by Barbara Black
As a distinguished classicist based in the United States, Mary Lefkowitz has turned much of her attention in recent years to countering claims that Greek philosophy was stolen from the Egyptians.
In a lecture called "Ancient Greece and Ancient Africa: The Myth of a Stolen Legacy," Lefkowitz, who is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Wellesley College and holds an honorary degree from Oxford, produced historical inconsistencies that appear to make such claims impossible.
About 50 years ago, Afro-American scholars and activists, including W.E.B. DuBois, raised the possibility that Western civilization, traditionally attributed to the Greeks and Romans, was actually based on the thought and secret rituals, or "mysteries," of the ancient Egyptians. The claim is that these people were black Africans who were unjustly ignored by white European historians. In recent years, such claims have been published in history texts for use in some U.S. schools and universities.
In her campaign to counter such books as George G.M. James's The Stolen Legacy, Lefkowitz has met with some stiff opposition, often, as she said later, from people who have not read her books.
She maintains that while these claims rise out of a deep and understandable sense of grievance based on racial prejudice, they can't be logically sustained. One of the most popular is that when Aristotle accompanied his pupil, Alexander the Great, to the North African city that was conquered and renamed Alexandria, he plundered the library there for ideas, which he recycled as his own.
However, we have no evidence that Aristotle visited Alexandria. He died in 322 B.C., before the great library at Alexandria had been built, and in any case, the books there were in Greek, not Egyptian, she said.
The Greeks visited Egypt, but visits by their thinkers and writers were rare before the Hellenistic period, Lefkowitz said. "The Egyptians did have some influence on practical aspects of Greek civilization, including the 365-day calendar and some medicines, but the two societies were very different."
She added that "the Greeks were almost too generous in giving credit to earlier civilizations, because they admired them." In fact, the Greeks didn't really know much about the great era of Egyptian civilization, which had preceded them by some 2,000 years.
Another source of confusion is a historical novel called Sˇthos, written in 1731 by a French monk, Abbˇ Jean Terrasson. It vividly described Egyptian "mysteries," wholly invented by him, which became popular throughout Europe.
A great breakthrough for scholars happened in 1822, when Jean-Fran¨ois Champollion cracked the hieroglyphic code on the so-called Rosetta stone. As a result, modern Egyptology was born, and scholars now know something of how this earliest Western civilization was structured. "We don't know everything," Lefkowitz admitted, "but we do know some things."
Egyptian philosophy, if it could be called that, was based on descriptions of the gods, she said. The glory of Greek philosophy was that for the first time, intellectuals were holding a free-flowing discussion about abstract values without reference to religion or superstition. It was a new and highly sophisticated discourse about the nature of humanity and the individual's moral purpose that appears to have sprung entirely from the ancient Greeks themselves, she said.
The idea that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans, perhaps one of the biblical lost tribes of Israel, had been taken up by such African-American leaders as Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass, and still persists in Afrocentrist circles. So does the idea that Freemasonry, an 18th-century rationalist and ritualistic European movement, went back to the original cultural usurpers, the Greeks, as far back as Socrates.
These ideas, Lefkowitz said, "speak to an audience with a pervasive sense of injury," but scholars must defend good scholarship, search for truth, and find other ways to deal with racism.
Her lecture on March 18 launched the three-day celebration of
the 20th anniversary of Concordia's Liberal Arts College.