In response to:
Tut-Tut-Tut from the October 11, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
While partisanship may be unavoidable in any scholarly dispute, the distortion or neglect of carefully marshalled evidence is seldom becoming. Peter Green’s piece of party-line Egyptology [NYR, October 11] misrepresents and glosses over an important and valid controversy.
The psychological and/or commercial motivations for the Tut craze are of no more consequence than those for jogging or fashion-design jeans. But the state of knowledge (or lack of it) of Ancient Egypt can determine our conception of early civilizations, a matter with ramifications extending far beyond mere scholarly dispute.
Since Mr. Green lumps enthusiasts and Romantics in willy-nilly with the heretics (a ruse common to orthodoxies the world over) distinctions will have to be made. Divine intervention in the building of the Great Pyramid, encoded prophecies, and visiting spacemen are red herrings. Though the individual issues are complex, the controversy can be polarized in simple terms: Either the Egyptians knew what they were doing and why they were doing it, or they did not.
Orthodox Egyptology depicts the ancient. Egyptians as a race of spectacularly accomplished primitives. Slavishly devoted to an animistic, incoherent religion, devoid of real science, mathematics, or philosophy, these curious Egyptians—the most conservative race on earth—went on for four millennia producing artistic and architectural masterpieces unheard of before and unequaled since. (This implies, of course, that at some point the Egyptians must have been the most innovative race on earth to develop these techniques in the first place, but immediately thereafter, they became the most conservative.)
While this view has prevailed since Napoleon opened Egypt to the West, it has been challenged from the very beginning, and it has been challenged (a fact carefully omitted by Peter Green) by sound, sane scholars eminent within their fields, as well as by cranks and sensationalists. Astronomers have challenged the view of Egyptian astronomy. Mathematicians have challenged the view of mathematics. Philosophers and theologians have sought a rationale behind Egypt’s bewildering and apparently banal religious symbolism. By and large, all these heretics have been struck by the apparent paradox: How could a race so supremely accomplished in certain fields be so grotesquely deficient in others? In general, their inquiries indicate that the paradox is the creation of Egyptologists, not of the Egyptians (cf. Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tompkins for a solid account of the controversy regarding the pyramids).
Yet, despite the challenges, many questions remained, particularly regarding Egyptian religion, symbolism, and philosophy.
It is my belief that these have now been answered, and the paradox resolved incontrovertibly by the French mathematician and philosopher, the late R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, whose fifteen years’ research at Luxor and whose massive documentation is the subject of my own book, Serpent in the Sky, summarily but predictably dismissed by Peter Green.
Struck by the strange asymmetries of the Temple of Luxor, de Lubicz initially set out to see if the sciences of harmony and proportion (supposedly Greek inventions) had been known to the architects of Luxor a thousand years earlier. In itself, this would have necessitated a drastic rewrite of accepted history.
Careful measurements soon corroborated this hunch, but the unexpected sophistication of Egyptian harmonic, geometrical, and proportional knowledge drove de Lubicz on to look for what lay behind it. In the end, he developed a kind of “unified field” theory of Egyptology, consistent within itself, backed in every instance by meticulous documentation, and verified, where relevant, by the architect in charge of excavations for the French archaeological institute, and by a fully qualified Egyptologist who had been won over to de Lubicz’s arguments.
De Lubicz was able to show that Egyptologists had not only vastly underrated the scientific, mathematical, and astronomical knowledge of ancient Egypt, but that they had totally failed to understand the religious philosophy that was its basis. In retrospect, it is clear that this was almost inevitable. If visiting Martians reported home with an account of a baseball game, and games were unknown to Mars, the results would be similar. Earthlings would be engaged in weird, ritualistic activities, devoid of meaning, incoherent, and yet all-absorbing.
De Lubicz has demonstrated the coherent, mystical philosophy underlying all of Egyptian civilization: he has explained baseball to the Martians. But as it turns out, our Martians—for reasons much more interesting than those responsible for the Tut craze—do not want to learn. They prefer to go on thinking of baseball as the mumbo-jumbo of the Earthlings.
Galileo, furnished with no less commanding evidence than de Lubicz, faced a similar situation and similar opponents in a recognizably similar context. Readers interested in knowing more about ancient civilization, and emotionally equipped to handle a view that happens not to be geocentric, would do well to look further than Peter Green.
John Anthony West
New York City
Peter Green replies:
General conspiracy theories (which must be sharply distinguished from agitprop censorship, whether political, sexual, or religious) are, rightly, suspect in the world of scholarship, being more often than not the last paranoid refuge of an idée fixe confronted with contradictory evidence, or, worse, no evidence at all. The truth, it’s argued, has been willfully obscured, ignored, or perverted by the Establishment of “orthodox scholarship”—a cabal of bigots (or blind idiots), working in total concinnity over the years, whose sole objective (or result) is to darken counsel; the writer, of course, is the courageous individualist who proclaims the long-hidden truth. Why, or indeed how, such academic conspiracies are supposed to work (scholars not being noted for agreement over anything) is less often stressed. Why on earth should Egyptologists want to caricature or demean ancient Egyptians?
