Friday, November 28, 2008


BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of Egypt
By Thomas Riggins

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharoahs
by Jan Assmann (translated by Andrew Jenkins)
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2002.

You might think the Ancient Egyptians too remote in time to be anything other than intellectual curiosities for us. Jan Assmann, the great German Egyptologist, thinks otherwise. Early on in his masterful reconstruction of the Egyptian mind set, he tells us that "ancient Egypt is an intellectual and spiritual world that is linked to our own by numerous strands of tradition." A brief review can only barely touch on the topics discussed in this book, but I will try to give some examples of Assmann’s conclusions with reference our links to the Ancient Egyptians--they may be more extensive than you might think.

Take for example the ancient work "The Admonitions of Ipuwer" from the thirteenth century B.C., (around the time of Ramesses II) which describes "the nobles" as "full of lament" and the "lowly full of joy." Bertolt Brecht was so impressed by this work that, Assmann says, "he worked part of it into the ‘Song of Chaos’ in his play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle.’" Ipuwer was lamenting the overthrow of established order by the lower classes-- so long has the specter of Communism been haunting the world (not just Europe) that Brecht could sense the presence of comrades over three thousand years ago! Brecht made a few slight changes, Assmann says, and the Egyptian sage’s lament became "a triumphal paean to the Revolution."

A useful Egyptian concept to know is that of "ma’at" which Assmann defines as "connective justice" which "holds for Egyptian civilization in general." Basically "connective justice" is the idea that all of actions are interconnected with those of others such that it "is the principle that forms individuals into communities and that gives their actions meaning and direction by ensuring that good is rewarded and evil punished."

Assmann likens this concept to what he calls the "connection between memory and altruism." Looking at our own times, he says this Ancient Egyptian concept is manifested in the ideas of Karl Marx (and also in Nietzsche’s "Genealogy of Morals"). He quotes Marx who wrote that [Private] "Interest has no memory, for it thinks only of itself." This is a quote from issue 305 of the Rheinische Zeitung, Nov. 1, 1842 (not as cited by Assmann issue 298 Oct. 25, 1842).

The point being that the State should look to the collective good of all citizens and not be used to further private or individual interests. It must have "memory" directed toward the general good. This is also the point of ma‘at. The Egyptian Middle Kingdom work "Tale of the Eloquent Peasant" makes this point. This implies that we could find basically "Marxist" social values being discussed in Egypt!

As Assmann points out, "Ma‘at is the law liberating the weak from the oppression at the hands of the strong. The idea of liberation from the oppression caused by inequality is informed at least to a rudimentary extent by the idea of the equality of all human beings." It should be noted that the picture many have of ancient Egypt as a repressive slave state is the result of the Old Testament tradition. That tradition does not represent the actual state of affairs with respect to the functioning of the Egyptian state.

An examination of the literary remains of the Egyptians themselves shows an entirely different society than that portrayed in Biblical propaganda. "The Egyptian state," Assmann writes, " is the implementation of a legal order that precludes the natural supremacy of the strong and opens up prospects for the weak (the ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’) that otherwise would not exist.

Besides Biblical misrepresentations of Egyptian thought there were also the misunderstandings of the classical writers. For example, the Greek Diodorus, who left behind a description of the "Judgment of the Dead", presents the "facts" in contradiction to what we know is described in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead." In fact, Assmann avers that the Egyptian account is similar to the 25th Chapter of the "Gospel According to St. Matthew" where the reward of going to the "House of Osiris" is "replaced by the Kingdom of God." In fact, I think, many so-called Christian values and beliefs actually have their origin in Ancient Egyptian religious and ethical concepts.

We should remember that the first "monotheist," after all, was the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (r. cir. 1352-1338 B.C.) who stood "at the head of a lineage very different from his predecessors’, one represented after him by the Moses of legend, and later by Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed," according to Assmann. As a truth seeker he also differs from the three aforementioned in that as "a thinker, Akhenaten stands at the head of a line of inquiry that was taken up seven hundred years later by the Milesian philosophers of nature [i.e., the Greeks] with their search for the one all-informing principle, and that ended with the universalist formulas of our own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg." Assmann has a very high opinion of Akhenaten!

Unlike earlier Egyptologists who think the ideas of Akhenaten were repressed by his successors (due to their--Akhenaten's ideas that is-- "deism" rather than "theism" characteristics), Assmann maintains that they were "elaborated further and integrated into" the religious teachings of the age of Ramesses and his successors. From here they eventually influenced Plato, and, since Plato was the basis of the thought of Augustine, Christianity. Although, Christianity ended up the mortal foe of the Egyptian religion and ultimately destroyed it and the culture that produced it.

