Written by Graham on Thursday 6th April 2023.
This page seeks to collect all of Plato's references to Egypt and its ancient customs from outside the Atlantis dialogues - the Timaeus and Critias - and establish in a very cursory manner the philosopher's feelings about the Nile kingdom. The snippets are divided into notices positive or negative (from Plato's point of view), with special sections on the Theuth myth (concerning the invention of writing - something of a double-edged sword for Plato) and incidental references.
Statesman [290de]: Egyptian kings must be priests.
At last, then, I think we are, as it were, on the track of our quarry. For the bearing of the priests and prophets is indeed full of pride, and they win high esteem because of the magnitude of their undertakings. In Egypt, for example, no king can rule without being a priest, and if he happens to have forced his way to the throne from some other class, he must enroll himself in the class of priests afterwards; and among the Greeks, too, you would find that in many states the performance of the greatest public sacrifices is a duty imposed upon the highest officials. Yes, among you Athenians this is very plain, for they say the holiest and most national of the ancient sacrifices are performed by the man whom the lot has chosen to be the King.
Laws [2.656d-657b]: Egyptian music unchanged over ten millennia!
Athenian: But at present this licence is allowed in practically every State, with the exception of Egypt.
Clinias: How, then, does the law stand in Egypt?
Athenian: It is marvellous, even in the telling. It appears that long ago they determined on the rule of which we are now speaking, that the youth of a State should practise in their rehearsals postures and tunes that are good: these they prescribed in detail and posted up in the temples, and outside this official list it was, and still is, forbidden to painters and all other producers of postures and representations to introduce any innovation or invention, whether in such productions or in any other branch of music, over and above the traditional forms. And if you look there, you will find that the things depicted or graven there 10,000 years ago (I mean what I say, not loosely but literally 10,000) are no whit better or worse than the productions of today, but wrought with the same art.
Clinias: A marvellous state of affairs!
Athenian: Say rather, worthy in the highest degree of a statesman and a legislator. Still, you would find in Egypt other things that are bad. This, however, is a true and noteworthy fact, that as regards music it has proved possible for the tunes which possess a natural correctness to be enacted by law and permanently consecrated. To effect this would be the task of a god or a godlike man, — even as in Egypt they say that the tunes preserved throughout all this lapse of time are the compositions of Isis. Hence, as I said, if one could by any means succeed in grasping no principle of correctness in tune, one might then with confidence reduce them to legal form and prescription, since the tendency of pleasure and pain to indulge constantly in fresh music has, after all, no very great power to corrupt choric forms that are consecrated, by merely scoffing at them as antiquated. In Egypt, at any rate, it seems to have had no such power of corrupting,—in fact, quite the reverse.
Laws [2.660b]: Clinias references the unchanging Egyptian arts.
In Heaven's name, Stranger, do you believe that that is the way poetry is composed nowadays in other States? So far as my own observation goes, I know of no practices such as you describe except in my own country and in Lacedaemon; but I do know that novelties are always being introduced in dancing and all other forms of music, which changes due not to the laws, but to disorderly tastes and these are so far from being constantly uniform and stable — like the Egyptian ones you describe — that they are never for a moment uniform.
Laws [7.799ab]: Egyptian arts again.
Athenian: To attain this end, can any one of us suggest a better device than that of the Egyptians?
Clinias: What device is that?
Athenian: The device of consecrating all dancing and all music. First, they should ordain the sacred feasts, by drawing up an annual list of what feasts are to be held, and on what dates, and in honor of what special gods and children of gods and daemons; and they should ordain next what hymn is to be sung at each of the religious sacrifices, and with what dances each such sacrifice is to be graced; these ordinances should be first made by certain persons, and then the whole body of citizens, after making a public sacrifice to the Fates and all the other deities, should consecrate with a libation these ordinances—dedicating each of the hymns to their respective gods and divinities. And if any man proposes other hymns or dances besides these for any god, the priests and priestesses will be acting in accordance with both religion and law when, with the help of the Law-wardens, they expel him from the feast; and if the man resists expulsion, he shall be liable, so long as he lives, to be prosecuted for impiety by anyone who chooses.
Laws [7.819a]: Egyptian education approved.
One ought to declare, then, that the freeborn children should learn as much of these subjects as the innumerable crowd of children in Egypt learn along with their letters.
Euthydemus [288b]: a negative reference to the Homeric figure of Proteus. He is compared to the "visitors" in the dialogue, sophists.
Only they are unwilling to give us a display of it in real earnest, but treat us to jugglers' tricks in the style of Proteus the Egyptian adept.
Menexenus [245cd]: Athenians extolled as being pure Greeks, without barbarian admixture from the likes of Cadmus and Aegyptus.
So firmly-rooted and so sound is the noble and liberal character of our city, and endowed also [245d] with such a hatred of the barbarian, because we are pure-blooded Greeks, unadulterated by barbarian stock. For there cohabit with us none of the type of Pelops, or Cadmus, or Aegyptus or Danaus, and numerous others of the kind, who are naturally barbarians though nominally Greeks; but our people are pure Greeks and not a barbarian blend; whence it comes that our city is imbued with a whole-hearted hatred of alien races. None the less, we were isolated once again because of our refusal to perform the dishonorable and unholy act of surrendering Greeks to barbarians.
Republic [4.435e-436a]: the Egyptian temperament marked by a love of money, not knowledge.
