The preceding discussion has identified a number of key trends in the evolution of the Greek perception of Egypt all of which were developed considerably in later texts, sometimes in startling directions. A particularly intriguing offshoot of the abiding admiration for the wisdom of the Egyptians is the role which ideas about the high quality of Egyptian institutions came to occupy in discussions of the nature and proper form of the state. This line of enquiry is particularly associated in the fourth century with Plato and Aristotle, though in their case they take very different directions.
Plato makes several references to Egyptian institutions, the most interesting being his comments in Timaios 21 dff.. Here Plato describes a probably fictitious visit by Solon to the Saite nome where the main goddess was Athena (i. e. the Egyptian goddess Neith) and whose inhabitants claimed kinship to Athens. Solon questioned priests there who proved to be vastly more learned than he and informed him that the Greeks were nowhere nearly as ancient a people as the Egyptians, the priest showing in the bygoing (22c) the usual commendable knowledge of Greek mythology. The unparalleled continuity of Egyptian culture meant that Egyptian records went back a very long way, and on this basis the priest then claimed that the Egyptian class system had once been established in Athens, that the Egyptians were the first to use shields and spears in Asia, and that Egyptian wisdom, in general, was of great antiquity. At Statesman 290 d-e, in the context of a broader discussion of the relationship between priesthood and kingship, Plato points out that in Egypt no king could rule without being a priest, an observation which is basically correct. The Egyptian class system was also a matter of interest to Aristotle (Politics 7.10) who argued that their example should be followed wherever possible
A particularly interesting offshoot of these debates is Egypt’s conversion by some writers into an ideal or even utopian state, held up as an example to all and, as such, conceptually akin to the model government systems appearing in Plato’s Republic, Timaeus, and Critias and parodied in Theopompos’ Meropis. The clearest surviving example of this phenomenon is the Busiris of Isokrates (436-338 bc) (Livingstone 2001) produced as a riposte to an earlier discussion of the contemporary writer Polykrates who had presented a negative picture of the Egyptian king Busiris, a ruler normally given a bad press in Greek tradition. Isokrates’ portrait could hardly be more different. He begins his account by insisting on Busiris’ noble ancestry, asserting that his father was Poseidon and his mother Libya, daughter of Epaphos, son of Zeus. Busiris, wishing to leave behind an eternal monument to his valor, embarked on the conquest of many peoples and eventually established himself as king in Egypt which he considered by far the best place of residence. This development gave Isokrates the opportunity to present Egypt as ideal both in its geographical endowments and in its institutions: it had the best climate and the best agriculture, benefiting greatly from the Nile which conferred major economic benefits and was also excellent for defence. Busiris himself was a wise ruler and ensured that his subjects were well fed. He then divided them into three classes, priests, craftsmen, and warriors, and allocated appropriate numbers of citizens to these classes. These were hereditary in order to guarantee the best possible performance and in Isokrates’ view were an unqualified success. The military system of Sparta was taken from the military caste system in Egypt, but the Spartans had spoiled it by claiming the absolute right to take the property of others. The Egyptians, on the other hand, while not neglecting their own property, did not try to get hold of that of others. If the Egyptian system were adopted properly ‘‘we should all possess our own goods and pass our days in happiness.’’ Busiris exemplified practical wisdom, and he ensured that priests had affluence, self-control, and leisure. As a result they were able to discover excellent drugs which made the Egyptians the healthiest of men. They developed philosophy and operated a system whereby the older men were put in charge of important matters whilst the younger were required to devote themselves to the study of astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry. Isokrates was also able to use Busiris to get round the rather embarrassing practice of animal worship by claiming that Busiris required it as an example of obedience to authority, i. e. it was a matter of discipline. More general comments are also made: fear of the gods had a civilizing influence in Egypt, and the Egyptians believed in swift punishment for misdeeds; Pythagoras studied their religion, and brought back to Greece the results, thereby acquiring a great reputation.