Pharaoh Akhenaten: Eccentric, Philosopher, Artist, Living God and Prophet

The Amarna period was marked by the inauguration of Akhenaten, the prince formerly known as Amenhotep IV. Succeeding his father Amenhotep III, Akhenaten then reigned for 17 years married to the famously beautiful Nefertiti. In those 17 years he revolutionised Egyptian culture, enacting great changes in religion, art, and politics. Akhenaten also created a new capital city from which he ruled which we refer to as Amarna because of the Beni Amran tribe that lived in the area but in its time it was called Akhetaten, or Horizon of Aten by the ancient Egyptians. Amarna is located on the East Bank of the Nile, roughly 200 miles south of Cairo and 250 miles north of Luxor. The short duration of its occupancy combined with the fact the site was built on virgin soil and the large Amarna Letter collection that was discovered allow us to “reconstruct an unusually accurate picture” of life in the city (Encyclopedia Britannica 2016).

From this accurate picture of the city, we can reconstruct a comparison of life in Ancient Egypt before, during and after, Akhenaten. The most marked difference was seen in Akhenaten’s religious revolution which replaced the traditional polytheistic religion centred on Amun-Ra with a new semi-monotheistic religion that worshipped Aten above all over gods (David 1998, 125). Amun-Ra had been the customary cult of choice for the royal family and a great many temples were located in Thebes, which may have been one of the motivations for the construction of Akhetaten. Unlike the other traditional Egyptian’s Gods who took on anthropomorphic forms, Aten was seen as a solar deity above mere Gods and whose form was represented by the sun whose rays extended downwards ending in hands reaching down from the heavens.

Figure 1: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters under Aten (Kemp 1992, 282)

It was not unusual for a pharaoh to associate himself with a certain God, however, Akhenaten was the first to proclaim himself the living embodiment of a God proclaiming himself as “the dazzling Aten” (Van Dijk 2004, 276). Some scholars have even compared Akhenaten’s relationship to Aten to Jesus Christ’s relationship to God supporting their argument with Akhenaten’s self-descriptions of being “Thine only son that came forth from thy body” and “the eternal son that came forth from the Sun-Disc” (Redford 1987). I would reject these notions as leaping to conclusions, as Redford concludes “there is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible” (1996). Perhaps there is a possibility in the speculations of Sigmund Freud that Akhenaten, like Moses, was striving to for a completely monotheistic religion but ultimately the Egyptian people rejected the cult of Aten unlike Judaism (112, 1939). Despite the full measure’s Akhenaten took to distance the Egyptian people from the old religion, it was a mere four years after his death that his son Tutankhaten took the throne and moved the capital back to Thebes and took the name Tutankhamun to reinforce the restoration of the cult of Amun and rejection of Aten. And so the worship of Aten disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

As with Akhenaten’s other sudden changes the Amarna art style was also a swift break from the established style and was revolved around the new worship of Aten. Before the Amarna period, the style of Egyptian art changed very little and at a slow rate. The way Akhenaten is depicted in illustration and sculpture differed greatly from past pharaohs, portraying himself as an almost androgynous figure with “an elongated neck, almost feminine breasts, a round protruding belly, wide hips, and fat thighs” (Van Dijk 2004, 281). Some theories have suggested that Akhenaten may have suffered from genetic abnormality due to incestuous parentage, but I would agree with Montserrat’s dissertation of that theory and that Akhenaten’s exaggerated physical portrayal “is not to be read literally” (2000, 36). Most speculation points towards Akhenaten wanting to portray male as well as female elements in his images,  posing as “the mother and father of the Egyptian state emphasising his close affinity with Aten” (McArthur 2011, 33). However, Akhenaton’s symbolic mother and father position did not extend to foreign nations.
Figure 2: Akhenaten’s androgynous figure
(,%20akhenaten/ accessed 02/05/2016.)

Foreign relations deteriorated greatly as of a result of the religious reforms in which Egypt’s concerns stopped at their own borders. Even despite Egypt’s relatively wealth and prosperity, Akhenaton simply ignored requests from neighbouring nations for assistance in their various affairs choosing to remain inwardly occupied in only affairs within Egypt’s borders (Mark 2014). Even 50 letters for military assistance sent by Rib-Haddi, the king of Byblos, which was one of Egypt’s closest allies at the time were largely ignored (Watterson 112). Akhenaton’s neglect of foreign politics even took the form of annoyance demanding from Rib-Haddi “why do you alone keep writing to me?” as quoted in Amarna Letter EA 117 (Moran 193). This relationship heavily contrasts from his father and precursor Amenhotep III whose approach to foreign policy resulted in a significant peace treaty with the Mitanni leading to a period of unprecedented prosperity and artistic flourishing for Egypt.


