Egyptian Civilization: A Thought Experiment

23 March 2019


A seal unbroken for 3,245 years on King Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922.

A Thought Experiment in Infinitistic Historiography

In the past two posts — Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III and Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization — I discussed a couple of thought experiments intended to explore particular concepts related to civilization. Here I want to pursue yet another thought experiment that builds on these previous thought experiments but which penetrates into different aspects of civilization than I have previously explored. If you like, you can think of this present thought experiment as a thought experiment in infinitistic historiography, as this is an attempt to take seriously questions that stem from histories of civilization that extend indefinitely in time.

The Two Histories

Every ancient civilization has two histories. At least two histories. There is the history that has been re-constructed by scholars that places the given civilization in historical time that is increasingly defined in terms of scientific historiography. And then there is the history of that civilization that is the history that they themselves placed themselves within. (We have a third history if we include the history of the discovery and reconstruction of an ancient civilization, which is distinct both from its reconstructed history or its self-understanding of its history.) Most early civilizations placed themselves within an overarching cosmology or mythology that projected different pasts and different futures for that civilization than the past and future of a given civilization as understood by scientific historiography.

Since a scientific conception of history is very recent, past civilizations did not have scientific conceptions of history, nor could they have had a scientific conception of history. The entire history of science has been necessary to converge upon the concepts of scientific historiography common today; these concepts are an achievement of contemporary thought, and are the function of a long developmental process, so that to project them into the past is an instance of presentism.

The dangers of presentism are widely recognized, and in an attempt to avoid presentism historians also try to understand ancient civilizations on their own terms. This is the other history, the second history of the two recounted above, and it is the history that the individuals who built and participated in that civilization believed to be the historical context of their lives, their society, and their world. These histories are placed in cosmologies that often diverge from the cosmology of contemporary scientific historiography, so that the past and the future of the given civilization, as understood by those who built that civilization, must be reconstructed in contrast to the reconstructed history of the civilization, based on whatever internal evidence that can be derived from the remains of an extinct civilization. Thus we reconstruct two historical timelines, one of them the same timeline as that which we employ today, and within which we can place ourselves as well, and another that of the reconstructed civilization’s big picture conception of its own history.

External and Internal Histories of Ancient Egypt

Let us apply this distinction between the two histories (which we might call external and internal history, or exogenous and endogenous history) to a particular case study: Ancient Egypt. According to this distinction, there is the history of Egypt that we know from textbooks, and which is a history that is nested into a much more comprehensive history that includes Egypt, but also many other civilizations (thus the external history of Egypt). But there is also the history of Egypt as understood by ancient Egyptians — the world seen from the point of view of Egypt, and understood in terms of ancient Egyptian mythology and cosmology (the internal history of Egypt). In this history, all things begin at the primeval mound during the First Time, and the events of the First time echo on down through subsequent history, and will continue to so echo into the future, time without end.

The ancient Egyptian individual understood death not as a passage to salvation or damnation (soteriology and eschatology), and not as a rebirth into this world (metempsychosis), but as a continuation of the struggle of life known in this world, albeit a continued struggle in somewhat different milieux and with more direct contact with the gods:

“As the Western Souls, the justified dead formed part of the crew of the embattled Boat of Millions. They might be thought of as rowing or towing the sun boat or even defending it against the forces of chaos. The vignette to Book of the Dead spell 39 shows a dead person taking on Seth’s role of spearing the Apophis serpent. In death, everyone could be a cosmic hero in the perpetual struggle that was the central feature of Egyptian myth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 94

There are motifs of both linear time and cyclical time in Egyptian mythology, as well as a conception of eternity:

“As part of establishing the divine order, Shu and Tefnut also become two different types of time. ‘Shu is Eternal Recurrence and Tefnut is Eternal Sameness.’ This began a great cycle in which everything had to change to survive and yet everything remained fundamentally the same.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89


“Everything that exists is eternal stability and eternal recurrence”

quoted in Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 92


“The Egyptian universe remained eternally the same only through constant change in the form of cycles of decay, death, and rebirth.”

Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89

There are many books that have been written about Egyptian mythology, and, no doubt, many books still be written. It would take us too far afield to give a detailed treatment of the afterlife among ancient Egyptians, but the takeaway here is that that Egyptians had a conception of the afterlife for human beings that contextualized the whole of Egyptian civilization within an eternal cosmology. Egyptians might, in the next life, go on to meet the gods and to struggle with them against chaos and evil. This, then, is the internal history of ancient Egypt, in which both life on Earth (within Egyptian civilization) would go on eternally and in parallel with an eternal cosmic struggle.

