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 here, here, here, here, 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