Akhenaten’s legacy is a difficult topic to discuss. On one hand, the heretic king’s memory was “scorned as that of a felon”, his religion and city were abandoned after his death (Freud 1939, 26). However, more than 3000 years after his death and Akhenaton still attracts fascination as well as inspiring many artists, writers, and musicians from Agatha Christie to Philip Glass. Whether his reign was an ultimately positive influence on religion and politics in Ancient Egypt could be debated endlessly with no clear answer. Though what is clear is that Akhenaten is truly deserving of the title of “the first individual in history” (Breasted 1933, 301). Although he failed as to manage proper relations with many neighbouring empires I reason that he eclipsed this small pitfall with the freedom he gave to the artists, sculptures and musicians of his era. For he was a man that challenged the ordinary and accepted norms of his time, to which he deserves only respect for having the daring to bring a dangerous dream into reality.



















Ancient Sources

Amenhotep IV/ Akhenaten

1350BCs – 1330BCs                                          Amarna Letter EA 117


Modern Sources

Breasted, J.H.

1933.                     The Dawn of Conscience (edit), p.301.

Encyclopedia Britannica.

2016.                     Tell el-Amarna.

Available at:, accessed 07 May 2016.

Frankfurter, D.

1998.                     Religion in Roman Egypt. 1st Edition. Princeton University Press.

Freud, S.

1939.                     Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Knopf.

Kemp B.

1992.                     Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Reprint Edition. Routledge.

Mark, J.

2014.                     Akhenaten – Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Available at:, accessed 08 May 2016.


McArthur, R.

2011.                     Egyptian Art: The Amarna Revolution

Available at:, accessed 08 May 2016.

Montserrat, D.

2000.                     Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. Routledge.

Moran, W.

2000.                     The Amarna Letters. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Project Amarna.

2016.                     Location – Amarna Project.

Available at:, accessed 07 May 2016.

Redford, D.

1987.                     The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh. Biblical Archaeology Review.

Available at:, accessed 09 May 2016.


Redford, D.

1996.                     Aspects of Monotheism. Biblical Archeology Review.

Rosalie D.

1998.                     Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Facts on File Inc.

Van Dijk, J.

2004.                     The Amarna Period And The Later New Kingdom. The Oxford History Of Ancient

Egypt. Ian Shaw. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, 2004. Pg. 272-287.

Watterson, B.

1997.                     The Egyptians (Peoples of Africa). 1st Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.




Beyond Dualism and Materialism


Is there an account of the nature of the mind which is superior to both Descartes’ dualism and Armstrong’s materialism?

Both Cartesian dualism, which asserts that mind and body are separate substances that interact causally, and Armstrong’s Materialism, which adopts a monist view by positing the unity of mind and body, have flaws in relation to their account of the mind-body problem. Yet each provides, to some extent, a reasonable philosophical conclusion for these views. I will argue that Armstrong’s Materialist analysis of the mind is the most valid account provided for the mind-body problem thus far due to the prominence of science in the modern world and the consequential irrelevance of dualism.

Rene Descartes, in his ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ and elsewhere in his philosophical works, gives an explanation of the mind and body as different substances, known as Cartesian Dualism. Descartes firstly employs Cartesian doubt, scrutinising every belief, in order to find indubitable truth; he concludes that one’s existence is certain if they think (Cogito ergo sum) and that physical substances can be doubted. Descartes then uses the Wax argument to illustrate that the mind is better known than the body. He argues that a physical substance like wax is known by means of the intellect, rather than sensory perception, as the mind gives the more perfect knowledge of its true nature and properties, rather than just its appearances. This suggests that the existence of the mind is distinct from our knowledge of the physical world, positing Descartes as a dualist. For Descartes, the essence, or principle attribute, of mind is thought, whereas the essence of body is extension. Therefore, mind and body are different substances; the mind is immaterial, the body is physical, establishing the view of Cartesian Dualism.

Descartes’ argument seems like a reasoned account of the mind in some respects. The notion of mind and body existing as separate substances is embedded on our language, culture and religion, giving it some support or relevance in today’s society. With this distinction, one’s mind is more prominent in defining oneself, so Descartes’ statement seems quite reasonable. Also, the wax argument provides a reasonable view of the way in which we understand the nature of substances through the mind. Yet it may be inconsistent, as Descartes had earlier identified perception as a mental activity; so perhaps understanding through intellect includes perception. Also, Cartesian Dualism is challenged by the role of science in 21st-century society, as a direct relationship between the mind and body has been shown to exist. Drugs such as alcohol, which affect body systems, have clear effects on one’s mood and thought, implying this mind-body interaction. Whilst Descartes elsewhere states that the mind interacts causally with the body via the brain’s pineal gland, he fails to provide a satisfactory account for the mind-body relationship. Therefore, Cartesian Dualism is incompatible or irrelevant to modern society, superseded by more justified accounts of the mind offered through science.

