Secrecy, Enlightenment, and Ancient Egypt
In the age of the Enlightenment, the fascination with Ancient Egypt reached a particular climax. The reason is threefold: firstly, Egypt appeared as the most ancient, most original civilization, and the concept of history prevailing in the 15th through 18th centuries still shrouded the beginning in particular glory; secondly, ancient Egyptian religion was connected not only with what in that time was understood by “natural religion” as opposed to “revealed” or “positive religion” but even identied with spinozism ante Spinozam or a kind of Deism; thirdly, Ancient Egypt appeared as the model of a split culture, devided into an exoteric, popular polytheism, and a secret, esoteric monotheism or spinozism, and this double philosophy, “philosophia duplex” as it was called, was hailed as a model of enlightenment could be promoted in times of persecution and censorship. In his lecture, Jan Assmann will Focus on the concept of secrecy, its social and political function, as it was connected with Ancient Egypt, ist hieroglyphs and its mysteries. Both aspects, the “grammatological” and the “mysterological” one are closely interlinked, they appear as two sides of the same coin. With the decipherment of the hieroglyphs by Jean Francois Champollion in 1822, the spell of Egypt was broken. In the sources, as they became now readable, there was no monotheism, no arcane theology, no antagonism between a popular religion and a religion of the sages and initiates. The hieroglyphs were shown not to be a cryptography but the normal writing used for stone inscriptions and basically the same system as the cursive writings, and the subterranean structures held to be the realm of the mysteries were identied as tombs. In the age of democracy and bourgeois culture, there was no room for secrecy and the idea of a “double philosophy” appeared now as obscurantism and the very opposite of progress and enlightenment.
Jan Assmann is Professor Emeritus of Egyptology, Ruprecht Karls Universität Heidelberg. He has been a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, a scholar at the J.P. Getty Center in Santa Monica, and a fellow at the Munich C. F. v. Siemens Foundation . He has taught in Paris, Jerusalem, and in the US and is a recipient of the Max Planck Research Prize (1996) and of the German Historian’s Prize (1998). He holds honorary doctorates from the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (1998), Yale University (2004), and the Hebrew University Jerusalem (2005). Some of his recent publications are: Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus (2003); Die Zauberföte. Oper und Mysterium (2005)); and Thomas Mann und Ägypten (2006). Together with his wife, Aleida Assmann, he has edited Schleier und Schwelle, a three-volume collection of essays on the cultural and literary signicance of the secret.