Thursday, 3 May 2018

Egypt in the Shadows




An interesting response from a doctoral student (Benjamin Murphy, studying philosophical theology, Oxford) on the question of whether or not the Greeks were the first to practice philosophy, or whether philosophy was first practiced by the Ancient Egyptians, and also in ancient India. The response, which appeared originally on the Quora site,  reveals a great deal about the presumptions western scholars bring to bear on such questions.

He begins by referencing Frederick Copleston on the question. Frederick Copleston wrote a voluminous History of Philosophy, the first volume of which was published in 1944. As he says, it was one of the most widely used histories of philosophy for decades. There was, and still is, nothing quite as comprehensive available to scholars, though the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is perhaps its nearest rival. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is short in comparison, and in some cases covers important subjects rather crudely, and with much important detail missing. All three are focussed on Western philosophy, and aren’t much concerned to establish connections with bodies of thought elsewhere.

Murphy tells us that Copleston ‘…considers the claim that Greek philosophy was derived from Egyptian, Indian or Chinese Philosophy and rejects it.’ He gives some reasons for Copleston’s rejection of the notion that Greek philosophy owed something to other cultures:

Copleston explains that the idea that Greek philosophy was derived from Egyptian philosophy originated in Alexandria during the Hellenistic era. (As I’m sure you know, Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle taught Alexander the Great whose conquests inaugurated the Hellenistic era, and who founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt). As Copleston also points out, Philo, a Jewish writer who lived in Alexandria during the Hellenistic era claimed philosophy was a Jewish invention, because Moses was a philosopher, and the Torah is a work of philosophy. In other words, when the prestige of Greek philosophy was established, people from other cultures liked to claim “Of course, we invented that first”, and they could point to old writings and say “See, that is philosophy.” But of course, the Torah isn’t philosophy. 
The argument that Greek philosophy was a phenomenon which owed something to Egyptian philosophy, and perhaps Moses, is an old one, and it is true that there was a great deal of competitiveness between cultures during the Hellenistic era. The Babylonian priest of Bel, Berossus, wrote an extensive work, the Babyloniaka, in order to show the antiquity of Babylonian civilisation by means of a kinglist stretching back many thousands of years, and quoted stories to illustrate the sophistication of that civilisation.

Among these stories we find a description of the Babylonian myth of the Creation, and an account of how man came to acquire useful knowledge from a Divine sage (apkallum). Unfortunately the Babyloniaka has been lost for at least fifteen hundred years, possibly more, but the Christian scholar Eusebius made extensive excerpts from it. The general accuracy of the account of Eusebius is confirmed by the fact that we now have access to original Mesopotamian cuneiform texts which describe the Babylonian creation.

The Egyptian scholar Manetho also produced a chronology of Ancient Egypt during the same period, which covered a notional timescale of 432 thousand years, and the thirty dynasties he describes, which (apart from the earliest, which are regarded as entirely mythical) now form the basis of the chronology used by Egyptologists. Again, Manetho’s chronology has come down to us largely via the pages of Eusebius. This list of dynasties, at least in its later phases, also bears some relationship to the chronology as represented in papyri and inscriptions found in Egypt. The Persian invaders in the 5th century (including Darius) are represented as pharaohs by Manetho, and also by the Egyptian records which survive.

In addition, Plato tells us in the Timaeus that his ancestor Solon visited Egypt, and spoke with Egyptian priests, who told him that the Greeks were very young, and did not possess knowledge ‘hoary with age’. Herodotus mentions that the names of some of the Greek gods came from Egypt. The philosopher Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato, refers explicitly to Egyptian philosophy in his Busiris. Pythagoras travelled around the Levant and the Ancient Near East collecting knowledge from priests and philosophers, including those in Egypt. Plato himself in his Protagoras describes philosophy as a very old practice, and tell us that it was practised in Sparta and in Crete - both territories which received an influx of people from north Africa and Egypt in the middle to late 2nd millennium BCE.  

But intense cultural competitiveness is insufficient to explain the persistence of the idea that the Egyptians were philosophers. Copleston had not studied Egypt, and pulled this idea out of the air. 

Many Greek words have plausible etymologies from Egyptian. Some of the concepts used by Aristotle in his philosophical writing were known to Egyptians nine hundred years before his time, such as the idea of completion (it is connected with the idea of birth in Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Aten, which dates to the fourteenth century BCE).