David Armstrong, in “The Nature of Mind”, explains his account of the mind-body problem according to a scientific materialist view of man due to the intellectual consensus that science provides, reaching the conclusion that mind and body are one. Armstrong describes Behaviourism and Rylean behaviourism, accepting that the mind is logically tied to behaviour yet rejecting the idea that the mind is behaviour. Armstrong asserts that mental states are inner causes of behaviour, and these are neural states and process according to neuroscience. So physical states of the central nervous system, brain states, are the inner causes of behaviour, establishing Armstrong’s Identity Theory. Turning to the first-person experience of the mind, Armstrong states that consciousness is the perception of the state of one’s mind. As perception is an inner state itself, consciousness is an inner state that can cause behaviour. Therefore, Armstrong’s monist view of the mind and body accounts for the first-person experience and in terms of scientific materialism. This account seems much more relevant to today’s society, as it is guided by science and empirical knowledge.

Both Armstrong and Descartes assert that the mind is an inner cause of behaviour, an inner arena. Yet Armstrong postulates that mental states are neural states and processes, suggesting that the mind and brain are identical, whereas Descartes draws a distinction between the mind, an immaterial substance, a “ghost in the machine” and the body, physical in nature and existing separately from the mind.

Armstrong’s Materialism carries obvious appeal in modern society. Due to the prominent role science and empirical knowledge play in the modern world, his monist account seems quite relevant and justified. Modern neuroscience suggests that the mind is just the brain, and that the mind does act as a cause of behaviour. The scientific viewpoint adopted by Armstrong also seems reasonable due to the intellectual consensus it provides as well as its fallibility, aiming only at truth. Yet Armstrong’s Identity Theory is not without some flaws. One of the most prevalent objections to this monist view is the problem of intentionality. Mental activities, such as thought and perceiving, seem to have purposes or intentions behind their occurrence. In contrast, physical substances like rocks do not seem to have these intentional qualities as they do not think or perceive, do not perform mental activities. Hence, Armstrong’s view that mental states are physical states seems less plausible, as physical objects like the brain should not have these intentions. Whilst Armstrong addresses this somewhat when considering consciousness, he does not seem to have reached such a sound conclusion on the first-person experience of the mind. However, Armstrong’s account seems more reasoned on the whole. His causal analysis provides a much stronger justification for the causal interaction between the mind and body, perhaps being superior to Cartesian Dualism in this way.

In conclusion, David Armstrong’s monist view of the mind-body problem is more justified and relevant to modern society. Whilst Cartesian Dualism and Armstrong’s Materialism both seem to disregard vital aspects of mind and body, leading to weaker arguments, Armstrong’s account is altogether a more reasoned one, more rational than that of Descartes, and is the best possible account of the mind provided at this stage, due to its reliance on science.



Descartes: “I am a thing that thinks”

  1.  “I am a thing that thinks”.

Descartes, pondering what is doubtful and what is certain in order to find truth, comes to the conclusion that he exists and the self can only be described as a thing that thinks. Descartes concedes that whilst he cannot be sure of his body, his senses or the physical world around him, he can be sure that he himself exists. In order to be deceived and to think and doubt, Descartes concludes that he exists. Descartes then considers what “I” or the self is, and scrutinises his past conceptions of the self. He raises and rejects some of these conceptions on the grounds that they require further truth or definition or can be doubted; therefore they are not self-evident and not truthful. Descartes finally concludes that he is a thinking thing, as this is the only certain fact that the Cogito can provide about the self and is self-evident.

This account of the self can be supported as, even whilst employing Cartesian doubt, one cannot deny that they are thinking. The distinction drawn by Descartes, that whilst physical substances can be doubted, the mind and thought cannot be doubted, seems sound. For example, one can doubt whether they hear a particular sound, yet cannot doubt that they seem to be hearing that sound. Also, in our society, particularly in popular culture and religion, the mind and body are regarded as two distinct entities. With this distinction, one’s mind and thought seem more prominent in defining ourselves, as it is a cause of behaviour and occurs constantly, so Descartes’ statement seems quite reasonable. This conception persists even with the advancement of modern science towards a monist account of mind and body. Yet Descartes’ assertion that he is a thing that thinks is perhaps tautological. For one to think, by the definition of thinking, one must exist. The statement is true by definition, and therefore is not a strong argument. Additionally, by questioning the self that Descartes has earlier contended that exists, he may be committing a Homunculus fallacy. His argument explains the self in terms of the self he aims to explain, leading to infinite regress.