What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever?

Now we have the setting for our thought experiment, which will be two thought experiments: a thought experiment in the external history of Egypt and a thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt. And our thought experiment is this question: What if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever? We will ask this question in two ways: 1) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to its own conceptions of time and history? And 2) what if Egyptian civilization had lasted forever according to the conceptions of time and history to be found in scientific historiography?

The thought experiment in the internal history of Egypt in which that civilization lasts forever is a simple matter, because Egyptian mythology incorporates its eternal iteration as its future. In this thought experiment, Egyptians continue to build and maintain temples to their gods and tombs for themselves in this world, and in the parallel world of the gods, deceased Pharaohs go on to meet the gods in the next life, while ordinary Egyptians could aspire to crewing the Boat of Millions in the next life. There would be slight differences in different eras of Egyptian civilization (Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, etc.) given the changes introduced into Egyptian mythology during the thousands of years that civilization continued to develop, but the basic structure is unaltered while Egyptian civilization was intact and viable.

The External History Thought Experiment

Matters get considerably more interesting when we consider the question of Egyptian civilization enduring forever in the context of its external history, as there are many ways in which to elaborate this counter-factual. Since it is a counter-factual, as in scientific historiography Egyptian civilization had a finite history with a beginning and an end, we can posit a number of distinct ways in which these scenario could develop. We take the existence of Egyptian civilization as we know it from history and we extrapolate this civilization forward into time. Egyptian civilization could expand and modernize and become the basis of a planetary civilization, or it could stagnate and remain in equilibrium for as long as conditions allowed, or it could run the usual course of development of a civilization, but do so in isolation so that Egyptian civilization was a solitary instance of terrestrial civilization, followed by nothing more.

The Egyptians planned for eternity. They had institutions in place to police the regime that they had created. The picture above, of the unbroken seal on the door of the tomb of Tutankhamun, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind and the practices of a people who expect that the institutions they have created will continue indefinitely. Royal tombs were sealed, and officials of the “government” (it wasn’t really a “government” in the modern sense, but we will use the term here — again, the danger of presentism) would regularly inspect the seals on tombs to ensure that they were intact. Because of this inspection regime, tomb robbers would tunnel into the fantastically wealthy royal tombs, so as to loot the tombs without disturbing the royal seal.

In an indefinitely enduring Egyptian civilization, one would expect this cat-and-mouse game between officials and thieves to go on indefinitely. There would always be new royal tombs built and filled with fantastic wealth, and there would always be thieves willing to break into these tombs. As the number of tombs became larger and larger over time, it would be more difficult to effectively police them. One would expect that the most recent tombs and the most prestigious tombs would continue to be monitored, thus lesser known tombs would become the target for robbers.

Over the longue dureé, an infinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would pass through predictable vicissitudes. There would be good years and bad years, even good centuries and bad centuries. As in the Year of the Hyenas (1090 BC), bad years and bad centuries would bring a breakdown of social order, more looting, and the inability of the Egyptian state to police its regime of sealed tombs. In better times, the state would recover itself and attempt to make good the damage of the bad years. Something of the tradition would survive, but something would also be lost. This swing between loss and recovery would mean that culture and society would change over time, even if the civilization remained continuous and never suffered a catastrophic failure. An indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization would change into something else, but what it would change into in this counter-factual history we cannot say.

Nothing Endures Forever

In scientific historiography, nothing lasts forever. If Egyptian civilization as we know it from history continued in a steady state, in equilibrium, as it were, until the planet were no longer habitable, or if Egyptian civilization grew, flourished, and then decayed in isolation, followed by nothing more or nothing further, and left its ruins to be wasted by time, in either case the indefinite iteration of Egyptian civilization would come to an end, but some of its treasured tombs would have been preserved to the end of that civilization, and would remain inviolate until the planet was no longer habitable.

The idea that a tomb should be eternally inviolate would, then, be realized in a naturalistic way. Suppose that a tomb were built at or near a craton (a part of the continental lithosphere that is not subducted in plate tectonics), so that the actual structure of the tomb remained intact for millions if not billions of years — for as long as the stone was not reduced to dust. The ruin of such a sealed tomb — sealed once and never reentered or reopened — might remain intact as Earth became uninhabitable, eventually sterilized, and without even an atmosphere. The relics preserved within would likely have their preservation augmented by the cold and vacuum of a future barren Earth. The gold death mask of whatever Pharaoh it was in the tomb might have endured for eons within its several layers of wood and stone sarcophagi.