Mr. West’s attitude to orthodox Egyptology is very much of this sort. He has taken as his guide the late R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, author of Le Temple de l’Homme (1957), a work which, Mr. West asserts, “provides a complete, coherent doctrine fusing art, science, philosophy and religion into a single body of wisdom that can account for the civilization of Egypt in its entirety” (italics mine), with the alleged result that “the glaring paradox of primitive, muddle-headed necrophiles producing unparalleled artistic and architectural masterpieces for four millennia vanishes completely in the light of this interpretation.”
It is difficult in a short space to describe how de Lubicz claimed to have achieved this remarkable goal. Basically his contention was that the Egyptian priesthood had access (like theosophists, Rosicrucians, et hoc genus omne) to our old friend the Perennial Philosophy, in a characteristically hermetic form. His mensurational researches in the Great Temple of Luxor also convinced him that this building held the key to various items of esoteric knowledge, e.g., the location of the ductless glands and the Chinese acupuncture points. His measurements led him, by a familiar route, into mathematical speculation of a Pythagorean nature regarding such functions as the Golden Section, culminating in a universal symbolic numerology based on complex proportions and harmonics. As a corollary to his theory he suggested (a notion taken up with enthusiasm by Mr. West) that so arcane and sophisticated a civilization could not have evolved in short order unaided, and postulated it as a legacy from elsewhere: hence the Atlantis theory.
Now without being drawn into a (necessarily inconclusive) argument on the validity as such of the de Lubicz-West thesis, I would like to re-emphasize certain facts which are more susceptible to documentation and control. The enormous body of available evidence, linguistic, literary, archaeological, and artistic, confirms the “orthodox” interpretation of Egyptian culture in every area: the obsession with survival and eschatology, the anti-abstract cast of mind (so inimical to any kind of sophisticated philosophy), the bureaucratic pragmatism, the religious attitudes and conflicting myths. It isn’t that we lack testimony on these matters: we have an embarras de richesses. And I repeat what I said in my essay: of high hermetic wisdom there is virtually no trace. Even the supposedly over-rapid evolution of Egyptian civilization may be less of a paradox than Mr. West supposes. Modern research is pushing the evidence for emergent culture steadily further back into the predynastic period: our perspectives are lengthening yearly. Outside influence is always possible, but hard to pin down: the “Atlantis theory,” so simple, so romantic, remains nonproven and, for me as for many, highly suspect.
Several points are very clear in this controversy. First, it is Mr. West and his friends, not the Egyptologists, who sneer pejoratively at “primitive, muddle-headed necrophiles” with their “animistic, incoherent religion.” Would they similarly describe Catholics, say, or Mormons today as “spectacularly accomplished primitives”? If so, their theory at once collapses: no one could claim the twentieth century wasn’t ultra-sophisticated, in science and philosophy alike. If not, they’re guilty of the most flagrant special pleading. Second, the Egyptians, as is plain from their texts, knew very well what they were about: it simply did not happen to be the arcane scenario that de Lubicz and his followers have invented for them. Third, since the theorists are faced with an almost total lack of literary evidence to support their case (even Mr. West’s argument that scholars have mistranslated the texts is pretty lukewarm), they are forced back on the notion of “the Temple,” a secret priestly tradition kept from the profane crowd, and only to be deduced or recovered through abstruse mathematical calculations and appeals to cosmic symbolism. Fourth, if we want to consider a race that was “supremely accomplished in certain fields” but “grotesquely deficient in others” we need look no further than the Greeks, whose ideas on economics would reduce a Merrill Lynch office boy to despair.
It is indeed possible that incidental progress may accrue from such investigations, not least in the field of mathematics: I am quite ready to be convinced (though Mr. West hasn’t yet convinced me) that the Egyptians knew more about harmonic proportions than has hitherto been believed. But to argue that de Lubicz has resolved the presumptive paradox “incontrovertibly” is nonsense; to dogmatize that Egyptian science was under-pinned by a hermetic religious philosophy is, at best, wildly speculative; and to write off orthodox interpretations of Egyptian religious symbolism as “banal” tells us more about Mr. West’s unspoken, and probably unconscious, prejudices than it does about the vexed problems of Egyptian eschatology. Mr. West, in my opinion, builds his own theoretical construct by ignoring for the most part the real positive evidence, which all points in a quite different direction: here he and I must simply agree to differ. Of course readers who want to find out about Egypt should look beyond my writings, and Mr. West’s too: let them turn to the original testimony, now abundantly and cheaply available in good translations, and make up their minds for themselves.
December 20, 1979