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Review of Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa

by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan
(original date: August 2008)

This is one of a number of informal pieces originally produced for the CMRS Facebook page.
It is intended to provoke discussion and further investigation rather than as a formal scholarly submission.

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Another book I've finally made it to in my summer reading (I did mention that I was catching up, right? — welcome to the 90s!) is Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa (updated paperback edition: 1997), a product of the 1990s culture wars that pitted a traditional classicist against the so-called Afrocentrists. The uproar seems to have died down a little bit of late, and this particular issue was never so visceral here in the Canadian prairies as it was in the States, but the book is still worth looking at, both for its account of the role an often imaginary Egypt has played in Western thought since the classical period, and for the more abstract issues it raises — particularly the role of freedom of expression in the academy, and the degree to which such freedom might be limited in the case of scholars when they present themselves as professional academics and, in particular, as representatives of academic institutions. More generally: to what degree do the purportedly admirable purposes that inspire a particular scholar's claims trump the need for him/her to justify those claims by traditional scholarly methods of proof and argument?

The issues touched on in the book are still so sensitive that it's difficult to know how to address them for fear of causing offense in one quarter or another, but I'll do my best, in the interest of introducing some of this material to the non-classicists among the crowd and pointing to various items here that might be of interest. Please bear with me if the following summary fails to do complete justice to the book or the issues to which Lefkowitz points. (As you might guess, my training is going to make me sympathetic to much of Lefkowitz's case, simply because it's grounded in propositions that I've been taught to take as articles of faith.)

At the core of the debate is the question of the degree to which Egyptian culture influenced the culture of ancient Greece and, through it, all of later Western civilization. It has long been recognized that Egypt had an impact on, for example, early Greek art and architecture, and that the Greeks, in a general way, admired the Egyptians for the antiquity and grandeur of their civilization. It has also long been recognized that throughout antiquity there was a good deal of cultural borrowing and "cross-pollination" among the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean (Sumerian, Semitic, Egyptian, Hittite, etc., as well as (later) Greek and Roman): one has only to consider, e.g., the various divine succession myths, or accounts of early relations between gods and humans, to see how pervasive and complex these cultural inter-borrowings must have been. But the more extreme representatives of the so-called Afrocentrist school, particularly from the 1950s on, went a step farther and argued that the classical Greeks had in effect stolen the bulk of their cultural and intellectual traditions from Egypt, and that there has been a deliberate attempt on the part of modern Western scholars to ignore this fact and even to conceal it. It is these two charges that Lefkowitz sets out to refute, particularly as regards the Greek philosophical tradition. (The initial impetus for Lefkowitz was the claim that Aristotle had in fact stolen his philosophical system from the Library at Alexandria, which allegedly presented him with the sum of the Egyptian/African cultural heritage. When Lefkowitz rose at a public lecture to indicate that Aristotle was in fact dead long before the Library was founded, and that there is little evidence for a significant body of Egyptian texts in the Library's holdings, she was accused of attempting to protect her turf as a classicist and of perpetuating the Eurocentric bias that has dominated institutions of higher learning in the West from their inception. [Actually, I'm not certain that she made the second point — regarding the Library's holdings — at that initial debate, but it is presented in the book.]) Not Out of Africa concerns itself mainly with the past generation of Afrocentrists (1950s-early 1980s: George G.M. James, Cheikh Anta Diop, Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan); the first two volumes of Martin Bernal's Black Athena (3 volumes: 1987; 1991; 2006) are addressed in a separate work edited by Lefkowitz and G.M. Rogers, Black Athena Revisited.)

The book itself is generally a good read, but it does sometimes have rather a rushed feel to it; many pages are rather dense, as Lefkowitz challenges this or that specific claim and contests the significance of various specific assertions in the ancient sources. And a full discussion of a number of the more complex scholarly issues (e.g., the question of what the term "black" means in the context of ancient Egypt) is left to the separate volume, Black Athena Revisited. But the topics covered are of interest — e.g.,

Other tidbits include such things as the early misunderstanding of the significance of the Hermetic texts (associated with Hermes Trismegistus), which were taken to date to the pre-classical period: it was not until 1614 that the lateness of these texts was demonstrated.

