Revisiting Alexander and Aristotle

The Maxambit Blog raised some compelling questions about Afrocentricity and definitions this week. In the course of the conversation, the host shared an article by retired Professor Mary Lefkowitz about her motivation for entering the national debate concerning this emerging course of study. It seems that she was drawn in by the accusation one of the leading Africentric scholars made concerning the role of Alexander in the establishment of Alexandria – and the role of his tutor Aristotle in codifying the body of knowledge which has come to be associated with him. The basic charge from the late Yosef A.A. ben-Jochanan was that Aristotle and many of his students from the Lyceum ventured to Egypt and laid claim to the works in existing libraries. Those works were seized, edited, renamed and included in what would become the Royal Library at Alexandria under the rule of Ptolemy I. Ben-Jochanan further charged that Egyptian teachers like Manetho were forced to teach Greek students by the invading army and this effectively formalized a transition of knowledge that would continue until at least the closing of Egyptian temples under Emperor Theodosian.

Lefkowitz and many of her peers (European Classical scholars) were up in arms about this charge. For them, this charge represented the pinnacle of delusional ravings by men in desperate search of an imagined history. Possibly. I started rummaging around some old classical texts on the history of philosophy and warfare which I keep around – mostly for decoration. It turns out that there may be more to this than meets the eye. While I can’t say I’ve come across ironclad proof, I have come across some things that merit questioning.

The Discovery Channel, just last year, reported for the first time (and after 12 years of research) that Alexandria was not, in fact, a new city. Now, specialists in the field may have known this – but the average person who hears that “Alexander the Great founded a city” does not believe the speaker is discussing something already in existence. Moreover, that listener could not possibly believe that the city was more than 2,500 years old by the time Alexander arrived. Yet, this is what scientists are suggesting by using an innovative technique which measures the density of lead accumulations as a proxy for civilizations and urban activity. It seems Alexandria, originally known as Ra-Kedet, was thriving around 2600 BC. This year, a Smithsonian archaeological team uncovered evidence of settlements dating back at least seven centuries before the founding of Alexandria. It’s still early, but the work could redefine much of what Classicists and Egyptologists think they know about what they know.

I found this illuminating because there is so much about history that we learn all the time. Often it is best to keep an open mind. For me, the significance of this news (long after Professor Lefkowitz’ debate) is that if the Greeks would assert they founded a city which was built on the foundation of another, is it not possible that these same people would assert they founded a library (or at least its contents) even though those contents were already established. It seems that with all that has been written about Aristotle, few people have much at all to say about his life. In fact, he wasn’t even much of a writer until after the invasion of Egypt by Alexander. It seems his students followed him around as he gave his lectures. I imagine some of them were busy taking copious notes. It was his students, though, who founded and guided the new library in the new city of Alexandria. And, it was his students who compiled and edited the works that are presently attributed solely to him.

It is not known whether or not Aristotle made the trip to Egypt with Alexander or arrived shortly thereafter or not at all. The strongest arguments stem from the absence of records indicating he traveled to Egypt. It is safe to assume he did not go. It may also be safe to assume that he had intention of claiming the legacy which is now his own. An authority no less than Bertrand Russell writes that Aristotle’s work is clearly segmented – beginning with lectures that bear only a faint resemblence to his later, more exhaustive work. It should make one wonder – but I can understand why no one has for so long.

We learned of these stories as children – long before we understood the world of politics, war and intrigue. It is possible that Aristotle is merely the beneficiary of ambitions by his students to exhalt his name and standing. Dr. ben alleged that Manetho was compelled to provide a history of Egypt in Greek for the new rulers – and to provide instruction to Greek students. There are precious few surviving details about Manetho – and even his works have been handed down to us in a random, disorganized and barely discernible fashion. Scholars don’t actually have much of his original work.

I’ll have to dig more to get some answers on this – but from where I’m sitting, I don’t believe the case is closed here. It is possible that:

  • The Egyptian city of Ra-Kedet, in existence for no less than 2000 years prior to Alexander’s arrival, held libraries and texts which were incorporated into Ptolemy’s larger library.
  • Students of Aristotle, in their zeal to advance the cause of their teacher and their school, seized upon those texts, incorporated them into a library and affixed credit to the Greek translations of those texts to the leading Greek scholar of the time.
  • Given the limited biographical information on Aristotle, he could have engaged in a wide range of activities in support of his students. Demetrius of Phaleron is considered to be the organizer of the library. While Demetrius’ work continued after Aristotle’s death, the Lyceum probably influenced the Mouseion.

There are connections here. There is no smoking gun – and there is no cause for dismissive rejections of possibility. I wonder how that conversation between the two professors might have transpired if the knowledge of Ra-Kedet had been available to both of them.

4 comments

  1. Temple3:

    Thank you for writing this essay.

    I look forward to the day when we’ll know much more about the magnitude of the influence the philosophical and scientific ideas that had been accumulated at Ra-Kedet had on the philosophical and scientific fruits of the Hellenistic period and the periods that preceded it. There is evidence that the Greeks didn’t have problems plagiarizing the great ideas they were exposed to during their exploratory travels and their conquests of militarily weaker civilizations. We’ll probably never know just how much they plagiarized, especially if it was a common practice for them to plagiarize furtively. I suspect the Greeks systematically absorbed many of the best philosophical and scientific ideas created by the civilizations they conquered and rebranded those as Greek ideas. This, of course, would have served to increase the eminence of Greece in the eyes of its posterity, something that I’m certain Alexander and similarly megalomaniacal and glory-obsessed Greek rulers aimed to do during their reigns.

  2. well as far i am concern the has work hard in the past to claim other people culture and publish to entire world that they are the pure and oly perfect race of man kind which is absolutly wrong all their helenic and roman civilisation was to me yesterday things.

  3. The good news, Festus, is that Europeans haven’t always been this way…in fact, before they even considered themselves Europeans they laid out a fairly comprehensive and clear record of contributions by other peoples from around the world. This tradition endured well into the 19th century in some countries. All it takes to get to the truth is a little digging and a relentless rejection of false authorities.

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