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(George G.M. James's revisionist book about Greek and
Brief Summary: James's 1954 book 'Stolen Legacy' is a deliberate perversion of history to support the false claim that black Egyptians were the true originators of Greek philosophy. James's unsupported theories have been taken as fact by many people unfamiliar with Greek history.
Society, March-April 1994 v31 n3 p27(7)
Since its publication in 1954, Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James has been a bestseller among people of African descent in this country. James was an Afro-American teacher of Greek, whose other writings deal explicitly with racial issues. Stolen Legacy also deals with the status of black people, but in ancient rather than in modem times. The message of the book is as sensational as it is revolutionary: "The Greeks were not the authors of Greek philosophy, but the black people of North Africa, the Egyptians." This novel thesis explains "the erroneous world opinion that the African continent has made no contribution to civilization, and that its people are naturally backward; the misrepresentation that has become the basis of race prejudice, which has affected all people of color." James offers in its stead a "new philosophy of redemption for black peoples."
James's account of ancient history redirects to the black people of Africa the praise traditionally given in all Western educational institutions to the ancient Greeks: "The term Greek philosophy, to begin with, is a misnomer, for there is no such philosophy in existence." Traditional educational policy, James argues, "has led to the false worship of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as intellectual gods in all the leading universities of the world." James urges black people to stop citing the Greek philosophers because we know that their philosophy was stolen" from the black peoples of Egypt, and demands that they resign from fraternities and sororities and presumably any other institutions that honor ancient Greece. The Greeks, James insists, "did not possess the native ability essential to the development of philosophy." What is called Greek, he claims, is in fact Egyptian philosophy, plagiarized from Egyptian sources by Greeks who studied m Egypt with Egyptian priests and who learned from them the philosophy and science of die Egyptian Mystery System.
Anyone who has studied ancient Mediterranean history will realize that these assertions are untrue, both in general and in particular Anyone who has studied the works of Plato and Aristotle, even in translation, will wonder why their instructors never referred to the Egyptian background of these philosophical works. Anyone familiar with the history of ancient philosophy will know that the "Egyptian" Mystery System James describes in his book is in fact based on an eighteenth-century French reconstruction of neoplatonic philosophy, which contains a few Egyptian elements, but is fundamentally Greek.
Anyone who has studied ancient Egyptian art is aware that the population of Egypt was racially mixed, which is to say not exclusively black at any time, though several pharaohs from Nubia and considerable cultural exchange took place with that area. To anyone unfamiliar with Egyptian or Greek history, or the works of the Greek philosophers, James's argument seems coherent and plausible, because it appears to be laid out in an informed and scholarly fashion, with copious references to ancient sources and modern historical studies. Of course, the principal reason for the success of the book is that most people who read it want to believe its thesis that an African people made the original discoveries that led to the development of what has always been known as Western thought. These readers are willing to assume that the population of ancient Egypt was black, although no evidence is presented to support this contention.
Another reason for the book's appeal is its conspiracy theory, which casts the people conspired-against in the role of innocent victims. "Had it not been for this drama of Greek philosophy and its actors, the African Continent would have had a different reputation, and would have enjoyed a status of respect among the nations of the world." If it could be shown that ancient Greeks stole or copied, without due acknowledgment, Egyptian ideas and documents, not only would the Greeks cease to be revered for their accomplishments, but credit for their great discoveries would go to the people of Egypt, an African country, and the notion that ancient African peoples produced no significant body of scientific and humanistic learning could be finally and decisively discredited.
The methods James uses to establish this erroneous and misleading thesis deserve careful study, because they have been and continue to be influential. In order to make his case as convincing as possible James does not proceed in chronological order, as is the practice in conventional histories of philosophy. Instead, he relies first of all on the tried-and-true rhetorical method of beginning with the simplest and most dramatic illustration. This he offers first in a brief summary: the Greeks began to study in Egypt when that country was occupied by the Persians, but the main transfer of information occurred after the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great, when Aristotle was able to take books of Egyptian philosophy and science from the library of Alexandria and convert that library into a Greek research center.
