Napoleon and the wisdom of ancient Egypt

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, he took with him 167 savants — scientists, engineers, and scholars — to better understand the ancient Egyptian people, culture, and environment.  These hard-working federal employees produced massive volumes of scholarship entitled Description de l’Égypte.  In addition, their discovery of the Rosetta Stone played a key role in the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822.

The wisdom of the ancient Egyptians was not immediately appreciated in Europe.  The problem was lack of perspective on the essence of life:

In Mozart’s Magic Flute (written in 1791) we can still feel how the late eighteenth century hoped to find in the wisdom and ritual of Egypt a new and satisfying answer to the mystery of life.  It came therefore as somewhat of a disappointment when the first Greek papyrus from Egypt, published by N. Schow in 1788, turned out to contain not the wisdom of the ancients but a list of canal-workers for the year 193 A. D. in a heretofore unheard-of place called Tebtynis.

That is the wisdom of the ancients.  Don’t be disappointed.  Understand it, and appreciate it.

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The first sentence of the above quote is from Turner. Eric G., The Typology of the Codex (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1977) p. 19. .  The second sentence is from Brashear, W.M. “The Greek Magical Papyri: an Introduction and Survey, pp. 3380-3684 in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, ii.18.5, ed. by Wolfgang Haase (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1995).  The latter quotes the former.

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