  1. Is a belief in dualism incompatible with advances in modern science?

Dualism, the idea that the mind and body are distinct entities which can exist independently of each other, could be seen as incompatible with advances in modern science. I will argue that a belief in dualism, as supported by Rene Descartes, is not necessarily incompatible with modern science, yet is definitely less plausible. The scientific materialist view adopted by David Armstrong seems much more relevant in today’s society, as monism, the idea that the mind is purely physical and is the same as the body, is more plausible through these advances in modern science.

Rene Descartes, in his “Meditations on First Philosophy”, accounts for mind and body in terms of dualism. When pondering the nature of physical and mental substances, Descartes states that physical objects are known through the mind, rather than sense perception. Using the example of a piece of wax, Descartes states that sense perception of the wax would give the inferior knowledge of its appearances. The nature and properties of the wax are known through intellect, the mind, which provides more perfect knowledge through mental judgement. This suggests that the existence of the mind is distinct from our knowledge of the physical world, positing Descartes as a dualist. For Descartes, the essence or principle attribute of the mind is thought, whereas the essence of the body is extension. As identical substances should have identical essences, and mind and body have different essences, this indicates that mind and body are different. This establishes Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism; the mind is an immaterial substance which causally interacts with the body, a physical substance.

The argument of Descartes can be supported for several reasons. The conception of the mind and body as two different entities is embedded in our language, culture and religion. Mind and body are often regarded as two distinct substances, and whilst this may not be based on truth or knowledge necessarily, it does place Dualism with some support and relevance to today’s society. Also, the wax argument does seem to reasonably account for the way in which we understand the nature and properties of substances through the mind, indicating a sound argument. Yet Descartes had earlier identified perception as an activity of the mind, perhaps suggesting inconsistency as understanding through intellect also includes perception. Also, Cartesian Dualism is made less plausible by the direct relationship shown between the mind and body as well as advancements in neuroscience. Brain injuries which have affected thought or personality dramatically or the effect of drugs like alcohol on one’s mood and thought demonstrate a direct interaction between the mind and body. Whilst Descartes elsewhere states that the mind interacts causally with the body via the brain’s pineal gland, he fails to provide a reasoned and plausible account for this interaction. In addition, modern neuroscience is suggesting that the mind is just the brain, suggesting a degree of incompatibility of Cartesian Dualism in today’s society.

David Armstrong, adopting a scientific materialist viewpoint due to the intellectual consensus that science provides, asserts that the mind, identical to the brain, is an inner cause of behaviour. Armstrong firstly describes the views of Behaviourism, that the mind is outward behaviour, and Rylean Behaviourism, that the mind is dispositions to behave. He acknowledges that the mind is logically tied to behaviour, yet finds fault with identifying the mind as behaviour. For Descartes, thought must occur in the mind and be the cause of behaviour, differing his account of the mind from behaviourism. Descartes asserts that mental states cause behaviour, and from a scientific viewpoint, these are neural states and processes. Therefore, physical states of the central nervous system, or brain states, are the inner causes of behaviour. This establishes Armstrong’s Causal Analysis or Identity Theory. Recognising that his account must explain the first-person experience of the mind, Armstrong explains that consciousness is the perception of the state of one’s own mind. Following from this, as perception is a mental states, consciousness is another mental state; Armstrong provides a monist account for the mind from a first-person viewpoint and in terms of materialism. Both Armstrong and Descartes conceive the mind as an inner arena; it is an inner cause of behaviour. Yet Armstrong postulates that mental states, the causes of behaviour, are physical things, neural states and processes, whereas Descartes asserts that the mind is an immaterial substance separate from the body;  a “ghost in the machine”.

Much support can be found for Armstrong’s account of the mind and its relevance to today’s society. His physico-chemical view of mind and body carries obvious appeal in terms of science and materialism. Neuroscience has suggested that the mind is just the brain, and that the mind does act as a cause of behaviour through neural states and processes. With the prominent role that science plays as a source of truth and knowledge in today’s society, this monist and materialist account of the mind seems much more relevant and factual than Cartesian Dualism. Armstrong’s Causal Analysis also provides a more reasoned and plausible justification for the way in which mind and body interact causally. Yet there are also some issues with Armstrong’s viewpoint. Identical things or substances should have identical qualities; mental states are known personally to us through qualities that make them knowable, such as the feeling of sadness. However, we do not have personal knowledge of correlated physical states, indicating that mental states and their corresponding physical states are not identical. Further mental events like thought seem to have intentions, purposes behind their occurrence. Yet physical substances like rocks do not have these intentional qualities or purposes. So Armstrong’s theory that mental states are physical states seems slightly less plausible, as physical objects like the brain should not have these intentions.

In conclusion, David Armstrong provides a more justified account of the mind which is compatible with today’s society as a result of advancements in modern science. Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism, whilst less plausible or relevant to the modern world, still holds some credibility due to the way in which mind and body are regarded in our society.