The profound meaning of “existence” in Ancient Egyptian philosophy

Philosophy is more important in its essential function than in its mere methodology as a critical or analytical inquiry into the nature of things. The basic notion of philosophy in ancient Egypt referred precisely to the synthesis of all learning and also to the pursuit of wisdom and moral and spiritual perfection.

Théophile Obenga: Egypt: Ancient History of African Philosophy. In: Kwasi Wiredu et al.: A Companion to African Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, 31-49. Citation taken from p. 33.

As Obenga explains, knowledge (rekhet) for the Ancient Egyptians is gained through wisdom and prudence, which is why the word “rekh” (to know) is very important for Egyptians [Obenga, 2004: 33 f.]. It is fundamental for Egyptian science and philosophy in Ancient Egypt was seen as pedagogy to elaborate wisdom, known as sebayit (wise teachings) [Obenga, 2004: 33]. Therefore, Ancient Egyptian philosophy was already a deeply developed scientific field dedicated to wisdom and the one called wise was of course a lover of truth (maat) [Obenga, 2004: 34]. As a scientific field, Ancient Egyptian wisdom was not unsystematic, but a methodological teaching and “To teach (seba) is to open the door (seba) to the mind of the pupil (seba) in order to bring in light, as from a star (seba).” [ibid.] It is very noteworthy and outstanding that though the Ancient Egyptians already were so developed, today we often see the Greek philosophy as birth of Western civilization, some even as birth of the civilized peoples at all. And though, I am a very profound lover of Ancient Greek philosophy, I am also a truth lover, and the truth is that the Ancient Egyptians already paved the way before the Greek, and many Greek scholars traveled to Egypt and were instructed there. We find knowledge which probably came from Egypt already in Plato and Aristotle, so they were aware that Egypt was a temple of science. However, there is a major difference between both. Ancient Egyptian philosophy was rather semiotic [see ibid.], while the Greek, which had a completely different alphabet, did not rely on the symbols of their script. Nonetheless, they were semiotic on another level. In many cases, they used wordplays, such as Hades, which was understood the Invisible, because both words are spelled the same (and maybe even the Hades etymologically comes from that very word, though it is uncertain). Furthermore, the Ancient Greek also use the abstract thought, but these abstract thoughts begin only with Thales and were not yet established in Homer.

So even before the Greek σοφός appears, the Egyptians had rekh/ sai, wise man in the sense of the later φιλόσοφος. And for the Ancient Egyptians, a philosopher was someone who instructed his own heart [Inscription of Antef, transl. Brunner, cited after Obenga, 2004: 35]. That heart and mind were identical in many civilizations was pointed out by me in plenty of previous articles. I mostly showed this concept as used by the Ancient Chinese, for example. But Obenga points out us that the Egyptians also had this concept of associating the heart with mind. Even Aristotle thought that the brain only serves to cool the blood.

“Aristotle considered the brain to be a secondary organ that served as a cooling agent for the heart and a place in which spirit circulated freely.  He designated the space in which all the spirits came together as the sensus communis — the origins of our much more metaphorical term, ‘common sense.’”

A History of the Brain., retrieved on 21 November 2022.

But here comes an important difference typical of Ancient Egyptian thought which we do not find in the later Ancient Greek philosophy: “Matter and spirit were not opposites in conflict.“ [Obenga, 2004: 35] Indeed, this was probably nothing Homer would disagree: “First, the Homeric Greeks appear not to have had a cohesive conception of mind nor of body (Jaynes 1990); there are no terms in Homer for words comparable to ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ or ‘thinking’ or ‘perceiving’ (Russo and Simon 1968).” [Kristopher G. Phillips, Alan Beretta, and Harry A. Whitaker: Mind and Brain: Toward an Understanding of Dualism. In: C.U.M. Smith and H. Whitaker (eds.): Brain, Mind and Consciousness in the History of Neuroscience. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, 2014, 355-369. Cited from p. 355.] And like the figures’ motives in Homer are not always out of pure reason, but are sometimes driven by their deep emotions, so the Ancient Egyptian philosopher could take all his resources into account, from plain reason to his feelings [cp. Obenga, 2004: 35]. “The philosopher was regarded as one who could penetrate ancient writings and avail himself of the instructions available therein. These works constituted a philosophical tradition, that is, a set of teachings (sebayit) viewed as a coherent body of precedents influencing the present. The history of philosophy was thus already a system of philosophy. Imhotep, Hor-Djed-Ef, Kagemni, and Ptah-Hotep in the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC) built the first philosophical tradition in world history” [Obenga, 2004: 35]. Many of these names are totally unknown to Western students of philosophy today, but what is most intriguing is that women were already well-established in scientific circles in Ancient Egypt [cp. Obenga, 2004: 36].

