U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Akhenaten Returns (Guest Post by Anthony Chaney)

Editor's Note

This is the sixth and final guest post from Anthony Chaney, which have appeared every other Saturday on the Blog. The earlier posts in this series can be found herehereherehere, and here. I’d like to thank him for taking on this guest gig and writing such terrific posts!  I hope we’ll hear from him again soon.— Ben Alpers.

Thank you, Ben Alpers, for the opportunity to contribute this series of guest posts. I’ve valued the connection to the readers this forum provides. Who but a community of historians and teachers of history might appreciate the story I’m about to tell?

Necessary background: I know embarrassingly little about world history, and yet find myself the instructor of an online general ed course called World Civilization I. What I refer to is apart from any ability to deliver a proper and rewarding course–I know I can do that. I’m just not sure I’d want my students to know how much of my knowledge of this course’s content was gathered in preparation for their class.

One of last week’s assignments was what the syllabus calls an “Artifact-Document Bundle.” Student are to examine and analyze a number of related primary sources and to respond to a prompt with a brief discussion. The topic was the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. If you’re as ignorant as I was prior to this course, you’ll need to be reminded who he was. While Akhenatan ruled, roughly 1351-1334 BCE, he built a brand new capital out in the middle of the nowhere, introduced new linguistic and aesthetic themes into Egyptian iconography and architecture, and tried to wipe out authorized worship of all the gods but one. His favored god was Aten, the sun god, who was represented in the art of period as a disc with lines shooting out in a spray. When he died, the new capital was abandoned, the old one re-established, and everything pretty much went back to the way it was. His seventeen-year reign stands out in the ancient history of Egypt as a brief, sharp cultural detour amid thousands of years of straight road.

The key source in the assignment was a 45-minute BBC radio discussion between In Our Time host, Melvin Bragg, and a trio of British Egyptologists. What was this pharaoh’s historical significance? The Egyptologists floated three possibilities: Akhenaten’s extraordinary effort to amass extraordinary power; his effort to promote some early form of monotheism; his emphasis on naturalistic accounts of reality that are in some ways similar to those today. The prompt asked students to write a few paragraphs explaining which of these interpretations they found most persuasive.

It wasn’t an easy assignment, and I wasn’t sure what I would get. The hardest part would be understanding the radio broadcast: four well-educated British people conversing, invisible to the eye, each of them trained up received pronunciation. To the American ear, that meant a minimum of jaw movement and almost no sentence-level intonation. To use the technical term from communication theory, we’re talking about a good bit of “noise.” The ability to pick up messages despite the noise is a skill our students need to master.

One of the course objectives is to develop in students a global perspective, and for that reason alone, I thought the assignment was a good one. Have any of these students ever sat and listened to a conversation between media figures whose agenda included no concern at all for an American audience and no interest in selling that audience anything? Moreover, these were highly educated professors and public history professionals. Most of what they talked about was how little evidence there really was and how little it could possibly tell us. Who were these ancient figures, anyway–this pharaoh, his family, his retainers–from the second millennium BCE? Where were they from, how old were they, and whatever became of them? Facts were particularly deficient concerning “Queen” Nefertiti. Little could be said about her at all, of a definitive nature, other than the fact that she died, eventually. This obvious point, inadvertently stated, elicited a moment of hearty laughter between the four academics. It might have been a little too hearty, to tell the truth.

I read the students’ responses and was pleased. They marshalled evidence and made arguments. The best answers said this was a push for monotheism, inseparable, however, from a power grab, driven perhaps by something in this pharaoh’s psychology. Not bad, I thought. After all, there was no right or wrong answer—how could there be, with such scant evidence and a task as perfunctory as a weekly assignment? We practiced our analytical skills and had a productive exchange. I left it at that and walked away.

One evening later that week, I was able to return to a book I’d had to put down when the semester started. It was a book I’d been reading with great interest, a new book called The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent. I opened it to the marker where I’d left off five weeks ago, a new chapter about halfway through the book, and started reading.

The topic, I was happy and a tad startled to find out, was the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his project.

Lent’s book is the kind I’m partial to, and even more since I’ve been teaching these World Civ courses: sprawling surveys written for non-experts, covering wide spans of human history and advancing clear, pointed claims. Two recent books that come to mind, most comparable to Lent’s in terms of coverage, are Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. All three books start from the very beginning, end sometime last week, and the claims they make speak with some urgency to the present moment. All three offer grand narratives of a type that are held by many to be suspect. “Epistemologically irresponsible” might be the appropriate term. The bigger the story, the more it leaves out—events, ideas, peoples, points of view. I understand that. The big stories offered by Armstrong, Harari, and Lent aren’t the same. Sometimes they line up; other times they’re at odds. Two are critical of today’s hegemonic imaginary (Armstrong, Lent), and one is supportive of it (Harari). I can handle these discrepancies. I can fully engage with the arguments in these books without making a Bible of any of them. I found the Harari especially enthralling, and yet finished the last page with my general opposition to heroic materialism only slightly disturbed. I’d recommend the book to anyone. I’d wrap it up and give it as a gift.

So far Lent’s book offers many of the same pleasures, and as I’ve said, covers much of the same ground. The opening sentence about Akhenatan, which employs the name he went by before he changed it, reads: “In the fourth year of his reign, the young Pharaoh Amenhotep IV instigated a revolution in human consciousness.”