The story of Aristotle's theft is told again later in the book. Here we see how James relies on insistence," another tried-and-true rhetorical technique. Sheer repetition served as a form of proof for the Bellman who led the expedition in Lewis Carroll's poem The Hunting of the Snark: "What I tell you three times is true." James insists that the Greeks had no interest in philosophy or science; they were an ambitious, envious, people who persecuted their philosophers. They were, he says, belligerent though incapable of victory over a major power like Persia. Selective use of repetition also provides a useful, if fraudulent, means of historical documentation, since the same fact can be made to support two different and mutually exclusive claims.
For example, James employs a summary of a second-century A. D. description of a contemporary initiation procession as evidence both for the education of all Egyptian priests and for the science curriculum in what he calls the higher Holy Orders. Finally, to drive his message home, James restates his main arguments once again in an appendix. But it is James' method of documentation why Stolen Legacy must be considered a deliberate fraud and not simply the misguided creation of an innocent or ignorant enthusiast like Lewis Carroll's Bellman.
Most of James'citations support only the unexceptionable aspects of his argument. Where exactly the works he cites apply to his discussion is never made clear, since he does not use footnotes, but only lists the sources he has consulted at the end of a section. At the beginning of his work, he mentions three books by established European scholars which "I have found helpful in my present work." But he fails to mention that none of these books supports his central thesis.
Chronology is disregarded whenever convenient, and inconsistencies and other points of view (particularly if traditional or well-established) are simply ignored. For example, in the initial chapter, James never mentions that the city of Alexandria (as its name suggests) was founded only after Alexander's conquest of Egypt, and even then remained a Greek city and was never fully integrated into the rest of the country. Neither does he mention that the library of Alexandria was built only after Aristotle's death in 322 B. C., so that he could not have sacked it, even if he had been in Egypt. James never discusses the relative reliability of ancient source materials, which can be as biased or tendentious as any modern source. He gives the same weight to late and derivative source materials as to earlier and original ones.
Silence about a fact is used as proof for its existence. For example, because ancient accounts of Aristotle's life say nothing about his having visited Egypt, James assumes that Aristotle and his contemporaries deliberately attempted to suppress all knowledge of his visit, so that no one would know that Egypt was the true source of his so-called original philosophy. This silence of history at once throws doubt upon the life and achievement of Aristotle.
Once a hypothesis is laid out, it is soon treated as virtual fact, so that a remote possibility is almost immediately transformed into a distinct actuality. Aristotle made a library of his own with plundered books, while his school occupied the building and made it a research centre. Comparisons between Egyptian and Greek texts are always made in summary rather than with explicit quotation. That way the contents can be presented so that they will seem to resemble one another more closely, and the absence of any close verbal parallels will not be noticed.
The Egyptian Mystery System"
In order to show that Greek philosophy is stolen Egyptian philosophy James needs to establish the existence from earliest times of an "Egyptian Mystery System" which could be copied by the Greeks; that Greek philosophers studied in Egypt; and that Greek philosophers had no original ideas of their own. Although the foundation on which his thesis rests is the notion of the Egyptian Mystery System, James nowhere discusses its origins and development. He simply treats Egyptian Mysteries, temples, and schools as if their existence were an established fact. In reality, the notion of an Egyptian Mystery System is a relatively modem fiction, based on ancient sources that are distinctly Greek or Greco-Roman, and from the early Christian centuries. How this came about is too complex a story to detail here.
Suffice it to note that the earliest descriptions of academies for Egyptian priests, with large libraries and art galleries, are found not in any ancient text, but in an eighteenth-century French work of historical fiction, the novel Sethos by the Abbe Jean Terrasson, which was first published in 1732. Terrasson's novel was widely read; it had a profound influence on presentations of Egyptian religion, such as Mozart's Magic Flute. In particular, initiation of Terrasson's hero into the Egyptian priesthood served as the inspiration for Masonic rituals. It is understandable that the Masons of the eighteenth century, regarded them as both ancient and Egyptian, since their only sources about Egyptian religion were Greek and Roman and later European accounts based on them. All authentic information about early Egyptian religion was inaccessible to them, because the documents that described them could only be read after 1836 after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and subsequent decipherment of the hieroglyphics.
