An African Origin of Philosophy: Myth or Reality?

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 7/1/2004

(First Published in City Press, July, 2004)

There is a common belief among whites that philosophy originates with the Greeks. The idea is so common that almost all of the books on philosophy start with the Greeks as if the Greeks pre-dated all other people when it came to discussion of concepts of beauty, art, numbers, sculpture, medicine of social organization. In fact, this dogma occupies the principal position in the academies of the Western world, including the universities and academies of Africa. It goes something like this:

Philosophy is the highest discipline.
All other disciplines are derived from philosophy.
Philosophy is the creation of the Greeks.
The Greeks are white,
Therefore, whites are the creators of philosophy.

In the view of this dogma, other people and cultures may contribute thoughts, like the Chinese, Confucius, but thoughts are not philosophy; only the Greeks can contribute philosophy. The African people may have religion and myths, but not philosophy, according to this reasoning. Thus, this notion privileges the Greeks as the originators of philosophy, the highest of the sciences.

There is a serious problem with this line of reasoning. The information is false. As far as scholarship can reveal the origin of the word philosophy is not in the Greek language, although it comes into English from the Greek. According to dictionaries on Greek etymology the origin of the word is unknown. But that is if you are looking for the origin in Europe. Most Europeans who write books on etymology do not consider Zulu, Xhosa, Yoruba, or Amharic, when coming to a conclusion about what is known or unknown. They never think that a term used by a European language may have come from Africa.
There are two parts to the word philosophy as it comes to us from the Greek, “Philo” meaning brother or lover and “Sophia” meaning wisdom or wise. Thus, a philosopher is called a “lover of wisdom.”

The origin of “Sophia” is clearly in the African language, Mdu Ntr, the language of ancient Egypt, where the word “Seba,” meaning “the wise” appears first in 2052 BC in the tomb of Antef I, long before the existence of Greece or Greek. The word became “Sebo” in Coptic and “Sophia” in Greek. As to the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, that is precisely what is meant by “Seba,” the Wise, in ancient tomb writings of the Egyptians.

Diodorus Siculus, the Greek writer, in his On Egypt, written in the first century before Christ, says that many who are “celebrated among the Greeks for intelligence and learning, ventured to Egypt in olden times, that they might partake of the customs, and sample the teachings there. For the priests of Egypt cite from their records in the holy books that in the former times they were visited by Orpheus and Musaeus, Melampos, Daedalos, besides the poet Homer, Lycurgus the Spartan, Solon the Athenian, and Plato the philosopher, Pythagoras of Samos and the mathematician Eudoxos, as well as Democritus of Abdera and Oenopides of Chios, also came there.”

Obviously many Greeks who learned philosophy ventured to Africa to study. They came for many intellectual reasons. One can see that the Greeks appreciated the fact that in Egypt were men and women of great skill and knowledge just as the Egyptians appreciated the fact that there were men and women of greater knowledge in Ethiopia.

According to Herodotus, writing in the 5th Century BC in Book II of History, the Ethiopians said that the Egyptians were nothing but a colony of Ethiopians. Of course, today there remains an entire system of disbelief about the history, experiences, and knowledge of the people of Africa, created during the past five hundred years of European conquest. A rhetoric of denial of Africa’s capability was developed to accompany the dispossession of Africa. This was done to go along with the European conquest of Africa, Asia, and America. Colonization was not just a land issue, it was an issue of colonizing information about the land. Yet I am of the opinion that the ancients knew better than the contemporary pundits about the importance of non-Africans studying in Africa.

There was no Germany, France, England, Italy, United States, or Spain to speak of when the Greeks started to travel to Africa for their studies. Indeed, they went to Africa and after they went back to Greece created the Greek Golden Era. It was not before, but after they had studied in Egypt that these people got some advanced training. What I am saying is that they had to come to Africa and study with the wise men of ancient Egypt, who were black, in order to be able to learn medicine, mathematics, geometry, art, and so forth. This was long before there was any European civilization.

