Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian wisdom: Plato’s Socrates on the discoveries of the Egyptian god Thoth (fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 9, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=13549.
Ancient author: Plato, Phaidros 274b-275e (link) and Philebos 17e-18b (link).
Comments: One of the clearer signs of competition among peoples in antiquity was the claim that important inventions or discoveries came to light among one’s own people (whether involving native deities, kings, or other figures) and disseminated to other places from there. So, for instance, Bel-re’ushu tells a tale about Babylonians being the first to receive from the divine figure Oannes all important components of civilization, including astrology and written language itself (link). The Judean author Artapanos retells the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses in a way that claims they introduced (in Egypt) land measurement, astrology, philosophy, and hieroglyphics (link). Manetho’s work on Egyptian Matters only survives in fragments, so it is unclear whether he had a similar elaborated story about the god Thoth giving letters to Egyptians, but Manetho certainly does suggest Egyptian kings made subsequent advances to civilization (link). Even the inscriptions set up by one Isidoros in an Egyptian temple in the lake district participate in this discourse (link coming soon).
Sometimes Greeks or Romans might repeat or adapt such foreign stories in a way that affirmed or refuted the idea of “barbarian” wisdom (as many posts in categories four and five show). Pliny the Elder ruminates about the debate on the alphabet itself (link). In the two passages from Plato’s dialogue gathered here, Plato has the character of Socrates repeat a supposedly Egyptian story that the deity Thoth (Theuth in Plato) invented and introduced the alphabet (using the story for other philosophical purposes that will not occupy us). Whether or not this is truly an adaptation of an originally Egyptian tale or solely an imaginative Greek improvisation (hinted at in Socrates own musing about whether it is true) is impossible to know, but what this does show is that Greek intellectuals in the fourth century such as Plato were aware of this repeated pattern in intercultural encounters.
You can read more about this element in ethnic relations in Harland’s articles:
- “Ethnic Relations and Circulating Legends in the Villages of Egypt” (2021)
- “Subject Peoples and Civilizational Priority” (2023, preprint, forthcoming).
Source of translations: H. N. Fowler, W.R.M. Lamb, R.G. Bury, and P. Shorey, Plato, 12 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain (Fowler passed away in 1955, Lamb in 1961, Bury in 1951, Shorey in 1934), adapted by Harland.
- Socrates: But we have still to speak about whether or not writing is appropriate, how it should be done and what makes it good or improper, don’t we?
- Phaidros (or: Phaedrus): Yes.
- Socrates: Do you know how you can act or speak about rhetoric so as to please god best?
- Phaidros: Not at all. Do you?
- Socrates: I can tell you something I have heard about our predecessors. However, only they know whether it is true. But if we ourselves should find it out, should we care any more about human opinions?
- Phaidros: A ridiculous question! But tell me what you say you have heard.
- Socrates: I heard that at Naukratis 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 [or: Thoth]. He invented numbers, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, games using draughts and dice, and, most importantly, writing (or: letters). Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamous. He 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 the skills (technai) he invented, saying that they should be shared with the other Egyptians. Now Thamous asked what use there was in each skill. As Theuth enumerated their uses, Thamous expressed praise if he thought he was right or blame if he thought he was wrong. The story goes that Thamous said many things to Theuth praising or blaming the various skills, which it would take too long to repeat. However, when they came to writing, Theuth said: “This invention, O king, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories because it is a potion for memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”But Thamous replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to create skills, but the ability to judge whether they are useful or harmful to their users belongs to another person. Now you, who are the originator of writing, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power that is the opposite what they really possess. For this invention will cause forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it because they will not make use of 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 a potion not of memory, but of reminding. You also 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.
- Phaidros: Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.
- Socrates: They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth; but to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not consider only whether his words are true or not.
- Phaidros: Your rebuke is just. I think the Theban is right in what he says about writing.
- Socrates: So anyone who thinks that he has left behind him any skill in writing, and anyone who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.
- Phaidros: Very true.
- Socrates: Writing, Phaidros, has this strange quality, and is very like painting. For creatures depicted in painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words. You might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, after it is written, is casually used by those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak. When poorly treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it because it has no power to protect or help itself.
- Phaidros: You are quite right about that, too. . . [omitted remainder of dialogue].
- Socrates: Surely my meaning, Protarchos, is made clear in the letters of the alphabet, which you were taught as a child. So learn the meaning from them.
- Protarchos (or: Protarchus): How?
- Socrates: Sound, which passes out through the mouth of each and all of us, is one, and yet again it is infinite in number.
- Protarchos: Yes, that’s true.
- Socrates: And no one is any wiser than the other merely by knowing that it is infinite or that it is one. But knowledge of the number and nature of sounds makes us a grammarian.
- Protarchos: Very true.
- Socrates: And it is this same knowledge which makes a musician. . . . [omitted further discussion of the knowledge of the parts of music versus the skill of the musician as a whole].
- Protarchos: I think, Philebos, that what Socrates has said is excellent.
- Philebos (or: Philebus): So do I. It is excellent in itself, but why has he said it now to us, and what is the point of this?
- Socrates: Protarchos, that is a very proper question which Philebos has asked us.
- Protarchos: Certainly it is, so please answer it.
- Socrates: I will, when I have said a little more on just this subject. For if a person begins with some unity or other, he must, as I was saying, not turn immediately to infinity, but to some definite number; now just so, conversely, when he has to take the infinite first, he must not turn immediately to the one. Instead, he must think of some number which possesses in each case some plurality, and must end by passing from all to one. Let’s go back to the letters of the alphabet to illustrate this.
- Protarchos: How?
- Socrates: When someone, whether god or godlike man – there is an Egyptian story that his name was Theuth [i.e. Thoth] – observed that sound was infinite, he was the first to notice that the vowel sounds in that infinity were not one, but many. Again he was the first to notice that there were other elements which were not vowels but did have a quality of sound, and that these also had a definite number. He also distinguished a third kind of letters which we now call soundless. Then he divided the soundless ones until he distinguished each individual one, and he treated the vowels and semi-vowels in the same way, until he knew the number of them and gave to each and every one the name of “element.” 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 united the elements, he assigned to them all together the “skill of letters.”
- Philebos: I understand that more clearly now than I did with the earlier statement, Protarchos, so far as the reciprocal relations of the one and the many are concerned. Yet I still feel the same lack as a little while ago.
- Socrates: Do you mean, Philebos, that you do not see what this has to do with the question?
- Philebos: Yes. That is what Protarchos and I have been trying to discover for a long time.
- Socrates: Really, have you been trying, as you say, for a long time to discover it, when it was close to you all the while?
- Philebos: How is that?
- Socrates: Was not our discussion from the beginning about wisdom and pleasure and which of them is preferable?
- Philebos: Yes, of course.
- Socrates: And surely we say that each of them is one.
- Philebos: Certainly. . . [omitted remainder of the dialogue on pleasure and the good].