As for the claim that the Jews practiced philosophy, this cannot be written off as an empty claim by Philo Judaeus. There is abundant evidence for the existence of philosophical thought among the Jews in the books of the Old Testament.  Yahweh is described as ‘the first and last, and beside me there is no God’. His name (minus the vowels) is a variant of the verb ‘to be’, which suggests that his isolation is due to the fact that he was understood to be Being itself. In the third chapter of Malachi, Yahweh says ‘I do not change’, which is a characterisation of the nature of Being which would have been familiar to philosophers and sages around the Mediterranean and the Near East. It is an explicitly philosophical description of Being itself, since Being cannot be what it is, if it is subject to change.

What we don’t have from Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hebrew Kingdoms is recorded philosophical discussions which closely parallel the writings of Greek philosophers. There is nothing strange in that. What is strange is that we have philosophical arguments from Greece, since both Plato and Aristotle distinguished two forms of teaching: exoteric and esoteric. The exoteric teaching was suitable for anyone to hear, but the esoteric teaching was of a different nature, and was restricted to those who were capable of understanding it. Which means that they were discussing matters relating to the gods, and to divine things. So in the versions of these discussions which were circulated, there is often elision, obfuscation, misdirection, and alternative terminology. Plato does not refer to the ‘one true thing’ as god, but as ‘the good’, for this reason. Arguments which are not resolved in the course of discussion, are deemed to ‘necessarily’ be the case, for otherwise communion with the gods would be impossible, or motion would be impossible, etc. The genealogy of the gods is not discussed, as too complicated a matter, and those who claim to have divine ancestors (says Plato), should know the truth of the matter better than anyone else.

In the 2nd century CE, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria wrote:

Philosophy, then, with all its blessed advantages to man, flourished long ages ago among the barbarians, diffusing its light among the gentiles, and eventually penetrated into Greece. Its hierophants were the prophets among the Egyptians, the Chaldeans among the Assyrians, the Druids among the Galatians, the Sramanas of the Bactrians, and the philosophers of the Celts, the Magi among the Persians….  and among the Indians the Gymnosophists, and other philosophers of barbarous nations.
— Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.15.71 (ed. Colon. 1688 p. 305, A, B).
Alexander himself consulted the Gymosophists when he arrived in India, and we have what purports to be some of their conversation together in Plutarch’s life of Alexander. The idea that only the Greeks practiced philosophy was not what he had been taught by Aristotle. Aristotle argued that philosophy began when there existed a leisured class with time to think and conjecture (by which he probably had in mind the fully professional class of priests in Egypt). Diogenes Laertius also mentioned that there was a school of thought in existence which argued that philosophy originated outside Greece. 

One of the comments by Caleb Beers following the article,  articulates the important question:
…. define “philosophy.” Are alchemical texts philosophy? Is divination (an attempt at?) philosophy? Is a discourse on mystical states philosophy? Is mythology philosophy? You can argue that there are philosophical dimensions to all of these things. The Bhagavad Ghita certainly waxes philosophical, and some sections are oddly reminiscent of Parmenides (or Parmenides is reminiscent of the Ghita).
Is there nothing philosophical in this passage from a hymn to the Sun-God from Egypt?
Grant that I may come into the everlasting heaven and the mountain where thy favoured ones dwell. Let me join myself to those who are holy and perfect in the divine Underworld, and let me appear with them to behold thy beauties at eventide. I lift my hands to thee in adoration when thou the living one dost sets. Thou art the Eternal Creator and art adored at thy setting in heaven.
[From the Papyrus of Ani *1]
It is a passage which expresses a desire for union with the divine, the creator of the world. Union with what is holy and perfect. And expresses adoration for what is beautiful in heaven when it (the living one) meets the limit of what it is. Is that not something like Plsto's conception when he talks about the philosopher ascending to the Good via the Forms?

Murphy in fact redefines what he will accept as philosophy, in a manner reminiscent of James Frazer: he embraces what is practical and useful. Which is not how philosophy was understood in antiquity. Ironically the possibility of an Egyptian contribution to the development of philosophy is sometimes dismissed by modern scholars because they consider that Egyptians dealt in concrete practicalities and useful things, and were simply not capable of abstract thought. 