Why did the Greek philosophers study in Africa? Thales, the first Greek philosopher and the first who is recorded to have studied in Africa, says that he learned philosophy from the Egyptians. They studied in Egypt because it was the educational capital of the ancient world. Pythagoras is known to have spent at least twenty two years in Africa. One could get a fairly good education in twenty two years, perhaps even earn a Ph.D.! The Greeks were seeking the philosophical information that the Africans possessed. When Isocrates wrote of his studies in the book Busirus, he said that “I studied philosophy and medicine in Egypt.” He did not study these subjects in Greece in Europe, but in Egypt in Africa.

Not only is the word philosophy not Greek, the practice of philosophy existed long before the Greeks. Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Amenemhat, Merikare, Duauf, Amenhotep, son of Hapu, Akhenaten, and the sage of Khunanup, are just a few of the African philosophers who lived long before there was a Greece or a Greek philosopher.

When the Africans finished building the pyramids in 2500 BC it would be one thousand seven hundred years before Homer, the first Greek writer, appears!

And when he appears and begins to write The Iliad he does not spend much time before he is writing about what happened in Africa or what was happening in Africa. The Greek gods were meeting in Ethiopia. Homer is said to have spent seven years in Africa. What could he have learned in those classes with those wise teachers? He could have learned Law, philosophy, religion, astronomy, literature, politics, and medicine.

Africans did not wait for the Greeks to figure out how to construct the pyramids. Can you see the Egyptians standing around at the stone quarries or on the banks of the Nile in 2500 BC speculating on when some European would come alone and help them measure the earth, calculate width, breadth, and depth, determine the exact helical rising of Serpet (Sirius) and the inundation of the Nile, or diagnose the diseases of the human body.

According to Herodotus, in Histories, Book II, the Colchians were Egyptians “because like the Egyptians they had black skin and wooly hair.” Aristotle says in Physiognomonica that “the Egyptians and Ethiopians are very black.”

Led by the Pharaoh of African History, Cheikh Anta Diop, a new cadre of scholars has emerged to challenge all of the lies that were told about Africa and about Africans. They are the ones who, as the poet Haki Madhubuti says, walk toward fear, not away from it. They are the real standards for courage and commitment.

At a major 1974 conference sponsored by UNESCO on the “Peopling of Egypt” in Cairo, two blacks, Diop and Theophile Obenga, walked toward fear and when they had finished presenting their papers they had shattered all of the lies that were told about Africans. Using science, linguistics, anthropology, and history, these two intellectual giants demonstrated that the ancient Egyptians were black They used a melanin test on the skin of a mummy, art from the walls of tombs, correspondences to other African languages, and the testimonies of the ancients.

It is so interesting to me that the ancient Greeks knew much better than the current crop of Europeans who pontificate on the subject that the ancient Egyptians, long before the coming of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Turks to Egypt, were Africans, indeed, black-skinned Africans.

Aristotle, the philosopher, wrote in his book, Physiognomonica, that “the Ethiopians an Egyptians are very black.” Herodotus adds that the ancient Egyptian had “black skin and wooly hair.”

The color of the ancient Egyptians should not matter; it only comes up because one always finds some white person who is dedicated to the proposition that Africans could not have built the pyramids, and especially not black Africans. Of course, everyone should know that the Egyptians were Africans, but the fact is that they were not just Africans, these particular Egyptians were black skinned with woolly hair.

Philosophy begins first with the black skinned people of the Nile Valley around 2800 BC, that is, 2200 years before the appearance of Thales of Miletus, considered the first Western philosophy. 30,000 years ago our ancestors were separating red ochre from iron in a Swaziland cave. They had to have some idea about what they were doing. There had to be some reflection, some process by which the elders determined what was to be used for what and on what occasion. Thus, even before writing, we have evidence that Africans were engaging in meaningful discussions about the nature of their environment.

Molefi Kete Asante is one of the most published contemporary scholars, having written more than sixty books and three hundred articles.

African symbol