In this scenario, something like what the Egyptians imagined for themselves would have occurred in fact. The ancient Egyptians constructed these tombs for eternity, filled them with what we would call “art” (maybe I should call them “ritual objects”) and treasure, with the idea that these would all be sealed in the tomb for all time and eternity. The value that these artifacts had they would have possessed in virtue of the intentions of the Egyptians who constructed the tombs and created the ritual objects that filled the tombs. These objects were not meant to be valued in an ongoing way by human society, not meant to be studied for what they could teach about Egyptian civilization to later generations, not intended to be dug up and displayed, whether by tomb robbers or by archaeologists, but were meant to be interred with the mummy for which the tomb was built, and launched on an eternal journey into the future — a journey that did not involve ever being removed from their context.

Eternity Realized

There is at least one scenario of scientific historiography in which the Egyptian ambition for their royal tombs is realized. Although Egyptian civilization has lapsed, and most of its tombs have been looted, it is possible that, even after our technological civilization is no more — whether from collapse or moving to another world — that there will be an undisturbed Egyptian tomb with its royal necropolis seal still intact, still underground, still untouched when the Earth is dead and sterile. Suppose that in the far future Earth breaks up, or that an enormous impact plows out a section of Earth’s surface with this intact tomb and sends it flying into space. The sarcophagus of a Pharaoh might float forever in space.

One of the most entertaining and perhaps bizarre takes on ‘Oumuamua that I saw on Twitter was the following:

“…maybe the asteroid, Oumuamua, that recently passed through our solar system, was really an alien funerary sarcophagus launched into space.”

At some future time in our universe, that funerary sarcophagus flying through another planetary system might be from Earth, and if the locals sent out a spacecraft to intercept and study the object, they would certainly have a lot of unanswered questions as to how an Egyptian mummy engaged in a flyby past their planet.

Infinitistic Epilogue

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a post about a naturalistic interpretation of eternity, A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity. I always meant to follow up on this post and to expand upon the idea of a naturalistic eternity. The concept of eternity continues to haunt human beings, probably because of, rather than in spite of, our morality. Eternity is that which is denied us — ontologically forbidden fruit, as it were. But, from time to time, nature grants us glimpses of eternity along with intimations of immortality.

Each civilization is eternal in the sense of wholly occupying the present with its central project and, as such, is eternally present in the moment, timeless as long as one remains suspended within this moment. Some civilizations are more strongly orientated toward this timeless present, while others understand themselves in a larger context in which age succeeds age and the world entire is changed over time. Eternity appears within time and endures as long as time allows. When we happen to touch upon one of these eruptions of eternity into the flow of time, we experience that eternity momentarily. Eternal civilizations (civilizations timeless in the moment of their eruption into the flow of time and history) appear and disappear, and, arguably, in doing so they fulfill their eternalistic mandate and, for a moment, represent the moving image of eternity (as Plato put it).

Arguably, Egyptian civilization aspired to be an eternal civilization. The discovery of historical time, and then deep time, has been a late discovery in human history; most civilizations prior to the present aspired to eternity because they did not possess the conceptual framework that would have made it possible for them to understand ideas of deep history and deep time. The aspiration to eternal civilization becomes, in the context of deep time, an aspiration to infinitistic civilization that can endure because intelligent agents take steps to adapt that civilization to changing conditions, which would provide for some kind of survival over the longue dureé. As with an indefinitely iterated Egyptian civilization, which would necessarily change even if every effort were made to ensure the continuity of tradition, an infinitistic civilization would eventually be transformed into a post-civilization institution. Even if infinite historiography is unattainable, the striving after an unattainable goal possesses intrinsic value. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

One could argue that a million-year-old supercivilization or a billion-year-old supercivilization is effectively indistinguishable from an infinitistic civilization because the effective history of both coincides. What I have called “effective history” — history that falls between the retrodiction wall of the past and the prediction wall in the future — is a finite period of time defined by the capacity of scientific historiography to bring evidence to bear. Though finite, effective history may be a part of a larger infinitistic history that we cannot see because historical effacement limits our scope of observation and knowledge.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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