Today we know more about the civilization of Ancient Egypt than has been known since its own time. We must come to grips with his new knowledge, and especially with the recovered literature of the Egyptians and "attempt" as Assmann says, "to enter into a dialogue with the newly readable messages of ancient Egyptian culture and thus to reestablish them as an integral part of our cultural memory."

This review has only skimmed the surface of this important book. I hope it inspires you to read the book itself.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, November 3, 2008


Catholic Cardinal Gets it Right on Evolution [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Ultimately the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster-- David Hume

Two pieces in the Times last week (“Finding Design in Nature” by Christoph [Cardinal] Schonborn, July 7, 2005 and “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution: He Says Darwinism and Catholicism May Conflict” by Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, July 9, 2005) finally resolves, for me at least, the question of the relation between a scientific outlook on the world and the outlook of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Schonborn is the archbishop of Vienna and chief editor, the Times reports, of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). His understanding of science seems to be based on the works of Aristotle. The Cardinal begins his essay critical of “neo-Darwinian dogma” (I admit that the Cardinal is probably an expert on dogma if not Darwinism). He says the Darwinists have misinterpreted Pope John Paul II (another noted scientist) who said in 1996 that evolution is “more than just a hypothesis.” They think this means that Darwinism is “somehow compatible with Christian faith.”

They are wrong, says the Cardinal. I think he has it right. I will even go a bit further. Not only is Darwinism incompatible with the Christian faith (as interpreted by the Catholic sect), but any scientific understanding of the world at all is incompatible with it and any other system claiming to have some timeless absolute knowledge based on revelation rather that testable empirical investigations.

The Cardinal grants that there might be “evolution” in the sense of “common ancestry”-- we might indeed all come out of the primal ooze -- but not in the Darwinian sense of “random variation and natural selection.” He quotes the eminent evolutionary biologist, and sect leader, John Paul II, who said, “The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality [there is NO scientific evidence for this] which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose [it does?] a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.”

Cardinal Schonborn says we must note that the term “finality” is a philosophical term which means “final cause, purpose or design.” Well, at least he agrees that it is not a scientific term. We should also note that modern philosophy, at least since the sixteenth century, has rejected any type of “finality” in this sense. The Cardinal is using a term confined almost exclusively to sectaries, who need it to justify their otherwise outlandish beliefs.

Three centuries ago, and a century before Darwin, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) described what the “finality” of the world looked like to human reason unprejudiced by viewing the world through the prism of superstition. “Look around this universe,” he wrote: “What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences.... How hostile and destructive to each other!... The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children”(quoted from Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire).

This is not what Cardinal Schonborn sees when he looks at the universe. He sees with the eyes of “the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church.” He then quotes his new boss (Benedict XVI): “We are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” Does that even make sense. How can you look at the heaps of skulls left behind by Pol Pot, or by the genocide in Rwanda and now in Dafur, or think of the thousands of children killed by the US in the name of “freedom” in Iraq, Central America and Vietnam, or think of the people lost in the Tsunami -- or contemplate the babies born with hideous birth defects or with AIDS or cancer-- how can any of that jive with being a loved and willed thought of God?

Only in your religious dreams can you hold the Pope’s ideas-- but let us not, as the Cardinal does, confuse this with “human reason” or “science.”

The news article, by Dean and Goodstein, gives some reactions by scientists and others to the Cardinal’s ideas. As might have been expected religious fundamentalists and proponents of design in nature theories are very happy with the essay. On the other hand “some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.”

“‘Unguided,’ ‘unplanned.’ ‘random’ and ‘natural’ are all adjectives that biologists might apply to the process of evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown and a Catholic. But even so, he said, evolution ‘can fall within God’s providential plan.’ He added: ‘Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this.’” There is a lot of conceptual confusion here. Just what kind of “providential plan” is “unguided,” “un-planned,” and “random?” What is clear is that all this talk about seeing design in nature is a lot of pre-scientific twaddle left over from the Middle Ages.

In closing, we should note that it is not just Darwin with which the church has difficulty. The church still can’t make up its mind about Galileo. Here is a quote from Benedict XVI when he was still just Cardinal Ratzinger and the head of the Inquisition: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” And the Sun goes around the Earth.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at