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Egyptian philosophy: influence on ancient Greek thought

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Z015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Before the decipherment of hieroglyphics (a process only completed in the 1830s), it was widely believed that many famous Greek philosophers had studied in Egypt and that Greek philosophy was ultimately derived from a lost ’Egyptian mystery system’. This belief was derived in part from ancient sources, which described how certain Greek philosophers had studied with Egyptian priests. The notion that these individual sessions were part of an extensive formal programme of education derives from an historical novel, Séthos (1731), by the Abbé Jean Terrasson. This book, which pretended to be based on lost original sources, offered a detailed portrait of a complex Egyptian university system. It was translated into several European languages and widely popularized in the rituals and mythology of Freemasonry.

The existence of such a formal Egyptian mystery system of education was not confirmed by actual Egyptian sources once they could be read and translated. The myth has been given a new lease of life in revisionist histories of the ancient world composed by writers whose ancestors had been brought to the New World as slaves. These writers sought to show that Greek philosophy was derived from Egyptian philosophy and that what has been recognized as Western civilization stems from Africa. This entry reviews the evidence for these claims and concludes that although the Greeks had great respect for Egyptian wisdom and piety, what has always been known as Greek philosophy derives from the original work of Greeks. It finds moreover that if the Greek philosophers who lived in Ionia were influenced by any outside ideas, these came to them through the monotheistic religions of other peoples living in the Near East.

Citing this article:
Lefkowitz, Mary R.. Egyptian philosophy: influence on ancient Greek thought, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Z015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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