James too seems to have been inspired by Masonic ritual. He speaks of Egyptian "Grand Lodges," another distinctive feature of the Masonic Order, and cites Masonic literature, such as C. H. Vail's Ancient Mysteries and Modern Masonry (1909), which retains the notion of Egyptian origins inspired by Terrasson, even though it was published long after it had been established that what they thought of as "Egyptian mysteries" dated not to remote Egyptian antiquity but to Greco-Roman civilization of the early Christian centuries. James's vision of the Egyptian mysteries is distinctive of African-American Masons, who claim descent from black ancient Egyptians. The Afro-American Masons believe that Masonry was founded by Africans "along the banks of the Nile."
Since Egyptian sources were not available to him, Terrasson was compelled to rely for his description of Egypt on Greek and Latin literatute. For that reason, the goddess Isis assumes a particular importance in his work, as well as in works derived from it, such as Mozart's Thamos, King of Egypt or his Magic Flute. But the portrayal of Isis and her cult on which he relies is distinctively Greco-Roman. By the early Chtistian centuries, Isis, although in origin Egyptian, was worshipped by Greeks and Romans throughout the Mediterranean region.
The process of conversion to her cult is described in Apuleius' The Golden Ass, a remarkable book dating to the second century A.D. Apuleius tells the story of Lucius, a young man who travels in Greece and is turned into a jackass by a magic potion; he is rescued after many adventures by the goddess Isis, who appears to him in a dream. Lucius' conversion follows the pattern of the journey of discovery and initiation characteristic of Greek heroic myths: he undergoes physical metamorphosis; his initiation follows a period of wandering and confusion, and emerges from darkness into light. In her epiphany at the end of his journey, Isis identifies herself with many important Greco-Roman goddesses, Ceres (Demeter), Venus (Aphrodite), and Proserpina (Persephone), just to name a few. Lucius then becomes a priest of the goddess, and goes about with a shaved head like an Egyptian priest.
Because it was in the nature of Greco-Roman religion to welcome foreign gods, foreign cults, like the cult of Isis, were soon assimilated and included in the many different observances routinely followed by pious pagans. In the early third century A.D., a formal procession, similar to the rituals described by Apuleius, although basically Greek in character, could be actually be regarded as "Egyptian." This ritual James cites twice, first in describing the Egyptian priestly orders, and then as evidence of a priestly science curriculum.
Terrasson also describes a twelve-day initiation into the mysteries, but this account is primarily derived from Virgil's description in the Aeneid (first century B.C.) of the hero Aeneas' visit to the lower world and from Apuleius' account of his initiation to the Greco-Roman cult of Isis. The initiation culminates in a procession of priests, explicitly based on the procession described by Clement of Alexandria. Like Clement, James does not discuss the date of the ritual, but simply assumes that it was very ancient, and at least as early as the earliest Greek philosophers, some of whom date from the sixth century B.C.
In fact "mystery" or initiation cults were not established on Egyptian soil until the third century B.C. with the settlement of Alexandria after Alexander's invasion. Even then the rites were observed by Greeks living in Egypt rather than by native Egyptians. An example of such a mystery cult is the ritual of Epiphaneia at the temple of Kore in Alexandria, where after an all-night vigil the celebrants descended into a cave with torches and bring up a wooden statue. This cult is cited as an example of an "Egyptian Mystery" by the thirty-second degree Mason Reverend Vail. But the origin of the cult is Greek, not Egyptian, and the Maiden (Kore) is Persephone, the Greek goddess of the underworld.
It is certainly understandable that Terrasson was unable to distinguish Greek from indigenous Egyptian rituals. He could not read any inscriptions or papyri that describe ancient Egyptian rites and beliefs since they were written in hieroglyphics or hieratic script, which no one at the time could read. It would also be unreasonable to suppose that the Masons, who do not pretend to be serious scholars, would have sought to revise their rituals and notions of their history in the light of the new information about Egypt that became available once it was possible to read the hieroglyphics. If James had intended to write an academic book (rather than a mythistory), he would have taken recent discoveries about Egypt into consideration.