Thinking of Bragg and his Egyptologists, I read the sentence again and then the rest of the passage. Fully confident declaration followed fully confident declaration. Where was the admission that, simply due to the nature of the case, all conclusions must be highly speculative? Where the acknowledgement that evidence was thin? I kept reading. This Akhenaten discussion came at the beginning of a chapter that built an argument about the historical and regional correspondence between monotheism and religious intolerance, which Lent characterized as a “scourge.” That argument would in turn support his broader claim that there are fundamental errors in the Western worldview that ought to be addressed and ought to be corrected lest our civilization go the way of … well, all the other civilizations my students and I are reading about in World Civilization I.

This claim about Akhenaten instigating “a revolution in human consciousness” was, in other words, only a small stone in a much larger edifice. Why undermine it with a bunch of dutiful hedging? As I considered Lent’s sentence, it struck me that here was a member of a category of data sometimes called the “usable past.” Lent is not an Egyptologist, but he’s certainly making use of the Egyptologists’ ongoing and meticulous work.

Who can say if this use is proper? Critics of the grand narrative might not think so, nor might critics of a usable past. Maybe the soundest way to serve the past is to collect and curate its material remains, and to set them out from time to time, under the soft lights of the museum. I suppose this is a debate that will never be settled and that each has to decide for themselves. I do know this: I’d spent the week thinking about Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, and it wasn’t until I read the sentence in Lent that the old pharaoh seemed to come alive.

Note: Thinking about this post took me back to a book I read as a graduate student, Allan Megill’s Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (The University of Chicago Press, 2007). i

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Anthony, thanks for this post. I’m jealous that you get to teach a World Civilizations course. That’s on my wish list, along with a Humanities survey and — if possible — a Western Civ course.

    I just dug up my précis for the Megill book, which was on the historiography section of my reading list. I wrote the summary in July 2012, and I was apparently feeling pretty punchy. It’s a sassy read. I would excerpt it here but there’s already enough of my thoughts-while-in-grad-school cluttering the internet. Bottom line: there were some quirky features of Megill’s book, but I found it useful and helpful to a certain extent.

    Megill did want to draw a very bright line between memory and history, between “appreciation” of the past and “understanding” of the past. And that’s understandable. But there was something just a little too peevish about it in places. Overall, though, I thought it was pretty smart and provocative in fruitful ways.

    A few years back there was a “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibit that came to the Dallas Museum of Art, so we went to see that. They had some beautiful pieces from the reign of Akhenaten, including a massive granite bust. (They also had the gilded casket of Tut’s grandmother, Thuya/Tuya. It was stunning.) If I recall correctly, Tut (or his hieratic handlers) spent his time undoing the religious innovations Akhenaten had introduced.

    One of the points of debate in Western Civ debates, past or present, is the relationship of Egyptian culture to Greek culture. I find it a tendentious debate because it completely ignores the testimony of Herodotus and Polybius et al. It was a commonplace understanding in the Greco-Roman world that technical knowledge, cultic practices, and artisanal skills were bequeathed by the Egyptians to the “younger” civilizations. If “western civilization” is an actual thing, its own vision of itself at the very moment of its birth/flourishing was a vision of interdependency and apprenticeship in wisdom, learning from other cultures, recognizing other sources of wisdom and truth. If western civ is a thing that needs preservation/recovery, folks would do well to begin recovering that mindset.

  2. Thank you for reading and for the comment. I planned the World Civ 1 course two summers ago, and have been reading for it ever since. This is the first semester that it has made–probably because advisors are just becoming aware of it. At times, I want to set everything aside and concentrate all on turning this online course into a killer face to face course. Yes, it’s just a freshmen level, gen ed course, but the information seems so necessary and sobering. Far more interesting and probably more important, it seems to me, than the World Civ II course (or, History of the Modern World, as I taught it at another institution). This could be one of those courses that students remember the rest of their lives. Just to grasp how short the history of civilizations are, relatively speaking, and in turn how extremely short the modern era is–that alone, it seems to me, is enough to affect one’s orientation to life. Some students, I understand, get this information in high school, maybe in an ap history course. That’s not my population. Anyway, all this is to say that I understand your desire to teach these basic gen ed courses — world civ, western civ, humanities. Courses this broad can really be shaped as histories of ideas.

  3. Yes, I am a big fan of gen ed courses in the humanities (and though some schools put history in the “social sciences,” I teach it as a humanist). And I think humanities departments would do well to put their strongest, most charismatic teaching professors in the big survey classes. You need someone in those classes who loves teaching them, as you do, and who can pass that enthusiasm on to students — that’s how you persuade students who might otherwise never take another humanities class (unless required to do so) to look to humanities courses for possible electives, for a minor, or even for a major.

    However, even as I evangelize for humanistic inquiry, I know that most students will probably not choose to take another course in history, art, literature. And for that reason also I am glad to be teaching the survey courses, because this means that my class is the last time in my students’ lives that they will have the opportunity to grapple with Larger Questions as part of their working/professional lives. For most students, general ed courses are the end of the line, and before they step off the train to make their connection to whatever future awaits them, I try to give them something for the journey ahead.

    It is a privilege beyond any other.

Comments are closed.