For those with little knowledge of Egyptian language, archeology, religious practices, etc., much of the discussion is difficult to assess. But it is easy to see how anyone could have a difficult time evaluating the various claims about Egypt that are made in our Greco-Roman sources, especially those from the Roman period. Detecting historical fact amid the later philosophical and religious syncretism, and making sense of the curious blend of history, biographical fiction, philosophical pseudo-myth (à la Plato), fantasy, polemic etc. that informs so many of the later sources would be a stretch for anyone: it's easy to see that the scholarly divide that has arisen in the last few years does not sort itself out solely along racial/ethnic/disciplinary-turf lines but in part has to do with the classicists' tradition of dealing with the different sources involved, which leads them to evaluate those sources differently than non-classicists might.

But to me the most intriguing parts of this book lay elsewhere: the general impression of the veneration felt for Egypt among the ancient Greeks and Romans, even though they knew relatively little about the culture; the general ignorance — well into the modern period — of the nature of hieroglyphs and the Egyptian writing system (here the pseudonymous author Horapollo is particularly interesting); above all, the general ignorance about Egyptian culture prior to Napoleon's expedition to Egypt and the decipherment of the Rosetta stone (early 19th century:

Prior to this breakthrough, Western attitudes about ancient Egypt were shaped mainly by a small selection of generally problematic ancient texts (Herodotus, Diodorus, Strabo, Apuleius, and the (still misconstrued) Hermetica) and an 18th-century work of historical fiction: Sethos, a History or Biography, based on Unpublished Memoirs from Ancient Egypt, by Abbé Jean Terrasson (1731: English versions (1732) [Note: you might have to try this link more than once in order to get it to work.]).

Terrasson's novel, which was incredibly popular and had an immense effect on early Masonic myth and ritual, offers a portrait of a cultured 13th-century BC Egypt that fosters libraries, universities, zoos, schools of medicine, etc., as well as a complex mystery religion into which (like Apuleius' Lucius) the hero is initiated. It is this utterly fictional image of Egypt, Lefkowitz contends, that still informs much of the Afrocentrist position, even though we now have a good understanding of native Egyptian culture, their specific religious views, etc. The irony, as Lefkowitz points out, is that the Afrocentrists risk denying the ancient Egyptians the opportunity to be studied in their own right and instead perpetuate the myth of an idealized Egypt that is, Lefkowitz argues, Greco-Roman to the core.

The other issues to which Lefkowitz points — regarding academic freedom of speech and so forth — are much more contentious and would require going fairly deeply into specifics. You might see, e.g., N. Glazer, "Levin, Jeffries, and the Fate of Academic Autonomy" for a specific example (although one that is firmly entrenched in the principles of the US legal/constitutional system). [Note: you need to scroll to the bottom of this lengthy page to find the article.]

Because Lefkowitz is dealing with highly contentious issues that command her immediate attention, there are some lines of inquiry that she has no time to pursue. As someone interested in the ancient novel and ancient fiction, I was particularly intrigued by Terrasson's novel. I could easily see constructing a course that combined this work with such things as Plato's various myths, Xenophon's Cyropaedia, various ancient "biographies" and pseudo-historical collections of epistles, Dictys of Crete, Dares the Phrygian, various works of Lucian, and some of the ancient novels. (I'm sure my colleagues in the medieval and renaissance periods would suggest still other works.) It was this aspect of the book that attracted me much more than the controversies with which it is more immediately engaged.

Relevant Links

A general (favorable) review of Lefkowitz:

Bernal's review of Lefkowitz:

Lefkowitz's response to Bernal:

Some other relevant texts:

More problematic:

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