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Ancient Egypt as Europes Intimate Stranger

Kevin M. DeLapp
Abstract
Analyses of the ways in which cultural differences are expressed have tended
to focus on instances in which one culture responds to an object culture with
which it is contemporary. Although this model of cross-cultural dialogue is
fraught with hermeneutic challenges, the object culture may at least in
principle check and balance mischaracterizations of itself because it inhabits
the same time and is able therefore to talk back. However useful this model
is for understanding synchronous cultural conversations, it is inapplicable to
asynchronous encounters in which the object culture is from another era. The
goal of this paper is to explore certain limitations of two prominent models of
cross-cultural hermeneutics that arise when they are applied to asynchronous
cultural differences. Using Western Europes encounter with dynastic Egypt
during Napoleons campaign as an example, I argue that the frameworks of
John Rawls reflective equilibrium and Edward Saids Orientalism both fail
to adequately represent the unique dimensions of such an asynchronous
encounter. Instead, I adopt and expand Thomas Kasulis recent account of
cross-cultural differences. I argue that Kasulis understanding of cultural
intimacy versus integrity can better make sense of asynchronous
encounters by furnishing a more plausible motivation for Europes
appropriation of ancient Egypt.
Key Words: Cross-cultural philosophy, ancient Egypt, Kasulis, Orientalism,
Napoleon.
*****
In May 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte led a top-secret expedition into
Ottoman Egypt accompanied by 20,000 soldiers and hundreds of leading
French academics. Their explicit purpose was empire-building; economically
through the control of new markets in competition against the British Empire,
and ideologically through the exportation of the ideals of the French
Revolution. As foreshadowed by the eponymous name of Napoleons
flagship, The Orient, the French encountered a strange world of exotic
splendours that would fuel the European imagination for generations. The
details of Napoleons Egyptian campaign have been well-documented.1 The
cultural repercussions of Europes exposure to the Orient have also received
comprehensive analyses and have helped to theorize the ways colonialist
biases can distort, co-opt, and marginalize others. However, often neglected

Kevin M. DeLapp

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from such discussions has been the fact that Napoleon was actually engaged
in two distinct encounters with foreign cultures; for, present throughout his
conquest of Ottoman Egypt was the ghostly afterimage of ancient, dynastic
Egypt.
This distinct encounter with dynastic Egypt poses unique conceptual
challenges for theoretical frameworks of cross-cultural hermeneutics. This is
because analyses of cultural encounters have tended to focus on instances in
which one culture responds to an alien culture with which it is contemporary.
Techniques of contrasting and appropriating help reinforce one cultures
sense of itself in relation to the alien culture. The moral of many
postcolonialist critiques seems to be for both cultures to try to jointly
negotiate their identities in a way that attains a pluralistic and reflective
equilibrium. This model of cross-cultural dialogue is obviously fraught with
hermeneutic obstacles; but the alien culture may at least in principle check
and balance mischaracterizations of itself because it inhabits the same
contemporaneous moment. However useful this model is for understanding
synchronous cultural conversations (e.g. between Europe and Ottoman
Egypt), it is inapplicable to asynchronous encounters in which the alien
culture is from the past (e.g. between Europe and dynastic Egypt). How can a
culture that no longer exists speak for itself? In what ways have extinct
cultures such as dynastic Egypt been appropriated and resurrected by later
cultures, for what purposes and to what effect?
Dynastic Egypt existed in the European imagination as a stranger,
an alien and a foreigner, but one with whom Europe nonetheless experienced
a curious resonance. Ancient Egypt was envisioned as Europes own cultural
shadownot yet made visible by the tools of the Enlightenment, occluded by
the Ottoman Empire, and always lurking as a mythic foundation behind
Europes sense of its own cultural heritage. These factors required that
European identity construct a foil that could satisfy the following conditions.
First, it needed to link Europe to classical origins. Second, these origins
needed to be capable of accommodating and expressing the burgeoning
Romanticism of post-Enlightenment Europe. Third, the classical origins
needed to contribute to the justification of the imperial enterprise. Dynastic
Egypt was ideally positioned to satisfy all three of these conditions. For one
thing, neo-classicist Europe had already located its cultural heritage in the
glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.2 The Romanticist
Europe of Napoleon in turn needed to extend this foundational mythos
transitively by envisioning dynastic Egypt as an ancestral cradle for Greece
and Rome themselves. Specifically, dynastic Egypt was characterized by
Europe as non-rational and particularly feminine (cultural values to which
post-Enlightenment Europe was already developing an internal attraction). In
short, dynastic Egypt was a cultural stranger of just the right sort for
European colonialism: it was asynchronous so that it could not talk back to