He says:
...Greece is the starting point for what would become a strictly logical philosophy based on reasoning and empiricism. There’s some stuff about gods and afterlives in Plato, of course, but by the time you get to Aristotle, you find elaborate theories on the external world using what is not yet a rigorously scientific method but still draws on observation of the world around us to draw general conceptual conclusions using reasoning.

He concludes
:
...Greece is credited - rightfully, in my opinion - with giving birth to the philosophy that would later become science. That, I think, is what ultimately makes us defer to the Greeks.



1. The Papyrus of Ani is a papyrus manuscript created c. 1250 BCE.  Egyptians compiled an individualized book for certain people upon their death, called the 'Book of Going Forth by Day', containing declarations and spells to help the deceased in the afterlife. The Papyrus of Ani is the manuscript compiled for the Theban scribe Ani.

This papyrus was (shockingly) stolen from an Egyptian government storeroom in 1888 by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, which theft he describes in By Nile and Tigris, for the collection of the British Museum. Before he shipped the manuscript to England, Budge cut the seventy-eight foot scroll into thirty-seven sheets of nearly equal size, damaging its integrity.


Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Edithorial: Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant

The Edithorial: Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant: It’s been week of the unaccountable autocrats. I gave my second lecture as Gresham Visiting Professor in Classics, on Sappho, viewable ...

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Reviewer Notes for 'The Sacred History of Being' (2015)




Notes on Part One:

The Preface gives an outline overview of the book and its parts, and something of the context. One way to look at the book and its subject is as an extension of A.O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, which examined the idea of Plenitude from the Classical Greeks onwards. SHB provides an extra nine hundred years to the history of the idea of Being, taking it back into the 14th century B.C.E.

The first chapter explains something of the authors background, and how he came to approach the past from the point of view of the history of the idea of Being, and came to study ancient languages and history in London.

Historians of philosophy treat the 5th century B.C.E. as the proper start of sophisticated philosophical thought, as we now understand it, with figures such as Parmenides, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle as the principal figures. It comes as shock to find Plato recounting the immense age of philosophy in his dialogue The Protagoras. This is the subject of ‘How Old is Philosophy?’, and ‘The Arrival of the Idea of Being’

‘The West and the Other’ explores the way western modes of thought are inverted from those in the east.  ‘The Golem’ is about how it is possible for things present in bodies of evidence to remain invisible. When the SHB project began, I expected it to be difficult to find supporting evidence. In fact it is present in vast quantities both in ancient texts and in the archaeology. But two centuries of scholarship have glided past this evidence, as if it is not there.

‘Change and what is Permanent’ looks at some of ideas which are present, but which are not much studied. These are abstractions, which are normally associated with the philosophical explosion of the 5th century B.C.E. in Greece, but are major components in thought from earlier periods. The human capacity to deal in abstractions is, as a corollary of the notion of cultural progress, assumed to have developed first in Greece. This a poor frame in which to try to understand ancient thought.

The discussion which occupies the rest of Part One of SHB concerns the Ontological Argument, which has been the mainstay of the understanding of the nature and reality of God in the west, since Anselm. The point of this extended discussion of this argument is to show that it isn’t really about the nature of the divine at all, but about the properties and attributes of the divine. In other words, it is loosely argued, and assumes that the frame of time, space and the underlying reality of the world (whatever that might be), is something which exists apart from the nature of God.

This isn’t how divinity was understood or discussed in the ancient world. To argue in this way puts an insuperable barrier between ourselves and the possibility of an understanding of the divine in antiquity, and makes it impossible for us to understand the relationship between religion and philosophy.

Notes on Part Two:

Part two explores ancient Greek ideas about the Divine, and the arguments which were used. It looks in detail at argumentation which appears in Plato’s work, and also at ideas which are reputed to have been part of the doctrines of Pythagoras.

‘The Sweet Song of Swans’ examines the nature and history of the scholarship around the work of Plato, which is contained mainly within the period of the past two centuries. The Platonic corpus is problematic. It appears to be inconsistent. Plato was still writing at 80 years of age, and so it seems possible that Plato changed his views over time, and this is reflected in half a lifetime of writing. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Plato’s Academy was a research institution, and so there is no reason to assume that his views changed during that half a lifetime. Those modern scholars who take this view have a problem however, since they have been unable to dig out the consistent doctrine (hoary with age) underpinning the weaving discourse of the dialogues.

