. because they were horning in on their scam and there was the intuitive fear that the “special relationships” the priests and the royals had with the common people would become expose for what they were: baseless or rather parasite and host.

    Granted, culture sharing did happen and it took the mind of only one person to make this happen, but the “original source” of the ideas is no more important than the expansion of the ideas in other minds.

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    1. That’s a pretty stark view of civilization. While I do think elites often abuse their position, saying civilization overall is only for that strikes me as overselling the point.

      I do agree that the increases in agricultural production went a long way toward creating an intellectual class. But I also think the development of alphabets, where you didn’t need to be a professional scribe to read or write, helped tremendously.

      But it’s true that the literate part of the population in ancient times, even during the best of those times, was tiny, somewhere in the 1-4% range. Most of what’s come down to us from those times are elites writing for elites. There’s a separate commoner culture (not to mention slaves) running in parallel, that we rarely get insight into, and have to reconstruct from allusions in the writings and from archaeology.

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      1. There is a lovely book called “Against the Grain” that lays much of this out (there are more than just this book having this title, though, the one I am referring to is by Scott: Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States).

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    2. Steve,

      I generally agree with you but you have a tendency to see everything around this concept that all cultural products – religion, philosophy, art – are created by the elites and are for nothing other than manipulating and controlling the non-elites.

      I think a study was done of bushmen once that showed they had more leisure time than the average “civilized” human. So there was plenty of leisure time before there was civilization. There was also a good deal of art, philosophy, and religion before civilization. Little survives because many items are perishable and written records didn’t come along until the elites developed.

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      1. I am saying that’s how civilization got started. And, yes, the common folk had more leisure, were healthier, and much better off without civilization. When the elites decided they should work harder to created the surpluses they lived off of, the key was storable (and confiscatable food), so grain. The ordinary people spent so much time on agriculture they had little time or energy to devote to hunting and gathering and so acquired a very narrow diet, which affected their health and physical growth. This has all been documented in the archaeological record. The elites got more leisure, the common people less. Many of the early city states collapsed because so many of the common people voted with their feet. They were better off as hunter-gatherers. They had to move far, though, as one of the first innovations of the elites was mass slavery. (Not individual or small scale slavery, but mass slavery. It basically didn’t exist until we were civilized.

        And I am not saying that we are still in that state. But if you look at American politics right now. If you are part of the elite and you want something done, the likelihood of that happened is 3-4 higher than if you are an ordinary citizen with an equally good idea.


  3. Where do the Indians fit into this?

    Apparently the Vedas dating from 1500 BCE had five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and ether. A sort of panpsychism with ether the immaterial, mental part.

    Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit may also have origins in a common Proto-Indo-European language.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think they definitely contributed. Although they probably received as much as they contributed.

      I’ve always been skeptical about how old the Vedas are supposed to be, at least in anything like their current form. All the science I’ve seen about oral traditions is that they simply don’t survive that long without heavy evolution. That’s not to say that they don’t contain some traditions that might stretch that far back.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. See Rigveda and they are texts. Apparently the original texts were almost incomprehensible by 500 BCE, which is another issue, but the dating is pretty solidly traced to around 1500 BCE.

        “The oldest layers of the Rigveda Samhita are among the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language, perhaps of similar age as certain Hittite texts. Philological and linguistic evidence indicates that the bulk of the Rigveda Samhita was composed in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, most likely between c. 1500 and 1200 BC, although a wider approximation of c. 1700–1100 BC has also been given. The initial codification of the Rigveda took place during the early Kuru kingdom (c. 1200–900 BC).”

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        1. Thanks. I have read that. My question is, do you know of any straight references to the “philological and linguistic” evidence? When I looked for it a while back, all I found were either reverent or ethnographic sources, i.e., not objective ones. I found lots of similar phrases, but not much clarity on what it means. If it’s comparing the language to that of bronze age India, where is the comparison material coming from?

          I’m not claiming it’s not there. (I didn’t really look all that hard.) But if it is, I didn’t find it to be readily available.

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          1. I admit from a brief looking at it this dating looks very rough. I find it interesting the Wikipedia mentions that due to changes in language the original texts were not understood by 500 BC so commentaries had to be written. It also seems that even today we have little idea of the meanings. What has always interested me were the references to soma in these texts and still ongoing debate about what it was.

            At any rate, the dating of almost anything from this era is difficult and it is difficult to know where an idea came from even if the written texts can be accurately dated..

            The Hermetica is also interesting in this regard and some believed its ideas originated from around 3000 BCE, although the known texts are much later.


            “More recent research, while affirming the late dating in a period of syncretic cultural ferment in Roman Egypt, suggests more continuity with the culture of Pharaonic Egypt than had previously been believed.”

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          2. I actually even wonder about the dating of the commentaries. My strong suspicion is that the entire timeline is exaggerated. In ancient times, the more ancient something was, the more credibility it was felt to have. So everyone exaggerated the age of their sacred texts. I’m not familiar with The Hermetica, but I suspect it would have been under similar pressure to be ancient, whether or not it actually was.

            There are ways to get a sense of how old something is: does archaeology corroborate its accounts, are there equally ancient documents (reliably dated) that refer to it, or quote from it, etc. But when the original composition is oral, predating writing by several centuries, it’s extremely difficult. Much more likely is that when it was finally written down, it caught a snapshot of evolving traditions.

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