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its colonizers; and it was exotic enough to fuel Romanticism, without being
so foreign as to resist smooth appropriation.
Is there a conceptual framework that can help make sense of these
unique elements in Europes encounter with dynastic Egypt? The Analytic
and Continental philosophical traditions have furnished two influential
models of cross-cultural dialogueJohn Rawls theory of justice and Edward
Saids postcolonialist critique of Orientalism, respectively. However, as
effective as each of these frameworks may be for understanding synchronous
encounters with cultural foreigners, neither is adequate for asynchronous
encounters with a cultural stranger such as ancient Egypt.
In his monumental Theory of Justice,3 Rawls seeks to identity
abstract principles of fairness that would be universally acceptable to all
rational agents. The goal of Rawls program is to instantiate social, political,
and economic institutions that reflect an overlapping consensus of the pretheoretic intuitions of all rational parties concerning fairness. Rawls theory
is sophisticated and complex, but the phenomenon of asynchronous cultural
encounters throws a wrench into its conceptual machinery. Asynchronous
cultures are no longer capable of entering into reflective equilibriums, nor are
they able to represent themselves as live options for institutional adoption.
Although Rawls does try to accommodate the interests of
asynchronous future generations in his reflective equilibrium, the extent to
which moral consideration for future, hypothetical, or merely potential agents
can be explained and justified is quite controversial. Avner de-Shalit has
offered one of the more compelling arguments for granting moral
consideration to future generationsnamely, such hypothetical agents must
exist in some relationship of cultural interaction or moral similarity with
the present generation that is considering them.4 The future may satisfy one
or both of these conditions because its culture may be conditioned
inextricably by our present actions and institutions. Thus, provided there is
no abrupt discontinuity in cultural transmission, the present bequeaths a
moral and cultural heritage to its future; though the ways in which this
heritage may become instantiated in the future might differ, this could qualify
as interaction nonetheless.
However, even if amendments such as de-Shalits succeed in
justifying moral consideration for the future, these conditions remain
inapplicable to the past: although we may metaphysically shape the way the
future unfolds, our impact on the past is epistemological at best. Nonetheless,
Annette Baier has offered an interesting argument for why we presently may
owe something to the past, but she frames her argument in the context of
situations in which a past generation conserved or saved deliberately for the
sake of future generations.5 It is implausible to assume that dynastic Egypt
was engaged in such deliberate considerations of posterity.6