The late neoPlatonic philosopher Olympiodorus gives us some clues as to the reasons for the form of Plato’s discourse. Further clues come from close analysis of some parts of Plato’s dialogues, particularly in the Timaeus and the Sophist.

Plato often refers to looking to the ‘one true thing’. That ‘’one true thing is Being itself, which he characterises as ‘The Good’. It never changes, it is entirely itself, and it is the goal of the philosopher to rise through the forms to the form of the good, and to return again, with knowledge of beneficial things.

J.G. Frazer once said that nothing useful could be said of the idea of Being. This was flying in the face of the whole of antiquity, whose civilizations articulated many aspects of the nature of Being as part of their understanding of the world. ‘Eleven attributes of Being’ discusses these, and why they had such importance in antiquity.

‘Pythagoras on Totality’ concerns a doctrine which was understood both in Mesopotamia and in ancient Greece. The idea can be traced back to the middle of the second millennium in Mesopotamia. Pythagoras is said to have learned of it in a lecture at Babylon after its fall to the Persians. Plato knew of it, and mentions the doctrine in his Timaeus. Once again, it is the idea of the ‘all’ being the location of all knowledge. It is the principal goal of the philosopher to access the totality of all reality. The distinction we customarily imagine to exist between philosophers and priests in antiquity, more or less breaks down at this point.

‘Solon in the court of Croesus’ is a re-examination of one of the most famous stories from antiquity, as told by Herodotus. There are details in the story which do not make sense without some analysis. In fact he is telling us about the importance of completion in understanding whether something is good or bad. He also connects the life of man with the cosmos using an unusual selection of numbers.
 
If we look closely at Homer’s Iliad (Book Eighteen in particular), we can see ideas in the text which are later reflected in Plato’s writing, which suggests strongly that Plato was writing about a body of ideas which was present in the late Bronze Age.

Notes on Part Three:

Ideas about water and ocean are held in common around the Mediterranean in the first and second millennia B.C.E. These ideas are associated with creation and the generation of life. They are also associated with the idea of abundance, which features in the Babylonian creation myth, performed each year by the King and the priests. The liturgy tells us about the intellectual frame of their world, as they understood it.  The physical world is a place of refuge, created by the gods to ensure the well-being of human life. The King is the earthly embodiment of the King of the gods, Marduk, whose character is described in detail. Each of his qualities enables him to maintain the good order of the world. Which tells us important things about how the gods were understood.

Israel suffered from the Assyrian addiction to war and cultural depredation. The Hebrews also spent some time in exile in Babylon, which gave them an insight into Mesopotamian thought about the Divine. Or was that insight garbled by the Hebrews, because they were engaged in a political and military struggle with their neighbours? ‘The Idea of Being in Israel’ considers this question.

The close connection between Hebrew and Assyrian thought was demonstrated by Simo Parpola in the early nineteen-nineties,  who showed that the Jewish Kabbalah is a close analogue of the Assyrian sacred tree. The Assyrian sacred tree is never described in detail in texts, though it is ubiquitous in Assyrian iconography. However if the principal Assyrian gods are placed within the structure of the Kabbalistic tree, with their associated god numbers, the fit is perfect. Formerly the Kabbalistic tree was understood to have been devised sometime in the early middle ages, possibly drawing on gnostic thought. If it is as old as the Assyrian sacred tree, then the history of intellectual thought as we have it is wrong.

The final part of the book concerns the installation of statues of the gods in both Assyria and Babylon. The revelation of close examination of the texts is that they are not talking about installing images of the gods, but the gods themselves. The rituals are described in detail, which gives an extraordinary insight into the minds of the scholars in the royal courts of Assyria and Babylon, and suggests we need to alter our perceptions of how divinity and the gods were understood in the first and second millennia B.C.E.

The postscript summarises how we might now understand the concept of Being, and the meaning of the representation of the gods, in both ancient Mesopotamia, and in ancient Greece.

