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On the History of African Philosophy

On the History of African Philosophy

    A conference was organized by the department of Philosophy, SS Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Ibadan, 1995, with the theme: On a History of African Philosophy. The aim of the conference was to present a holistic picture of the History of African Philosophy (similar to that of Western Philosophy) and correct the wrong impression that African Philosophy is either just beginning or it is divided into just Ancient Egyptian period and contemporary professional Philosophers who are Western trained. The conference was coordinated by F. Ogunmodede, whose recent work titled: Of History and Historiography (2001) can be said to be the fruit of the conference. His work, which is a commendable effort in mapping out various periods in African Philosophy, will be a helpful guide in this topic.


    The first great wise men of history were Egyptians. Many Philosophers of the Ancient World travelled to Egypt for learning and inspiration. Many of the thoughts of Western Philosophers can be traced to that of the great wise men of Ancient Egypt. Henry Thomas is of the view that we shall find the legacy of Plato and Aristotle in the Philosophy of Ptah-hotep; the heritage of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy in the wisdom of Ipuwer; and the inspiration of Spinoza and Dant in the vision of Ikhnaton. This may explain why ancient Egypt is said to be the pioneer teacher of humankind. Let us take a look at the philosophical speculations of Ptah-hotep and Ipuwer.

(a) Ptah-hotep (2700 BC)

    During his time, he was the Prime Minister of the King and the Governor of Memphis. After retirement from active service, he spent the rest of his life instructing the youth.

    On the origin of man, he taught that “Men began as brutes…and it was only through a slow and painful process that they learned to become human.” Chastisement is, therefore, necessary in learning virtue. Man learns through suffering. Children are to be disciplined and trained.

    Apart from disciplining the child, the child must be trained with a philosophical outlook on life. For Ptah-hotep, this philosophical outlook “is the best inheritance I can leave to my son.”

    On knowledge, Ptah-hotep taught that one should not be proud because one is learned, “for no limit can be set to knowledge, neither is there any philosopher who possesses full wisdom.”

    On ethics, he advocated

Kind words, gentle deeds, and a tongue that knows when to be silent… Never overstep the truth, and never repeat words that have been spoken to thee in confidence – whether the speaker be a peasant or a prince. Telling takes out of order is abhorrent to the soul.

   Furthermore, Ptah-hotep advised that one should develop a good character that cannot be overturned by the tempest of life. Above all, one should learn self-control. In his words: “Fit thy deeds to the occasion and thy words to the point. The wise man never speaks of things about which he knows nothing. And once again let me caution thee – curb thy temper and thy tongue.”

    On religion, Ptah-hotep taught Monotheism – the belief in one God, called Osiris. Osiris came to earth as man to save man. But he was killed by men who did not believe him. But he rose from the dead to guide all men in the truth until the end of time. This is similar to the story of Jesus in the Bible. However, Ptah-hotep interpreted the story of Osiris as a sound teaching on the triumph of good over evil. Even if evil were to triumph this will surely be for a time. This is because good will ultimately prevail. While God is eternal, He treats man as a moral being responsible for his acts. He guides all those who listen to and obey Him on their journey to Heaven. The soul of man is like a flame that tends towards Heaven. “Man dies to live again.” This belief in the resurrection may have prompted the Egyptians to preserve the bodies of the dead.

    From the philosophical thought of Ptah-hotep, we can see that apart from championing some philosophical speculations before Plato and Aristotle, he also anticipated Charles Darwin’s Evolution Theory when he said that “Men began as brutes…”

(b) Ipuwer

    He is also one of the prominent ancient Egyptian Philosophers. He was deeply concerned about the corruption of the people of his time, which is similar to that of our own time. He enumerated the corruption of his people thus:

To whom can I speak today? Brothers are evil and cheat one another. To whom can I speak today? Hearts are thievish, every man seizes his neighbour’s goods. To whom can I speak today? The gentle man perishes, the arrogant aggressor lives in triumph. To whom can I speak today? When a man’s conduct should arouse indignation, it arouses mirth, when his thievishness deserved the whip, it is rewarded with riches and fame.

  The corruption of Ipuwer’s time must have frustrated him to the point that he advocated the death of all humans as the only solution to human corruption. “…would that there might be an end of men, no conception, no birth,” he said, and “If the earth would be no more, how good a thing it would be for all!”

    Haven advocated the death of all humans as a solution to the endemic corruption of man, one will not be surprised at Ipuwer’s eulogy of death. Death sets humans free from the sickness called life.

“Death is before me today like the recovery of a sick man, like going forth into a garden after sickness. Death is before me today lime the fragrance of the lotus flowers, like sitting under the sail on a windy day. Death is before me today like the course of a mountain stream, like the return of man from the warship to his house. Death is before me today like the longing of a man to see his home after many years of captivity.”

  It is obvious that the death of all humans will bring corruption and other moral evils to an end. However, this kind of solution is an escapist one. While we keep proffering solutions to the problems of corruption and other moral evils in the world, we should appreciate the fact that death, which is inevitable, is always before us. It is nature’s way of putting an end to the toiling of humans on earth. It is part of the biological process of coming to be and passing away.


    The Romans conquered the Mediterranean world (Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, etc) and created a new world with a mixed culture. The capital of this new world was at Alexandria. The philosophical thought and religious practices (mysticism) f the Egyptians and the North Africans greatly influenced the philosophical and religious activities of this period. The school of Alexandria trained many philosophers and was the seed ground of some philosophical and theological systems or Schools of Thought. For instance, Neo-Platonism was first taught at Alexandria in Egypt by Ammonius Saccas (175-242 A.D). It was later expanded by his student, Plotinus. S.E. Frost further added that Plotinus studied Philosophy under Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria for eleven years before migrating to Rome to establish a school about 243 A.D. Neoplatonism as propounded by Plotinus is a mixture of cultures in the Greco-Roman World, as well as Oriental mysticism. For Plotinus, then, Philosophy transcends natural speculation to point out that the realm of the divine beings also exists. This comes out clearly from his Principle of Emanation, where the One is pure and the highest in the hierarchy of perfection. From the One emanates, through an unconscious creative process, other lessee degrees of perfection. The lowest level of perfection is the World. This, for Plotinus, explains why the World is as it is with some imperfections. There is an element of the divine in everything. Everything is One, for the One is in all things.

 The thoughts of Augustine (Born at Tagaste, Numidia, North Africa, AD 354), and Hypatia (the first female Philosopher of Egyptian origin) amongst others are added to the list of African Philosophers.