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Rawls theory of justice is simply unsuitable for understanding
asynchronous cross-cultural encounters since the theory only gives voice to
those parties capable of representing themselves. To be fair, Rawls himself
seemed not to have intended his theory of justice to be applicable crossculturally at all. In his later work, he defends a kind of modus vivendi version
of toleration even if foreigners do not conform to Western liberal democratic
models, but provided they are at least decent hierarchical peoples.7 It is fair
to say that dynastic Egypt was not a liberal democracy. It is less clear
whether dynastic Egypt would qualify as a decent hierarchy.8 However,
this uncertainty is precisely the reason why Rawls theory is unsuited for
understanding asynchronous differences: the past cannot represent itself on
its own terms, but is instead represented through the lens of the present
cultures projects and needs.
Edward Saids postcolonial critique of Orientalism does a much
better job analyzing the self-serving myopia of European encounters with
dynastic Egypt. Said, using the language of addiction, dubs Napoleons
expedition the first enabling experience for modern Orientalism.9 Said
describes the efforts of the French scientists to re-code the ancient culture
they encountered into a form palatable to the colonialist enterprise.
Specifically, he diagnoses the Napoleonic project as an attempt to act out
Revolutionary fantasies of a dynastic Egypt that had weakened under
Ottoman decadence and repression. Thus, Said sees the purpose of
Napoleons expedition in part as an effort to salvage and rehabilitate what
was viewed as an older Western civilization from an overshadowing Oriental
tyrant.10 Furthermore, it is significant for Said that this rehabilitation was
framed scientifically. As he puts it,
The sheer power of having described the Orient in modern
Occidental terms lifts the Orient from the realms of silent
obscurity where it has lain neglected (except for the inchoate
murmurings of a vast but undefined sense of its own past) into
the clarity of modern European science.11
Saids critique of Orientalism has been instrumental in coming to
appreciate the distortions of both Ottoman and dynastic Egypt at the hands of
European imperialism. This has led to significant improvements in the access
these foreign perspectives have to self-representation.12 One limitation of
Saids assessment, though, is that the motivations he attributes to the French
scientists seem one-sided and implausibly self-aware. His diagnosis of
Orientalism admirably includes attention to the encounter with dynastic
Egypt in addition to the encounter with the synchronous Ottoman Empire, but
it also seems to render European attraction to the former as a mere byproduct of the primary imperial focus on the latter.

Kevin M. DeLapp

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Rawls and Said both offer valuable models for framing crosscultural encounters, but each fails to adequately accommodate the unique
case of the encounter between early modern Europe and the asynchronous
Egypt of the past. Rawls theory of justice requires implausible duties to past
generations, and Saids postcolonialism attributes to Napoleons expedition a
simplistic and deliberate wickedness. Although much more could be said
about the strengths, weaknesses, and applications of each theory to the
encounter with ancient Egypt, I want to turn to consideration of a third
candidate that I believe furnishes a more nuanced and appropriate
framework.
Thomas Kasulis has recently offered a provocative model for
understanding cross-cultural encounters such as occurred between Europe
and the Orient during Napoleons expedition.13 According to Kasulis, cultural
differences, albeit at a broad level of abstraction, seem to coalesce around
two distinct orientations. A cultural orientation is a recursive or fractal
pattern of thought and experience that frames how a culture constructs all
aspects of its worldviewviz. its metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics,
and aesthetics. Orientations exist in a reciprocal relationship with the cultures
and histories that instantiate or adopt them, i.e. the orientation both shapes
and is shaped by the philosophical issues or projects that are salient for a
given culture. The two specific orientations Kasulis identifies are what he
calls Integrity and Intimacy. The Integrity orientation frames philosophical
projects by privileging the following: public verifiability, reason as superior
to and distinct from emotion, the mind as superior to and distinct from the
body, and values such as autonomy, individuality, and rationality. By
contrast, the Intimacy orientation frames philosophical projects by granting
supremacy to subjectivity, emotion, the body in conjunction with the mind,
and in general anything that is relational or defies the ability to be
represented discursively through algorithmic principles.
Kasulis is somewhat agnostic about precisely why one culture ends
up adopting one orientation instead of the other. However, he does argue that
each orientation requires the other as a sociological counterbalance, and that
no stable culture is exclusively characterized by just Integrity or Intimacy
alone. Cultures in which one orientation is salient will nonetheless possess
the other latently. As Kasulis says,
Some cultures or subcultures seem to foreground one
orientation while leaving the other in the shadows. The
marginalized orientation and its products are still there
(perhaps as countercultures), but they are typically
disempoweredespecially when culturally important
issues are being analyzed, hashed out, and agreed upon.14