Notes on the Appendices:

It is a strange fact that neither of the two premier universities in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, managed to get the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and the neoPlatonists into English translation before a private individual did, at the cusp of the two centuries. The work was done by a scholar of great gifts, Thomas Taylor, supported by a private benefactor. He chose to undertake the translation of Plato and Aristotle, and the neoPlatonists, because he did not recognise the notional division between them which has taken root in western academia since the Enlightenment. Post-Enlightenment scholars like to understand Plato outside of a theological context, which doesn’t at all square with the focus of his writing. Plato would have been utterly dismayed to be read in this way, but the neoPlatonists are clearly talking theology, and so they need to be kept apart for the purposes of an academic and untheological understanding of Plato. I’ve included a mildly redacted piece by Thomas Taylor, which explains why Plato’s discussion of the one and the ineffable is a theological matter of some importance.

The appendix on the story of the first sage in Babylonia is included to amplify what we know of the Babylonian understanding of how knowledge is acquired. It is acquired from Being itself, represented by the ocean and the ocean depths, because Being is the all, and all knowledge is necessarily already there. So a conversation with eternity, which is what the all is, is the principle source of knowledge of good and beneficial things.

The extract from the annals of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal on the exercise of kingship shows the importance attached to the idea of excellence in ancient Assyria, and that a concern with excellence was not an invention of the Greeks. Ashurbanipal lived in the seventh century B.C.E. Before now this significant passage had not been retranslated since the late nineteenth century. The Assyriologist Simo Parpola was kind enough to provide a new translation for me in 2005.


Thomas Yaeger, April 10, 2018.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Before Anthropology




[This is a short chapter from my forthcoming book, The Origins of Transcendentalism in Ancient Religion]

***

Much of the discussion of ancient religion is from an anthropological perspective, so it makes sense to look first at the development of anthropological writing. The first chapter of Eriksen and Nielsens, A History of Anthropology (2001) gives a general account of what they call ‘proto-anthropology’, covering the period from Herodotus up to the European Enlightenment.

It is beyond doubt, however, that anthropology, considered as the
science of humanity, originated in the region we commonly refer to
as ‘the West’, notably in four ‘Western’ countries: France, Britain,
the USA and Germany. Historically speaking, this is a European
discipline, and its practitioners, like those of all European sciences,
occasionally like to trace its roots back to the ancient Greeks.*1

Eriksen and Nielsen begin their account of the history of anthropology with Herodotus, who is the earliest writer on other societies whose work is mostly still extant. They know that Herodotus is sometimes unreliable as a witness to the nature of foreign cultures, so they don’t spend a lot of time discussing his work, or the possible reasons some of his accounts are untrustworthy. Herodotus was constructing his history according  to a number of precepts. Apart from his concern with the nature of fame, the one everyone knows about is the long conflict with the Persians, which continued after his death. His stated purpose was to write the story of the conflict, and to provide a background to the conflict. Another one is his presumption that the nature of people and cultures is geographically determined. People in the north, south, east and west are different from each other on that account. If it is hot in one place and cool in another, they will be different from each other. Those somewhere in the middle (i.e., Greece) possess a more balanced nature as individuals, and also in cultural terms.

We could ask where this geographic determinism comes from. The question is rarely asked. The answer to the question, which will be discussed later, is very revealing.

 The Greeks are singled out as being conscious of foreign peoples and societies as something ‘other’, which is a term which often appears in anthropological writing. There are two ways to approach something which is ‘other’ however:

Many Greeks tested their wits against a philosophical paradox
that touches directly on the problem of how we should relate to
‘the Others’. This is the paradox of universalism versus relativism.
A present-day universalist would try to identify commonalities and
similarities (or even universals) between different societies, while
a relativist would emphasise the uniqueness and particularity of
each society or culture. The Sophists of Athens are sometimes
described as the first philosophical relativists in the European
tradition….

This is true not only for anthropologists, but true for most human beings. It is possible to look in two opposite directions – to what is universal, and to what is particular. And sometimes to see-saw between them, according to circumstances. We function within mental paradigms, open to some categories of what is important and can be understood, and closed to some others. What we see is what it is possible to see with the mental and cultural apparatus we have. And none of these apparatuses are universal in the human population.