Instead of concentrating on current knowledge about ancient Egyptian myth and ritual, James cites Anacalypsis (or "Revelation") by Godfrey Higgins, who died in 1833, several years before the publication of the definitive version of Jean Francois Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphics. Higgins argues vigorously against the Champollion's and Thomas Young's preliminary studies of hieroglyphics (which later proved to be correct), claiming that the Rosetta Stone, on which Champollion's decipherment was based, was a forgery. He was, of course, completely wrong. That James should cite Higgins rather than a more authoritative, modern source suggests that he was more interested in presenting a particular viewpoint than getting at the truth.
Higgins argued that Egyptian writing could never be deciphered because it was a "secret" system. In Stolen Legacy James likewise insists that no records (in any language) of the Egyptian Mystery System have come down to us because it was secret. James does not mention the other, and more obvious, explanation for the absence of records, which is, of course, that no such system ever existed. The rituals identified by writers of late antiquity as Egyptian are basically Greek. These ersatz-Egyptian rituals are the models for the impressive "Egyptian" rituals described by Terrasson, which directly, and indirectly, served as inspiration for the Masons.
Thus most ironically, the "Egyptian Mystery System" described by James is not African, but essentially Greek, and in its details, specifically European. James has in effect accused the Greeks of borrowing from themselves and has said nothing about the real distinctively Egyptian ideas that influenced the Greeks during the long contact between the two peoples. The best evidence for the interchange of ideas between Greece and Egypt comes from the period after Alexander's conquest when Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty.
We can derive from these later sources appreciative accounts of the character of Egyptian religion and the learning and asceticism of its priests. The first-century-A.D. temple scribe and Stoic philosopher Chaeremon, who wrote in Greek, found among the Egyptian priests the Stoic ideal of the wise man. He describes their piety and knowledge of astronomy, arithmetic and geometry, recorded in sacred books. The Christian writer Clement of Alexandria preserved a description of a procession of Egyptian priests carrying forty-two treatises containing what he calls "all of Egyptian philosophy." The subject matter of these treatises included hymns, astrology, cosmography, temple construction and provisions, sacrifice, priestly training, and various branches of medicine.
James describes this procession twice, first as the description of the Egyptian priestly orders, and then as evidence for the priestly science curriculum. Here is undoubtedly one source of James'notion that there was a corpus of Egyptian philosophy. Even ff we ignore the problem of chronology and assume that the works Clements lists in the second century A.D. are copies of traditional ancient writings, it is important to note that by "philosophy" Clement meant not what we now call philosophy, but learning in general, and in this particular case a body of knowledge that had little or no connection with anything Greek.
Another possible source of the notion that Greek philosophy derived from Egyptian thought comes from the Egyptians themselves, but only in the early Christian centuries, hundreds of years after the Platos and Aristotle's death. These writings purport to have been composed at the beginning of time by Hermes Trismegistus, grandson of the god, but in fact they are much influenced by later thought, including Plato, Aristotle, and their followers, and the Hebrew writers known as Gnostics.
The writer of one of these treatises has the god Asclepius complain of the difficulty of translating Egyptian, which is direct and onomatopoeic, into the excess verbiage of Greek. There apparently was no Egyptian-language original from which they were derived and in fact they could not have been composed without the conceptual vocabulary and rhetoric of Greek philosophy.
There is, finally, a third source of the notion that the Greeks learned from the Egypt rather than vice versa, and that is the ancient Greeks themselves. Greeks, from Herodotus on, who were impressed by the piety and learning of the Egyptian priesthood, and reported that their leading philosophers studied in Egypt, among them the legendary Thales and Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C., then in the fourth century B.C. Plato and Eudoxus. James, of course, is very impressed by this "evidence," but from the point of view of history, it is important to note that the fullest account of the visits of Greek philosophers to Egypt is given by Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek writer of the first century B.C.
Greek Philosophers in Egypt?
Diodorus says that the Egyptian priests of his day relate that various Greek poets and philosophers visited Egypt. He cites as evidence statues, houses, and inscriptions with their names, and illustrates what each of them admired and transferred from Egypt to their own country. It is clear from Diodorus account that the term "philosopher" applied to a considerably less specialized class of individuals in his day than it has become in ours. In the ancient world holy men, poets, prophets, mathematicians, and theoretical logicians were all lumped together under the general rubric of philosopher.
