A plan to invade Egypt

David Tresilian , Tuesday 6 Sep 2022

One of the few European philosophers to have written at length on Egypt, the 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz also drew up plans for its invasion, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt


In ancient times, Egypt attracted significant philosophical attention, not least from the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle who held that parts of Greek philosophy had originated in Egypt. Plato says that the ancient Egyptians invented writing. Aristotle says that they had the world’s oldest political system.

During the Ptolemaic period, Egypt was a centre of philosophical thinking in its own right, its famous Library in Alexandria attracting scholars from across the known world. The ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus, a follower of Plato, worked throughout his life in Alexandria. Euclid, the founder of geometry, was also based in the city, as was Ptolemy, author of probably the single most important premodern work on astronomy.

While most of the classical Islamic philosophers worked elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world, many of them visited and worked in Egypt, attracted by its schools and libraries. This was certainly true of Maimonides, or Moses ben Maimon, though Jewish by faith a major contributor to philosophy in Arabic. The religious writer Ibn Arabi was an occasional visitor, and the historian Ibn Khaldun lived much of his life in Egypt.

However, in more recent times few major philosophical thinkers have written extensively about Egypt, with the notable exception of the 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Although Leibniz never visited Egypt in person, in his mind he certainly spent much time there. He produced several hundred pages about the country, going into its geopolitical and other features with characteristic thoroughness.

Leibniz started thinking about Egypt when still a relatively unknown young man who had yet to write the works of mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophical logic for which he is chiefly famous today. Born in 1646 in Saxony, one of the small states making up the then Holy Roman Empire, Leibniz needed an aristocratic or royal patron to support his work, and this took him first to Nuremberg and then to Mainz in search of work and position.

At the court in Mainz he was set to work on diplomatic questions. His attention turned to the ambitions of French king Louis XIV to reinforce his country’s position in the face of rivals such as Holland and Austria, aims which would almost certainly have an important impact on the German states. In a bid to deflect the king’s attention and present him with another aim that would take the pressure off France’s European neighbours, Leibniz came up with a plan for Louis XIV to invade and occupy Egypt.

A summary version of this was sent to the French court in 1672, where it was apparently considered seriously enough for Leibniz to plan a trip to Paris. While for one reason or another Leibniz did not present his plan – and France did not invade Egypt until over a century later under French general Napoleon Bonaparte – he nevertheless made his trip to Paris as planned where he met members of France’s intellectual community.

The Egyptian plan was thus shelved as far as Leibniz was concerned, and though he later returned to many other schemes for aristocratic or royal employers, he never wrote more on Egypt. As a result, this plan, the Consilium Aegypticum to Leibniz scholars, was consigned to the archives, where it gathered dust for over a hundred years until a version of it was dug up by English publishers in the wake of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition in 1798. In the interim, there had of course been other plans to expand European influence in the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of the area’s then Ottoman rulers, but Leibniz’s version is still unusual because of its early date and thoroughness.

The Ottoman Empire was a formidable power in the late 17th century, with Ottoman forces having laid siege to Vienna as late as 1683, and it was far from certain that an attack on Egypt would in fact succeed. In contrast, by the end of the 18th century when Napoleon undertook his Egyptian Expedition, the Empire had suffered significant defeats at the hands of the Russians and others and had been obliged to cede significant parts of its territory.

While Leibniz’s Egyptian plan rehearses familiar arguments regarding the advantages of a permanent French presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, so much so, in fact, that some have been convinced that Napoleon must have read it (he didn’t), it did so at a time when few might have thought it a going proposition. Apart from the industry with which Leibniz works out his ideas, there is probably nothing in the plan, however original in the circumstances of the late 17th century, that marks it out as being by the German philosopher.

The exposition is marked by Leibniz’s trademark clarity of thought and expression – no one could accuse him of the kind of cloudiness that later became a feature of much German philosophy. Nevertheless, on closing the book, few readers are likely to be surprised that whoever made such decisions at Louis’s court decided more or less politely to shelve it.


CONSILIUM AEGYPTICUM: There is no complete edition of Leibniz’s work available in English, and so anyone wanting to read his political and other minor works is obliged to turn to the formidable German edition, still in progress, where the texts are given in their original languages.

In the case of the Egyptian plan, this means reading Leibniz’s book in Latin, at the time the usual vehicle for diplomatic writing, though failing that there is also a 19th-century French translation, a considerable boon for modern readers. The text also exists in different versions, long and short, together with various associated documents and drafts. Fortunately, the shorter version, the summary sent to the French court, contains the main arguments.