Even further, the knowledge was preserved for a long-time, and “We can also quote Plotinus (third century), Iamblichus (fourth century), Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century)” [Simon Thuault: Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Classical Works, between Pride and Prejudice. Aegyptiaca. Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt, 2018, 191-212. Cited from p. 192.], however, from time to time, the meaning of the hieroglyphs was forgotten, and therefore, the Pseudo-Mağriti simply supposes that the philosophers sealed their knowledge: “Therefore they have colored the temple buildings and put paintings on them as a suggestion and stimulus for the mind, and have also made use of secret signs and veiled terms in immortalizing (their teachings) in books, so that only the philosophers of their own kind should understand them.” [Pseudo-Maǧriti: „Picatrix“ – Das Ziel des Weisen von Pseudo-Maǧrīṭī. Translated into German from Arabic by Hellmut Ritter and Martin Plessner. London: The Warburg Institute/ University of London, 1962, p. 2 – English translation mine.]

What I found interesting is Obenga’s remark that “Verbs expressing existence are not static but dynamic in Egyptian philosophy. They are basically verbs of movement, stressing duration and referring to moments of time.” [Obenga, 2004: 37] How intriguing this thought is can be seen on the one hand, if we realize what “time” actually means. As Grimes pointed out: “Time is a moving image of eternity” [Pierre Grimes: Wisdom Literature in the Platonic Tradition, Lecture 90: The Lankavatara Sutra – a treatise of self-realization of noble wisdom. Opening Mind Academy, 1998]. On the other hand, as pointed out in my previous articles, already the ancient people had a special relationship to nature, a unique connectedness with their environment. Obenga points out furthermore that for the Ancient Egyptians “To be a true being, something always has to be moving or running” [Obenga, 2004: 37]. Once again, this is extremely intriguing, because we find a similar idea among the Bantu in Congo and Rwanda. As pointed out previously, Tempels made clear that the Bantu believe that being is force. “Nothing moves in this universe of forces without influencing other forces by its movement. The world of forces is held like a spider’s web of which no single thread can be caused to vibrate without shaking the whole network” [Tempels: Bantu Philosophy. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959, p. 41]. Thus, “The eye, speech, movement, symbolic acts, trances, inspiration, possession are criteria from which the Bantu deduce the existence of certain vital and given forces, of vital influences operative in certain given circumstances” [Tempels, 1959: 74]. In both, Ancient Egyptian philosophy and Modern Bantu Ontology, we find the key ideas of being as vivacity: something has to be in movement somehow, and that which is not in movement is not alive.