The similarities that are cited by the priests are superficial at best and do not stand up to close examination. For example, the priests observed that the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone were "similar" to the rite of Osiris and Isis, except.for a difference in names in each case. But while it is certainly true that the myths connected with both cults involve a goddess' search for a missing relative, there are also many significant differences in detail and outcome which suggest that the myths, despite this one similarity, have no direct connection at all. Similarly, the priests pointed out that both Egyptian and Greek myths tell of a dwelling place of the dead located beyond a body of water. Here Egyptian notions may have had some influence on early Greek myth, but their beliefs about the fate of the soul after death and their burial customs diverge widely.
It is clear from these and other instances cited by the priests that they were determined to make the most of any and all resemblances between the religious observances of two cultures. But since they had no information about religious rites as they had been practiced at the time of Pythagoras' or Platos visit to Egypt, they were compelled to make their deductions on die basis of the rituals practiced in their own times, after several centuries of Greek occupation and influence. They point out that the Egyptians, like the Greeks, call the ferryman of the dead "Charon" without realizing that the Egyptians got the name from the Greeks in the first place. Like Clement of Alexandria in his description of the procession of Isis, the priests in their enthusiasm to establish the primacy of Egyptian culture fell into the trap of citing as evidence of Egyptian influence on Greek custom what was clearly Greek influence on Egyptian.
The Egyptian priests in Diodorus' account are even less explicit about the Egyptian influence on what we now call philosophy. They claim that Lycurgus, Plato, and Solon "transferred many instances of Egyptian practices into their law codes," but cite no examples. In fact the only recognizable similarities are that both Egyptians and Greeks had laws. On that basis it would be possible to conclude that any earlier civilization "influenced" any later civilization, even if they had little or no opportunity for contact with one another. Using this same methodology, Jews living in Alexandria in the second and first centuries B.C. could claim that Plato studied with Moses.
There are also significant problems with some of the other claims made by the priests about what Greek philosophers learned in Egypt. According to the priests, Pythagoras took from Egypt his teachings about religion, geometry, number theory, and the tansmigration of souls. Although we know that the Greeks based their mathematical theories on the arithmetical calculations of both Babylonians and Egyptians, there is in fact nothing in Egyptian religion that resembles Pythagoras' theory of the transmigration of souls. If he had to get it from some other religion, and did not simply invent it himself, it would have had to come from India. The priests also claim that Democritus, Oenopides, and Eudoxus studied astrology in Egypt. But here again the priests seem not to have been aware that astrology was primarily a Greek invention, brought to Egypt after the conquest of Alexander. The Greeks could have learned about astronomy from the builders of the pyramids, but on that subject the priests were silent.
Although Diodorus' account of the Greek philosophers' visits to Egypt tells us virtually nothing about Egyptian philosophy and makes no convincing claims about the dependence of Greek culture on the Egyptian, it does show how eager the Egyptians were to establish such connections, and how willing Greeks like Diodorus were to believe them. For example, the fourth-century-A.D. pagan writer Iamblichus says that Pythagoras and Plato read the writings of Hermes on old stone tablets in hieroglyphics; but, of course, we know that these treatises were written in Greek centuries after the death of these philosophers and are themselves dependent upon Plato.
Even in the fifth century B.C. the Greeks had a profound respect for the antiquity of Egyptian culture. Herodotus was very keen to make any connections and tried to match up the Greek gods with their Egyptian counterparts. He even went so far as to claim that the names of the Greek gods came from Egypt, but the few examples he produced do not stand up to modern linguistic analysis. He pointed out that Greek myth suggests that parts of Greece were colonized by Egyptians, or at least by Egyptians descended from Greeks who had emigrated there. But such vague and imaginative correspondences, even if they could be confirmed by archaeological discoveries, do not amount to any kind of proof that Greek philosophy was "stolen" from Egypt. Whatever the Greek philosophers and holy men learned in Egypt, if indeed all of them went there, it was not what we call "philosophy."