 Leibniz begins with flattery – always a good move with Louis XIV – telling the king that if carried out his plan for invading Egypt will “open up the route to posterity.” It will put Louis in the company of Alexander the Great, who invaded Egypt in 332 BCE in a move that led to the establishment of the country’s Ptolemaic Dynasty of Greek kings. In the context of late 17th-century Europe, Leibniz says, the invasion and conquest of Egypt will make France the “military school of Europe… the ruler of the Mediterranean, and the mistress of the commerce of the Orient.”

It would be an effective move in the competition between European states, since what would be the point, Leibniz asks, of “taking over a few cities in Holland or on the Rhine,” presumably having his German patron’s interests in mind, with all the “difficulties, fears, and disaffection that this would cause,” when Louis could invade Egypt and reap greater benefits? Egypt, “the Holland of the Orient,” he says, is “the most important isthmus in the world, uniting the world’s two greatest seas. It is the route that all trade must take in order to avoid the route around Africa [from Europe to India and the Far East]. It is the link between East and West, the essential rendez-vous for trade between India and Europe.”

“France’s manufactured goods are already, or will be soon, the most important in Europe,” he adds. Imagine adding the control of trade routes to the east, and “which nation will dispute [with France] control of the world’s markets, the sceptre of wealth and power?” Moreover, “the conquest of Egypt would be easier than the conquest of Holland and that of the whole of the Orient easier than that of Germany alone.” It would allow France and Austria to split Europe between them, while frustrating the ambitions of rival powers to build significant trading interests.

There is a lot more in this vein, together with Leibniz’s insistence that not only would the invasion be practicable, but that it would also be certain to succeed. The Ottoman regime in Cairo, he claims, did not have the support of the local population, and “it is by no means impossible that once in Egypt our army will not be able to persuade the Egyptian one to hand over a province” kept down by fear of tyrannical Ottoman rulers.

The Ottoman Empire, he says, led by “the most tyrannical and brutal government imaginable,” is slipping into an “irremediable decadence,” such that any push from the outside would cause rebellion. It is characterised by “the absolute rule of one man, and a stupid one at that, a venal justice system, unhappy subjects oppressed to the point of desperation, discontented people dying of hunger, others fleeing into deserts to escape the tyranny of their masters, the spectacle of crimes unpunished, services not recompensed, not even military ones, and incompetent governors who for most of the time owe their promotion to chance or corruption.”

“The grand seigneur [sultan] is a man of low intelligence, greedy, debauched, and leaving the reins of power in the hands of others,” Leibniz claims. “His ministers are living in a kind of dream, or are like the actors in a play, rather like vegetation that sprouts up here and there [when one is not looking], such that it is not clear where it comes from or what it is for.”

More to the point, the Ottoman military forces in Egypt would not be able to offer more than token resistance to a French invasion, and the government in Istanbul would not be able to reinforce them without considerable delay. Leibniz calculated that there were 36,000 troops available to the Ottoman government in Egypt, but a good many of these were ill-armed and trained. Those that were not, the spahis and janissaries, all professional soldiers, “are just waiting to mutiny.”

France should be able to conquer Egypt with 30,000 troops, Leibniz says, and should have little difficulty shipping them across the Mediterranean in six weeks, stopping off at Malta.

By way of comparison, Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition over a hundred years later saw 40,000 troops taking six weeks to reach Egypt from the southern French port city of Toulon, also halting on the way at Malta.

Leibniz scholars often refer to the Consilium Aegypticum with embarrassment, partly because of its bellicose content and partly because it does not seem to fit with the more generally accepted view of Leibniz as a philosopher given over to less worldly matters. Modern readers, if they read Leibniz at all, are likely to confine their attention to his metaphysics and mathematics – there is a famous dispute over whether Leibniz or the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus – and possibly also to his writings on religion. Leibniz memorably claimed that in creating this one, God had created “the best of all possible worlds.”

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, impressed by Leibniz the mathematician and metaphysician, was less happy about his diplomatic activities. Leibniz, he says severely, though “one of the supreme intellects of all time,” was altogether too keen “to win the approbation of princes and princesses” by publishing material meant to flatter and not representing his real views.

As for the Consilium Aegypticum, though a fascinating monument to a young man’s industry and an intriguing footnote in the history of European orientalism, it is perhaps best left on the margins of Leibniz scholarship, where it almost certainly belongs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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