Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
9. The Secular Character of Ionian Science 11. Egyptian Mathematics

From Burnet's Introduction

X. Alleged Oriental Origin of Philosophy
We have also to face the question of the nature and extent of the influence exercised by what we call Eastern wisdom on the Greek mind. It is a common idea even now that the Greeks in some way derived their philosophy from Egypt and Babylon, and we must therefore try to understand as clearly as possible what such a statement really means. To begin with, we must observe that the question wears a very different aspect now that we know the great antiquity of the Aegean civilisation. Much that has been regarded as Oriental may just as well be native. As for later influences, we must insist that no writer of the period during which Greek philosophy flourished knows anything of its having come from the East. Herodotos would not have omitted to say so, had he heard of it; for it would have confirmed his own belief in the Egyptian origin of Greek religion and civilisation.37 Plato, who had a great respect for the Egyptians on other grounds, classes them as a business-like rather than a philosophical people.38 Aristotle speaks only of the origin of mathematics in Egypt39 (a point to which we shall return), though, if he had known of an Egyptian philosophy, it would have suited his argument better to mention that. It is not till later, when Egyptian priests and Alexandrian Jews began to vie with one another in discovering the sources of Greek philosophy in their own past, that we have definite statements to the effect that it came from Phoenicia or Egypt. But the so-called Egyptian philosophy was only arrived at by a process of turning primitive myths into allegories. We are still able to judge Philo's Old Testament interpretation for ourselves, and we may be sure that the Egyptian allegorists were even more arbitrary; for they had far less promising material to work on. The myth of Isis and Osiris, for instance, is first interpreted according to the ideas of later Greek philosophy, and then declared to be the source of that philosophy.

This method of interpretation culminated with the Neopythagorean Noumenios, from whom it passed to the Christian Apologists. It is Noumenios who asks, "What is Plato but Moses speaking Attic?"40 Clement and Eusebios give the remark a still wider application.41 At the Renaissance, this farrago was revived along with everything else, and certain ideas derived from the Praeparatio Evangelica continued for long to colour accepted views.42 Cudworth speaks of the ancient "Moschical or Mosaical philosophy" taught by Thales and Pythagoras.43 It is important to realise the true origin of this prejudice against the originality of the Greeks. It does not come from modern researches into the beliefs of ancient peoples; for these have disclosed nothing in the way of evidence for a Phoenician or Egyptian philosophy. It is a mere residuum of the Alexandrian passion for allegory.

Of course no one nowadays would rest the case for the Oriental origin of Greek philosophy on the evidence of Clement or Eusebios; the favourite argument in recent times has been the analogy of the arts. We are seeing more and more, it is said, that the Greeks derived their art from the East; and it is urged that the same will in all probability prove true of their philosophy. That is a specious argument, but not at all conclusive. It ignores the difference in the way these things are transmitted from people to people. Material civilisation and the arts may pass easily from one people to another, though they have not a common language, but philosophy can only be expressed in abstract language, and can only be transmitted by educated men, whether by means of books or oral teaching. Now we know of no Greek, in the times we are dealing with, who could read an Egyptian book or even listen to the discourse of an Egyptian priest, and we never hear till a late date of Oriental teachers who wrote or spoke in Greek. The Greek traveller in Egypt would no doubt pick up a few words of Egyptian, and it is taken for granted that the priests could make themselves understood by the Greeks.44 But they must have made use of interpreters, and it is impossible to conceive of philosophical ideas being communicated through an uneducated dragoman.45

But really it is not worth while to ask whether the communication of philosophical ideas was possible or not, till some evidence has been produced that any of these peoples had a philosophy to communicate. No such evidence has yet been discovered, and, so far as we know, the Indians were the only ancient people besides the Greeks who ever had anything that deserves the name. No one now will suggest that Greek philosophy came from India, and indeed everything points to the conclusion that Indian philosophy arose under Greek influence. The chronology of Sanskrit literature is an extremely difficult subject; but, so far as we can see, the great Indian systems are later in date than the Greek philosophies they most nearly resemble. Of course the mysticism of the Upanishads and of Buddhism was of native growth; but, though these influenced philosophy in the strict sense profoundly, they were related to it only as Hesiod and the Orphics were related to Greek scientific thought.

Burnet's Notes


37. All he can say is that the worship of Dionysos and the doctrine of transmigration came from Egypt (ii. 49, 123). We shall see that both these statements are incorrect, and in any case they do not imply anything directly as to philosophy.

38. In Rep. 435 e, after saying that τὸ θυμοειδές is characteristic of the Thracians and Scythians, and τὸ φιλομαθές of the Hellenes, he refers us to Phoenicia and Egypt for τὸ φιλοχρήματον. In the Laws he says (747 b 6) that arithmetical studies are valuable only if we remove all ἀνελευθερία and φιλοχρηματία from the souls of the learners. Otherwise, we produce πανουργία instead of σοφία, as we can see that the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and many other peoples do.

39. Arist. Met. A, 1. 981 b 23.

40. Noumenios, fr. 13 (R. P. 624) Τί γάρ ἐστι Πλάτων ἢ Μωυσῆς ἀττικίζων;

41. Clement (Strom. i. p. 8, 5, Stählin) calls Plato ὁ ἐξ Ἑβραίων φιλόσοφος.

42. Exaggerated notions of Oriental wisdom were popularised by the Encyclopédie, which accounts for their diffusion and persistence. Bailly (Lettres sur l'origine des sciences) assumed that the Orientals had received fragments of highly advanced science from a people which had disappeared, but which he identified with the inhabitants of Plato's Atlantis!

43. We learn from Strabo (xvi. p. 757) that it was Poseidonios who introduced Mochos of Sidon into the history of philosophy. He attributes the atomic theory to him. His identification with Moses, however, is a later tour de force due to Philon of Byblos, who published a translation of an ancient Phoenician history by Sanchuniathon, which was used by Porphyry and afterwards by Eusebios.

44. Herod. ii. 143 (where they boast to Hekataios of their superior antiquity); Plato, Tim. 22 b 3 (where they do the same to Solon).

45. Gomperz's "native bride," who discusses the wisdom of her people with her Greek lord (Greek Thinkers, vol. i. p. 95), does not convince me either. She would probably teach her maids the rites of strange goddesses; but she would not be likely to talk theology with her husband, and still less philosophy or science.

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