Since ancient biographers relied on the works of ancient writers as their prime source material, their information is only as reliable as the author himself. In other words, if an ancient author says nothing about his travels or personal life, the information in his biography has been deduced and inferred from his works. And since the works of most of the philosophers mentioned by Diodorus survive only in fragments, it is impossible to know whether the biographical information that we have is based on what they themselves said or on what later writers thought they might have done on the basis of their writings. Foreign travel in particular was used by biographers as a means of explaining why writers included references to foreign customs and geography in their works.
Did the great philosophers whose works still survive ever go to Egypt? None of the accounts of the lives of Socrates or Aristotle says anything about their travels there. Socrates is in fact recorded by a close contemporary, Plato, as saying that during his lifetime he never went outside of Athens unless he was on a military campaign - which would have kept him in Greece. Although Plutatch, in the second century A.D., as did other late biographers, claims that Plato himself studied in Egypt, and even name his teachers, it is worth noting that the earliest biographical information we have about him says nothing about it. Since Plato's writings show some knowledge of Egyptian customs, religion, and legends, or at least of Greek ideas about Egypt, most classical scholars believe that the story of his sojourn in Egypt was invented by later biographers to explain his interest in Egypt, and to provide physical "proof" of the importance of Egyptian culture that (as we have seen) the Egyptian priests in later antiquity were eager to establish.
James argues that silence about a sojourn in Egypt by Socrates and Aristotle is proof of a conspiracy to conceal from posterity the extent of the Greeks' debt to Egypt. Presumably the same argument could be made about the failure of Plato's earliest biographer to speak about his travels there. But, of course, the same evidence of silence has led other scholars to the natural conclusion that none of them actually ever went there. If the great Greek philosophers had stolen their ideas from the Egyptians, as James asserts, we would expect James to provide corresponding texts showing frequent verbal parallels. As it is, he can only point to some general similarities between Egyptian religious ideas and Greek theories.
As James observes, Aristotle wrote a treatise On the Soul; the Egyptians believed in the immortality of the soul. But there the similarity ends. James admits that there is no close resemblance, because Aristotle's theory is only a "very small portion" of the Egyptian "philosophy" of the soul, as described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Anyone who looks at a translation of the Book of the Dead can see that it is not a philosophical treatise, but a series of ritual prescriptions that will ensure the soul's passage to the next world. Nothing could be farther removed from Aristotle's abstract consideration of the nature of the soul.
Many more examples of James's fraudulent claims could be produced. For example he insists that the Greeks did not win the war against Persia in 490 and 480/79 B.C. and claims, without evidence of any kind, that the battle.s of Marathon and Salamis had been indecisive. James misrepresents history to depict the ancient Greeks as quarrelsome and chaotic, incapable of producing philosophy, which (according to James) "requires an environment which is free from disturbance and worries." Such misinformation entitles Stolen Legacy to a place on the shelf of hate literature next to such works as The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.
It is, of course, possible to sympathize with James and his anger at a society that has paid little tribute to real African achievements. The trouble is that Stolen Legacy has been treated not as mythistory but as a serious work of scholarship.
As such it has had a wide and pernicious influence. One of James's best-known pupils, Yosef A. A. benJochannan, has lectured at universities throughout the United States about the Greeks' theft of indigenous African culture and has added new details and references that make the story sound more credible. In his book Africa: Mother of Western Civilization, ben-Jochannan claims not only that Aristotle was educated in Egypt, stole entire libraries there from the Egyptian Mysteries System, but also that he either put his own name on the works, he had stolen or sent them to his friends. Books he did not like or understand, he had destroyed.
According to ben-Jochannan, such "revelations" are examples of the academic dishonesty of educators who attribute Aristotle's philosophy to Greek origins. Thus when classicists, or Egyptologists point out where James was wrong, they are accused of Eurocentrism and even "white racism." Such charges, even if without foundation, can be damaging in today's academic world. I have been accused of both for saying that the historical evidence that has come down to us simply does not support the notion that the Greeks "stole" their civilization or their philosophy from Egypt. Although I have the greatest respect for ancient Egypt and its civilization, the ancient Greeks deserve full credit for their own achievements.
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