The ancient Egyptians used the verb “wnn” (pronounced as unen) to express “to be” and as such existence, the synthesis of rest which is called hotep and movement known as shemet forms the entirety of being which cannot be altered [Obenga, 2004: 37]. What is interesting here is that Plato shares the thought that truth is unchangeable, so the forms are always the same, and like for the Ancient Egyptians: indestructible. Furthermore, illusion is not part of being [ibid.], something which Plato also clearly emphasized. Plato goes so far as to state that the illusions are taken for real by those in the Cave, and only those who make it out of the Cave, will be able to realize that they are illusions and realize real being. So the wise man, the philosopher, searches for truths and overcomes illusions which are taken for true by the majority. So he has reflected and gained a higher understanding through his reflections, and what a surprise, as we learned before, a philosopher – in the Egyptian sense – was someone who instructed his own heart, and as heart equals the mind here, the philosopher instructed himself through reflection and the study therein. So we can see that the speculative thought, as we called philosophy in the wider sense, is not some gibberish chitchatting (as the term ‘speculation’ could assert from today’s understanding), but the result of acquiring knowledge, reflecting knowledge, and teaching knowledge. The pupils then could reflect on what they were taught and elaborate it in their study. So philosophy was not only seen as an academic field in Ancient Greece, but also in Ancient Egypt. Not just the texts of Greek natural philosophers were seen as expert treatises, but also the Egyptians saw philosophy as a field of experts. It was Plato then, who opened philosophy to the masses, as his master Socrates tested the knowledge of the Athenians and tried to make them aware of their limits and encourage reflection. It was no more a science of a few who speculated about the existence of nature, but everyone was encouraged to take part in philosophy.

Of course, the fact that essential features of African philosophy can still be found in Modern Bantu Ontology does not indicate that African philosophy never developed further. Instead, it indicates that specific features were seemingly preserved throughout the centuries, something we also find in Europe, if we follow Whitehead’s famous and often quoted statement. And as pointed out above: Ancient Greek philosophies seemingly took a lot of features from Ancient Egyptian philosophy. As such, it is even more astonishing that the very “cause” of philosophy is closely related in both countries. As Plato makes clear in the Apology, philosophy means serving God. And the God which Plato refers to is Apollo. The Egyptians saw philosophy connected to Ra, who expresses perfect being (nefer) [cp. Obenga, 2004: 37 f.]. And once again we find something in common: Apollo and Ra are both associated with the sun. And while Greeks often swear to Zeus, Socrates often swears to a “dog” (though it is something understood as a kind of irony by most commentators), something which might refer to the Egyptian Anubis as Weber points out [F.J. Weber: Platons Apologie des Sokrates. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2007, p. 55]. For the Egyptians, “Ra is the highest being, imperishable, eternal, possessing full reality, that is, power, beauty, truth, perfection, and goodness.” [Obenga, 2004: 38], for the Greek Apollo was the god of eternal youth and – most importantly – of truth, which is why Apollo, unlike other gods, cannot lie [Christina Schefer: Platon und Apollon – Vom Logos zurück zum Mythos. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 1996].

We can put it in a nutshell by quoting Obenga’s definition: “Existence, whether absolute or relative to some situation, is always a dynamic process” [Obenga, 2004: 38.] And most interestingly, this is not only part of Egyptian thought, but was a common thought all around the world. Yet, the Egyptians seem to be the oldest account which we have. The Daodejing would later claim “it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other” [Chapter 2, transl. Legge], and here we find a slight difference: in Chinese thought, existence and non-existence can go into each other, one becomes the other, same as we see in Plato’s Phaedo: the Living dies and though the soul lives on, the life does not exist in the corpse anymore, it changes its state. Though the Egyptian thought is very dynamic, non-being is the absence of movement. A being which is not lacks the dynamism. However, such a thought appears in the Chinese monism, and as such in Daoism as well. While Wuji is nothing than emptiness, taiji is so powerful that yin and yang constantly struggle for each other, so taiji is especially dynamic, while wuji is not. In Ancient Egyptian thought, Non-being is only a semantic differentiation in contrast to Being, which had no Ontological significance [Obenga, 2004: 38.] While Non-Being is very important for Ancient Chinese philosophy, it is secondary for Ancient Greek philosophy, because Greek philosophy tries to answer the question of “what is”. Therefore, that “which is not” is only a help to distinguish the false views of our common sense from the truth. Nonetheless, this is also why Non-Being is such important in Chinese thought: we can only know that something exists, when we know what its absence means. We can only know what “being alive” means, if we know the state of death as not-being-alive. And Plato agrees to this in his Phaedo. So the Egyptians already addressed thoughts which would later become major issues in all philosophies all around the world, whether through influence or independently.

Timo Schmitz, 24 November 2022


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