"Is it not, then," said I, "impossible for us to avoid admitting this much, that the same forms and qualities are to be found in each one of us that are in the state? They could not get there from any other source. It would be absurd to suppose that the element of high spirit was not derived in states from the private citizens who are reputed to have this quality as the populations of the Thracian and Scythian lands and generally of northern regions; or the quality of love of knowledge, which would chiefly be attributed to the region where we dwell, or the love of money which we might say is not least likely to be found in Phoenicians and the population of Egypt." "One certainly might," he replied. "This is the fact then," said I, "and there is no difficulty in recognizing it." "Certainly not."
Laws [2.657a]: there are many bad things in Egyptian culture:
Still, you would find in Egypt other things that are bad.
Laws [5.747bc]: Egyptian education produces "sharpers," not sages, men of avarice rather than knowledge.
All these subjects of education will prove fair and fitting, provided that you can remove illiberality and avarice, by means of other laws and institutions, from the souls of those who are to acquire them adequately and to profit by them; otherwise you will find that you have unwittingly turned out a "sharper," as we call him, instead of a sage: examples of this we can see today in the effect produced on the Egyptians and Phoenicians and many other nations by the illiberal character of their property, and their other institutions,—whether these results are due to their having had a bad lawgiver, or to some adverse fortune that befell them, or else, possibly, to some natural disadvantage.
Phaedrus [274c-275b]: myth of Theuth, and how the invention of writing ruined memory.
Socrates: I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, "This invention, O king," said Theuth, "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered." But Thamus replied, "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.
Phaedrus: Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.
Philebus [18bd]: invention of grammar with mention of the myth of Theuth.
When some one, whether god or godlike man, — there is an Egyptian story that his name was Theuth — observed that sound was infinite, he was the first to notice that the vowel sounds in that infinity were not one, but many, and again that there were other elements which were not vowels but did have a sonant quality, and that these also had a definite number; and he distinguished a third kind of letters which we now call mutes. Then he divided the mutes until he distinguished each individual one, and he treated the vowels and semivowels in the same way, until he knew the number of them and gave to each and all the name of letters. Perceiving, however, that none of us could learn any one of them alone by itself without learning them all, and considering that this was a common bond which made them in a way all one, he assigned to them all a single science and called it grammar.
Gorgias [482ab]: an invocation of the Dog (i.e. Sirius), "god of the Egyptians."
Consider yourself therefore obliged to hear the same sort of remark from me now, and do not be surprised at my saying it, but make my darling, philosophy, stop talking thus. For she, my dear friend, speaks what you hear me saying now, and she is far less fickle to me than any other favorite: that son of Cleinias is ever changing his views, but philosophy always holds the same, and it is her speech that now surprises you, and she spoke it in your own presence. So you must either refute her, as I said just now, by proving that wrongdoing and impunity for wrong done is not the uttermost evil; or, if you leave that unproved, by the Dog, god of the Egyptians, there will be no agreement between you, Callicles, and Callicles, but you will be in discord with him all your life.
Gorgias [511ce]: discussing pilots.
Yet, you know, that too saves men from death, when they have got into a plight of the kind in which that accomplishment is needed. But if this seems to you too small a thing, I will tell you of a more important one, the art of piloting, which saves not only our lives but also our bodies and our goods from extreme perils, as rhetoric does. And at the same time it is plain-fashioned and orderly, not giving itself grand airs in a pretence of performing some transcendent feat; but in return for performing the same as the forensic art — bringing one safely over, it may be, from Aegina — it charges a fee, I believe, of two obols; or if it be from Egypt or the Pontus, at the very most—for this great service of bringing safe home, as I said just now, oneself and children and goods and womenfolk — on landing charges a couple of drachmae; the actual possessor of the art, after performing all this, goes ashore and strolls on the quay by his vessel's side, with an unobtrusive demeanor.
Menexenus [239c-240a]: Persian conquest.
And of the deeds whereof I speak the first were these: The Persians were in command of Asia, and were enslaving Europe, when they came in contact with the children of this land, our own parents, of whom it is right and proper that we should make mention first and celebrate their valor. But if we are to celebrate it fitly, in order to visualize it we must place ourselves, in thought, at that epoch when the whole of Asia was already in bondage to the third of the Persian kings. Cyrus, the first of these kings, had by his own spirited action set free his fellow-countrymen, the Persians, and not only enslaved the Medes, their masters, but also gained command of the rest of Asia, as far as to Egypt. His son ruled over Egypt and as much of Libya as he could traverse; while the third king, Darius, extended his empire by land as far as to the Scythians, and by his navy controlled the sea and the islands, so that none so much as thought of disputing his sway.
Menexenus [241de]: discussing the Greeks' wars against Persia.
These were the men who fought the sea-fight at the Eurymedon, the men who served in the expedition against Cyprus, the men who voyaged to Egypt and to many another quarter, — men whom we ought to hold in memory and render them thanks, seeing that they put the king in fear and caused him to give his whole mind to his own safety in place of plotting the destruction of Greece.
Phaedo [80c]: Egyptian mummification customs.
For when the body is shrunk and embalmed, as is done in Egypt, it remains almost entire for an incalculable time.
*Epinomis [986e-987a]: reference to southern climes.
So let us speak of them as powers of the sun and of Lucifer, and of a third, such that we cannot express it in a name because it is not known; and he is to blame for this who first beheld these things, since he was a foreigner: for it was an ancient custom that nurtured those who first remarked these things owing to the fairness of the summer season which Egypt and Syria amply possess, so that they constantly beheld the whole mass, one may say, of stars revealed to their sight, since they had got then, continually without obstruction of clouds and rains in the sky; whence they have emerged in every direction and in ours likewise, after having been examined for thousands of years, nay, for an infinite time.