The authors conjure a scene, drawn from two famous dialogues by Plato (427-347 BCE), the Gorgias and the Protagoras, in which Socrates is in argument with the Sophists:

We may picture them in dignified intellectual battle, surrounded by 
colourful temples and solemn public buildings, with their slaves scarcely 
visible in theshadows between the columns. Other citizens stand as spectators,
while Socrates’ faith in a universal reason, capable of ascertaining
universal truths, is confronted by the relativist view that truth will
always vary with experience and what we would today call culture.

Which is not the way either Plato or Socrates would have characterised the conflict between their view and the view of the Sophists. The Sophists were interested in the money that their rhetorical skills could bring them, and Plato said they argued to make the worse cause appear the better.  From the point of view of Plato and Socrates, the choice between addressing universals and particulars was not a valid choice at all. The pursuit of what was universal was the way to knowledge of what was true; the opposite was to separate one thing from another, and as a consequence, nothing true could be discovered. Eriksen and Neilsen point out that:

Plato’s dialogues do not deal directly with cultural differences.
But they bear witness to the fact that cross-cultural encounters
were part of everyday life in the city-states.

And they are done with Plato. Aristotle’s contribution to the development of anthropology is not quite so brief, but it is clear that though Aristotle 384-322 BCE) sought to describe and understand difference in the world, his interest is also in universals. The Greeks were always concerned with both however, since the philosophical process known as dialectic was based on the identification of what was the same, and what was different. The process is illustrated very clearly in the early part of Plato’s Sophist.

In his philosophical anthropology he (Aristotle)
discusses the differences between humans in general and animals,
and concludes that although humans have several needs in common
with animals, only man possesses reason, wisdom and morality.
He also argued that humans are fundamentally social by nature. In
anthropology and elsewhere, such a universalistic style of thought,
which seeks to establish similarities rather than differences between
groups of people, plays a prominent role to this day.

 However they concede that:

it seems clear that anthropology has vacillated up through history
between a universalistic and a relativistic stance, and that central
figures in the discipline are also often said to lean either towards
one position or the other.

Which is perhaps an admission that there is something problematic in the discipline of anthropology. Or perhaps there is something problematic and troubling in the human engagement with the world in general.

After a brief interlude after the collapse of the ancient world, and a few remarks about Arab scholarship during the long dark ages in Europe, the authors pick up their narrative in the early fifteenth century CE:

The ‘Age of Discovery’ was of crucial importance for later
developments in Europe and the world, and – on a lesser scale
– for the development of anthropology. From the Portuguese
King Henry the Navigator’s exploration of the West coast of
Africa in the early fifteenth century, via Columbus’ five journeys
to America (1492–1506), to Magellan’s circumnavigation of the
globe (1519–22), the travels of this period fed the imaginations of
Europeans with vivid descriptions of places whose very existence
they had been unaware of. These travelogues, moreover, reached
wide audiences, since the printing press, invented in the mid-fifteenth
century, soon made books a common and relatively inexpensive
commodity all over Europe.

Of course these expeditions were not scientific, but about power money and resources. They were also about fame, which could easily come from such expeditions. It is hard to write truthfully when you are writing a testament to your own glory, and to the glory of the king who paid for the expedition. Even if you could grasp some aspects of the nature of the culture around you. And so:

Many of the early travelogues from the New World were full
of factual errors and saturated with Christian piety and cultural
prejudices. A famous example is the work of the merchant and
explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose letters describing his voyages to
the continent that still bears his name were widely circulated at the
time….  Occasionally, Vespucci seems to use the Native Americans
as a mere literary illustration, to underpin the statements he makes
about his own society. Native Americans are, as a rule, represented
as distorted or, frequently, inverted reflections of Europeans: they
are godless, promiscuous, naked, have no authority or laws; they are
even cannibals! Against this background, Vespucci argues effectively
for the virtues of absolutist monarchy and papal power, but his
ethnographic descriptions are virtually useless as clues to native
life at the time of the Conquest.

Not all of the accounts were bad, however. They point out that:

…contemporaries of Vespucci, such as the French
Huguenot Jean de Léry and the Spanish clergyman Bartolomé de
las Casas, who gave more truthful and even sympathetic accounts of
Native American life, and such books also sold well. But then, the
market for adventure stories from distant climes seems to have been
insatiable in Europe at this time. In most of the books, a more or less
explicit contrast is drawn between the Others (who are either ‘noble
savages’ or ‘barbarians’) and the existing order in Europe (which
is either challenged or defended).