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I find Kasulis framework extremely useful and compelling,
particularly given the suggestive analogues it seems to have in numerous
other disciplines.15 However, one factor Kasulis neglects is the extent to
which cultures that emphasize one orientation often locate their
counterbalancing orientation in an appropriated alien culture. If we can think
of Kasulis two cultural orientations along the lines of memes, we can
appreciate how this manoeuvre has a certain fitness-enhancing attraction: it
allows a culture to stabilize its own orientation by appealing to a
counterbalancing orientation; but at the same time, it can keep this
counterbalancing orientation at a safe distance by relegating it to a remote
foreign culture. Locating the counterbalancing orientation in an asynchronous
culture is a brilliant adaptive strategy for an orientation-meme because the
asynchronous culture does not have the possibility of challenging or resisting
its appropriation. For these reasons, dynastic Egypt was the ideal palimpsest
upon which to graft the necessary counterbalance for the cultural orientation
of early modern Europe.
Kasulis himself attributes to post-Enlightenment Western society the
orientation of Integrity. He finds the values of independence, self-sufficiency,
scientific and public verifiability, and a philosophical methodology
characterized by abstract and discursive principles to be dominant in our arts
and sciences, our interpersonal relationships and senses of self, and even in
our etymologies and idioms.16 The foreign culture to which Kasulis deploys
the rival orientation of Intimacy is Japan, but it seems clear that dynastic
Egypt (much more so than Ottoman Egypt) was also viewed by Europe as
particularly Intimate. Recall the definitive characteristics of the Intimacy
orientation: it is private and secretive rather than verifiable and public; it
expresses itself obliquely and mysteriously rather than directly; and it is
feminized or emasculated. Numerous early modern European voices
appropriated dynastic Egypt as a cultural stranger in precisely these ways.
For example, H. Rider Haggards influential novel She (1886) plunges an
intrepid English protagonist into the dark far-reaches of the ancient Egyptian
empire, where he encounters a mysterious feminine power that recalls a
greatness now lost, while at the same time explicitly positioning modern
England as the cultural inheritor of the ancient civilization. Richard Marshs
famous novel The Beetle (1897) reveals the same associations, anxieties, and
appropriations of ancient Egypt when a vengeful feminine spirit of Isis
wrecks havoc throughout London, particularly with the other female
characters.
Ancient Egypt was made a fetish of cultural Intimacy during
Napoleons own expedition as well. Joseph Eschasseriauxs report (1798) on
the need for colonial expansion is representative. The report attempts to
justify Napoleons invasion by appealing to the alleged enervation and
emasculation of ancient Egypt under Ottoman dominion:

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What finer enterprise for a nation which has already given
liberty to Europe [and] freed America than to regenerate in
every sense a country which was the first home to
civilization and to carry back to their ancient cradle
industry, science, and the arts, to cast into the centuries the
foundations of a new Thebes or of another Memphis?17
Like Napoleons expedition two hundred years ago, our own needs,
anxieties, and orientations all frame how we construct and interact with
strangers, aliens, and foreigners today. Asynchronous encounters between
cultures are particularly prone to distortions along these lines because the
past can no longer represent itself directly. Today, we are in a somewhat
more fortunate hermeneutic position when we encounter strangers, aliens,
and foreigners because we have the possibility to establish a synchronous
relationship. However, national as well as personal narratives of identity
continue to be predicated on appropriations of the past, and a theoretical
framework for understanding the motivations and attractions of this
appropriation is essential. I have argued that Thomas Kasulis
Integrity/Intimacy model offers valuable hermeneutic insights for
understanding the specific distortion of ancient Egypt by post-Enlightenment
Europe, at least compared to the more dominant cross-cultural theories of
Rawls and Said.18 By continuing to reflect on ones own cultural orientation
and by being sensitive to its internal attractions to counterbalancing
orientations, one can go far toward understanding others in their own terms.

Notes

J Coles Napoleons Egypt: Invading the Middle East, Palgrave Macmillon Press, 2007, provides a comprehensive
political history of the expedition, with insightful applications to contemporary geopolitics. N Burleighs Mirage:
Napoleons Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, Harper Perennial Press, 2008, focuses more on the scholarship of the
savants who accompanied Napoleon.
2
Lines from Edgar Allen Poes poem To Helen (from revised version 1845; original 1831). For a more in-depth analysis
of the process and motivations by which early modern Europe appropriated classical Greece and Rome, see A Acheraous
Rethinking Postcolonialism: Colonialist Discourse in Modern Literatures and the Legacy of Classical Writers, Palgrave
Macmillon Press, 2008.
3
J Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, 1971.
4
A de-Shalit, Why Posterity Matters, Routledge Press, 1995, p. 22.
5
A Baier, The Rights of Past and Future Persons, in Rights and Duties, vol. 1, C Wellman and L Becker (eds), Routledge
Press, 2002, p. 180.
6
Dynastic Egypt was at least not interested in the posterity of others. Monumental architecture, mummification, and
embalming were clearly motivated by preservation; but such preservation seems to have been conceived in terms of the
preserved individuals own afterlife, not as provisioning any resources for the future broadly. It is also misleading to assume
that ancient monuments were always built with the intention of preservation instead of, say, theological or civic
considerations related to their contemporaneous context. Indeed, it was not until relatively late in dynastic history that there
arose any interest in cultural heritage per se (e.g. Tuthmose IVs reclamation project of the pyramids at Giza). Note also
the marked tendency of ancient builders to cannibalize pre-existing sites which we today would clearly regard as heritage
preserves or historical landmarks.
7
J Rawls, The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, 1999.
8
Indeed, most European scholars of the time characterized dynastic society as anything but a decent hierarchy. For
example, preconceptions abounded of pharaohs as ruthless tyrantsa narrative that clearly appealed to the political values
of the Revolution. It has only been quite recently that Egyptologists have started overturning these biases, recognizing that
Pharaonic building projects typically compensated laborers who could (and occasionally did) collectively sue for better
wages and conditions. See L Lesko, Pharaohs Workers: The Villagers of Deir el Medina, Cornell University Press, 1994.
Myths concerning the status of women in ancient Egypt have similarly been targeted for dismantling, cf. J Tyldesley,
Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt, Penguin Press, 1995.
9
E Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1978, p.122, italics added.
10
Note today that, although ancient Egypt is often included in Western Civilization curricula, Ottoman or contemporary
Egypt never is.
11
Ibid. p.86.
12
Most notably for our present purposes, Saids work has facilitated newfound visibility and status for writers such as Abd
al-Rahmn al-Jabart, an Ottoman historian who chronicled Napoleons Expedition from the Egyptian perspective. See alJabarts Chronicle of the French Occupation, S Moreh (trans) and R Tignor (ed), Markus Weiner Publishers, 2004.
13
T Kasulis, Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, The 1989 Gilbert Ryle Lectures, University of
Hawaii Press, 2002.
14
Ibid., p.133.
15
Consider, for example, Clifford Geertzs famous distinction between thick and thin concepts, and the subsequent
extension of this dichotomy into analytic metaethics and virtue ethics. Carol Gilligan can be interpreted as defending an
analogous division between masculine and feminine modes of moral reasoning. See Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures,
Basic Books, 1973, p.3-32; Gilligan, In a Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982.
16
This characteristic of Western society has also been observed vis--vis ancient Hellenic and Medieval orientations by A
MacIntyre in his After Virtue, Notre Dame University Press, 1984, 2e; vis--vis classical Chinese society by D Hall and R
Ames in their Thinking from The Han, SUNY Press, 1998; and by A Hsia in his The Far East as the Philosophers
<Other>, Revue de littrature compare vol. 297, 2001, p.13-29.
17
J Cole, op cit., p.16.
18
It is interesting that Rawls in particular has been criticized precisely on the grounds of having neglected what Kasulis
would call the Intimate dimensions of justice. Okin, for example, has noted the omission of intra-family expressions of
justice and the worry that Rawls focus on male heads of households as spokespersons inadvertently buttresses patriarchal
social structures. Michael Sandel has similarly pointed out the Integrity-oriented presumptions in Rawls original position
that personhood is defined solely in terms of discrete, autonomous individuals, perhaps overlooking more relational and
Intimate expressions of identity. See Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family, Basic Books, 1989; Sandel, Liberalism and the
Limits of Justice, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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Kevin M. DeLapp holds the Harold E. Fleming Chair of Philosophy at Converse College in South Carolina. His research
focuses on issues in metaethics, moral relativism, and cross-cultural philosophy.