The philosopher John Locke collected and read many of these more sympathetic books about the New World. He was opposed to the ideas of his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, who famously described human life as ‘nasty. Brutish, and short’. He preferred the idea of the noble savage to the barbarian. Though he did not discuss any of these accounts in his public writing. The books were found in his study after his death.

Eriksen and Neilsen concede that:

the legacy of these early, morally ambiguous accounts still weighs
on contemporary anthropology, and to this day, anthropologists
are often accused of distorting the reality of the peoples they write
about – in the colonies, in the Third World, among ethnic minorities
or in marginal areas. And, as in Vespucci’s case, these descriptions
are often denounced as telling us more about the anthropologist’s
own background than about the people under study.


The authors discuss the responses of European philosophers to the discovery of the New World, including Montaigne, Descartes, and John Locke. Some of their ideas have connections with anthropological thought from a later period. But they concede that anthropology is still some way beyond these important figures. It had been the case since antiquity that:

Exotic peoples had been described normatively (ethnocentrism) or
descriptively (cultural relativism). The question had repeatedly been
raised whether people everywhere and at all times are basically the
same (universalism) or profoundly different (relativism). There had
been attempts to define the difference between animals and humans,
nature and culture, the inborn and the learned, the sensual body and
the conscious mind. Many detailed descriptions of foreign peoples
had been published; some were based on meticulous scholarship.
In spite of these continuities, we maintain that anthropology as a
science only appeared at a later stage, though it is true that its birth
was a more gradual process than is sometimes assumed. Our reasons
for this are, first, that all the work mentioned so far belongs to one
of two genres: travel writing or social philosophy. It is only when
these aspects of anthropological enquiry are fused, that is, when
data and theory are brought together, that anthropology appears.

Fair enough. Though I regard social and cultural anthropology as arts subjects for the most part, rather than science (though in physical anthropology and archaeology there is a great deal of actual science). And then Eriksen and Neilsen make an extraordinary statement, which I’ve italicised.

Second, we call attention to the fact that all the writers mentioned
so far were influenced by their times and their society. This is of
course true of modern anthropologists as well. But modern anthropologists
live in a modern world, and we argue that anthropology
makes no sense at all outside a modern context. The discipline is a
product, not merely of a series of singular thoughts such as those
we have mentioned above, but of wide-ranging changes in European
culture and society, that in time would lead to the formation of
capitalism, individualism, secularised science, patriotic nationalism
and cultural reflexivity.

What on earth does that mean? Is this meant to imply that because anthropologists live in a modern world, they are more capable of detachment and objectivity than those who lived in earlier times? Or are they saying that it has a function in the modern world, which it did not and could not have had when thoughts were largely singular and could never become part of a consensus view and an agreed reality?  They say a little later:

…we have seen that the encounter with ‘the Other’ stimulated European
intellectuals to see society as an entity undergoing change and growth,
from relatively simple, small-scale communities, to large, complex
nations. But the idea of development or progress was not confined
to notions of social change. The individual, too, could develop,
through education and career, by refining his personality and finding
his ‘true self’ …  Only when the free individual was established as
‘the measure of all things’ could the idea of society as an association
of individuals put down roots and become an object of systematic
reflection. And only when society had emerged as an object to be
continuously ‘improved’ and reshaped into more ‘advanced’ forms
could the independent, rational individual change into something
new and different, and even ‘truer to its nature’. And without an
explicit discourse about these ideas, a subject such as anthropology
could never arise. The seeds were sown in early modern philosophy,
important advances were made in the eighteenth century, but it
was only in the nineteenth century that anthropology became an
academic discipline, and only in the twentieth century that it attained
the form in which it is taught today.

It is worth seeing it spelled out as clearly as that. In the minds of the authors the modern world is only possible because anthropology (as they understand it) is an explicit discourse about ideas of the improvement of the free individual, who is ‘the measure of all things’. As the authors said earlier, sometimes anthropologists are denounced for what they write, on the basis that it tells us more about the anthropologist’s own background, than about the people under study. 


1.Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sivert Nielsen A History of Anthropology Second Edition, 2001